Monday, July 28, 2014


Those who know me as I am now, a gracefully aging curmudgeon with certain ideas and strong opinions about the state of the world, would have had trouble recognizing me in my former life.  There I was, part of the decidedly secular, left-liberal culture that was The City College of New York some fifty years ago.  If you looked closely, you could see me, one of the hundreds (maybe more, but I never counted) of idealistic youths demonstrating at the U.N. in October 1962. What was on our collective minds, you ask?  A little history about the Cuban Missile Crisis for those (most!) of you who weren’t around at the time.

The year before (1961), the U.S. government, in an attempt to topple Fidel Castro’s decidedly left-wing government, had sponsored the ill-fated invasion of Cuban émigrés at the Bay of Pigs.  The net effect of this debacle was a rapid heating up of the Cold War, with nuclear missiles popping up around the globe like mushrooms after the rain on a suburban lawn.  The Americans put them in Italy and Turkey, aimed at the heart of the U.S.S.R, the Russians had snuck them into Cuba  – aimed directly at the coast of Florida – which, as we all know, is only ninety miles away – and all points north and west.  Oh, the uproar.  James Monroe was undoubtedly turning over in his grave.

To remove these rather unsettling weapons, the Kennedy administration considered an all-out air and sea invasion of the island, but settled for a naval blockade instead.  That’ll larn ‘em!  Unfortunately, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was at best an indifferent student.  He must have been playing hooky or shooting spitballs when the teacher was discussing the Monroe Doctrine.  As far as he was concerned, if the Americans could place nuclear missiles where they wanted, he could do the same – even in the Western hemisphere.  What’s the big deal?

And if the Americans were going to try to prevent shipping to his good pal Fidel, well, the least he could do would be to send some of his own warships to run the blockade.  So now you had this armada of Soviet ships heading west, determined to sail unimpeded into Cuban waters, and an appropriate number of American ships in international waters off the Cuban coast, determined to intercept them.  Each side was armed to the teeth; each side had enough nuclear weapons to blow up at least a section of the solar system. Each day, the distance between the two fleets was getting smaller and smaller, and the “winds of war” were blowing stronger and stronger.

And there we were, this rag-tag collection of Stalinists, Trotskyists, anarchists, Fidelistas, “Progressives,” pacifists and other anti-war types, plus friends of the above and hangers-on – this type of event being a great way to meet the right somebody – demonstrating at the U.N.  Or, to be more accurate, having two simultaneous demonstrations, one to join and one not to be caught dead at, because what’s more important than an ideological dispute when the world might have been blown up?

Fortunately for all of mankind, the future of the world was not to be left to the collective wisdom (?) of the students on the picket lines.  A number of other people had assessed the situation and understood that if nothing were done to the contrary, the world would be in trouble, big time.   A deal was brokered under the aegis of the United Nations (one of the few times that agency actually did something useful).  The Soviet fleet turned around and went home.  The nuclear missiles were removed from Cuban soil.  The U.S. committed itself never to invade Cuba.  It also removed its nuclear weapons from Italy and Turkey.

Whew!  We wouldn’t all be blown to smithereens after all.  We were free to return to the safety of the South Campus lawn, where we could continue our search for truth, justice, and the opposite sex.

I can certainly understand why someone of a younger generation might have difficulty understanding what all the ruckus was about.  No missiles were ever fired from Cuba.  No one – neither the Cubans nor the Russians – was threatening to fire them.  No one was planning to use them.  It was all “just in case.” Simply put, “You got missiles; we got missiles.”  The hope was that if you flaunted your enormous stash of firepower, it would remind the other side not to consider using its enormous stash of firepower.  Each side was then free to subvert and undermine the other in less dramatic ways.  That’s why it was called “The Cold War.”

It was just that pesky Monroe Doctrine (actually written, I understand, by John Q. Adams), which stated in part: We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” In the less formal language of today’s world, it would be something like, “You’re in our turf now.  Better keep walkin.’”

When the Monroe Doctrine was first announced, the fledgling U.S.A. was in no position to enforce it, relying, ironically enough, on the Brits, who had their own reasons for keeping the Spanish, the French, and other interested parties out of the Western hemisphere.  (The Doctrine respected the British claim to Canada.) But the point was made, and it stuck.  And there came a time when the Americans were more than able to enforce it, by land, by air, and by sea.  That’s what Khrushchev didn’t understand. (Dear Mrs. Khrushchev, your son Niki is too busy making spitballs to pay attention when we study the history of the Imperialist West….)

Perhaps what we need here in The Land is a Monronovitz Doctrine.  That’s right, a Monronovitz Doctrine, making it clear in diplomatic language that, We will consider any attempt on anyone’s part to extend their system or subvert our own in any part of The Land as dangerous to our peace and safety.  “This is our neighborhood, and don’t mess with us here.  The minute you even THINK of starting something, we’ll give it to you good.  So better keep walkin’.”  Maybe we can’t yet make that stick, but it would be a start, something to express how we feel about things.  It might cut through a whole lot of useless palaver with the John Kerry’s of the world. Yeah, that’s it, short and sweet: Better keep walkin’.