One evening in my freshman year in college, we all gathered around the sole television in our dorm to watch President Kennedy alert the nation that we were on the verge of war with the USSR. He announced that the Soviets had emplaced intercontinental ballistic missiles in Cuba, that this was an imminent threat to our security, that they would have to be removed immediately, and that a naval blockade was already in place to prevent any further shipments to Cuba.
Although he was partly bluffing about the blockade---he had ordered it, but it was far from being in place---he was deadly serious about the potential for war. Sensing that the Soviet Union had a nuclear delivery capability inferior to that of the United States, Premier Kruschchev had decided that putting missiles only 90 miles from the U.S. would be cheaper and quicker than developing more capable long-range missiles. He was right about that calculus, but he underestimated Kennedy's resolve to react decisively.
At the time, the full import of the situation was lost on us. If the Soviets refused to remove the missiles, we understood that we would launch tactical strikes to destroy the sites in Cuba, but the probability that there might be a nuclear exchange that would kill millions of Americans was not prominent in our minds.
This week has delivered us a disquieting feeling of deja vu: a Russian general reportedly said that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is offering facilities on which to base Russian bombers, and Russia is perhaps also mulling over the idea of basing strategic aircraft in Cuba.
Chavez, now constitutionally Venezuela's chief executive until he tires of it, never loses an opportunity to thumb his nose at the United States. He is doing an excellent job of running his country into the ground---and in this he is not much different from leaders everywhere, both demagogues and those who have been democratically elected---and he is a dangerous character, but the typical currency he uses is bluster. Still, his offer, if it has been reported correctly, is likely to be genuine.
And what of Russia? Its leadership is paranoid, but we have been successful in making it edgier still. In Putin's mind, the enemy has always been NATO, much like ours was always the Warsaw Pact. When the Berlin Wall fell, we took the opportunity to recruit into NATO the majority of Russia's erstwhile allies, increased dramatically our presence on Russia's doorstep, and announced that we were emplacing a missile shield in eastern Europe. Our contention that the anti-ballistic capability was for Russia's protection, too, did nothing to decrease Putin's trepidation. Whatever else one can say about the former Soviet Union, it is unlikely that any other country, including us, would have viewed those developments any more benignly than Russia did.
Russian strategic bombers in Venezuela or even Cuba are not the same threat as nuclear weapons based there, and so it is not 1962 again. Strategic aircraft can be based in Russia and not be much more of a threat than they are in the Western Hemisphere, and one should properly view the situation as Russian grandstanding wrought from frustration and Chavez being Chavez. But we don't want these planes based there, and we must insure that they stay where they are. With relations at something of a low ebb, there will be a tendency for politicians to do what they do most frequently, and what they have been trained to do: make ill-informed public statements. But the United States and Russia have numerous interests in common, including mutual security, and the greatest success will come from public silence and private discussions.