The Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons met on Oct. 19, 2012 in Ottawa on the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This report is written to provide you with the key lessons from the meeting.
What are the lessons of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis for Iran and the value of pursuing urgent negotiations on nuclear disarmament? The analysis presented by Prof. Erika Simpson of the Department of Political Science at Western University explained some of the ‘new lessons’ revisionists are putting forward concerning the Cuban missile crisis fifty years later, now that the historical records and transcripts are being fully revealed. It discussed the implications of these sorts of ‘lessons’ for ‘realists’–who continue to support nuclear deterrence– and ‘idealists’ who counsel urgent nuclear disarmament. Then Prof. Simpson considered the implications of all these types of lessons for the present-day stand-off between Iran and the rest of the international community, especially the United States and Israel, for deterrence and arms control negotiations. She argued that the principal lesson of the Cuban missile crisis, interpreted fifty years later, is that disarmament negotiations need to be urgently pursued now, not during or in the wake of a similar nuclear crisis besetting the world.
In a comment from the floor, Dr. Walter Dorn of Canadian Forces College advised that research in the UN archives that he and Robert Pauk have completed has shown that President Kennedy in fact was fearful during the Cuban Missile Crisis that his actions might trigger a nuclear war. He sought the assistance of UN Secretary General U Thant to mediate and this mediation occurred successfully. Contrary to frequent reports of the crisis, Krushchev did not “blink” but rather engaged with U Thant in a deal under which the Soviet Union would withdraw its navy in exchange for the US withdrawing its missiles from Turkey.
Of concern to the group was the recent announcement by the Government of Canada of the closure of the Canadian Embassy in Iran. Senator Roche, Chairperson of the Middle Powers Initiative questioned “what would have happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis if the Kennedy Administration had broken diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union when the US discovered Soviet missile sites in Cuba?” He stressed that international security is not served by breaking relations with Iran. He also queried Canada tolerating nuclear weapons in the hands of Israel, India and Pakistan but objecting to Iran. We need strong diplomacy toward nuclear disarmament if we want to influence world security.
Mr. Paul Dewar, the NDP Foreign Affairs Critic, reported on his recent trip to Kazakhstan as part of a delegation from Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He said most of them were unaware of the human suffering resulting in that area due to the legacy of Soviet nuclear testing in Semipalitinsk. During his visit on August 29th, thousands of people were out to line the streets to observe somberly the International Day Against Nuclear Testing. Mr. Dewar was shocked to see volumes of detailed records in Russian setting out the medical results of the testing. Recently people have become much more aware of the 2nd and 3rd generational effects of nuclear testing and the extraordinary toll this is having on the lives and health of people living in Kazakhstan, as well as in other locations where nuclear explosions have occurred such as Japan, the Marshall Islands, and in Tahiti and Muroroa in the Pacific.
Both Mr. Dewar and Mr. Alyn Ware, the Global Coordinator for PNND, spoke on the PNND Parliamentarians statement being circulated to encourage parliamentarians to consider a proposal for a Middle East Zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction as a diplomatic and even-handed route toward a more peaceful Middle East. Alyn Ware highlighted the powerful role played by the process of establishing nuclear weapon-free zones in the Antarctic, Latin America, the South Pacific, South East Asia, Africa, Mongolia, and most recently Kazakhstan along with 4 of their “stan” neighbours. (For further information, check the NWFZs website located at
Climate modeling research conducted by Toon and Roebuck in the US concludes that waiting for a crisis for the start of nuclear negotiations could cause a calamity, for even a small exchange of 100 nuclear weapons between India and Pakistan or in the Middle East might result in climate change resulting in global famine. (See “Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering”, Scientific American, December, 2009.
So what then are some of the lessons in 2012 from the Cuban missile crisis, considered by many to have been the most dangerous time in our history? What then have we learned over the past 60 years that teaches us about our security today?
First, the nuclear threat still remains as there are still approximately 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Of these, about 2,000 are on alert, operationally ready be used in under 30 minutes.
Second, the world can be placed at extraordinary risk due to political games leading to military brinkmanship. Those involved may have serious misperceptions about the facts of the situation and the motives of other parties. Do not assume that leaders will be rational actors during a crisis.
Third, we need to ensure that the UN Secretary General’s capacity to offer his or her good offices remains strong.
Fourth, If we wish to retain a capacity to save humanity and the environment, we need to retain diplomatic lines of communication with other states. You might contact the Prime Minister your MP and encourage them to reconsider the decision to close the Canadian Embassy in Iran, reminding of the great value of diplomacy for nonviolent solutions in instances of political challenges.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, we cannot wait for this to happen. We must demand negotiations on nuclear disarmament now.
What else can be done? The Canadian Senate and Parliament in 2010 passed unanimously an historic motion to:
- “encourage the Government of Canada to deploy a major world-wide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament;”
Despite repeated requests and petitions, no such initiative has been deployed by the Government of Canada. Concerned Canadians are encouraged to contact their MP and inquire what they are doing to encourage negotiations on a ban on nuclear weapons. Likewise, Members of Parliament can be urged to consider realistic options for peace in the Middle East and then invited to sign the Joint Parliamentary Statement for a Middle East Free from Nuclear Weapons and all other Weapons of Mass Destruction available in English or French.