The confrontation finally came down to two basic issues: (1) Would Kennedy pledge that the US would not invade Cuba? And (2) would he make a public announcement that the US would withdraw its Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey, on the border of Russia and aimed at its heartland? On both issues, Kennedy ultimately refused. He agreed only to a secret commitment to withdraw the missiles, which had in any case already been scheduled to be replaced by Polaris nuclear submarines. He refused to make any formal commitment not to invade Cuba. Rather, he continued “to conduct an active policy of seeking to undermine and displace the Castro regime, including covert operations against Cuba,” Garthoff observes.
In a highly provocative gesture as the crisis intensified, the missiles were turned over to Turkish command “with ceremonial fanfare” on October 22. Garthoff comments: the event was “certainly noted in Moscow, but not in Washington.” There it was presumably regarded as just another exercise of “logical illogicality.”
As history is crafted by the powerful, the most dramatic moment of the missile crisis was provided by UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson at the Security Council on October 25, when he exposed Soviet deception by unveiling a photograph of a missile site in Cuba taken by US spy planes. The concept “Stevenson moment” has entered into historical memory, in celebration of this victory over a vicious foe aiming to destroy us.
As an intellectual exercise, let’s imagine how the “Stevenson moment” might be viewed by a hypothetical extraterrestrial observer. Call him Martian, and assume that he is free from earthly systems of doctrine and ideology. Martian would surely note that there is no “Khrushchev moment” in history: no moment at which Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev or his UN ambassador dramatically unveiled photographs of the Jupiter missiles placed in Turkey in 1961-62, or of the provocative transfer of the missiles to the Turkish military with “ceremonial fanfare” just as the most dangerous moment in human history approached. Reflecting on this distinction, Martian should recall that the Jupiter missiles were only a small element of a far greater threat to Russia, and that Russia had repeatedly been invaded and almost destroyed in the preceding half-century—twice by newly rearmed Germany, its richer Western part now within a hostile military alliance led by the world’s mightiest superpower; once in 1918 by Britain, the US, and their allies. And he might observe that there was, of course, no Russian threat to invade Turkey, nor any large-scale Russian terrorist campaign or economic warfare against Turkey, nor even a lesser counterpart to the crimes that the Kennedy administration was carrying out against Cuba at the time.
Despite all this, only the “Stevenson moment” exists in historical memory. Martian would surely grasp how the distinction reflects the balance of global power. He would also presumably recall a principle that must be close to a historical universal of intellectual culture: We are “good” (whoever we happen to be), and they are “evil” if they stand in our way. Therefore, the radical asymmetry makes perfect sense, within the framework of established doctrine.
The contours of the asymmetry become even sharper when we consider the occasional effort at extenuation: the crime of the Russians in Cuba was stealth, while the US surrounded Russia with lethal offensive weapons quite openly. That is true. The world ruler not only has no need to conceal its intent, but prefers to advertise it, to “maintain credibility.” The subordination of the ideological system to power ensures that virtually any action—international terrorism (as in Cuba), overt aggression (as in South Vietnam at the same time), participation in mass slaughter to destroy the only mass-based political party (as in South Vietnam and Indonesia), and many others—will either be dispatched to oblivion or reshaped into an act of legitimate self-defense or an act of benevolence that perhaps went astray.
Pp. 74-76 in Chomsky, Noam. 2004. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. [From Chapter 4. Dangerous Times, pp. 73-108, section, ONE WORD AWAY FROM NUCLEAR WAR, pp. 74-80. Emphasis added. For a free .pdf of this book, click here.]