Fifty years ago today the entire world breathed a tremendous sigh of relief after having come out of what was and still is the closest scrape with nuclear holocaust since the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of world War II, and one which would surely have had even graver consequences globally than the tragedies at Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
On Oct 28, 1962 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced over Radio Moscow that he had agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba, the result of a deal between Mr Krushchev and US president John F Kennedy which involved the US removing its missiles from Turkey. This ended a stand-off that began on Oct 9 after a US reconnaissance flight over Cuba detected Soviet missile sites.
Another reconnaissance flight on Oct 17 discovered intermediate range nuclear missiles in place and Kennedy ordered a naval blockade around the island. Over the next few days, in a game of cat and mouse US bombers and Soviet submarines loaded with nuclear weapons came dangerously close to unleashing their terrible power, which would almost surely have launched a tit-for-tat escalation into full-blown nuclear war. History rightly credits the levelheadedness of Kennedy and Krushchev in heading off the crisis while surrounded by hardliners on both sides who thought that nuclear war was probably inevitable and somehow justified.
But it's worthwhile to look at the roles of both Kennedy and Krushchev and those same hardliners in bringing the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. To make a long story short, the Soviets tried to take advantage of a popular revolution in Cuba led by Fidel Castro on Jan 1, 1959, to antagonise their Cold War foe, knowing the US would would retaliate, which it did through the Bay of Pigs fiasco and later Operation Mongoose, both counterrevolutionary efforts that foolishly counted on non-existent popular support within Cuba to depose Mr Castro. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union recklessly pushed ahead with military assistance to the communist foothold in the shadow of the US state of Florida.
The ultimate catastrophe was averted in Cuba, but both sides went on to play the deadly game of interference in the internal affairs of other nations to advance their own perceived interests, with terrible costs all around.
Against Kennedy's first instincts to build an ''Alliance for Progress'' in South America, which he described in his January 1961 inaugural address as ''a vast cooperative effort, unparalleled in magnitude and nobility of purpose, to satisfy the basic needs of the American [hemisphere] people for homes, work and land, health and schools ...'', he ended up backing the counterinsurgency schemes of hardliners to contain the spread of communism, and a similar course was adopted in South Vietnam. There is evidence that Kennedy was planning to begin the removal of US troops from South Vietnam at the time of his assassination, but in any case, under his successor, Lyndon Johnson, the war was escalated dramatically, and covert, anti-democratic efforts were also magnified across South America by Johnson and his successors.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was aggressively, ruthlessly and often brutally pushing its own agenda at the expense of other nations, as when it invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to snuff out the reformist spirit there and its suppression of freedom in the Baltic states. Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets, whose bitter lessons are now being learned by the Americans.
What good did all the meddling do?
Today the US is viewed with suspicion and sometimes animosity throughout almost the whole of Latin America, as is the case with Russia in the old Soviet bloc countries. Cuba is still communist, as is Vietnam, although the Soviet Union no longer exists.
As the international community looks for solutions to the upheaval in the Middle East in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and who knows where next, it would be well to look at what history shows is the futility of trying to impose ideologies on sovereign nations. That doesn't mean the international community should stand aside in times of crisis in the Middle East or anywhere else, but any actions taken should be weighed against the lessons and mistakes of the past. It should also be remembered that today, just as 50 years ago during the Cuban missile crisis, any conflict between nuclear-powered states has the same terrible potential for global catastrophe.