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A Letter Which Did Not Reach its Destination (and thereby saved the world)

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek


Kennedy's stroke of genius which was crucial for the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, was to pretend that a key letter did NOT arrive at its destination, to act as if this letter didn't exist - a stratagem which, of course, only worked because the sender (Khrushchev) participated in it. On Friday, October 26 1962, a letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy confirms the offer previously made through intermediaries: the missiles will be removed if the US issues a pledge not to invade Cuba. On Saturday, October 27, before a US answer, another, harsher and more demanding, letter from Khrushchev arrives, adding the removal of missiles from Turkey as a condition, and signalling a possible political coup in the Soviet Union. At 8:05 PM the same day, Kennedy sends a response to Khrushchev, informing him that he is accepting his October 26 proposal, i.e., acting as if the October 27 letter doesn't exist. On Sunday, October 28, Kennedy receives a letter from Khrushchev in which he agrees to the deal... The lesson of this is that in such moments of crisis where the fate of everything hangs in the air, saving the appearances, politeness, the awareness of "playing a game," matters more than ever. One can also claim that what triggered the crisis was a symmetrical fact, a letter which also did not arrive at its addressee, but, this time, because it was not sent. Soviet missiles were stationed in Cuba as the result of the secret mutual security pact between Cuba and USSR; many observers (most notably Ted Sorensen) suggested that the US reaction would have been much less offensive if the mutual security pact had been made public in advance (as Castro had wanted, incidentally!). It was this secrecy on which Soviets insisted that made the US think that the missile emplacement could have no purpose other than to launch an attack upon the US: if the entire process of signing the pact and installing the missiles were to be public and transparent, it would have been perceived as something much less threatening: not as the preparation of a real attack, but as demonstrative posturing which poses no real military threat.

This lesson was not learned by the US military establishment, which interpreted the peaceful resolution of the crisis in a different way. [1] Its opinion is best rendered by Raymond Garthoff, at the time an intelligence analyst in the State Department: "If we have learned anything from this experience, it is that weakness, even only apparent weakness, invites Soviet transgression. At the same time, firmness in the last analysis will force the Soviets to back away from rash initiatives." The crisis is thus perceived as the eyeball to eyeball confrontation of two players, a macho game of "chicken," where the one with more toughness, inflexibility and resolve wins. (This view, of course, does not fit reality: a whole series of details demonstrate Kennedy's flexibility and his to the Soviet need to save face by way of salvaging something positive from the crisis. In order to buy some time and avoid a direct confrontation, he permitted on October 25 a Soviet tanker to proceed through the quarantine; on October 28, he ordered no interview should be given and no statement made which would claim any kind of victory; furthermore, he offered up removal of the US missiles in Turkey, as well as a guarantee that the US will not invade Cuba, in exchange for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba.)

The Soviet perception of the crisis was different: for them, it was not the threat of force that ended the crisis. The Soviet leadership believed the crisis ended because both Soviet and US officials realized they were at the brink and that the crisis was threatening to destroy humankind. They did not fear only for their immediate safety and were not worried merely about losing a battle in Cuba. Their fear was the fear of deciding the fate of millions of others, even of civilization itself. It was THIS fear, experienced by both sides at the peak of the crisis, which enabled them to reach a peaceful solution; and it was this fear which was at the very core of the famous exchange of letters between Khrushchev and Fidel Castro at the climax of the crisis. In a letter to Khrushchev from October 26, Castro wrote that

if the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it. / I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists' aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.


Khrushchev answered Castro on October 30:

In your cable of October 27 you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the territory of the enemy. You, of course, realize where that would have led. Rather than a simple strike, it would have been the start of a thermonuclear world war. / Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I consider this proposal of yours incorrect, although I understand your motivation. / We have lived through the most serious moment when a nuclear world war could have broken out. Obviously, in that case, the United States would have sustained huge losses, but the Soviet Union and the whole socialist camp would have also suffered greatly. As far as Cuba is concerned, it would be difficult to say even in general terms what this would have meant for them. In the first place, Cuba would have been burned in the fire of war. There's no doubt that the Cuban people would have fought courageously or that they would have died heroically. But we are not struggling against imperialism in order to die, but to take advantage of all our possibilities, to lose less in the struggle and win more to overcome and achieve the victory of communism.


The essence of Khrushchev's argument can be best summoned by Neil Kinnock's anti-war argument, when he was the Labour candidate in the UK elections: "I am ready to die for my country, but I am not ready to let my country die for me." It is significant to note that, in spite of the "totalitarian" character of the Soviet regime, THIS fear was much more predominant in the Soviet leadership than in the US leadership - so, perhaps, the time has come to rehabilitate Khrushchev, not Kennedy, as the real hero of the Cuban missile crisis. - Castro answered Khrushchev on October 31:

I realized when I wrote them that the words contained in my letter could be misinterpreted by you and that was what happened, perhaps because you didn't read them carefully, perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because I meant to say so much in too few lines. However, I didn't hesitate to do it. Do you believe, Comrade Khrushchev, that we were selfishly thinking of ourselves, of our generous people willing to sacrifice themselves, and not at all in an unconscious manner but fully assured of the risk they ran? No, Comrade Khrushchev. Few times in history, and it could even be said that never before, because no people had ever faced such a tremendous danger, was a people so willing to fight and die with such a universal sense of duty. /.../ We knew, and do not presume that we ignored it, that we would have been annihilated, as you insinuate in your letter, in the event of nuclear war. However, that didn't prompt us to ask you to withdraw the missiles, that didn't prompt us to ask you to yield. Do you believe that we wanted that war? But how could we prevent it if the invasion finally took place? /.../ And if war had broken out, what could we do with the insane people who unleashed the war? You yourself have said that under current conditions such a war would inevitably have escalated quickly into a nuclear war. / I understand that once aggression is unleashed, one shouldn't concede to the aggressor the privilege of deciding, moreover, when to use nuclear weapons. The destructive power of this weaponry is so great and the speed of its delivery so great that the aggressor would have a considerable initial advantage. / And I did not suggest to you, Comrade Khrushchev, that the USSR should be the aggressor, because that would be more than incorrect, it would be immoral and contemptible on my part. But from the instant the imperialists attack Cuba and while there are Soviet armed forces stationed in Cuba to help in our defense in case of an attack from abroad, the imperialists would by this act become aggressors against Cuba and against the USSR, and we would respond with a strike that would annihilate them. /.../ I did not suggest, Comrade Khrushchev, that in the midst of this crisis the Soviet Union should attack, which is what your letter seems to say; rather, that following an imperialist attack, the USSR should act without vacillation and should never make the mistake of allowing circumstances to develop in which the enemy makes the first nuclear strike against the USSR. And in this sense, Comrade Khrushchev, I maintain my point of view, because I understand it to be a true and just evaluation of a specific situation. You may be able to convince me that I am wrong, but you can't tell me that I am wrong without convincing me.


It is obviously Castro himself who (purposefully) misread Khrushchev here: Khrushchev understood very well what Castro wanted the USSR to do - not to attack the US "out of nowhere," but, in the case of the US invasion on Cuba (still an act of conventional war, and a limited one, at that - attacking a recent ally of the USSR, not the USSR itself), to retaliate with total nuclear counter-attack. This is what the warning that the USSR "should never make the mistake of allowing circumstances to develop in which the enemy makes the first nuclear strike against the USSR" can only mean: that the USSR should be the first to deal a decisive nuclear strike - "once aggression is unleashed, one shouldn't concede to the aggressor the privilege of deciding, moreover, when to use nuclear weapons." To put it bluntly, Castro is demanding Khrushchev to choose the end of civilized life on earth over the loss of Cuba... (Castro's premise, according to which "the destructive power of this /nuclear/ weaponry is so great and the speed of its delivery so great that the aggressor would have a considerable initial advantage," is very problematic: it is a safe bet - and the presupposition of the MAD logic - that the surprise nuclear attack of one of the nuclear superpowers will fail to destroy all the opponent's nuclear arms, i.e., that the opponent will have enough arms left to fully strike back.) There is, nonetheless, a way to read Castro's demand as a case of "rational" strategic reasoning - what if it was sustained by a ruthless and cynical calculation with the following scenario in view: the US army will invade Cuba with conventional forces; then, the US and the USSR will destroy each other (and, perhaps, Europe with it) with nuclear arms, making the US occupation of Cuba meaningless, so that Cuba (with most of the Third World) will survive victorious?

The standard characterization of the Stalinist regimes as Èbureaucratic socialismÇ is totally misleading and (self)mystifying: it is the way the Stalinist regime itself perceives its problem, the cause of its failures and troubles - if there are not enough products in the stores, if authorities do not respond to people's demands, etc.etc., what is easier than to blame the ÈbureaucratricÇ attitude of indifference, petty arrogance, etc. No wonder that, from the late 1920s onwards, Stalin was writing attacks on bureaucracy, on bureaucratic attitude. ÈBureaucratismÇ was nothing but an effect of the functioning of Stalinist regimes, and the paradox is that it is the ultimate misnomer: what Stalinist regimes really lacked was precisely an efficient ÈbureacracyÇ (depoliticized and competent administrative apparatus).


It is precisely the paternal references of (some) "totalitarian" leaders (Stalin as the Father of his people...) which testify to the underlying fact that the logic of this leader is thoroughly anti-patriarchal, i.e., that it implies the radical disjunction between Father and Leader:

The liberation of the modern subject from the figure of the Patriarch as Fatherleader (Perechef) /.../ evidently opens up a large space of freedom with the multiplicity of the objects of identification where anything is possible, including leaders who want to be fathers, which is in no way the same as a father who is from the outset leader. It is because, in the modern crowd societies, there is no longer the Fatherleader, that the crowds can put a leader at the place of their Ego Ideal. [2]


What did the trauma of 1935 (the public campaign against his "Lady Macbeth" triggered by the Pravda article "Muddle instead of music") do to Shostakovich? Perhaps the clearest indicator of the break is the change in the function of scherzo in Shostakovich's work in 1940s and early 1950s. Prior to 1935, his scherzi can still be perceived as the explosive expression of new aggressive and grotesque vitality and joy of life - there is something of the liberating force of the carnival in them, of the madness of the creative power that merrily sweeps away all obstacles and ignores or established rules and hierarchies. After 1935, however, his scherzi had clearly "lost their innocence": their explosive energy acquires a brutal-threatening quality, there is something mechanic in their energy, like the forced movements of a marionette. They either render the raw energy of social violence, of pogroms of helpless victims, or, if they are meant as the explosion of the "joy of life," this is clearly intended in a sarcastic way, or as an impotent maniac outburst of the aggressivity of the helpless victim. The "carnival" is here no longer a liberating experience, but the explosion of thwarted and repressed aggressivity - it is the "carnival" of racist pogroms and drunken gang rapes... (The outstanding cases are the Movements 2 and 3 of the 8th Symphony, the famous 2nd Movement of the 10th Symphony ("Portrait of Stalin"), and, among the String Quartets, the 3rd Movement of the Quartet no. 3 (which, today, almost sounds like Herrmann's score for Psycho) and the "furioso" Movement of the Quartet no. 10.) [3]

Notes

  1. James g. Blight and Philip Brenner, Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Secret Struggles with the Superpowers after the Cuban Missile Crisis, New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., 2002.
  2. Fethi Benslama, La psychanalyse à l'épreuve de l'Islam, Paris: Aubier 2002, p. 102.
  3. See Bernd Feuchtner, Dimitri Schostakowitsch, 125-126. Kassel, Stuttgart and Weimar: Barenreiter/ Metzler 2002.