In April 1961 an attempted military-by-proxy (a favourite US formula) invasion of Cuba took place by those who were no admirers of Fidel Castro and his Communist buddies. Backed and trained by the CIA the invasion at the Bay of Pigs was reduced to naught in three days and is often used to define the word ‘fiasco’. At least on the part of the Americans, for it cemented Castro as a national hero and helped stitch up the relationship between Havana and Moscow. Emboldened by the idea that they had a friendly ally so close to the US and from which you could throw stones onto houses in Florida, Moscow figured they would plant missiles there. So between April 1961 through into 1962 the world was drawn into an increasing period of tension which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis as Russia deployed SS-4 Sandal medium range missiles onto Cuban soil. Eventually Moscow and Washington defused everything and the crisis was considered over in November 1962 but not before everyone thought they would be cooked in an instant of ‘one flash and you’re ash’ ‘mutually assured destruction.’
Everyone, including those in New Zealand, though it’s highly unlikely the precious few missiles anyone had in their inventory would be wasted on a target so far away! They were not accurate enough to hit anything at that distance in any event. Still, it didn’t remove the spectre of a big Russian bear wanting to monster everyone. So not only did World War 2 frame my early years, so too the Russians. My father recollects how as a student at Otago University in Dunedin he would wonder where he and his new family were going to end up as the tensions with Cuba escalated. The Bay of Pigs fiasco became news at the same time he and mother received news that their firstborn was on his or her way. He had a job as a ‘postie’ to help fund his way through his studies. Delivering mail by foot gave him plenty of time to reflect on the state of the world and to contemplate its end.
Fortunately Kennedy and Khrushchev sorted themselves out and established the first hotline between their governments to help ensure the pot didn’t threaten to boil over again. Mind you Khrushchev did okay out of it all – the US removed its missiles from Turkey and Italy and helped ease Russian fears (for a short period) about encirclement by the US and its allies. But the Russians remained a bogey throughout my childhood, and less of a bogey but the ‘enemy’ for my first few years as an intelligence officer. At about eleven or twelve years old I heard a chap talking at a boys camp about how the KGB would poison its enemies by placing toxins in the tap outlets in a kitchen. The poison would enter the water their target would drink. Even at that age I was used to the idea of direct killing. Animals were shot or butchered openly and without guile – except perhaps for the need to stalk say, rabbits. The sneakiness of the Russian approach shocked me and for years and years as a kid I ran the water from a tap for a good minute or so before I drank from it, or brushed my teeth. It’s a habit I still carry. Damn Russians. (But what a guest speaker was doing scaring kids like that I have no idea!). And in a public meeting in the community centre in our small town, during the leadup to 1975 elections the Russians were spoken of as a direct and negative influence on the socialist elements of our political landscape. I’m sure the Russians would be so flattered that such an out of the way place would credit them with so much.
Despite Castro and Khrushchev’s best efforts I arrived in November of 1961. I don’t recall any of the arrival though if I recall the narrative correctly it was at the Queen Mary Maternity Hospital.
My first recollections are not of any Reds under any beds or any other sort of Russian anywhere at all, but of Dunedin’s gardens, our house and garden, our neighbours, the local 4 Square store, a house being renovated, and siblings which turned up like clockwork for a while. No pigs. No bears. But definitely the occasional fiasco.
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