>> Wednesday, September 23, 2009
In the early 1980s, according to newly released documents, Fidel Castro was suggesting a Soviet nuclear strike against the United States, until Moscow dissuaded him by patiently explaining how the radioactive cloud resulting from such a strike would also devastate Cuba....
The Pentagon study attributes the Cuba revelation to Andrian A. Danilevich, a Soviet general staff officer from 1964 to ’90 and director of the staff officers who wrote the Soviet Union’s final reference guide on strategic and nuclear planning.
In the early 1980s, the study quotes him as saying that Mr. Castro “pressed hard for a tougher Soviet line against the U.S. up to and including possible nuclear strikes.”
The general staff, General Danilevich continued, “had to actively disabuse him of this view by spelling out the ecological consequences for Cuba of a Soviet strike against the U.S.”
That information, the general concluded, “changed Castro’s positions considerably.”
This is interesting in that it mirrors the (very public) conversation that the Soviets and the Chinese had about nuclear weapons in the 1960s. To sum up very briefly, the Chinese argued that the Soviets should be much more aggressive in their thinking about nuclear weapons, while the Soviets were quite realistic about the prospects for victory in nuclear war. In that case, the Soviets had insufficient leverage to bring the Chinese into line, and eventually concluded that a certain political distance between Beijing and Moscow was desirable in case the Chinese did something stupid. In the Cuba case, the Russians of course were able to essentially dictate policy to Havana.
The report is also intriguing in terms of thinking about the relevance that information plays in actor behavior. It's sort of remarkable to think that Castro wasn't aware of the consequences that a nuclear attack on the US would have on Cuba; I'm inclined to think that just about everyone in the US (or at least everyone after November 1983) was aware of the devastating environmental effects that nuclear war would entail. Maybe Castro was just playing for bargaining space, in the same sense that it's possible that Mao was feigning ignorance about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. But then again, it's not wholly unreasonable to think that Castro, a busy man, may simply never have taken time to educate himself on what nukes really do.
Finally, I find it interesting that the Soviets took the "even if we win, you lose" tack in explaining the situation to Castro. I suspect that the Soviets were well aware that, even under the most rosy scenarios of a pre-emptive attack, nuclear fallout was the least bad thing that could happen to Cuba, and that the utter nuclear destruction of the island was much more likely. As a corollary to this, I have to wonder whether Castro, like some American policymakers, was taken in by the idea that the Soviets had presumptive nuclear dominance and could destroy the US whenever they liked. Team B made this a fashionable opinion in the US, and it'd be interesting to see whether it filtered in modified form to Havana.