THIRTEEN DAYS IN OCTOBER

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- So now we are already into October, the month when the presidential campaigns go wild or drop from exhaustion. It is the historical month of political surprises. We forget sometimes that it is also one of the most beautiful months in America, or that this year it is a month that tells us rather more than we want to know about nuclear showmanship.

Nuclear? As in bombs? As in what-we-fear-about-Iran? Exactly! Because -- see, we've already nearly forgotten -- this October we are marking the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, the singular moment in modern history when the world came closest to all-out nuclear conflagration.

No doubt there will be analyses and remembrances all month, but one question still outstanding can now also be ascertained: What part did Fidel Castro play in threatening nuclear war against the United States after Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev had his ships openly carry missiles to be installed in Cuba?

In the recent, interesting book "Castro's Secrets: The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence Machine," veteran CIA Cuba-watcher Brian Latell writes of Fidel's "Armageddon letter" to Khrushchev, which clarifies a number of things.

"Incredibly," writes Latell, once the missiles were installed and Castro feared a U.S. retaliatory invasion, "he advocated a massive pre-emptive nuclear attack on the United States, a nuclear holocaust, if Cuba were invaded." And, "It was not just the missiles on the island that Fidel thought should be launched but also the strategic arsenal based on Soviet soil."

"There is nothing like the Armageddon letter in the entire history of the nuclear age since Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he goes on, noting that the letter has been confirmed by Khrushchev's son, Sergei, who defected to America, and even by Khrushchev himself in secret tape recordings of his life story made at his dacha before he died.

Much more is confirmed by the congeries of sources available now that were nonexistent then. During those days of breathless conflict, at one point an American U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba. Castro has been quoted by highly respected sources as saying that he personally grabbed the Russian guns and shot down the American plane himself, quite literally pushing the Soviets, who were ostensibly in control, aside. Indeed, the Russians were strategically elbowed to such an extent that, Latell writes:

"Command and control were breaking down within the Soviet expeditionary forces in Cuba; Khrushchev's commanders were taking orders from Fidel. The combination of that concern, the Armageddon letter, the destruction of the U-2, and the Cuban antiaircraft barrages against American aircraft were too much for the Soviet leader."

Carlos Franqui, arguably the greatest journalist of the Cuban Revolution, wrote that Castro had deliberately shot down the U-2 in order to bring the world to the edge of destruction, because he felt he had been removed from the power centers of a world crisis he himself had created.

But Khrushchev, while a wily, crude and often cruel leader from the Bolshevik Ukraine, had himself seen, as he put it, too much of war. He had put missiles in Cuba only to challenge the Americanski over their dominance in Berlin.

Yet now, for the first time, he was looking at that youngster in Cuba -- the companero he had groomed only as a political cadre for Soviet inroads in America -- as a dangerous and uncontrollable would-be leading actor. Fidel actually frightened Nikita, as he frightened anyone with any sense.

The father of one of Cuba's highest ranking defectors, Florentino Aspillaga, now in the U.S. since the 1980s, was part of Castro's inner circle and was with Castro as much of this drama was acted out. The father emphasized that during it all, Fidel was not out of control, not mad, not having any of those "bursts of magical realism" so common to Latin intellectuals. No, he was calm, cold and rational, although he also had an apocalyptic side.

When I wrote my biography of Castro, "Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro," I found that Secretary of State Dean Rusk had called the missile crisis "the most dangerous crisis the world has ever seen"; Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen dubbed it "the Gettysburg of the Cold War." But in its peaceful ending, with the missiles removed in exchange for a promise by Kennedy not to invade Cuba again, it became, to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., "the finest hour of the Kennedy presidency."

But when Khrushchev began to remove the missiles -- after all, he was only playing strategy, as any fool should know! -- Castro went into fits. He called Khrushchev every scatological curse word he could think of. Before it was over, he violently kicked a huge mirror that hung on the wall and glass rained down on everyone -- but not nuclear bombs.

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