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Why we need to understand how the world hinged on Cuba in 1962

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

UWaterloo scholars challenge millennials to abolish nuclear weapons

In 1992, on the 30th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, historians Jim Blight and janet Lang organized a remarkable meeting in Havana between Fidel Castro, Robert McNamara, and former aides of Nikita Khrushchev. The group represented the key living players in the most dangerous military confrontation in history—a crisis that, the meeting revealed, avoided nuclear Armageddon at the last minute, mostly by “plain dumb luck.”

Jim Blight and janet LangPartners in life as well as scholarship (they have been married for 41 years), Professors Blight and Lang are leading experts on the crisis. They have convened five international conferences and published six previous books on the subject. Their new publication Dark Beyond Darkness: The Cuban Missile Crisis as History, Warning and Catalyst, (Rowman & Littlefield, Publishers), makes it seven books, more than a dozen animated films and half a dozen documentaries on the Cuban missile crisis.

One may wonder what more they could say about that moment in October of 1962. “We find that most people still don’t understand the Cuban missile crisis,” says Lang, “but we find that once you do, once you get its danger, its fear, its closeness to Armageddon—then it becomes a very strong argument for nuclear abolition. And the necessity of abolishing nukes is the point we underscore in Dark Beyond Darkness.”

The new book draws on historical facts and human foibles the researchers have uncovered that they hope will galvanize readers – especially young readers – to become fully cognizant of how dangerous our world was then, and is today with 15,000 nuclear warheads currently poised, and volatile leaders with their proverbial fingers on the button.

“This is an attempt to speak to the millennial generation, because even the best and the brightest among the millennials don’t seem to care about this issue. It’s just not real to them; it seems too abstract,” says Blight. “Our challenge is to reach them in two ways: first, to be afraid of what might happen; second, to act productively in ways that lead toward nuclear abolition.”

Fidal Castro with Jim Blight speaking to himJim Blight (right) makes his point to Fidel Castro as janet Lang witnesses the moment. The couple dubbed this 1992 photo Cosmic Reversal.

Focusing on revelations made by Castro himself at that 1992 conference - “because Castro is too often left out of this history” - Blight and Lang show how his role and the cultural imperatives of Cubans could have ignited nuclear war. On Black Saturday, October 27 1962, Castro believed a U.S. invasion of his country was imminent. He expected the attack to be massive and nuclear, and that it would obliterate Cuba. Castro asked Khrushchev to redeem Cuba’s coming martyrdom by launching a full nuclear attack on the U.S., once the U.S. attack had begun. It was learned much later that both Kennedy and Khrushchev resisted heavy pressure from their own advisors to engage in aggressive military action. Blight and Lang’s research reveals how, in the fog of crisis and confrontation with nuclear war on the line, misperception, misjudgment and misunderstanding led the world to the edge of destruction.

To move toward nuclear disarmament, “you’ve got to show how the world could be blown up if we don’t abolish the nukes, and the Cuban missile crisis makes this case in spades” says Blight, who holds the CIGI Chair in foreign policy development at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. “Fidel Castro and Cuba in October 1962 share important characteristics with small but combative nuclear powers like Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, or Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, and other non superpowers like India and Pakistan. If war breaks out in any of these volatile regions, and the war goes nuclear, the entire world will be at risk due to the nuclear winter that would follow. In such a scenario, the living could very well envy the dead.”

Blight and Lang are widely known for pioneering a research method called critical oral history, The method synthesizes first-hand memories of former high-level decision-makers, declassified documentation from relevant governments, and scholarly analysis. “There is something almost magical about sitting down with your former enemy years later, presenting what you thought they thought, and what you believed they were about to do at the time, only to discover that you were totally wrong,” comments Lang. In their academic capacities, the couple spent years building relationships and trust with key players of the Cuban missile crisis, persuading them to sit down with their former enemies to examine one another’s actions in the light of history.

Dark Beyoond Darkness book cover“The principal objective of Dark Beyond Darkness is to get you in the gut. We want you to feel what’s at stake by getting readers to feel some of the fear and the terror felt by leaders at critical moments in the crisis,” Lang stresses. The authors elicit these emotions at the outset of the book with a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s renowned post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, about a father and son struggling to survive in the bleakest imaginable world in the grip of nuclear winter. “That fictional world is,” according to Lang, “a perfectly plausible blueprint for the world as it would have been rendered if the Cuban missile crisis had gone nuclear, or if a contemporary crisis goes nuclear.”

The book’s final and longest chapter is entitled The Black Saturday Manifesto: Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, One Anniversary Per Year, for as Long as it Takes. It is a call to action, especially for younger and future generations. Blight and Lang emphasize that what they call “habitable history” can be a catalyst for action, if the history is accurate, scary and relevant to us in the 21st century. They propose marking each October 27 – the anniversary of Black Saturday – with events and actions worldwide, including the production of relevant art, to build momentum toward nuclear abolition. “We hope to see young people stir things up and keep us focused on what is perhaps our most important task as human beings: destroy nuclear weapons before they destroy us. Start local, and go global!”

photo script of Jim Blight and janet Lang holding sign

Dark Beyond Darkness is available at a 35% discount to UWaterloo faculty, staff, and students via the Rowman & Littlefield Publishers site, using discount code 4S18DBD35. The book is also available from the University of Waterloo Bookstore.

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