Cuban Missile Crisis
Two world powers and Cuba, in one of the key episodes of the Cold War
The so-called Cuban Missile Crisis starts on the 16th of October, 1962, when a US spy plane U-2 discovers Soviet missile bases installed in Cuba. The location ensures enough range to a direct attack on the United States, since the distance was only 150 km away. Two days later, following an order of President John Kennedy, military maneuvers near Puerto Rico begin. The White House does not provide an official explanation. This time of global tension goes down in History as the representation of the Cold War’s climax.
On the 22nd of October, President John F. Kennedy addresses the country and the world, through television and radio, verbalizing the threat: “The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike against the Western hemisphere.” “Neither the United States nor the international community will accept this threat.”
In that same speech, Kennedy announces his decision to block the Russian ships that transport weapons to the island of Fidel Castro. Nikita Khrushchev replies that its vessels will continue their march and the world is in a limbo. The nuclear conflict seems imminent.
The news is followed with apprehension and fear in the following days and people stand in line to buy newspapers.
In Portugal, it is also news
Portuguese newspapers also follow the course of events. “The nuclear threat hanging over the world” was the headline in Diário de Notícias on the 24th of October. Diário de Lisboa also makes the headline “The US is determined to cut the way to a group of Soviet ships sailing the Atlantic towards Cuba.”
The temporary end
Officially, the crisis ends on the 28th of October, when Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev reach an agreement to withdraw the missiles from Italy and Turkey, by United States, and the Cuban ones by the Soviet Union. But the debate about the contours of this episode is far from over.
The power of television
Kennedy's decision to officially announce the blockade on television, on the 10th of October, 1962, instead of through traditional diplomatic channels, is part of a plan to give the “maximum force” to the ultimatum, according to Media historian Erik Barnouw. This decision is strategically and politically important after the fiasco with the Bay of Pigs invasion, which leaves the President vulnerable.
“The commitment assumed on television, broadcast worldwide via satellite, created a situation that seemed to make any setback impossible,” writes Barnouw.
Currently there is a consensus among scholars and academics that Kennedy's speech on television and radio leads to a widespread change in the performance of the Media coverage of the event. Even the Republican newspapers start reporting foreign policy more favourably, helping build his reputation as a strong and sensitive leader, in full control of situations.
And as the news is the “first draft of History,” in the words of Phil Graham, what prevails in memory is not always the most accurate picture of what really happens, but instead a simplified narrative which clearly defines Good and Evil.
If the “myth” of the President who saves the world from nuclear war prevails unassailable for decades, as well as the simplified version of events, repeated and taught with the outlines of a legend, the coverage of other episodes of international conflict indicate that little changed in the way the North-American Media report the actions of the White House on foreign policy.
The questioning of the Media
“The power of the press is to raise questions, ask questions, stimulate debate and public discussion. What does not happen in 1962,” noted James McCartney, former correspondent in Washington, in a text to the American Journalism Review, adding that currently, and from reading several documents holding both versions of the story, it is considered that the base installed by the Soviets aim to defend Cuba, which radically changes the known narrative.
And if this is the Western version of the narrative, in the Soviet side, from the other side of the Iron Curtain, the press is totally controlled by the State, so the news conveyed do not excel in clarity and objectivity, presenting several omissions and misrepresentations. The first news about the blockade are given by Pravda, the official newspaper of the regime, without any reference to the existence of missile bases in Cuba. The threat came from the United States and the target was Cuba, which the Soviets had to defend.
Two world powers, two different stories
Two powers in confrontation, two different versions of the same story. And the conclusion that the Media coverage serves to broadcast, without question, the official narratives.
In a long and detailed article on the Soviet missile crisis in Cuba from the Atlantic magazine, it is said that Kennedy is as responsible as Nikita Khrushchev – to the American missiles in Turkey aimed at Moscow, the Soviets respond with missiles aimed at America.
But the magazine is balanced in favour of Moscow: the Americans withdraw the missiles from Turkey and promise not to overthrow Castro.
The truth is that time and History corrupt the aura created around John F. Kennedy. They lay bare the construction of perceptions. They stone the myth, making him a man again.
The Atlantic magazine article is peremptory: the spin of events and the interpretation of the White House on the events are run down by a gullible and exploited press, which helps in the creation and projection of the American president’s leadership, in a moment, in fact, of a break in popularity. Official documents reveal that the official American narrative was a construction of who was involved in the process. The adjustment in the collective memory will certainly take longer.