Historians of Cuban missile crisis to speak this week at IU Bloomington

Everyone knows the story of the Cuban missile crisis: how the United States and the Soviet Union approached the brink of a nuclear conflict but stepped back when President John F. Kennedy stood firm and Premier Nikita Khrushchev withdrew Soviet missiles at the 11th hour.

But the full story is more complex and far more frightening, say historians James Blight and Janet Lang. Throw in the perspective of the Cubans, who believed they were about to be destroyed and were ready to fight to the death, and it’s clear the world came within a hair's breadth of Armageddon.

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James Blight and Janet Lang

Blight and Lang, who have studied the missile crisis for 30 years, will speak this week at Indiana University Bloomington. Their lecture, "Dark Beyond Darkness: The Cuban Missile Crisis as History, Warning and Catalyst," starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15, in the Global and International Studies Building auditorium. (The lecture title is also the title of their most recent book).

"We want people to have a sense of this moment when the world nearly blew up," Lang said. "It's a story about people, not just a story about blind forces."

Blight and Lang, who teach at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and department of history at the University of Waterloo, have written books and hosted conferences about the missile crisis. With filmmaker Koji Masutani, they have created "The Armageddon Letters," a transmedia project with graphic novels, blog posts, podcasts and short films to convey the story of the crisis to a generation that knows about it only through history books.

They say the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis are especially relevant today, when nuclear-armed North Korea is threatened and feels it has nothing to lose, much like Cuba in 1962.

Their research includes extensive documentary studies as well as oral histories taken from Americans, Russians and Cubans who experienced the crisis. Some of the most revealing moments were exchanges between Cuban leader Fidel Castro and former U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara.

For Kennedy and Khrushchev, the standoff was deeply serious but involved considerable bluffing and angling for strategic advantage. Neither wanted a war. Khrushchev had moved missiles and nuclear warheads to Cuba in response to U.S. missiles based in Turkey and aimed at the Soviet Union.

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Fidel Castro speaks with James Blight and Janet Lang at a conference in 1992.

But to the Cubans, the standoff meant the island was likely to be destroyed. Since the failed, U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion 18 months earlier, Castro was sure the Americans would attack Cuba to derail the revolution. He expected and hoped the Soviets would respond with nuclear weapons.

Unbeknownst to the Americans, Blight and Lang learned, the Soviets had installed medium-range missiles that could reach the United States and short-range tactical nuclear weapons that could be used against a U.S. attack. The latter were controlled by Soviet forces based in Cuba who identified with the Cubans and were equally determined to resist an invasion. Some of Kennedy's advisers were urging him to attack. A miscalculation or accident could have led to a catastrophe.

"What would have happened if the Cubans had succeeded in shooting down a low-flying U.S. plane?" Blight said. "There would have to be a U.S. response, thinking there were no nuclear warheads on the island. But there were missiles, and they were ready to use them."

When the Soviets removed their weapons in exchange for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba -- a promise the Cubans didn't trust -- Cuba's leaders were angry.

"It revealed to them how naïve they were, how 'socialist solidarity' was a phrase that didn't mean anything," Lang said.

Blight and Lang said that both the Americans and the Soviets failed to understand how history gave Cubans a sense of pride and dignity. Like Texans at the Alamo and Jewish rebels at Masada, they were ready to die while inflicting damage on their enemies, even if it meant starting a nuclear war.

The same sense of being under siege can be seen in many countries that possess or are seeking nuclear weapons today, Blight and Lang said. Pakistan is overshadowed by its neighbor and enemy India. Israel is surrounded by hostile nations. Iran is threatened by the U.S. and by its neighbors. And North Korea clings to its nuclear ambitions as President Donald Trump threatens it with "fire and fury like the world has never seen."

"North Korea is a despicable regime," Lang said. "But do they feel threatened? A lot of people have done a good job of making them feel that way."