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Military History - January 2011 - Letters From Readers

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: November 03, 2010 
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Who Blinked First in Cuba?
[Re: "The End Was Near," by Michael Dobbs, November:] Who really blinked?

We remember the Cuban Missile Crisis as a time when the United States and the Soviet Union stood toe to toe on the threshold of nuclear war because the Soviets placed offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. It is commonly accepted that John Kennedy stood firm and made Nikita Khrushchev remove the missiles, thus winning the crisis. While the missiles were removed, it was not the United States that won.

A year before the crisis, we had placed offensive nuclear missiles in Turkey that could reach Moscow in less than 20 minutes. The Soviets were not happy about this and wanted them removed. We stood firm. Their response was to place missiles of their own in Cuba. We were not happy about this and wanted them removed. They stood firm. A deal was struck. We publicly agreed to never invade Cuba, and we secretly agreed to remove our missiles from Turkey.

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So who won? The beginning situation was no missiles in Turkey, no missiles in Cuba. Our opening move was to place missiles in Turkey. The Soviets countered with missiles in Cuba. We agreed to never invade Cuba, thus strengthening Castro, and we removed our missiles from Turkey. The Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba. Advantage U.S.S.R.

At the end of the day, the Soviets got just what they wanted by using Cuba as a pawn in the nuclear chess game. Kennedy and Khrushchev stood toe to toe, and Kennedy was outmaneuvered, and he gave in when faced with Soviet bluster, yet the official spin was that "Khrushchev blinked."

Jim Horton
Tampa, Fla.

Not Trajan's Column
I was reading the September 2010 issue of Military History with great interest, as usual. As a current resident of Rome, I thoroughly enjoyed the article about Trajan's Column [by Richard A. Gabriel] but noticed that the photo on P. 64 is incorrect. The photograph actually shows the Column of Marcus Aurelius, built sometime between 176 and 193 (several decades after Trajan's Column) to honor the military achievements of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. This column was built in imitation of Trajan's Column. The two columns are very similar and are often confused.

Mikito Muroya
Rome, Italy

Editor replies: The Column of Marcus Aurelius also fooled our photo supplier, which mislabeled it as "Trajan's Column." Thanks for your street-level correction.

Cuba Libre
[Re. Interview with Evan Thomas, September:] As someone very knowledgeable in Cuban history, I can tell you that Evan Thomas' interview was OK until the end. What he talked about in the last paragraph is typical Fidel Castro "talking points." I heard that diatribe (Everything that went wrong was America's fault) from Castro himself when I was a 12-year-old in Havana, and it hasn't changed. In reality, whatever feeling some Americans may have had at that time, the American intervention of war [in 1898] did help Cuba become free.

Carlos E. Menendez
San Antonio, Texas

Malaya Mystery
Thanks for the feature article ["Right Man, Right Time," by Mark Moyar] on Malaya and General Sir Gerald Templer in the September 2010 issue. I knew very little about this part of British history, but after reading the article, I still know very little. I now know about the British success, but I find that, like most histories of insurgency, little is known about the other side. There was only one sentence in the article explaining the cause of the insurgency: "…when the nation's communist party, frustrated in its efforts to win political power by legal means, began attacking government officials and assassinating plantation managers."

This sentence could have been written about almost any insurgency. Cuba, in particular, comes to mind. But I wonder, What did the insurgents really want? There are clues in the article, but having no real knowledge of Malayan culture or history, I don't know if they are important. One clue that seemed to be dropped almost randomly and accepted without explanation is the existence of a Chinese ethnic population. How did they get there? Why were they there? Could it be the British brought them in to work the mines? Could they have been taking jobs away from the Malayans? Could this be why they turned to insurgency?

It seems we just accept without question that people hate us (or the British) and will fight just for that reason. I tend to believe there are much more basic ideas of survival at work, mainly the need to control one's own destiny and pursuit of happiness.

Scott Martin
Mechanicsville, Va.

Weather Report
Your "Letter from Military History" in the September 2010 issue regarding the enormous impact of weather upon the history of warfare was an interesting snapshot of an underappreciated topic. I have two comments. The first relates to what you didn't say. Though your list of examples was good in terms of extreme conditions, they were mostly events where the weather did not alter the outcome. I was half expecting to see listed an incident that I first learned about from the pages of your magazine—the 1529 Ottoman siege of Vienna. Because of a particularly wet winter, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent could not move his heavy siege guns over the muddy roads. Without them, the siege failed. It is one of the great "what if" stories, because there was no European relief force on the horizon to save Austria.

And second, I must take issue with something that you did say. The forces of Napoléon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler were not defeated by "Russia's howling winters." They were defeated by Russians. Great distances, bad roads and hellish winters have always been powerful allies to Russia, but it was the sacrifices of ordinary Russian foot soldiers and civilians that saved their country in both cases. If in 1812 the people of the czar had not been willing to scorch their own earth and burn their spiritual capital, the Grande Armée probably would have succeeded. And if the Red Army's performance had been equal to that of, say, Benito Mussolini's forces, the Russian winter would have fallen to the level of an inconvenience to the Wehrmacht.

Doug Griswold
San Jose, Calif.

Boer Lessons
I have thought quite a bit about the title on the May 2010 cover, How to Crush an Insurgency, and especially your subtitle, What We Can Learn from the Boer Wars.

Well, let's see: The British destroyed any sustainable enemy asset, burning crops and farmhouses, slaughtering livestock and poisoning wells. Their concentration camps resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, mostly of women and children noncombatants.

Atrocities, to be sure. Sad and difficult to comprehend.

But conversely, if the United States takes a few naughty photos of captured terrorists or makes them uncomfortable during interrogation or inhibits their ability to carry on religious activities, there is an outcry that embarrasses our military, reduces its momentum, divides our citizens, exhilarates much of our media and ultimately makes the U.S. look like the bad guys.

It seems to me the lesson is America should stay out of war, because we don't have what it takes to win one.

The British knew (and did) what it took to win. I don't condone it. But war is hell, not heck. Success is almost always all or nothing, with little room for shades of gray.

Rik Fontana
West Jordan, Utah

2 Responses to “Military History - January 2011 - Letters From Readers”

  1. 1
    R. Warren Smith says:

    Who blinked first in Cuba – Jim Horton's letter. The Cuban disaster started with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, wherein the newly inaugerated President Kennedy denied the CIA operation the naval air support already in place by outgoing President Eisenhower assuring the incognito Russian forces a victory in repulsing the invasion….

  2. 2
    WongHoongHooi says:

    To give a brief answer to Scott Martin's letter on the Malayan Insurgency:

    1. "Malaya" (now Malaysia) had 3 major ethnic groups – the Malays who were the in-situ population and the Chinese and Indians who came as labourers or traders.

    2. The Japanese invasion of Malaya that preceded the Malayan Insurgency took place in the context of growing Asian consciousness that was inseparably anti Western colonialism. Japanese attempts to co-opt this consciousness found resonance amongst Malayan Indians because of the anti-colonial struggle at home in India. However, Japan's brutal war in China ensured Malayan Chinese hostility.

    3. The largely ethnic Chinese insurgency had its beginnings as a British supported anti-Japanese insurgency.- formally called the MPAJA. They were the most effective insurgent group.The politics of these allies of convenience could not be more different and even before the Japanese surrendered, it is said that the British sought to throttle their step child by luring its leadership into a fatal Japanese ambush.

    4. The insurgents were largely communists because, across Afro-Asia-Latin America, it was communism that both framed and gave expression to the desire to find a new identity and gain freedom from the colonial yoke. It's a great pity the US never drew on its own anti colonial history to try to understand that and instead launched into its anti-communist hysterics (not perhaps unlike its blanket reaction to "Islamic" militancy).

    5. The communist Malayan insurgency as a military movement failed eventually because the British found ways to isolate a mostly ethnic minority insurgency and to stifle its logistical support base. However, it is undeniable that it was the politics of the left that gave impetus to the yearning for self-determination and new identity growing not just in Malaya within all its Asian ethnic groups but also all across Asia.

    6. The politics of the Malayan insurgency therefore played an important role in shaping the collective political consciousness during the evolution of Malaya in a way that the collaborating English-speaking pro-Western intelligentsia.never could have.

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