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Back from the brink


The president warns of the risks of inaction against weapons of mass destruction held by an enemy dictator. Threats and ultimatums stream out of the White House, and Fort Bragg mobilizes for war. Sound familiar? The United States found itself in exactly this position 40 years ago this week.

On Oct. 22, 1962, the Cuban missile crisis commenced when President Kennedy announced that the United States had discovered Soviet nuclear missile sites under construction in Fidel Castro's Cuba. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade around the island, and the military prepared for what seemed a near-certain invasion of Cuba. Fort Bragg's psychological warfare specialists, for example, were assigned the difficult job of convincing the Cuban population that the invaders would in fact be liberators.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. But declassified documents detail the psywar that never was, and give an indication of the dilemmas that the Army's present-day propagandists, the Bragg-based 4th Psychological Operations Group, might face in the event the United States seeks to conquer Iraq.

During the early days of the missile crisis, Kennedy ordered the Defense Department to prepare leaflets picturing the missile bases to be dropped over Cuba, to explain the reasons for U.S. military action. The leaflets were printed at Fort Bragg, where they were affixed to delivery planes so they could be dropped within 12 hours notice.

When the Soviets stood down and agreed to remove the missiles, the invasion plans were shelved and the leaflets went unused. Meanwhile, an Army battalion at Bragg had designed other leaflets to be dropped in the event of invasion. The leaflets, according to a 1976 Army manual, depicted a "red-faced Castro leaving a sinking ship with bags of gold in his hand" and "women and children in the midst of exploding projectiles"--messages that were, in retrospect, "obviously counterproductive."

There is an element of relief in the manual, which noted that, as invaders, the United States would have faced a most skeptical target audience. "We might have [had] to take unacceptable casualties--unless we prepared the landings by saturation bombing, which kills noncombatants," it said. "Question: How does one persuade the people whose loved ones have just been maimed to join the forces which maimed them--no matter how much they might hate Castro's regime?"

Substitute Saddam Hussein for Castro, and today the calculus seems remarkably similar. Would another large-scale bombing campaign really make Iraqis grateful? While weighing a new war to destroy Iraq's weapons and topple its leader--killing civilians along the way--the Bush administration and the Congress should pause to consider the lessons of the missile crisis on this 40th anniversary. The documents and leaflets from the missile crisis, and the advanced planning they testify to, are a reminder that even when international tensions are at their peak, even when combat seems so inevitable that the soldiers are deployed to their staging grounds and the leaflets are printed, war can still be avoided.

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