50 years ago this week, the world held its breath, waiting to see if nuclear armageddon would be averted, as the Cuban Missile Crisis reached its climax. The Soviet Union had secretly begun to build bases for nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962, responding to unsuccessful US operations to overthrow the Cuban regime and the US’s deployment of nuclear-tipped Jupiter rockets- capable of striking Moscow- in Italy and Turkey in 1961.
During the crisis, President John F. Kennedy judged that the probability of war might have been as high as 50%. Estimates of complete destruction rose as the confrontation escalated, while Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wondered whether he ‘would live to see another Saturday night,’ and later recognised that ‘It was luck that prevented nuclear war.’
Kennedy’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis are often lauded as his ‘finest hour’, yet, in an article commemorating the anniversary of the crisis, Noam Chomsky forcefully challenges this view. Chomsky outlines how JFK refused to take up Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev’s offer to remove Russian missiles if the US either promised not to invade Cuba or withdrew its rockets from Turkey. These ‘stunning risks’ brought the world to the brink of ‘a war of unimaginable destruction‘.
Two years before the crisis, Kennedy had addressed the United Nations General Assembly to warn of the looming threat of nuclear war. The then president described how ‘Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.’
These words are poignant not only because of Kennedy’s subsequent role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but because they are still relevant to the nuclear dangers we face today. In order to lift the nuclear shadow it is vital that trust and confidence is built between states so that they can co-operate closely on the task of abolishing all nuclear weapons. It is therefore appropriate that this week, the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly (IPU), will take place in Quebec City, Canada. The IPU, established in 1889, is the international organization of over 150 parliaments and works for ‘world-wide parliamentary dialogue…peace and co-operation among peoples and for the firm establishment of representative democracy’.
This year’s meeting will see the launch of the IPU’s Handbook on Parliamentary Measures to Support Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, which will be sent to every parliament in the world to encourage, support and guide parliamentary action. The handbook will contain background on a range of non-proliferation and disarmament issues; examples of parliamentary practice in nuclear-weapon-possessing States, allies of nuclear-weapon-states and non-nuclear States; and recommendations for further action by parliaments and parliamentarians.
The IPU includes several nuclear-weapon states amongst its members, though the US has let its own membership ‘lapse’. It would be fitting if the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis prompted reflection amongst US policy-makers concerning how they might re-engage with the IPU and similar international bodies in order to speed the path towards abolishing nuclear weapons, ‘before they abolish us.’
These are the views of the author.