Alan Zendell, October 10, 2022
The week after next is Cuban Missile Crisis Week. It will mark sixty years during which the world managed to avoid self-destruction with nuclear weapons. I have vivid memories of the final day of the original crisis, standing in a line with a thousand other students on the Columbia University campus listening to transistor radios to find out if we would survive until the next day. Columbia is in Manhattan in the middle of New York City, which was essentially prime nuclear target number one in 1962.
We walked away from that horrific day believing responsible world leaders had saved us from Armageddon. With the perspective of time, I believe the person who saved the world that day was Soviet (Russian) Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Thus, we convinced ourselves that no matter what occurred in the world, our leaders would always manage to avoid the horror of a nuclear war in which there would be no victors and very few survivors.
The world is less safe today than sixty years ago. The rise of autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and the Ayatollahs who run Iran, combined with the ever-present possibility that terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons has the world in a more precarious spot than most of us like to believe. None of these people believe in the rule of law. They behave amorally and respect nothing but strength and power.
We thought Khrushchev was a crazy Russian leader who was capable of any terrible act we could imagine. Fortunately, Khrushchev turned out to be rational and responsible – and a very good actor. Everyone my age remembers him taking off his shoe at the UN General Assembly and pounding it on the table as he addressed his peers.
Having survived 1962, the next three decades were a terrifying time when we let ourselves think about it. Then, the nuclear arms reduction treaties and a noticeable lack of nuclear saber rattling lulled the world into complacency – nuclear weapons were a deterrent that would prevent their use. But we see, today, that our complacency is hypocrisy, a delusion based on the assumption that we’ve learned to live safely with the capability of destroying ourselves.
Whether or not Vladimir Putin is crazy, he is not stupid, and he knows history. Before we rush to claim the moral high ground, consider this. Several years ago, when one of my sons asserted that no country would ever nuke another, I replied that one country already had. He was shocked, demanding to know which one, and I reminded him about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It wasn’t that he hadn’t known about them; like the rest of us, he’d succumbed to the self-serving delusion that that was somehow different. Last week, Putin reminded the world that the United States is the only nation that has ever used a nuclear weapon in warfare.
Putin has proved, during the twenty plus years he has ruled Russia, that he too is a great actor, but that doesn’t mean he’s bluffing when he threatens to escalate the conflict in Ukraine. That may be more frightening than confronting Khrushchev was. In 1962, the Russians wanted to install nuclear missiles within 100 miles of Florida, and the Kennedy Administration drew a line in the sand. Nuclear ultimata are dangerous. We probably got away with that one because all Khrushchev lost in backing down was a potential strategic advantage that never actually existed.
There’s a lot more at stake today, at least in the mind of Vladimir Putin, who seems to believe that NATO and the United States are plotting to destroy Russia. While there’s no doubt that such contingencies exist, destroying Russia is clearly not on NATO’s agenda. NATO is and always will be a defensive alliance, formed to protect against Soviet expansionism. Putin knows that, so all his talk about existential threats to his homeland justifying the possible use of nuclear weapons is…what?
Is Putin dangerously paranoid? Are all of his advisors? Or is Putin as good an actor as Nikita Khrushchev was? “Experts” analyze this subject on every media platform. If you listen long enough, you’ll realize they don’t know much more than you and I. We’ll only know if Putin is bluffing when we reach his end game. The threat Putin poses to Europe is more real and tangible than Khrushchev’s attempt to put missiles in Cuba was to us. Cuba was largely symbolic, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, especially today’s missile attacks on Ukrainian cities which were nothing more than terrorism, represents a threat that cannot be tolerated.
Is Putin crazy enough to blow up the world? Before you answer, consider that Donald Trump was willing to undermine our Constitution and destroy the foundations of our democracy to remain in office.