Eighth in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Note: From now on this blog will keep pace, month by month, with the events of 50 years ago. This post and the next cover significant events occurring in the latter half of March 1962.
Khrushchev’s New Worry: Was Castro Deserting Moscow for Beijing?
In mid-1961 Fidel had merged the Cuban Communist party with his July 26 Movement under the leadership of Anibal Escalante, the party’s secretary. Escalante was a traditional Communist whom Fursenko and Naftali called “one of the Soviet Union’s best friends in Cuba.” Escalante also openly aspired to replace Castro as Cuba’s leader.
In March 1962, aware of Escalante’s flagrant challenge, Fidel consolidated the other communists under his leadership and purged Escalante from the Cuban government. Escalante fled to Moscow, leaving Castro and his followers in total control.
In Moscow, Escalante delivered a bombshell: he reported that Castro had purged him because of a “Chinese influence rising among members of Cuba’s revolutionary elite.…He explained, perhaps in an effort to secure himself a haven in Moscow, that he repeatedly [had] had to defend Moscow’s positions in discussions with some of Castro’s advisors.”
The Kremlin took Escalante seriously. If Castro was moving Cuba toward some kind of alliance with Khrushchev’s rival Mao, the Soviet Union stood a very good chance of losing its toehold in the Western Hemisphere. The consequences for Khrushchev could be fatal. How could he keep that from happening?
A New Soviet Ambassador in Washington
On 15 March 1962, Anatoly Dobrynin arrived in Washington as the newly appointed Soviet ambassador to the United States. Khrushchev had recalled Dobrynin’s predecessor, the surly Mikhail Menshikov (“Smilin’ Mike” to the Washington press corps).
Every inch a committed Communist, Dobrynin was also urbane and genial—everything, in short, that Menshikoff was not. Dobrynin could also be unmovable when he had to be.
The Intelligence Community Predicts Moscow’s Intentions
On 21 March 1962 the U.S. Intelligence Board issued a unanimous estimate containing the following major conclusions:
- “We believe it unlikely that the [Soviet] Bloc will provide Cuba with strategic weapon systems or with air and naval capabilities suitable for major independent military operations overseas.”
- “If the overthrow of the [Castro] regime should be seriously threatened by either external or internal forces, the USSR would almost certainly not intervene directly with its own forces.…the USSR would almost certainly never intend to hazard its own safety for the sake of Cuba.”
Predicting the future is perilous work. Would events validate these hopeful forecasts?
In this very brief account of Anibal Escalante’s influence on events in 1962, I quote from Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble.” Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, 163-165, 169.
Ambassador Dobrynin’s arrival in the United States, with his wife Irina, was reported in a brief, unsigned New York Times article dated 15 March 1962, p. 5. His general character has been widely reported and discussed. For his own take on his long tenure in Washington, see (with a healthy sprinkling of salt grains) his In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents (1962-1986). New York: Times Books (Random House), 1995. Dobrynin died in 2010. He was 90.
The U.S. Intelligence Board estimate quoted above is NIE 85-61 dated 21 March 1962, #315 in Foreign Relations of the United States, Vol. X, Cuba. Go to http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusX/301_315.html and scroll down to No. 315. There is much more in this FRUS number to reward the inquiring mind.