How should JFK's relative moderation in the management of the crisis be evaluated against the background of the broader considerations just reviewed? But that question does not arise in a disciplined intellectual and moral culture, which accepts without question the basic principle that the US effectively owns the world by right, and is by definition a force for good despite occasional errors and misunderstandings, one in which it is plainly entirely proper for the US to deploy massive offensive force all over the world while it is an outrage for others (allies and clients apart) to make even the slightest gesture in that direction or even to think of deterring the threatened use of violence by the benign global hegemon.
That doctrine is the primary official charge against Iran today: it
might pose a deterrent to US and Israeli force. It was a consideration
during the missile crisis as well. In internal discussion, the Kennedy
brothers expressed their fears that Cuban missiles might deter a US
invasion of Venezuela, then under consideration. So "the Bay of Pigs was
really right", JFK concluded.
These principles still contribute to the constant risk of nuclear
war. There has been no shortage of severe dangers since the missile
crisis. Ten years later, during the 1973 Israel-Arab war, National
Security Adviser Henry Kissinger called a high-level nuclear alert
(DEFCON 3) to warn the Russians to keep their hands off while he was
secretly authorising Israel to violate the ceasefire imposed by the US
and Russia. When Reagan came into office a few years later, the US
launched operations probing Russian defences and simulating air and
naval attacks, while placing Pershing missiles in Germany with a
five-minute flight time to Russian targets, providing what the CIA
called a "super-sudden first strike" capability. Naturally this caused
great alarm in Russia, which unlike the US has repeatedly been invaded
and virtually destroyed. That led to a major war scare in 1983. There
have been hundreds of cases when human intervention aborted a first
strike minutes before launch, after automated systems gave false alarms.
We don't have Russian records, but there's no doubt that their systems
are far more accident-prone.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have come close to nuclear war several
times, and the sources of the conflict remain. Both have refused to sign
the Non-Proliferation Treaty, along with Israel and have received US
support for development of their nuclear weapons programmes - until
today in the case of India, now a US ally. War threats in the Middle
East, which might become reality very soon, once again escalate the
In 1962, war was avoided by Khrushchev's willingness to accept
Kennedy's hegemonic demands. But we can hardly count on such sanity
forever. It's a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided.
There is more reason than ever to attend to the warning of Bertrand
Russell and Albert Einstein, almost 60 years ago, that we must face a
choice that is "stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end
to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?"
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of numerous best-selling political works, most recently, Hopes and Prospects, Making the Future, and Occupy.