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Showdown over Cuba

Letter No 741, October 28 1962

Today was one of those New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
 days that are almost as crystalline in January as they are in June or October. Like many millions of other people, I put the clock back last evening to justify staying up later than usual. A couple of friends came in, the man a member of the United Nations secretariat United Nations Secretariat

Administrative body that coordinates United Nations activities. Its staff, recruited on the basis of merit, is composed of several thousand permanent professional experts from member states, including translators, clerks, technicians,
, and between bouts of personal talk we tuned in the bulletins every half-hour in the hope (which seemed to be draining away) that the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area.  would not feel it essential to use force to destroy the Russian missile bases in Cuba. More photographs were coming in to the Pentagon and being rushed to the White House, and they showed that way down below, Russian technicians and their Cuban help had been working overtime on Friday and Saturday to finish the bases and mount the missiles and confront the United States with a dreadful accomplished fact, which the president in the long, long week behind us had laboured to thwart.

Then we heard that Mr Adlai Stevenson, US Ambassador to the United Nations, had told the delegates of 13 nations (from Nato and Latin America Latin America, the Spanish-speaking, Portuguese-speaking, and French-speaking countries (except Canada) of North America, South America, Central America, and the West Indies.  mostly) that unless work on the missile bases was voluntarily stopped, the United States would take military action to eliminate them in exactly 48 hours.

I ought to point out that Mr Stevenson was the man who, in April of last year, went before the Security Council of the United Nations and defended with passionate sincerity the good faith of the United States; who honestly ridiculed the Soviet charge that the invasion of Cuba (which was then in its earliest stages) had been planned and assisted by the United States.

Mr Stevenson had no public way open to him to recover his self-respect. For he had made his honest defence of American motives before he was informed that the abortive abortive /abor·tive/ (ah-bor´tiv)
1. incompletely developed.

2. abortifacient (1).

3. cutting short the course of a disease.

 invasion was in fact an American show. Mr Valerian Zorin Valerian Alexandrovich Zorin (Валериан Александрович Зорин , the Soviet chief delegate, brought this up, with relish, on Thursday evening, when once again Mr Stevenson brought easels and photographic blow-ups into the Security Council to force the answer to the question Mr Stevenson had hammered at Mr Zorin, and which Mr Zorin airily waved away. That question, in Mr Stevenson's words, was: "Let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR USSR: see Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  has placed and is placing medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no?" Mr Stevenson is a man of great dignity and patience, but Mr Zorin's face began to crack, somewhere between a smirk and a sigh, and in that split-second Mr Stevenson leaned forward and rasped out, "Don't wait for the interpretation. Yes or no?" Mr Zorin replied that he was not in an American courtroom and had no wish to answer a prosecutor's question. "You'll get your answer," he said, without deigning to look at the now crouching figure of Stevenson, "don't worry".

It was at that moment that Mr Stevenson leaned even further forward and said a sentence that will surely, if only from its repetition in film clips, pass into the lexicon of famous American phrases like "Don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes" and "You may fire when ready, Mr Gridley." "I am prepared," Mr Stevenson rasped out, "to wait for an answer till hell freezes over, if that's your decision. And I'm also prepared to present the evidence in this room." Which he promptly did.

Mr Zorin, at the time, was simply obedient to his instructions. "Falsity," he shouted, "is what the United States has in its hands, false evidence, forgeries." Between then and now, Mr Khrushchev himself has given the lie to Mr Zorin's lie; only this morning the Soviet leader said to the president: "The weapons you describe as offensive are grim weapons. You and I both know that they are."

When the history of this, the longest week, comes to be written, I think that the decision to entrust an ambassador (and this ambassador) with the final warning will be seen to be a masterstroke mas·ter·stroke  
An achievement or action revealing consummate skill or mastery: a masterstroke of diplomacy. See Synonyms at feat1.
 of diplomacy and goodwill. Below the surface of even the most world-shaking events, the actors remember old grudges. The role Mr Stevenson was asked to play (or by default was allowed to play) in the Bay of Pigs The Bay of Pigs (Spanish: Bahía de Cochinos, also known as Playa Girón) is an inlet of the Gulf of Cazones on the south coast of Cuba.  disaster was humiliating hu·mil·i·ate  
tr.v. hu·mil·i·at·ed, hu·mil·i·at·ing, hu·mil·i·ates
To lower the pride, dignity, or self-respect of. See Synonyms at degrade.
 to him and damaging to the honesty of the Kennedy administration in its first showdown with communism in this hemisphere. But in the second, the much more momentous showdown, since it was not between a giant and the other giant's puppet but between the titans themselves, it was crucial that nobody should infer a clash of wills in the Kennedy cabinet.

When we went to bed last night, we had this small and honourable satisfaction to set against the immensity im·men·si·ty  
n. pl. im·men·si·ties
1. The quality or state of being immense.

2. Something immense: "the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water" 
 of the risk, the trembling of the fingers on the nuclear buttons. When we woke up this morning the glad tidings came pealing in, breaking into Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan and solemn sermons and rollicking rol·lick·ing  
Carefree and high-spirited; boisterous: a rollicking celebration.

 hymns up in Harlem: the news that Mr Khrushchev had accepted unconditionally every point of Mr Kennedy's demand for the dismantling of the Cuban missile bases under UN supervision.

An hour ago, a neighbour of mine, who is a hi-fi buff and mighty proud of an amplifier that practically fills the building, telephoned me and asked me to listen to the raging sound of his gramophone. He was playing, Oh, What a Beautiful Morning! It was corny corn·y  
adj. corn·i·er, corn·i·est
Trite, dated, melodramatic, or mawkishly sentimental.

[From corn1.
, but it was spontaneous and good, and I looked out over the riffling waves of the reservoir in Central Park; a bird rose from the water and was airborne and soared off to the ocean. I should like to say it was a dove. It was, however, a seagull seagull

a noisy, gregarious bird that frequents the seashore. Web-footed, hook-billed, white with gray wings. Member of the family Laridae and of the genus Larus.
 whose clean swinging flight I shall remember till the day I die.
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Date:Oct 4, 2008
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