by Martin Halpern
Sixty years ago, the world was on the doorstep of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The resort to nuclear weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis would have led to a nuclear holocaust from which humanity as a species would not have recovered. Though there were over three billion people on the planet, the peaceful resolution of the conflict stemmed from the decisions of just two individuals, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union.
Today there are almost eight billion people on our planet. Yet, decisions about using nuclear weapons that can end life on earth come down, once again, to two people, the leaders of the United States and the Russian Federation.
What did the rest of us think? I was a high school senior at the time. Just before the conflict began, my high school paper, The Sider Press, published one of my “Our World Today” columns calling for the U.S. and the Soviet to reach a compromise in the negotiations on a test ban treaty then underway. Mine was a lonely voice. Before my column appeared, the missile crisis had begun. The paper published a refutation of my argument on the same page and in the same issue with the contrary piece appearing above mine and in a bigger headline.
On the day the world learned of the conflict, students tuned into radios in my school cafeteria at lunchtime declared that the violence had already begun. I was too frightened to wonder why we weren’t taking cover as we’d been trained to do. I don’t recall what happened in my classes that afternoon, but I vividly remember my trepidation as I headed to an after-school meeting of Arista, an honor society to which I belonged. I was dismayed when I noticed the absence of the one friend who I knew shared my views, a friend who I would three years later room with when we traveled south to serve as volunteers with the West Tennessee Voters Project. My recollection is that I was alone in favoring diplomacy.
With some sectors of the left and the peace movement today embracing the establishment line on the Ukraine War, those of us who favor diplomacy in that conflict to avert a nuclear war are in an uphill battle. I recently attended a meeting of like-minded pro-diplomacy people who came together to hear Medea Benjamin give Code Pink’s analysis of the Ukraine War. It was a small meeting at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The audience included a group of experienced activists. Each individual present made thoughtful comments. What stuck with me most, however, was one individual’s comment about how lonely she felt. It brought me back to my experience in 1962.
Today there are almost eight billion people on our planet. Yet, decisions about using nuclear weapons that can end life on earth come down, once again, to two people, the leaders of the United States and the Russian Federation. Because of the prolonged nature of the Ukraine War, the voices calling for a diplomatic solution have become more numerous. Members of Massachusetts Peace Action, the group sponsoring Medea Benjamin’s talk, have been demonstrating at the offices of members of Congress in hopes of persuading them to push for diplomacy. Several members met with my Congressman, Jim McGovern at his Northampton office.
During the height of the cold war when the missile crisis occurred, government, church, business, labor, and civic leaders communicated a single anti-Soviet message to the public. Developing and having the courage to express an alternative viewpoint was difficult.
As he left office, President Dwight Eisenhower had warned about the danger to democracy posed by the military-industrial complex. The success of the Cuban revolution led a group of businesspeople deprived of their property determined to persuade the U.S. government to intervene and overthrow the Cuban government. The failure of the Bay of Pigs intervention led to the Cuban missile crisis. Today, the military-industrial complex is many times richer and more powerful than it was in 1962. Military contractors are earning immense profits from the Ukraine War. And the oil and gas corporations are likewise reaping billions from the embargo of and attacks on Russian energy suppliers.
In World War II, the U.S. imposed an excess profits tax on corporations and the tax rate on the highest income earners toward the end of the conflict was 94 percent. No such actions have been taken today.
It will take courage for President Joe Biden to follow President John Kennedy’s example of prioritizing our common humanity in a crisis that puts the world on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe. The more of us, ordinary citizens and representative alike, who depart from the dominant “we must defeat Russia” narrative to advocate diplomacy, the more likely the president will be to act.
If we survive this conflict, we must return to the goal agreed upon by most of the world’s nations in the United Nations that we must eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. The fate of the world’s peoples must in future be in our own hands, not just in the hands of two presidents. Now, though, let those with the power to do so give us a welcome “October Surprise,” the beginning of negotiations to end this war and the accompanying threat of a nuclear conflagration
October 26, 2022
Martin Halpern is Professor of History Emeritus, Henderson State University and the author UAW Politics in the Cold War Era and Unions, Radicals and Democratic Presidents: Seeking Social Change in the Twentieth Century. He lives in Montague, MA.