Special Topics 1A, Spring 2020 NOTES

"Cold Wars" and Contemporary History

Notes will be posted here after each class

July 13, 2020

After you view Cuba: An African Odyssey, Part 2, you should be able to explain these situations and events:

Cuba’s activities in Africa before the Angola campaign.

Portugal and its dying empire in the 1960s and 1970s.

The independence struggle in Angola.

The unexpected coup in Portugal and the collapse of the Portuguese Empire (Guinea Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, Macau and other territories).

The complex independence struggle in Angola involving support from various countries such as USSR, USA, South Africa and Cuba.

How the MPLA (supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union) gained control of the capital city, Luanda, in 1974, but had to fight a civil war until 1998 before gaining control of the entire country.

How the African Christian and anti-communist forces of UNITA and the FNLA aligned themselves with Americans, and with white-ruled South Africa--the irony of black Africans making themselves allies with the Apartheid government of South Africa.

The war involved a complex intersection of religion, ideology, race and tribal identities that did not fit into the borders created by European powers.

The rebel armies and dissidents of South Africa took refuge in Angola, and this situation gave South Africa its motivation to eliminate the anti-apartheid socialist government in Angola.
South Africa was a pariah on the world stage, suffering economic sanctions and condemnation for its policies of racial segregation.

Cuba came to Angola’s support without asking permission from the USSR because they knew the USSR would have to go along reluctantly. The tail wagged the dog.

Americans misunderstood this situation and saw it as a direct affront led by the USSR, and it seemed to indicate a Soviet willingness to jeopardize the sensitive negotiations on nuclear arms reductions (detente) and de-escalation of other conflicts.

The US Congress was very opposed to foreign interventions after Vietnam, so for a few years in the late 70s South Africa was unable to get American help.

This changed when Reagan came to power in 1981, but still the war was a standoff with no clear winner.

American negotiators finally got all sides to agree to a settlement, with Cuban involvement.
They negotiated a peace in which both sides could view themselves as winners: Castro could say he got South Africa out of Angola, and the South African government could say they ended the war in Southern Africa.

Castro negotiated for the release of Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner at the time, as a condition of settling the conflict. South Africa hesitated. They released Mandela, but the claimed Cuban pressure was not the reason.

An important factor in the background was the imminent end of the Cold War and the declining ability of the USSR to support foreign struggles. Mikhail Gorbachev had signaled that this era of support for "internationalism" was over.

The Cubans must have been aware of the need to negotiate an end to the war soon. What if South Africa had held out a bit longer until the USSR collapsed and Cuba could no longer help?
Further consideration: What happened next? What is life like now in South Africa, Angola and Namibia? Did the revolutions succeed?

In fact, Angola continued to be an unstable country, governed badly, with natural resource wealth failing to raise living standards for many people. Angola was also drawn into the African World War that caused an estimated six million deaths between 1994 and 2007.

Consider what Ernest Ndalla-Graille (veteran of the National Revolutionary Movement, Brazzaville) had to say in 2007 as a conclusion to the story of Cuba in Africa:

"I think that today internationalism could still exist, because the causes which brought internationalism into existence are still there, such as domination, exploitation and oppression. It's no longer called imperialism, nor is it called oppression or exploitation. Now they call it neoliberal globalization. But it's the same thing! People say there are no ideologies any more. OK, there are no ideologies. But that doesn't mean an ideal world can't exist. The world of ideas still exists. Among these ideas there's oppression and the struggle against it, the idea of fighting exploitation, the idea of fighting unbridled capitalism. So internationalism will go on existing until the causes that brought it into existence are eliminated."

These comments are relevant still, almost thirty years after the end of the war in Angola and ten years after this film was made. The recent upheaval in the global order has shown that there is a great deal of rejection of the neoliberal order in the Brexit referendum result and the election of Donald Trump in the USA. It is yet to be seen whether these reactionary developments will lead to other reactions of a more positive and constructive nature.

June 29, 2020

Notes on Cuba: An African Odyssey Part 1

We watched the documentary film Cuba: An African Odyssey (Part 1) (the pamphlet about the film is here). I chose this source because it provides some valuable insights into the way the Cold War affected various regional conflicts based on ideology, religion, race, culture, language, colonial history, nationalism and internationalism.

Some students said the film was quite difficult to understand because the narrator and the persons interviewed spoke English with an accent. It was difficult also because other persons spoke quickly in other languages and it was hard to follow the English subtitles. Nonetheless, this variety of points of view is the strong point of the film. It is a film about internationalism, and the director succeeded in giving it a very international perspective.

keywords and concepts: Internationalism, communism, socialism, anti-apartheid struggles, anti-colonial struggles, Cuba as a proxy for the USSR, independence, Patrice Lumumba, coup and rebellion in Congo, end of the Belgian empire, reactions of US and USSR to decolonization of Africa, Guinea-Bissau, Amilcar Cabral and the fall of the Portuguese empire, failures and successes of the Cuban effort

From the brochure for the film

… These descendants of former African slaves (Cuban soldiers who went to Africa) died in their thousands on African soil to ensure freedom from apartheid-style oppression of ordinary Africans across the continent. In answering the call for global solidarity and justice these sons and daughters of Cuba not only changed the world as they knew it, but became living proof of the positive power of internationalism.

In Cuba: An African Odyssey (Part 1) Egyptian filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri explores how Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, gave critical support to Africa’s liberation movements. Cuban influence was instrumental in advancing the decolonization process, which brought independence to much of the continent.

Ms. El-Tahri is able to convey a strong sense of what it was like to be part of these incredible events by presenting the viewer with rarely-seen archival footage and in-depth interviews with those who set the course of Africa’s recent history. Her tale begins in the Congo where a young prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, is frustrated by the slowness with which Belgium’s rulers are relinquishing control of the country. Matters become worse when, four days after independence and the Belgian withdrawal, Congolese soldiers mutiny. They forcibly take control of the country and proceed to exact revenge upon their former masters. The Belgians hastily send their own troops back into the Congo in order to safeguard their citizens and their economic interests in the country.

With his country re-occupied Prime Minister Lumumba needed to find help from somewhere. At this time, the Cold War was at its peak. The United States and The Soviet Union were vying for control and influence in the world. The Congo was of interest to the superpowers, particularly the United States, because it has mineral resources that the U.S. desperately needed.

In dire straights, Lumumba turned to the United States for aid. He asked them to send troops to free the Congo from the Belgians, but he was refused. The Russians, however, were willing to help and Lumumba accepted their aid. In so doing he became an enemy of the West. The United States was not prepared to allow the Soviets to gain control in Africa.

From that point, the political carnage began as the world powers sought to stamp their will on the African country. Lumumba was assassinated and a revolt was launched against his American-backed successor.

At this point Fidel Castro had only recently secured the liberation of Cuba, but he saw the struggle in Africa as an extension of his own. He decided that Cuba must do what it could to aid the forces of liberation on the African continent.

The Congo was the first recipient of Cuban military aid. The documentary reveals the incredible story of how Castro’s co-commander and friend, Che Guevara, led a small band of Cuban troops into Congo to help the rebels. The film tracks their efforts and the reasons for their ultimate failure in Congo and reveals how this setback led Castro to adopt new tactics in Africa.

It then moves to the fascinating case of Guinea-Bissau, where Cuba’s aid is finally vindicated by helping Amilcar Cabral bring the Portuguese to the negotiating table, an event that would lead to the collapse of Portuguese rule in Africa.

June 22, 2020

Notes on the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962

This week we discussed the documentary film The Man Who Saved the World (2012). The drama film Thirteen Days (2000) is also suggested as a source for further research.

At this website there is a bilingual English and Japanese transcript of the subtitles of The Man Who Saved the World.

Note that there is another film called The Man Who Saved the World (2014) which tells a similar story about a Soviet officer who disobeyed the rules and decided, during a moment of uncertainty in 1983, to not pass on information to his superior officers about what the radar indicated was incoming nuclear missiles. It turned out that the detection system was in error.

We must keep in mind that this documentary (The Man Who Saved the World, 2012) is an American creation. Even though it appears to be a sober and objective account made fifty years after the crisis, it still has an American bias. We still need to be critical of the viewpoint and imagine how Cuban or Russian historians would interpret the history fifty years later.

When the events took place, America had in recent years tried to assassinate Castro and invade Cuba in the failed Bay of Pigs attack. During the missile crisis the US government had again announced its intention to invade Cuba. These threats and actions were violations of the United Nations Charter, and also violations of the United States constitution because Article 6 of the constitution obliges the United States to obey its international treaties. The United Nations Charter is a treaty commitment. Therefore, Cuba definitely had good reason to feel threatened, and the only way that such a small country could defend itself from a large, nuclear-armed country was to get help from a big ally and have its own nuclear deterrent.

The Cubans and Soviets defined these weapons as “defensive” deterrent, and the Americans described their nuclear weapons the same way. There was a general taboo against “first use” of nuclear weapons, so everyone who had them considered them to be “defensive.” Thus when, during the missile crisis, the American ambassador to the United Nations asked the Soviet ambassador if his government had placed "offensive" weapons in Cuba, the Soviets were not lying when they said "no." Nonetheless, they were portrayed by the Americans at the time, and in this film (and in Thirteen Days), as liars.

During the missile crisis, while America had been making clear preparations for war and announcing its intent to attack Cuba, an American military jet flew over Cuba and Cubans shot it down. How could Cuba not see this, at this time of high tension, as an act of aggression and decide to defend itself? It was a violation of sovereign air space, and the US knew it was an act of war to enter Cuban airspace. However, the US referred to the Cuban attack on the airplane, at the time and in this film fifty years later, as the first act of war.

The US saw it as an escalation of the conflict by the Cubans, not by the Americans. Surely, a similar act by the Soviets or Cubans at this time, for example a surveillance flight over Florida, would have been seen by America as an act of war. Remarkably, still fifty years after the war, these American filmmakers still refer to this incident as a Cuban “act of aggression.”

Another blind spot of many Americans, even those who say they have learned the importance of empathizing with the enemy, is that they fail to see that the Cuban Missile Crisis may never have happened if America had not tried to invade Cuba or threatened to do so, and if America had not placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, which were as close to the USSR as Cuba is to Florida. The crisis was resolved only when the Americans agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey and to not attack Cuba—two things which could have been done long before the crisis emerged.

There was irony in the fact that the Americans intended to remove the missiles in Turkey anyway because they were old, but they didn’t want to do it in a situation that would look like they were bending to Soviet pressure. In the final agreement, Kennedy insisted that the agreement about the missiles in Turkey be kept secret so that he wouldn’t look weak to the American public. Indeed, news media of the time did not mention the missiles in Turkey, and they portrayed the Soviets as the side that had backed down.

In a certain sense, the Cuban Missile Crisis was much ado about nothing. It didn't have to happen, and there are many ways it could have been avoided before it became a crisis.

Americans still seem to have a lot of difficulty admitting their share of responsibility for it. Kennedy was seen in America as as the hero who had resolved the crisis, but in other countries he was seen as the reckless fool who had chosen to make the crisis. Kennedy's advisors even told him that the missiles in Cuba didn't change the overall danger of nuclear weapons. Every country was still deterred from starting a nuclear war.

The inconvenient truth is that under international law, Cuba had the right to ask an ally for help in its defense, and the USSR had the right to share nuclear weapons with its ally. The United States was promising defense with nuclear weapons to many of its allies—providing what it called "nuclear umbrella" protection so that those allies would not have to make their own nuclear weapons. There was no law against it.  

The blockade, or the so-called "quarantine" of Soviet ships going to Cuba that Kennedy established at the start of the crisis, was an illegal act by the United States, and Kennedy knew it, which is why he avoided using the word "blockade." This documentary film, made fifty years after the crisis, described the Cubans as "smuggling" goods into their own country. The Soviets and the Cubans were breaking no law except the law dictated at the whim of the American president.

Another thing omitted in many historical studies is how little consideration there was of the possibility of ecological catastrophe. Even if nuclear war could be avoided, there was great risk in the plan to destroy nuclear missiles before they were loaded with nuclear warheads and launched. The Americans assumed that the nuclear warheads were not yet on the missiles, but later they learned that many of them were. The warheads could have been destroyed without causing a nuclear explosion, but their destruction would have caused enormous amounts of plutonium to be spread over Cuba and much of the Caribbean Sea and southeast USA as well. It could have been a catastrophe of nuclear contamination without nuclear explosions (similar to Chernobyl), but in 1962 awareness of such environmental problems was extremely limited.

From today’s perspective, it is shocking that Castro was willing to risk the safety of his own country, and shocking that the Americans and Soviets had such disregard for the risk as well. However, Castro said afterwards that the American reaction was completely unexpected. He had thought that once the Americans learned that Cuba had nuclear weapons, they would stop talking about invasion and stop making threats against Cuba. He had wanted the Americans to see the nuclear weapons. He wasn’t trying to hide them. He was surprised that the Americans were slow to notice them. He was simply shocked that the US was willing to risk nuclear war by insisting that the nuclear weapons be removed.

The crisis didn’t turn out the way that Castro had expected, but he did win something important from it. Kennedy promised to stop threatening war against Cuba, and every president since then has kept that promise. American covert, diplomatic and economic war against Cuba continued, but the threat of military invasion stopped, and Castro survived as head of the Cuban government until 2011. He died of natural causes at the age of 90 in 2016.

Other notable elements of the story:

The Soviet and American leaders had a shocking lack of ability to communicate with each other directly. After the crisis, they fixed this problem by creating a "hotline" system.

Both sides had great difficulty in understanding who was in charge during the crisis. The military commanders on both sides had their own agendas separate from the political leaders, so each side felt great confusion about what was going on in the other government. Who was really in control? Each side suspected that there might be a military coup d'etat that would push Kennedy or Khrushchev from power. In fact, there was a coup d'etat, but it came one year later in Dallas, on November 22, 1963.
 
The military commanders were, in a certain sense, fighting the last war. They were slow to understand that the new situation called for new tactics and much greater caution. Kennedy and Khrushchev, and their hawkish advisors, were all World War II veterans.

Even during a moment of crisis, the machinery of the Cold War was still in operation. Kennedy didn't think to order the Atomic Energy Commission to halt a nuclear bomb test in the Pacific, or to order a stop to nuclear-armed aircraft patrols near the Russian Far East, but he was shocked to find out that these routine operations were still happening during the crisis. They were further signals that made the Soviets wonder if America was out of control and unpredictable. Some people believed that it was good to make the enemy have such fears. It was called the madman theory of nuclear deterrence--make the enemy think that the leadership might be insane or irrational.

The ultimatum given to Cuba gave the Soviets reason to be the first to attack. When the Americans announced that they would attack on Monday, if certain conditions were not met, this just gave the Soviets good reason to be the first to attack on Sunday. Fortunately, they didn't. The film Thirteen Days shows the Kennedy brothers discussing this "game-theory" aspect of the situation, so they were fully aware of the dangerous situation their ultimatum was creating.

Civilization "lucked out" as Kennedy's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said in the film Fog of War. He learned only many years later that in October 1962 Cuba also had about one hundred small, tactical nuclear weapons that would have been used against invading US military forces in the battle field. The crisis made it clear that no government had figured out a way to keep a nuclear war from starting by accident, misunderstanding, minor acts of aggression or by recklessness. The problem still exists today, even though the world has developed a false sense of security since the USSR broke up in the early 1990s.

Further reading/Sources:

You can read this article to learn what happens when an atomic bomb is accidentally destroyed in a plane crash: Giles Tremlett, “Spain demands US clears earth from site of 1966 nuclear bomb mishap,” The Guardian, January 16, 2011.

Some of the information mentioned above appeared in the book reviewed here: Benjamin Schwarz, “The Real Cuban Missile Crisis. Everything you think you know about those 13 days is wrong.” A review of The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory by Sheldon M. Stern, The Atlantic, January-February, 2013.

June 15, 2020

We discussed the global effects of nuclear testing and nuclear weapons manufacture. For homework you were supposed to watch this interview with Kate Brown, author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Some students found it a little too long and difficult to follow, but I explained the main points during the class. If you can't go back and watch the entire interview, take note of how she concluded the interview. This passage summarizes the thesis of her book:

"I hope that people will look at this tandem history and see that there are some striking similarities between how easy it was to deny radioactive contamination and public health effects in both the socialist Soviet Union and in American democracy, and that despite the vast differences in these two countries and these two political systems, there was something overarching about the nuclear umbrella that created very similar kinds of cultures and social systems, and systems of knowledge. We need to take a really close look at how the demands of nuclear technology and nuclear secrecy and security create systems and communities that are extremely undemocratic and hierarchical, and also create these plutonium disasters, the full impact of which we’ve yet to really fully digest."

Kate Brown teaches us that it is the technology that determined culture and politics, and we can see connections with other historical events. After September 11, 2001, people were taught to fear terrorism in addition to nuclear weapons. This year, we have been taught to fear a virus that kills about 0.4% of people infected (about 4 people in 1000), which is similar to other pandemics of recent years that didn't cause the same reaction.

June 1, 2020

I hope that people will look at this tandem history and see that there are some striking similarities between how easy it was to deny radioactive contamination and public health effects in both the socialist Soviet Union and in American democracy, and that despite the vast differences in these two countries and these two political systems, there was something overarching about the nuclear umbrella that created very similar kinds of cultures and social systems, and systems of knowledge. We need to take a really close look at how the demands of nuclear technology and nuclear secrecy and security create systems and communities that are extremely undemocratic and hierarchical, and also create these plutonium disasters, the full impact of which we’ve yet to really fully digest…

The notes for this week's lesson can be found on my blog in the article about the film Hiroshima: Why the Bomb was Dropped

You can also review the video animation of all the atomic bomb explosions that occurred between 1945 and 1998. It is significant that the atomic bomb tests always occurred on the homelands of people who were rural minorities, colonized people, or conquered indigenous people. These people became the new hibakusha. The powers that conducted the tests were careful to not expose urban populations or the majority populations from whom they wanted consent to govern. That is, they knew that their own people would never tolerate such dangers. The nuclear explosions had to happen in places that were remote and far from the awareness of the majority of the population.

May 25, 2020

We discussed the iconography and imagery of the Cold War by looking slowly at the montage of art and photos that are packed into the opening of the television drama The Americans. Then we viewed the images at the speed at which they are presented in the opening. The rapid sequence of images is perhaps an example of subliminal triggering of memories and feelings of people who lived through the Cold War. Learn the names of the leaders you see in the opening: Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, JFK, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan.

Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “There is a specter haunting Europe.” They had declared that all value comes from labor. Capitalism had been a great force in human progress, but the next stage had to involve ownership of production shifting toward those who produce the value. This would lead to class war, and it terrified the class that owned the means of production. Wars to end slavery, wars of independence, the great wars of the 20th century, post-colonial struggles—they were all driven by the struggle of the owner class to hold on to what they had. Anti-socialism and anti-communism were the ultimate causes of modern wars, though this is rarely stated in many history textbooks. The Cold War really started in 1848, not 1948.

WWI was a struggle of the empires to hold onto their territories and secure oil resources. WWII was a fought to reverse the Bolshevik revolution and stop the spread of socialism. The British, French and Americans delayed in joining the USSR in an alliance against Germany because they had been hoping that Germany would defeat the USSR first. They believed it would then be easy to get victory over Germany after it had exhausted itself fighting communism. WWII could have been avoided if not for this strong anti-communist motivation.

It is often said that democracy is the opposite of communism, but communism is an ideology of economics, so its true opposite is capitalism. Marx defined fascism as the extreme form of capitalism. In Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, capitalism was very profitable. It was not in danger from fascism.

As WWII was ending, and during WWII, the US government was divided. The president wanted to end imperialism and live peacefully with the USSR, but segments of the military, big business interests, and the new intelligence agencies wanted to strengthen Germany and forgive Nazi officials. They were more concerned with continuing anti-communist struggle. Thus the Cold War was born out of WWII.

At the end of WWII the pro-big business conservative wing of the Democratic Party prepared to break the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and wage a counter-revolution against Roosevelt's New Deal. These conservatives saw that President Roosevelt was very ill and likely to die during his next term as president, so they plotted to remove the left-leaning Henry Wallace as a vice presidential candidate for the 1944 election. The inexperienced, conservative Senator Harry Truman became the vice presidential nominee through a very undemocratic process controlled by party bosses. After the war, when Truman was president, he was manipulated by this conservative faction to break Roosevelt's agreements with Stalin and to antagonize the Soviet Union. The creation of the nuclear arms race and the CIA had tragic consequences, as we will learn in future lessons.