On New Year’s day, January 1st, 1959, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara led revolutionary soldiers into Havana. Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled Havana on New Years Eve. Rag tag revolutionaries, fighting an irregular war from the mountains, had overthrown a U.S. supported, brutal dictatorship without the help of the Soviet Union. Nothing like the Cuban revolution had happened since the end of World War II.
Castro’s intentions were as yet unformed. In fact, Cuba’s Communist Party refused to support the revolution until the end. The revolution seemed to represent a third way, somewhere between capitalism and communism, where ordinary people would run things and have a chance to shape their own destiny.
A few days later, on January 4th, Soviet foreign minister Anastas Mikoyan arrived
in New York for an extended visit. Mikoyan was a charming guest with a remarkable background. He was the only highly placed survivor of Russia’s original 1917 revolutionary cadre. He had worked with Lenin, survived Stalin’s purges and remained Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s closest adviser. He had a common touch and stopped at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant on the New Jersey Turnpike, visited Macy’s Department Store in New York City and met celebrities Jerry Lewis and Sophia Loren in Hollywood. He spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Detroit Club and met with Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
Mikoyan’s visit came at a tense time in U.S./Soviet relations. A few days before he arrived, the Soviets launched a heavy satellite, Lunik. The New York Times commented, “unquestionably the greatest achievement of the Space Age” … a sign “that the Russians have more powerful rockets and therefore greater capacity to deliver intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Unwritten but understood, those missiles would be carrying nuclear weapons.
As if to drive the fear home, in the spring of 1959 a young physicist named Herman Kahn who worked for the RAND corporation, toured the country with the chilling message that we could survive a nuclear war if we prepared for it. According to Kahn, the United States needed more accurate weapons and deeper fallout shelters. It would cost a fortune. More worrisome, could our leaders really be thinking about fighting a nuclear war? Some military leaders had recommended using nuclear weapons in 1954 to help the French at Dien Bien Phu. General MacArthur wanted to use them during the Korean war. In both cases, civilians refused.
Kahn’s talk of surviving a nuclear war was a recruiting poster for the peace movement. SANE’s membership exploded.
In Cuba, Castro appointed Communists to key positions in his government and started to confiscate the property of U.S. citizens. American leaders turned against him. But Castro remained enormously popular with young people. When he visited the United States in April of 1959, he drew huge, cheering crowds at Harvard and Columbia universities.
I was scheduled to give a verbal presentation of my master’s thesis when Castro spoke at Columbia. I missed the beginning of the class. The rest of the students, all dressed neatly in their jackets and ties, looked at me in some disgust, when I arrived forty minutes late. Professor Ridgely was upset. “Where have you been, Christopher? You were scheduled to present your thesis?” he asked. “Where have you been?” I asked in return. “Fidel Castro was in the courtyard making history!”
In contrast to the revolutionary rhetoric of Castro, the Dean’s weekly sherry receptions represented the academic life to which I aspired. We would meet in a wood-paneled library, filled with books, fine art, rare vases and delicate flowers, dressed in brown trousers and tweed jackets with leather patches on the sleeve, sip dry sherry and talk with our professors and fellow graduate students about the latest articles in academic publications. It would have been unwise to mention Fidel’s name. Allen Ginsberg name did come up after he held a reading at Columbia. No faculty members attended. They dismissed Ginsberg and the Beats with a contemptuous sniff of sherry.
I was beginning to wonder how happy I’d be in academia.