Soviet troops in Cuba

1 October 1979

Soviet troops in Cuba

By Gwynne Dyer

(LONDON) Naughty Mr Brezhnev has put 3,000 Soviet combat troops in Cuba. Slap wristies.

It would now appear that Presidert Carter has decided not to have a full-scale international crisis, over the Soviet troops in Cuba after all, despite the views of senators Church, Stone & Co. that it is electorally indispensable to the Democratic Party. Of course Carter may not have a choice in the matter as the Russians may find the whole shambles so useful that they decide to keep the issue alive themselves.

But the episode, petty though it is, has already lent powerful support to the contention that, if World War Three ever happens, it will probably occur either during a succession crisis in the Soviet leadership, or more likely during the equivalent phenomenon in the United States (which goes by the name of presidential election campaign).

Soviet succession crises happen only about once every fifteen years, and last for a few months, whereas the United States regularly becomes highly unpredictable and intermittently belligerent in its foreign policy, which is almost totally subordinated to the domestic political campaign, for at least 18 months out of every 48. So the terminal crisis, if it ever comes, is far likelier to arise out of some ill-judged maneuver inspired by trivial domestic political calculations in the U.S.

Like this one. There probably really are 3,000 Soviet combat troops in Cuba, though the distinction between ‘combat troops’ and training units is a fine one. They may even be there in contravention of the U.S. understanding of Soviet-American agreements. But they threaten nobody.

Whom, after all, are they going to combat except some invader of Cuba? Are all 3,000 of them going to cross the famous ‘90 miles of water’ to Florida and seize Miami Beach? Are they going to be sent somewhere in Latin America, in a total reversal of all Soviet doctrine and practice? Even if that were so, why would they be kept in Cuba, rather than at home, in the meantime?

Besides, now is hardly the time for Washington to pick a quarrel with Moscow over these troops, since the U.S. is now entering one of it’s long periods of electoral free-fall. But that is precisely why the subject is being raised now of course.

There are a number of Democratic congressional seats at risk in the 1980 election, like those of Senator Richard Stone in Florida and Senator Frank Church in Idaho, where leaping up and down in plastic nationalist fury and beating one’s hairy chest about national defense is worth thousands of votes. So Stone and Church have been doing their level best to push President Carter into making this a full-blown crisis, with the usual assistance of the sensation hungry media.

Carter, along with the killer rabbit incident to live down, must have been sorely tempted to go along with it. After all, when the opinion polls are saying that only 3% of the populations can remember your name, and that over half of those believe you to be a wanted criminal or a late- night talk-show host, a nice little international crisis could be just the image-restoring tonic you need.

But President Carter, to his credit, seems unwilling to play that game – which demonstrates exactly why he is a relatively good president and a relatively bad politician. He has, of course, gone through the minimum number of obligatory gestures, like appearing on television in sombre mood to appeal for ‘firmness and strength’ from all of us, and our nation as a whole.’ But obviously he doesn’t really believe it is a crisis.

Carter also percieves the risk of causing a Soviet counter-campaign to get the U.S. troops out of Guantanomo Bay.- and those are unquestionably combat troops, who are in Cuba very much against the will of the Cuban government. Castro is already determined to bring this up, with strong Soviet backing at the United Nations General Assembly meeting next month(October). It is an argument the U.S. is bound to lose before world public opinion.

In the face of these attempts to whip up a synthetic crisis for electoral purposes – part of a long tradition stretching back to Jack Kennedy’s infamous ‘missile gap’ and beyond – the natural response is a weary cynicism about the invincible triviality of the U.S.

political process. Everything that can make or mar a political image – rabbits, marathon races and rumors of nuclear war – is equally and indiscriminately grist for the rival political propaganda machines that dominate the electoral process.

But the world is real, not merely a reservoir of raw material for opinion polls, news reports and votes. It contains real nuclear weapons, and real people who would be killed by them. The appropriate response to American (or any other) politicians who play grubby political games with serious international military/political issues is not cynicism. It is outrage and disgust.

So what now becomes of the SALT treaty, whose ratification by the Senate has now been linked to the ‘issue’ of Soviet troops in Cuba by various bold defenders of the right? Well, it will probably drag on into early 1980, getting caught up more and more in the election campaign, and may well not gain ratification at all. Which would be unfortunate for arms control and world peace, but good for some senators’re-election chances.

As for Carter’s own already dim re-election prospects, failure to get ratification of the SALT treaty, or even long delay, will depress his prospects even further. We must all compose ourselves bravely to face the possibility of President Ted Kennedy. This kind of outcome is probably not what moral philosophers mean by the term ‘virtue rewarded’.


Appreciation to Ronald Knowling, Assistant Manager – Central Division Provincial Information and Library Resources Board Gander, NL for the submission of this archived article by Gwynne Dyer.