By John Pepper
In reading the recent biography of Robert Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye, I have acquired a very different understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis and its relevance to the challenging geo-political situation we face today.
I had always looked at this crisis rather simply. The Soviet Union had been continuing to extend its military reach, planting missiles in Cuba, threatening the United States. In terms of fact, that was a reality.
But the background to it needs to be understood. In the first days of John Kennedy’s presidency, we had launched an aborted attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. A fiasco. But the effort to overthrow, and indeed assassinate, Castro didn’t stop there. Under the leadership of Bobby Kennedy, we pursued what was known as “Operation Mongoose.” It involved the CIA and other operatives, again with the intent of overthrowing the Castro government, including plans to assassinate him. Russia was well aware of this. To stave off this continued effort to overthrow the Castro government and put in place one of our own liking, Russia decided to put missiles in Cuba as an overhanging threat to dissuade us from regime change.
The resolution of this crisis also needs to be understood. As most famously told, we threatened to attack Cuba to wipe out the missile facilities unless Russia agreed to remove them. And, in a tension-filled encounter, their ships, carrying more missiles, turned back and they agreed to withdraw what they had placed there.
But this only happened because of a balanced, negotiated agreement. The United States agreed to never invade Cuba. And while this was not to be announced, we agreed that we would, within six months, remove missiles that we had in Turkey, which Russia looked at as a threat to their country. It was a “quid pro quo” agreement.
Flash forward to today. Russia is extremely concerned about missiles that we are stationing in Eastern Europe. They are concerned about what was a genuine effort at one point to have Ukraine become linked unilaterally with the West and very likely proceed toward participation in NATO. This was more than Russia could stomach, just as having missiles in Cuba was more than we could stomach.
The overhanging risk of nuclear war played a major role in bringing both sides to the table back then in 1962. It should be no less of an incentive to do so today.Φ
John Pepper spent a 39-year career at Procter & Gamble where he served in various roles as President, CEO and Chairman from 1986-2003; he served as Chairman of the Board of the Walt Disney Company from January 2007 to March 2012. He undertook a blog in order to share lessons and learnings from his business career and, more generally, from life. The insights he expresses here first appeared at his blog Pepperspectives and at the Center for Citizen Initiatives.