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Historian Peter Kuznick says Eisenhower called for decreased militarization, then Dulles reversed the policy; the Soviets tried to end the cold war after the death of Stalin; crazy schemes involving nuclear weapons and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba put the world of the eve of destruction – with host Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Paul Jay. We’re continuing our series of discussions on the Undoing of the New deal, and we’re joined again by Professor Peter Kuznick, who joins us from Washington. Peter is a Professor of History, and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. Thanks for joining us again Peter.
PETER KUZNICK: My pleasure, Paul.
PAUL JAY: So, before we move on to Kennedy, and then we’re going to get to Johnson, you wanted to make a comment about Eisenhower, who made a couple of great sounding speeches about reducing military expenditure but I’m not sure how much that actually ever got implemented. But talk about this speech in, I guess, it’s 1953, is it?
PETER KUZNICK: Yes. The world had a great opportunity in March of 1953 to reverse course rather than this insane military spending that was beginning. On March 5th, 1953, Stalin died. The Soviet leaders reached out to the United States. They offered the Americans an olive branch. They talked about changing the direction of our relations. They talked about, basically, ending the Cold War. We could’ve ended the Cold War as early as March 5, 1953, taken a different route.
Eisenhower and the others in his administration debate what to do, how to respond. Churchill, who was now re-elected and back in office in England, begged the United States to hold a summit with the Soviet leaders and move toward peace, rather than belligerence and hostility. Eisenhower doesn’t say anything publicly in response for six weeks. Then he makes a speech. It’s a visionary speech. It’s the kind of vision that Eisenhower represented at his best, and he says there:
PRESIDENT EISENHOWER: Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
PETER KUZNICK: “This is not a way of life at all. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” What a great speech and the Soviets were thrilled. They republished this. They reprinted it. They broadcast it over and over, and then two days later, John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State, makes a speech reversing the whole thing. Instead of an olive branch, he gives the Soviets a middle finger and he accuses the Soviet Union of trying to overthrow every Democratic government in the world. The exact wrong message.
And so, it’s sort of like Trump, where Tillerson says something sane and then Trump will undermine it two days later when it comes to North Korea. The same thing happened in 1953 with Eisenhower and Dulles. We’re really much more on the same page, but if you look at the third world response, you’ve got the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955, and the third world leaders are all saying, “We have to be independent. We have to be neutral.” They say, “It is insane to spend all these dollars and all these rubles on the military when we need money for development.”
PAUL JAY: So, what went on with Eisenhower, making that kind of speech? He’s not known for any big increase in social spending domestically. He helps build, as you said, the military industrial complex, especially the nuclear side of it. So, what was that speech about, and then how does he allow Dulles to contradict him two days later?
PETER KUZNICK: That’s one of the mysteries. That’s why… writing books on the debate, what was going on in that administration. Did Eisenhower speak for it or did Dulles speak for it? Was Eisenhower the militarist or was Dulles the militarist? In many ways, the ’50s was a very, very dangerous time. And there were so many harebrained schemes that were going on.
We talked a little bit about Sputnik but one of the proposals after that was to blast a hydrogen bomb on the surface of the moon to show the world that we really are the strongest. And they talked about putting missile bases on the moon, and then the idea was to have the Soviets respond by putting their own missile bases on the moon. We could put ours on distant planets, so that we could then hit the Soviet bases on the moon. The great independent journalist I.F. Stone mentioned that the word for lunar, for moon, in Latin is Luna. And he said, we should have a new department in the cabinet and call it the Department of Lunacy because of the crazy ideas that were being promulgated at the time.
This comes across, really, with the nuclear policies. So, when McGeorge Bundy asks Dan Ellsberg in 1961 to find out from the Joint Chiefs what would be, how many people would die as a result of America’s nuclear launch in the event of a war with the Soviet Union, the Pentagon comes back with the idea that between 600 and 650 million people would die from America’s weapons alone in our first PSYOP. And that doesn’t even account for nuclear winter, which would have killed us all, or the numbers who would be killed by the Soviet weapons. That includes at least 100 million of our own allies in Western Europe.
We are talking about a period the lunacy and insanity was captured best by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove in 1964. That policy was so close to what was actually occurring at the time. Did Eisenhower speak for this? When Eisenhower wanted to, one of his visions was for planetary excavation using hydrogen bombs. People should study the lunacy of Project Plowshare.
PAUL JAY: They used to have tourism to go look at nuclear tests outside of Las Vegas and people would sit just a few miles away with sunglasses on.
PETER KUZNICK: And we sent American soldiers into the blast area, knowing that they were going to be irradiated. Yeah, the irrationality in these times. People are going to look back at the Trump administration and if we’re here later, maybe they’ll laugh at us. If we survive this period, they’ll laugh. They’ll look back and say, “Look at the craziness of this period.”
Well, if you look at the history of the ’50s and early ’60s, you see a lot of that same kind of craziness in terms of the policies that were actually implemented at the time, and the ones, for example, one of the ideas was to melt the polar ice caps using hydrogen bombs. We wanted to increase polar melting. We wanted to increase the temperature on the planet by exploding nuclear bombs.
PAUL JAY: And this was to do, to what end?
PETER KUZNICK: For what end? I’m not sure. I mean, one-
PAUL JAY: Well, they may get their way, the way things are heading right now. They may get that.
PETER KUZNICK: And one of the things from Trump’s National Security speech was to not talk about, or to say that global warming is not a National Security concern as Obama and others had believed it was. But they wanted to actually redirect hurricanes by setting off hydrogen bombs in the atmosphere in the path of the hurricane, so they could redirect hurricanes. They wanted to build new harbors by setting off hydrogen bombs. They wanted to have a new canal across the, instead of the Panama canal, with hydrogen bombs and reroute rivers in the United States.
I mean, crazy, crazy ideas that was considered American policy. And actually, it was the Soviets who saved us because Eisenhower wanted to begin to do these programs, but the Soviets would not allow, would not give the United States the right to do that because there was a temporary test ban in the late 1950s. And Eisenhower would have had to abrogate that in order to begin these projects.
PAUL JAY: Okay. Let’s catch up. So, we had just, the last part dealt with some of Kennedy. We get into the 1960s. Kennedy is as preoccupied with the Cold War, the beginning of the Vietnam War, Cuba, the Missile Crisis. And we had left off right at the moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Give us a really quick recap because I think on this issue of militarization and former policy, we kind of have to do a whole nother series that focuses more on that. We’re trying to get more into this issue of the New Deal and what happened to domestic social reforms in the context of this massive military expenditure. But talk a bit about that moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
PETER KUZNICK: Well, the Cuban Missile Crisis is very important because now we’re going through the Korean Missile Crisis, and if Trump has his way, we’ll also go through the Iranian Missile Crisis. And the last time we were this close to nuclear war was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What happens there is that Khrushchev, in order to try to accomplish two things, or three things, really.
One is to, he knows the United States is planning an invasion of Cuba. The United States had been carrying out war games, massive war games, 40,000 people participating in these war games. Like now, we’re carrying out war games off the Korean coast. And the war game that was planned for October of ’62 was called Operation Ortsac. Anybody who doesn’t get it? Certainly the Soviets did. Ortsac is Castro spelled backwards.
And so, we were planning, we had the plans in place to overthrow the Cuban government, number one. Number two, Khrushchev wanted a credible deterrent. The Americans learned, Kennedy says, “Let’s find out what the reality of the Missile Gap is.” And he has McNamara do the study. We find out that there is a Missile Gap. By October of ’61, we find out that there is a Missile Gap, and it’s in our favor. The United States is ahead between 10 to 1 and 100 to 1 over the Soviet Union in every important category.
Still, the pressure was to increase America’s missiles and so, the Strategic Air Command in the Air Force wanted to increase our missiles by 3,000. McNamara figures that the least number he can get away with is to increase our intercontinental ballistic missiles by 1,000 even though we’re ahead 10 to 1 already at that point. The Kremlin interpreted that, and said, “Why is the US increasing its missiles when it’s so far ahead of us?” They said, “Obviously, the United States is preparing for a first strike against the Soviet Union.” That was the Kremlin interpretation. It needed a credible deterrent.
They knew that, initially they thought, “Well, the fact that we can take out Berlin will be a credible enough deterrent. The Americans will never attack.” Then they realized that that wouldn’t be a sufficient deterrent to some of the hawks in the American military, the Curtis LeMays, who had a lot of influence at the time. Or before that, the Lemnitzers. And so, they decide, “Well, we’ve got to put missiles in Cuba, which is a more credible deterrent.”
And the third is that Khrushchev wanted to appease his hawks. Khrushchev’s strategy was to build up Soviet consumer economy. He said, “The Soviet people want washing machines. They want cars. They want houses. That’s what we need.” And so, he wanted to decrease defense spending and one of the cheap ways to do that was to put the missiles in Cuba. So, they do that foolishly. It’s a crazy policy because they don’t announce it. It’s very much like the movie Strangelove, where Khrushchev was planning to announce that the missiles were in Cuba on the anniversary of the Soviet Revolution. That was coming up in a couple-
PAUL JAY: You mean Dr. Strangelove, meaning what’s the point of a doomsday machine if you don’t tell people you’ve got it?
PETER KUZNICK: As Strangelove says, “Well what’s the point of the doomsday machine if you don’t announce that you have it?” And then, the Americans didn’t, the Soviets didn’t announce that they had the, if they had announced that the missiles were there, then the United States could not have invaded Cuba the way the military wanted. They could not have bombed Cuba. It would’ve been an effective deterrent, especially if they announced that also, that the missiles were there, that the warheads were there and that they also had put 100 battlefield nuclear weapons inside Cuba.
That would have meant that there was no possibility of the United States invading and that the deterrent would’ve actually worked. But they didn’t announce it. And so, the United States plans for an invasion and we got very close to doing so. But again, the intelligence was abysmal. We knew where 33 of the 42 missiles were. We didn’t find the other missiles. We didn’t know that the battlefield nuclear weapons were there. We didn’t know that the missiles were ready to be armed.
And so, the United States was operating blind. We thought that there were 10,000 armed Soviets in Cuba. Turns out, there were 42,000 armed Soviets. We thought that there were 100,000 armed Cubans. Turns out, there were 270,000 armed Cubans. Based on the initial intelligence, McNamara said, “If we had invaded, we figured we’d suffer 18,000 casualties, 4,500 dead.” When he later finds out how many troops there actually were there, he says, “Well, that would’ve been 25,000 Americans dead.” When he finds out that there were 100 battlefield nuclear weapons as well, he doesn’t find that out until 30 years later, and then he turns white, and he says, “Well that would’ve meant we would’ve lost 100,000 American Troops.” Twice as many, almost, as we lost in Vietnam.
He said, “We would’ve definitely destroyed Cuba and probably wiped out the Soviet Union as well.” So, that’s how close we came at this time. Which is again, as Robert Gates, another hawk, warns, “The United States should not invade Syria,” he said. “Or should not bomb Syria because haven’t we learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya, that whenever these things happen, you never know what the consequences are going to be. It’s always the unintended consequences that are going to get you.”
Which we learned in Cuba. We learned in Iraq and Afghanistan or we should’ve learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously, Trump hasn’t learned it and we had better learn before we do something crazy now in Korea.
PAUL JAY: All right, thanks, Peter. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Peter Kuznick is Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC. He and Oliver Stone co-authored The Untold History of the United States.