The Duck of Minerva

A Postcolonial Approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis

11 November 2022

The October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is one of the most closely-studied events of the Cold War. For several decades, the missile crisis literature supported a largely heroic U.S.-centric narrative that relied primarily upon the perspectives of President John F. Kennedy’s administration. This U.S.-centrism is generally acknowledged today, and the literature is increasingly enriched by the emergence of Soviet sources. However, the missile crisis literature’s representation of Cuba remains partial—both incomplete and biased. Six decades after the crisis, postcolonial IR offers a means to develop new insights into security crises in a way that moves beyond the easy replication of U.S. bias to a fuller understanding of the articulation of global power. I propose four components to a postcolonial approach applicable to the missile crisis and beyond: centered on the margins; narratively focused; historically deep; and intersectional.

Addressing the Gap: A Postcolonial Approach

For Cuba’s revolutionary leaders, Cuba did not gain its independence in 1898 after years of struggle against Spain. Rather, the island merely shifted from a Spanish colony to a colony of the United States. And as Fidel Castro explained to the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, 1960, “Colonies do not speak. Colonies are not known until they have the opportunity to express themselves. That is why our colony and its problems were unknown to the rest of the world.” In 1962, post-colonial Cuba, a newly-sovereign nation, insisted on the right to speak on par with any other state, including the superpowers. Yet as the missile crisis literature itself demonstrates, they were still not heard or regarded as worth listening to, or their words were registered but dismissed as irrational or nonsensical. 

The solution is not simply to “add Cuba and stir,” for to address the power imbalance sustaining Cuba’s marginalization in the literature, a new approach is necessary. In making sense of Cuba’s actions in the crisis, its post-colonial identity is key, and an approach informed by postcolonial theory and the postcolonial critique of mainstream IRis a means to address and incorporate it.  

Postcolonial theory advances several research principles that, taken together, can generate a more comprehensive understanding of the missile crisis and other security events. In adopting a 1) margin-to-center approach concentrating on the identities and self-representations of marginalized nations and the far-reaching impacts of powerful nations on the margins, I propose an approach that is also: 2) narratively focused, recognizing all histories as constructed, local, and interested; 3) historically deep, accounting for both the chains of events set in motion by prior actions as well as the long memories of the aggrieved; and 4) intersectional, including the operations of power through constructions of gender, race, and colonialism. 

Narratively Focused

While routinely assuming bias in the Cuban version of events, U.S.-based missile crisis scholars are often unreflexive about their own embedded interests in particular representations of the crisis. A postcolonial approach insists that the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba all produced narratives of the crisis that are constructed, local, and interested, and the valuation of some narratives over others is a means of articulating power. The first task, then, is not to reject Cuba’s narrative a priori but rather to pursue it with a depth of scholarly expertise that is on par with the missile crisis literature focused on the United States and the Soviet Union. A subsequent task entails documenting, comparing, and seeking to explain the vested interests of superpower and marginalized states alike in certain representations of events and their attention to some events over others. 

Historically Deep

Much of the Cuban Missile Crisis scholarship is ahistorical, neglecting the long chain of events leading up to the crisis, particularly those historical details essential to the Cuban perspective. Latin Americanist scholars note that the region is marginalized in global history, in part due to a teleological tendency to favor history’s winners, plus a reluctance or inability among Anglophone scholars to rely on non-English sources. There is also the matter of when to begin the historical narrative, for selection of the “first of all” of a chronology can naturalize an understanding of which side struck first, and in that act, apportion blame. Incorporating the timeline of marginalized actors within international relations research, then, can interrupt scholarship’s replication of global power dynamics and produce a fuller account of a security event. The missile crisis story most familiar to a U.S. audience spans a mere thirteen days. Yet the Cuban narrative’s origin-story of the crisis pushes back the timeline to at least 1898, as Spanish colonial rule transitioned into six decades of U.S. imperialism.  

A postcolonial approach also recognizes symbolic forms of violence that secure colonial rule—the colonization not just of bodies but minds. This form is less visible than the physical violence but more insidious, for it has been packaged as benevolence, the delivery of civilization to uncivilized peoples. A historical approach, then, is also necessary to appreciate the contours and comprehensiveness of this “civilizing” agenda and to access how colonialism and imperialism informed the scholarship and foreign policy understandings of the national strength, rationality, maturity, and trustworthiness of former colonies and their leaders. Legacies of imperialist discourse continue to inform hierarchieswithin the literature, often as they rely upon seemingly objective truths or commonsense, while rendering other logics as illegible, irrational, or irrelevant. 

Gender, Race, and the Ex-Colony

As categories of analysis, gender and race are means of differentiation and hierarchization, structuring power relations in which qualities associated with white masculinity are attached with greater value than those with femininity and non-white masculinity, and the former is understood in relation to, as the opposite of, the latter. Multiple binaries are linked to the gender binary and informed by racial hierarchies and North/South (or West/Orient) distinctions: rational/irrational; reason/emotion; strong/weak; and courage/fear. Thus, attentiveness to gendered, racial, colonialist forms of representation lend new insights into Cold War power dynamics. 

For example, much of the missile crisis literature turns on the question of which leaders and which decisions were rational. As postcolonial research argues, claims to rationality as exclusive to the powerful rely upon gendered and racialized Others, in which the white, masculine Global North’s disciplined rationality is verified through its opposite, the immature, volatile Global South, represented as the irrational feminine or brown, animalistic hyper-masculine. Such racialized and gendered neo-colonial constructions inform and help explain the persistent question in the missile crisis literature, “was Castro crazy?” 

Instead, a postcolonial lens presents a new research path, one that does not dismiss Cuban leaders’ actions and discourse as insane or empty of meaning but rather makes a sustained effort to piece together the logic underpinning Cuban leaders’ positions while disrupting the dominant narrative sustaining easy confidence in U.S. rationality and benevolence.