Reframing the Cuban Missile Crisis in (Postcolonial) Time and Space

1 November 2022, 2045 EDT

Any veteran (or better, victim) of a US grad program in IR will be familiar with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The Crisis is widely considered a turning point in the Cold War, the moment when both Soviet and American leaders realized that they had come perilously close to a devastating nuclear exchange that could have led to a global war. From then onwards, we are told, relations between the two superpowers took on a different cast, and indeed they did, but not necessarily only for the reasons usually ascribed to them. 

With the passage of time and the consolidation of alleged lessons learned, the Cuban Missile Crisis has become an intellectual inflection point as well as an object lesson that has only become more entrenched in IR common sense. Sixty years later, the Cuban Missile Crisis now appears as a discursive fetish, displaced from its own context and standing outside history. It has become enshrined as a world-historical event, imbued with meaning that cannot be questioned or undone. In the first instance, the Crisis has become universalized as theclassic case of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, competition, and misunderstanding. That is not a small thing in itself. But its discursive significance goes further. 

Fetishization of this narrow escape from global disaster has also been reinscribed as an act of global reassurance —proof that the world is, or at least was, in good and responsible hands. Ironically, this moment of near-disaster has now become prime evidence for its opposite meaning, namely, the maturity of nuclear weapons states as responsible guardians of world order. This interpretation is only possible due to the stripping away of historical context, by separating this moment from the events that preceded and followed it, of narratively reducing this moment to generic conventions made familiar and reassuring by the Western movie — the Cuban Missile Crisis as Caribbean High Noon — a face off constituted by the confrontation between the Good and the Bad, the only players that really matter, namely, the US and USSR. (Cuba of course filling in as the Ugly). 

This temporary coincidence of interests would lead to two landmark moments in the history of arms control

This short essay seeks to tell another story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The method adopted to do so is fairly simple, namely, by reframing and rescalingthe event. By choosing ending and starting points that situate this event in a different timeframe, the focus of the story shifts away from Moscow and Washington (and later, Havana) to take in a much wider cast of characters and places that rarely appear in block-buster accounts of the Cold War. Instead of the single-minded focus on disaster averted, important though that is, the events of October 1962 are now assessed in relation to the cooperation that became possible between the two superpowers as a result of the Crisis. This temporary coincidence of interests would lead to two landmark moments in the history of arms control, the Partial Test Ban Treaty of August 1963, and later, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. 

The PTBT was not a treaty the nuclear weapons states were particularly keen on; a “standstill agreement” was first proposed in 1954 by Indian Prime Minister Nehru and steadily gathered the support of non-nuclear states through the 1950s, actively encouraged by global public opinion. The Cuban Missile Crisis made it possible, even necessary, for the US, USSR, and the UK to negotiate and sign, in very, very short order, the first international treaty banning nuclear testing above ground, underwater and in outer space. 

To re-site the Cuban Missile Crisis in relation to the PTBT reminds us of something that is forgotten all too often in nuclear studies—namely, that every major advance in global disarmament has been led by non-nuclear states and supported by transnational social movements and civic action. But that is not all. Standard accounts of events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis have habitually been kept far removed from the other world-historic event then underway, namely, decolonization—the dismantling of a repressive and racialized world system that had been in place for centuries. 

It turns out we cannot revise the conventional account of the Cuban Missile Crisis without bringing in, at a minimum, Ghana, Pan-Africanism, Bandung, civil rights, the war of Algerian independence, and French nuclear testing. Decolonization and nuclear arms control are much more closely related than familiar accounts would have us believe. These connections can be made only through a reframing of the Cuban Missile Crisis; even as we note that these linkages were hitherto obscured by—the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

To reorder this moment in time and space is neither to discount the real dangers that were present due to the standoff between the US and USSR nor to question the value of prevailing accounts of decision-making under stress and uncertainty. What reordering does, I hope, is to rewrite the Cold War from the standpoint of other objectives and outcomes that are perhaps more profound in their long-term significance for human well-being and planetary survival. 

Historical Reconstruction

Although we could refer back to the very first resolution of the UN General Assembly in 1946, a more convenient place to begin this revision is the Bandung conference of April 1955. Held just a few months before the first UN conference on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy (Aug 1955), the Bandung final communique outlined the desire of newly independent countries to utilize nuclear energy for peaceful development purposes. At the same time, the 29 states gathered in Indonesia demanded the “disarmament and prohibition of the production, experimentation and use of nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons of war” and insisted that the UN take the lead in prohibiting the “production, experimentation and use of all weapons of mass destruction.”  The extent to which this call reflected global opinion is not in doubt. The essential work of Lawrence Wittner demonstrates that the same call was repeated and amplified in forums around the world, from the Aldermaston (UK) march in 1958 to the Monrovia (Liberia) Conference in 1959. 

The French test saw the emergence of an alliance between anti-nuclear and anti-colonial activists

The pressure felt by the USSR and US by this concerted and global call to stop testing nuclear weapons would rise to new levels by the end of the 1950s. Special mention needs to be made of the Irish proposal to the UN First Committee (which deals with disarmament) in October 1958 proposing a committee be set up to study the dangers of what we now call nuclear proliferation. That same month, the US and USSR would agree to a moratorium on the above-ground testing of nuclear weapons. This moratorium would last until September 1961 when it was broken by the USSR. The US would follow suit seven months later, in April 1962. 

Even though the superpowers had agreed to put a temporary halt to nuclear testing above the earth’s surface, other nuclear powers were now entering the fray. Britain was testing weapons in the Kiribati archipelago in the Pacific while France announced it would test its first nuclear weapon in the Algerian Sahara. The continuation of French colonial rule over Algeria was already a major flash point in contemporary global affairs; knowledge of the forthcoming test only galvanized international opposition against its illegitimate rule. 

The announcement of the French test effectively saw the emergence of a transnational alliance between anti-nuclear and anti-colonial activists, leading to events and novel actions seeking to prevent the tests from taking place. 

Anti-nuclear and anti-colonial activists were given direct support by the first president of independent Ghana, the redoubtable Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah had organized the first conference of Independent African States in Accra in April 1958, which called for an end to “all atomic tests in any part of the world” and especially in the Sahara. Nkrumah, due to his years studying and teaching in the US, was also a direct link between anti-colonial movements, the civil rights movement in the US, Pan-African intellectuals, and international anti-nuclear peace activists. Critical links in this network were Bill Sutherland, the veteran African-American activist who had been living in Ghana since the mid-1950s, and Bayard Rustin, the Quaker pacifist and organizer of the March on Washington in 1964. Rustin and Sutherland were both acolytes of George Padmore, the Trinidadian intellectual, and co-founders of the US Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). 

In December 1959, Rustin, accompanied by British and French peace activists, set off from Ghana to Algeria to protest the French plan to test nuclear weapons. Crossing over into French colonial territory in what is now Burkina Faso, they were arrested, detained and deported. They would try again and this time get a little further before being caught by French colonial troops and sent back again to Ghana. 

A defiant Rustin would say, “The French authorities, by imprisoning us, will hardly silence our voices. We cannot believe that the French people want to defy world opinion as expressed at the United Nations by exploding a bomb while the present nuclear powers are seeking an agreement to end all testing. We cannot believe that the French people want to perpetrate the infamy of violating and desecrating the soil of Africa in the interests of a new nuclear imperialism…. There is one thing that will cause us to abandon our mission—the abandonment of the Sahara Test.”   

Undeterred, the French would test their first weapon in February and their second in April 1960. In direct response, Ghana would host the Positive Action Conference for Peace and Security in Africa (April 1960) with representatives from around the world. Among those attending the conference was Frantz Fanon who used this setting to call for an end to peaceful protest, insisting that only violent confrontation would work to end French colonial rule. Two years later, in June 1962, an even bigger international conference was held, the Accra Assembly for a World Without the Bomb, which would be attended by representatives from across the Third World, as well as prominent European and American anti-nuclear activists such as Homer Jack of the US National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. 

The Accra meeting would define the core problem of international security as the overlap between continued colonial rule and the increasing size and number of nuclear weapons in superpower arsenals. Irish politician Sean McBride, chairman of Amnesty International and future Nobel Peace laureate and Lenin Prize winner, would take the conference recommendations to the UN Disarmament Committee in Geneva, where they would be well received. The Accra Assembly, in one scholar’s view, was one of the first “global gatherings of non-aligned peace organizations.” It reflected a new mode of politics made possible by a globally interconnected world and an explicit acknowledgement of the distance between global public opinion and superpower policies and practices. 

Final Thoughts

This revisionist account seems to have taken us far away from the Cuban Missile Crisis. But not really. The first direct communication between Khrushchev and Kennedy after the Crisis took place in December 1962 in the form of a “lengthy letter” seeking to end nuclear testing. In June 1963, Kennedy would make an important speech at American University, calling for a test ban. By the beginning of August 1963, in what must be the shortest negotiation of an arms control treaty ever, the US, USSR and UK would sign the PTBT. 

Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were under pressure from their respective right wings to resume testing as soon as possible. The US had refrained from resuming testing even though the USSR had revoked the moratorium in September 1961 in no small part due to the perceived negative impact on international opinion. While the Cuban Missile Crisis had undoubtedly reaffirmed the risks of nuclear war for both men, the signing of the treaty built upon what was already a well-established concern in Washington, going back to the Eisenhower administration. 

The PTBT marked a moment of superpower cooperation

Eisenhower would note in a memo, “the world must approve of what we are doing … [and] the world was most concerned with atmospheric contamination.”  The State Dept would report that “the international state of mind was one of opposition to nuclear tests.”  Kennedy would be cautioned by Adlai Stevenson at the UN and Dean Rusk in the State Dept of the immense international political costs of resuming testing. This was more than “bad press” that could be ignored or dismissed as irrelevant to the strategic concerns of high politics. For Kennedy in particular, public opinion “was a basic constituent of power.”

What seemed to have turned the tide in favor of a partial test ban were three factors: the still resonant lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis; the overwhelming international opposition to atmospheric testing; and the prospect of controlling horizontal nuclear proliferation by making it harder for additional countries to acquire nuclear weapons. 

For the USSR in particular, the prospect of a Chinese bomb was a primary concern. Their hope was that the PTBT would mobilize “the pressure of the underdeveloped countries, particularly in Africa” against China (424). The PTBT marked a moment of superpower cooperation following on the heels of nuclear confrontation, with both the US and USSR finding common ground due to shared anxieties—new threats to their nuclear hegemony and the pressure of public opinion that saw the superpowers and their unconstrained arms race as the primary threat to world peace. 

In closing, let us note that what is particularly striking about the PTBT, as the historian Higuchi Toshihiro has pointed out, is how this treaty went beyond arms control in a narrow sense to address explicitly the environmental impact of nuclear fallout as a planetary problem. The PTBT may not have been the ultimate panacea for arms control, and certainly did little for nuclear disarmament, but in retrospect can be seen to reflect a novel intersection of two global trends: international public hostility to nuclear weapons and environmental damage on a planetary scale. In all fairness, the Cuban Missile Crisis helped too. 

NB: this post was first presented at ISA 2022 and is largely based on a synthesis of some extraordinary secondary literature. It builds on my earlier, “Decolonizing Arms Control: The Asian African Legal Consultative Committee and the legality of nuclear testing, 1960-64. Key sources used include Lawrence Wittner, Resisting the Bomb, vol. 2, 1954-1970; Toshihiro Higuchi, Political Fallout: Nuclear Weapons Testing and the Making of a Global Environmental Crisis; Jean Allman, “Nuclear Imperialism and the Pan-African Struggle for Peace and Freedom: Ghana, 1959-1962”; Rob Skinner, “Bombs and Border Crossings: Peace Activist Networks and the Postcolonial State in Africa, 1959-1962.” This project reminded me again of the incredible importance of archival collections such as the Swarthmore Peace Collection.