Friday, 14 August 2015

International Communications in the Cuban Missile Crisis (2)

Both the Soviet Union and the US used radio to communicate directly with each other, complementing the more traditional diplomatic channels. To seek a resolution to the crisis, the Soviet leader, Nikolai Khrushchev, used Radio Moscow knowing that his words would be monitored and reported long before the official communiques reached the Oval Office, and in the circumstances time was certainly of the essence. Khrushchev's first letter to President Kennedy on 26 October 1962 had been subject to a long delay in its transmission to Washington from the US embassy in Moscow. This was a gamble the Soviet leaders were no longer prepared to take, hence radio was considered the fastest method of communicating with the American President. On 27 October the US issued a statement welcoming Khrushchev's communication to remove the missiles in Cuba in response for a promise that there would be no US invasion of the island. This statement ignored a second message, broadcast twice on Radio Moscow, demanding the US remove its missiles from Turkey in return for a climbdown in Cuba.

At 1405 GMT (0900 Washington time) on 28 October 1962, Radio Moscow announced that it would transmit an important government statement, the broadcast beginning even before its textual editing had been completed. No clearer warning could be issued to the BBC's monitors at Caversham Park that they should prepare to receive, transcribe and report what followed.

As in previous broadcasts, Khrushchev addressed Kennedy personally as 'esteemed Mr President', informing him that 'the Soviet government, in addition to orders previously issued for the cessation of further work on the [Cuban] building sites for the weapons,' had 'issued a new order; for the weapons which you describe as "offensive" to be dismantled, packed up and returned to the Soviet Union.'

The significance of this broadcast, and the importance attached to it by the Soviet leadership's insistence that it be monitored and reported, can be adduced by the fact that it was repeated four times in the home service and no less than thirteen times in the North American service, in addition to several repeats in Spanish for listeners in Cuba.

Kennedy decided to accept the terms of the message in the same way that he had received it - over the radio. James A. Nathan has described this as a 'considerable departure from diplomacy'. [1] But there was nothing diplomatic about this particular communication. It was not an act of negotiation or the basis for further discussion, but was rather a public announcement of intention which, by its very nature, lacked flexibility and the capacity for compromise.

Kennedy's welcome of Khrushchev's decision was duly reported by TASS and in Moscow Radio's home service on 28 October, though it was not published in Russian newspapers until 30 October, a delay designed to strengthen Khrushchev's image as a hero who had taken a firm stand to avert war. Radio Moscow told its listeners in North America that the Soviet government's decision to end the crisis should not be regarded as a sign of weakness. On the contrary, the country had 'displayed forbearance ... in an effort to keep world peace. It did a service to all of humanity with a courageous restraint and refusal to be provoked, for it saved the world from thermonuclear disaster. ... Only a country confident of its strength could take the stand the USSR has taken'. [2]

Kennedy said he felt 'like a new man. Do you realise,' he asked his friend, Dave Powers, 'that we had an airstrike [against Cuba] all arranged for Tuesday [just two days later]? Thank God it's all over'. [3]


[1]  Nathan, James A. (1988), 'Cold War Model' in Robert A. Divine (ed.) The Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Markus Wiener) p.342

[2]  BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Part I, 31 October 1962.

[3] Quoted in Beschloss, Michael R. (1991), Kennedy v. Khrushchev: The Crisis Years, 1960-1963 (London: Faber & Faber), pp.541-2


How Special is Special? The Anglo-American Alliance During the Cuban Missile Crisis

As I worked my way through the files at the Public Records Office that were most relevant to my PhD, the so-called Thirty Years Rule meant that the British government records for 1962 were opened in 1993 as I was completing my research. I decided to take a little time away from my topic to  examine the files for the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was interested in seeing the role, if any, that the UK played in the crisis, and how Anglo-American relations - what is too often referred to as The Special Relationship - played out. This was a landmark for me: Not only was the resulting article, 'How Special is Special? The Anglo-American Alliance During the Cuban Missile Crisis', my first published academic paper, but I was also the first author to publish on this subject using the declassified documents. The paper was published in Contemporary Record, 9 (3), 1995: 668-601.  I recall receiving the referee's report while I was undertaking archival research in Washington DC in the summer of 1993 and living at the wonderful International Student House at the Dupont Circle. I discovered I needed a copy of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's memoirs and so bought a copy at one of the many second hand bookshops that surround the Dupont Circle. It is a huge book, one of three volumes, and having already bought far too many books I knew I could not carry it back with me to the UK. I sold it back to the same bookshop within a few days of my buying it.

I thought of this paper again today in light of the restoration of US-Cuban ties.

'How Special is Special?' is still available via Taylor & Francis Online, but it is expensive or requires an institutional log-in. This is the abstract.    

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 affords an excellent opportunity to scrutinise alliance relationships during the most critical phase of international history. The recently declassified documents at the Public Records Office suggest that although Britain's role in the crisis was limited to consultation with the United States and did not actively participate in the resolution of the crisis, the government was not prepared to passively support those American decisions with which it did not agree. In addition this case study allows scholars to derive a greater sense of the importance of a detached and specialised Foreign Office in a political system which places greater power in the hands of an elected and transient government with narrow interests.

International Communications in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Today, 14 August 2015, John Kerry became the first US Secretary of State to visit Cuba in 70 years. He reopened the American embassy, and watched the US flag rise in the presence of the same marines who lowered it in 1961.

Cuba played an important part in my life over twenty years ago. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a case-study in my PhD thesis on international radio broadcasting in the Cold War, and you can read the chapter in my first book, Radio Diplomacy and Propaganda (Macmillan, 1996). The chapter studied how international radio broadcasting, specifically Radio Moscow and the Voice of America, played an important role in not only projecting propaganda, but also in resolving the crisis. At the  core of what I called 'media diplomacy' was the ever wonderful BBC Monitoring Service, located at Caversham Park near Reading in the UK, which has helped to gather open intelligence from the world's broadcast media since before World War Two. Below are my abridged conclusions. I cringe a little now when I read them, but please remember I wrote this at some point between the age of 21 and 23.

In the context of the Cold War, the defusing of the Cuban missile crisis represented a step of progress in the conduct of international relations: it had been the first real crisis of nuclear proportions; it provided the pretext for further negotiations between the Superpowers that paved the way to an eventual, but short-lived, detente; and it facilitated their relationship in that the need for a direct line of communication between the White House and the Kremlin - the so-called 'Hot Line' - was recognised and accepted. More importantly for the purposes of this study, while Kennedy and Khrushchev conversed with each other through traditional channels, radio had been explicitly used as an integral part of the diplomatic procedure, marking watershed in global broadcasting on a series of levels. The Soviet Union was forced by circumstances to recognise that the value of radio was no longer rooted merely in propaganda, the importance of the monitoring service was acknowledged, and public opinion was accorded a position as a contributory factor in the formulation of political foreign policy. At the start of the crisis, the British Ambassador in Havana, Sir Herbert Marchant, had advocated the launch of a 'really serious propaganda exercise' by the US. 'I mean, really serious and probably expensive, but still cheaper than a war.' (1) Such an observation implies recognition that propaganda can often be a substitute for military conflict, as the missile crisis vividly illustrated.
                 Together the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis had confirmed the importance of harmonising government action with propaganda and broadcasting policy. It had not been easy; the gravity of the crisis had forced the USIA into supervising VoA broadcasts to a degree that had so far been avoided. The crisis also opened up deep wounds between the VoA and its parent agency, USIA. The Director of the VoA, Henry Loomis, told Ed Murrow [Director of USIA] that the station 'failed to sound convincing because of our monolithic tone. ... During the ... crisis,' he said, 'we were required to distort and concentrate our programme at the expense of credibility and relevance to our audience.' Loomis believed that by broadcasting Presidential and State Department announcements, the Voice suffered from a markedly dull output and at the same time revealed itself to be a propaganda station. [2]  However, given the scope and nature of the crisis, this comment is unjustified. At a time when the political risks were incredibly high, when the future of the whole world was at stake, audiences for foreign broadcasts (which inevitably increase at times of major crises) were more interested in government pronouncements of intentions rather than often wild speculation. As America's role in the Vietnam war continued to escalate, this dichotomy posed by VoA's dual purpose was exacerbated, and the relationship which the government enjoyed with its propaganda agencies was to prove crucial.


1.  FO371/162347/AK1051/11, 22 October 1962 (Public Record Office, Kew Gardens)
2.  Sorenson, Thomas (1968), The Word War: The Story of American Propaganda (New York: Harper & Row), p. 238