This is the first of a new monthly feature that will run alongside the main podcast — once a month I’ll be doing a ten-minute bonus episode looking at non-music news from the time we’re covering in the podcast. These can be skipped if you’re only interested in the music, but add valuable context about the culture in which those records were made. This month’s is on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Year three of the podcast starts in a few days’ time, with “Telstar”.
Click through for the episode transcript:
Welcome to “I read the news today, Oh boy”, a new feature for this podcast. One of the things I’ve been doing during the series is trying to put the music I’m talking about into a wider context, and part of that has involved explaining things about the Civil Rights movement or strikes that affected the industry and so on.
As we enter the sixties, the music we’re talking about gets a lot more socially conscious, and music will start to interact far more with other events. For example, in a few weeks time we’re going to be looking at the March on Washington, and at a song that was sung there, and some of the performers who were there. While there is no such thing as music that is completely apolitical — every piece of music is affected by the circumstances in which it was written and performed, in a myriad ways — there is a difference between Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti” and the Beatles singing “Revolution” or the Rolling Stones singing “Street Fighting Man”.
The sixties were also a time of radical social change, which shaped the music that was being made. In many ways, society in at least the US and the UK, the two countries we’re mostly going to be looking at in this history, was unrecognisable in 1974 from the way it was in 1964, and we’re still living in a world shaped by the arguments then — largely because we’re currently ruled by the generation that grew up in that time period.
Now, anything that directly affects the music gets explained as part of the episode — so the March on Washington will be explained in that episode. But I was reading a book on the Beatles recently, and it mentioned the Profumo affair in passing. And I was pretty sure that about 95% of my listeners will have no idea what that was. It probably indirectly affected every event that’s happened in Britain in the ensuing fifty-seven years, and shaped every British thing we’re going to talk about, but there aren’t any songs about it, at least not that we’re going to cover.
So, once a month, I’m going to do a ten-minute podcast where I do a quick overview of what was happening in the non-music news at the time we’re looking at, to provide cultural context. That will go up to twenty minutes if the Patreon hits its next target. You can skip these, which will all be clearly labelled, if you’re not interested. Other than this episode, done in a skip week, they’ll go up the same day as the first proper podcast of the month.
To start with, we’re going to look at the Cuban Missile Crisis. The roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis go back to 1952, when a US-backed right-wing dictator, Batista, led a military coup that got rid of the elected President of Cuba, and handed most of the country over to American organised crime bosses to run. As you can imagine, this was not very popular among the people of Cuba, and for several years there was an armed resistance, which eventually turned into a revolution which overthrew Batista in 1959. Unfortunately, instead of returning to the democracy that had been in place before the Batista coup, the revolutionaries replaced it with another dictatorship, albeit a left-wing one, under the leadership of Fidel Castro.
Now, the Castro regime decided to take away all the vast wealth that had been put in the hands of American citizens by the Batista regime. They then tried to become friends with the USA, as all previous Cuban administrations had. However, the USA has never been keen on governments that take money from rich US citizens, and so they soon gave up on the idea of friendship.
The Cuban leadership became even less keen on the idea of friendship with the US after an event known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. What happened there was that the CIA and the Mafia teamed up to train huge numbers of Cuban exiles who hated the new Cuban government. The idea was that these “independent” fighters would go in to invade Cuba, quickly have some success, then “ask the US for help”, and the US would send in troops and planes to help them. They reasoned that Castro would be unpopular in Cuba, that the invaders would be welcomed as liberators, and that they would lead to a popular uprising against Castro.
What they failed to take into account was that Castro was in fact very popular in Cuba, certainly at the time. Batista was a monster, and while Castro was also a dictator, he was one who gave people healthcare and education and got rid of the Mafia from the country. Given the choice between Castro and Batista, people were very fond of Castro. The invasion force didn’t get the immediate response that was expected, the rest of the world soon found out what was going on and disapproved, and the US decided it wasn’t going to get any more involved. The end result was that the Castro regime was left more secure than ever, and Castro remained in power for another fifty years, while Kennedy had to go public and admit that they’d made a colossal error.
And as a result of this, Castro decided that given that he had an unfriendly superpower close by, it would be a good idea to get in the good books of a friendly superpower, and so he turned to the USSR.
This happened to be exactly what the USSR was looking for. At the time, America had allies throughout Western Europe, who let US troops and missiles be stationed in their countries. That meant that at any time the US could launch an attack on the USSR from right on its border.
The USSR, though, had no allies anywhere near the American border, and at this point in time there were very few intercontinental missiles. The only way they could launch a nuclear attack of more than a handful of missiles on the US was to send a load of planes on a twelve-hour journey, including a refueling stop at the Arctic. That was not ideal from their point of view, as both the US and USSR were run by people who were convinced that the other side was run by madmen who would decide at a moment’s notice to launch a nuclear attack, and the only way to prevent this would be to be able to destroy the other side if they tried anything.
But Cuba is only ninety miles from the US coast. If the USSR could stick a bunch of missiles there, they could easily destroy the entire East Coast and much of the midwest. So the USSR and Cuba quickly came to an agreement — the USSR would protect Cuba from US invasion, and in return it would get to put a load of missiles in Cuba.
Unfortunately for everyone, the USA found out about these plans before they were complete. And the US Government was very, very, very, unhappy with the idea of Russian nuclear missiles ninety miles away from the US. Tensions stepped up on both sides, to quite an astonishing degree. The US armed forces went to DEFCON-2 for the only time during the Cold War — DEFCON-1 would be nuclear war.
Both countries’ armed forces were on such high alert that there were two incidents that came as close as we’ve ever come to all-out war between the US and Russia. A US spy plane accidentally flew over Soviet territory, and on the same day some small practice depth charges were dropped on a Soviet submarine. Those depth charges were just used for signalling — they couldn’t do any real damage — but what the people dropping them didn’t know was that the submarine in question was armed with nuclear weapons, and had orders to use them if a war started. The submarine was cut off from radio communication, and the captain took the depth charges as a sign that war *had* started. Luckily for everyone on the planet, launching them required the authorisation of all three officers on board, and one of the officers, Vasili Arkhopov, refused to authorise the missile launch. We came that close to the destruction of all life on the planet.
Thankfully, while we came that close, we didn’t come any closer. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were, by the standards of the leaders of their respective countries, cautious, intelligent, well-meaning people, and they managed to negotiate an agreement by which the USA would remove its missiles from Turkey and Italy, and in return the Soviet missiles would be removed from Cuba. The crisis was over, but had either of them been even slightly less stable or capable, or had someone other than Arkhopov been on that submarine, we would not be here today.