Talking Cuban Crisis

Talking Cuban Crisis

“It’s ironic how this little island has become practically

 the key to the fate of the whole world”

–          Carleton Beals, The Realist #23

By the summer of 1962 Cuba began moving further and further into the lap of the U.S.A’s great rival, the U.S.S.R. Under Eisenhower the U.S. had already severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and the pervious April had seen the Bay of Pigs shambles, only adding to the tension between Havana and Washington. Tension that would reach a peak in October 1962 when Kennedy addressed his nation calling for the removal of all Soviet military bases in Cuba;

“Good evening my fellow citizens:

This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet Military build-up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere…

…My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can see precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead months in which our patience and our will will be tested–months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.

The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are–but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high–and Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.

Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right–not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

Thank you and good night.”

Soviet ships bound for Cuba turned away from the island, two others were stopped and searched by American warships, before allowing them to carry on their journey after no offensive military equipment was found. After two fraught days Soviet Premier Khrushchev ordered the removal of offensive weapons from Cuba so long as the U.S. promised not to invade. It was the closest that the cold war would become to being a very hot one. It only lasted six days, but it had implications that would be felt for a good while longer.

*

You wouldn’t necessarily learn a lot from Talking Cuban Crisis, but unlike The Ballad of William Worthy or Lou Marsh, this was international news, unavoidable, Phil’s response to it wasn’t to want to tell the story but to mock the whole charade.

The line “Well, he said ‘Here comes the President, but first this word from Pepsodent’” is typical of Phil, picking up on a theme expanded upon in Talkin’ Pay T.V. (“Every few minutes they’d take a break, for a profound message on stomach ache”), but here the use of commercials seems even less appropriate considering the implications of Kennedy’s address (“Have cleaner breath, when you’re facing nuclear death”). I’m not sure how often Kennedy was referred to as “President John”, but at least it scans, and even makes him seem familiar, friendly even.

Land reform (“Carryin’ land reform too far, giving land to the U.S.A”) was a key tenet of the Cuban revolution of 1959.  During the first Agrarian Reform some five million hectares of land was nationalised withone million hectares of land reallocated to some 100,000 farmers. This reallocation of land naturally hit U.S. company owned land including the Cuban-American Sugar Co. and United Fruit (hence the line “United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore” in I Ain’t Marching Anymore), with Time magazine reporting that in post-revolution Cuba “No corporation can own land in Cuba unless all stockholders are Cuban” (Time, June 01, 1959).

One of the ironies of the missile crisis was that since 1959 the U.S. had missiles trained on the U.S.S.R based in Turkey and Italy. U.S. military presence in Europe, and throughout the world (“From Turkey and Greece, Formosa* and Spain, the peaceful West European plain, from Alaska and Greenland we’ll use our means, and twenty-thousand submarines”) was expected to go unquestioned, while any non-U.S. presence in the Americas came into conflict with the Monroe Doctrine, which since 1823 has forbade European involvement in the affairs of independent American countries.  (*Formosa is now known as Taiwan).

During the six days of crisis, as the U.S. armed forces lurched from Defense Condition Five (peacetime alert) right through to Defcon 2 (one step away from actual hostilities), with nuclear submarines summoned from their base in Scotland, and B-52s loaded with nuclear missiles, the world held its breath. Phil doesn’t shirk from, albeit jokingly, admitting his terror (“But me, I stood behind a bar, dreaming of a spaceship getaway car”).  And then…nothing. Khrushchev and Kennedy bashed out a compromise – the U.S.S.R would get the hell out of Cuba, the U.S. would remove it’s missiles that had been trained on the U.S.S.R for the last three years (though this would initially remain secret, leading to much embarrassment for the Russian Premier) and Kennedy would see his popularity rise, and continue rising until his assassination the following year. The Realist #23 reported on an actual Civil Defense T.V. spot that featured a family which had lived in a fallout shelter for two weeks; “Our family” says the mother, “now has a closer relationship than before”. Who says that no good can come from nuclear conflict?

That is not all. Castro remained. He played a part in bringing the two most powerful nations in the world to the brink of nuclear war. And still he remained. And he still remains to this day. He survived the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose (which was in action in the midst of the missile crisis and was every bit as successful of the Bay of Pigs), and reportedly six-hundred assassination attempts. Perhaps it’s no wonder Phil was so enamoured.

Paul Krassner wrote in the Realist #23 of his time in Cuba (to where he had travelled with State Department permission, unlike William Worthy) and stated that “you have to know the background of Batista’s unconstitutional police-state horror in order to appreciate the fervour of the revolution against it…the period from 1953 to 1959 would have made Hitler dance with joy” Adding that “only now do we [the U.S.] call Cuba unsafe”. For Phil Castro’s Cuba offered so much promise, regardless of what would follow. At the heart of the revolution was land reform, home ownership, medical provision and literacy (1961 was the Cuban Year of Education).  Thanks to Krassner and Worthy in the Realist, Phil was getting more than just the government line in the mainstream press. Phil would later say that Castro “is a very artistic revolutionary…the way he looks, the way he acts, his personality”.  Not that his pro-Castro zeal wasn’t tempered slightly; “the thing is not to get up there and say ‘you must support Castro no matter what’, but to say ‘be sympathetic to Castro for the following moral reasons’. Then if Castro goes astray, you say, ‘well, be sympathetic to the revolution for the following moral reasons” (in Touchstone #2, Sept 1965).

To date the U.S. embargo continues, an embargo that the General Assembly of the U.N. has voted against eighteen times to highlight international opposition, votes that Washington has chosen to ignore. Perhaps just as significant; in 1980 when Castro opened the Cuban borders for anyone wishing to leave for five months, 125,000 did so. By then of course, Phil wasn’t available for comment.

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4 thoughts on “Talking Cuban Crisis

  1. Dave Gosser says:

    Your probably aware of the Phil Ochs song nights that occur with frequency. A group of folkies who travel around & dedicate these nights to Phil, organized by his sister, Sonny Ochs. I saw John Flynn there (who always does nice version of Pleasure of the Harbor) sing Bound for Glory. Never thought to much of the song, but hearing it from John I realized that like many of Phil’s songs, it was kind of fun to sing along with, and when I gave it a listen, very meaningful.

    • cootiehuw says:

      Hi dave,

      It’s funny you should mention that. I have been to a couple of Phil song nights here in England and on both occasions come away with a new love for songs that I had previously paid little attention to (especially true of Celia and Men Behind The Guns, brilliant tune!). It comes back to something that haunts me regarding me being born several years after Phil died – hearing these songs sung live, by Phil, would have been such a different (and more rewarding expereince) than hearing them on record. They still ain’t so bad on record mind you!

  2. Dave says:

    I should mention that I am 61, and was a big fan of Phil’s around 1969. I guess the album that I first heard was Pleasures of the Harbor – still one of my favorites. I did hear him once at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, and remember clearly him singing “Power and Glory” so powerfully but saying he was’t sure if he believed it anymore. Shocked me at the time, but as I read about him I understand now. I have the same feeling as you about the Phil Ochs song nights – they are always learning & performing new songs and some I am still learning to appreciate. I should also mention I appreciate your detailed comments about Ochs – very thoughtful and original.

    • cootiehuw says:

      Thanks Dave.
      Though he may not have been been if he believe it anymore it says much that he was still singing Power And The Glory in 1969. A bittersweet song if ever there was one. It would amaze people who knock Phil for only writing topical/political songs just how much of himself are wrapped up in them. That to me was his real gift – tomake the political personal (as opposed to the opposite, which many of his contemporaries favoured).
      Anyway…thanks again. Ever so jealous you saw him play by the way!

      Huw

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