The Armageddon Letters: 50 Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. 50 years ago today was day four of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The narrative of the crisis is pretty familiar by now. The Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba to counterbalance US nukes deployed around the globe. The Kennedy administration found out and ordered Moscow to remove them. The ensuing standoff went on for 13 nail-biting days. In the end the Russians blanked and removed the missiles. That's the standard short version, but as usual there's more to it. A new project aims to bring out some of the deeper nuances of the story. It's called the Armageddon Letters, in reference to the correspondence between President Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro during the crisis. The project uses podcast, blogs, a graphic novel and animated short films to reach a younger more gadget-obsessed crowd about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was Japanese filmmaker, Koji Masutani's job to turn academic scholarship on the crisis into a graphic novel and animated short films. He says the project is designed to bridge a gap between young and old.

Koji Masutani: I only turned 31 about a month ago, and it's only perhaps recently that I felt less unqualified or perhaps odd enough to be able to engage and talk about the Cuban Crisis, something that took place literally half a century ago now. And here relies the problem, how do you reach out to these young people who ride around in skateboards with baggy pants? And how do you get them to be worried as much as we are about the danger of nuclear war. And that's something beyond the Cuban Crisis that we want to bring attention to. Especially now, during the presidential election season, people are asking questions like, what kind of president should we have? Does temperament matter? And this whole theme of toughness in the American political landscape is an ongoing presence. And what we're trying to contribute to people's thinking to the Armageddon Letters is, well, what about other aspects that don't involve toughness at all, because in the Cuban Missile Crisis if every leader for instance were tough, then we wouldn't be here talking today.

Werman: Right. Well temperament and where it comes from in an individual is part of what you're digging through with the Armageddon Letters. So let's hear a bit of what you did. And one of the coolest things was these animated shorts about each of the players in this crisis, Kennedy, Castro, and Khrushchev. Here's the beginning of one of these shorts called ââ?¬Å?Be Castroââ?¬  featuring James Blight, a scholar of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

James Blight: What's it like to think like Fidel Castro. Almost 22 years ago, I was at a conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One of the contributors to this was a high school classmate of Fidel Castro who told the following story to me. Fidel Castro invented a game at the Catholic all-boys high school where he went in Cuba. Find a bicycle, establish some distance, a quarter of mile maybe between where the bicycle begins with the rider and a brick wall. The goal is to be the last person standing bloodied, have to be bloodied, no blood, you can't win this game. But if you crash into the wall, going full speed, or thrown over the handlebars of the bike, into the brick wall and you get up, you go to the next round. A lot of people will stop. A lot of people will kind of sort of ease their way slide into it. The person who is willing to sacrifice the most, who is willing to take it to the limit, maybe to die, I mean in principle, smash his scull against the brick wall, that guy wins the game. This guy said Fidel Castro never lost this game. He refused to lose this game. He would go—if it was a tie, they had to go overtime. They had to do it again, over and over again Fidel undefeated, world champion, suicide biker rider.

Werman: And then Blight concludes.

Blight: In the Cuban Missile Crisis Castro felt that Khrushchev did not have the courage to take it to the limit, take it all the way to nuclear war and to destroy the United States.

Werman: Now in the short ââ?¬Å?Be Khrushchev,ââ?¬  scholar James Blight again, who becomes actually an animated character in this one, argues that the former Russian leader approached the Missile Crisis with the earthiness of a Russian peasant.

Blight: He was a man of the people in the best sense. He was highly voluble, he was creative and clever, but he was not educated. His father and grandfather were miners, coal miners and tin miners, the ugliest, most terrible job you can imagine. He worked in the mines as a young person. He called the mines ââ?¬Å?My Cambridge, My Oxford, My Harvard.ââ?¬  That's where he learned to be a man, he said.

Masutani: When you look at the correspondence between the three leaders, and when you sort of unpack the lines, read between the lines and analyze them, it's very interesting, because Kennedy is almost loyally. Castro of course is very emotional and passionate. Khrushchev, his letters are almost earthy in that they use a lot of analogies with farm life, in fact agriculture life. So he talks about two blind moles who try to get by one another same with the analogy with two goats on the bridge that try to go by each other, and goats can't swim, so if one of them fails, they will drown in the water. And he was referring to that as the head bodying between the US and the Soviet Union itself.

Werman: I was really interested in the main point of the "Be Kennedy" film, what Kennedy learned by serving in the South Pacific in World War Two that informed him during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That massive overwhelming power does not mean the enemy will capitulate is kind of the conclusion. Tell us about JFKs experience in the war that led him to that conclusion.

Masutani: Well he was shipped off the bloodiest zone of the war in the South Pacific. Kennedy was on a PT boat. They're going all over the islands, and what he picks up every day while he is in the Pacific is that even though the US military had overwhelming military power, the Japanese simply refused to capitulate. And in fact, they would commit suicide. They would do everything they could to save themselves from being taken prisoner by the Americans. They'd jump on grenades and blow themselves up, and in some cases families would leap off cliffs to their death. And this was completely unnerving to Kennedy and to the Americans. And that experience informed him latter in the Cuban Missile Crisis because when Curtis LeMay, the general, is telling Kennedy that the Russians would do nothing because they have a 17-to-1 advantage in terms of nuclear weapons over the Soviets, that the Russians would do nothing. Kennedy just doesn't believe him. And that is what starts the thinking about creating a quarantine or blockade. In every short film be Kennedy Castro and Khrushchev, that's how we're sort of appealing the [xx] for each leader in the crisis. We're trying to look how their wartime experience and their experience growing up informs them in their decision-making in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Werman: Koji Masutani is the filmmaker who produced the animated shorts and graphic novel for the Armageddon Letters. His earlier film, Virtual JFK, explored what might have happened if JFK had lived. Koji Masutani, thank you for speaking with us.

Masutani: Thanks for your time.

Werman: We have a short animated that Koji produced. It's pretty cool and enlightening. And you can find out more about the Armageddon Letters project at We've also added a web extra. Here Koji Masutani described the old interpretation of how the Cuban Missile Crisis happened in 3 acts. And then contrast that with the latest interpretation based on declassified material also in 3 acts. That's all at