A mob of white men carrying torches and chanting racist slogans marches into a southern town and violence ensues. Missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons threaten American cities from a country dominated by a volatile dictator. A nearby Latin American country becomes beholden to the Kremlin, does Moscow’s bidding and turns into a threat to the national security of the United States.
Those all sound like stories ripped from the headlines of the past two weeks, but racial divisions, Kremlin intervention in Latin America and a nuclear crisis also dominated the news at the height of the Cold War in 1962.
Back then, the Soviet Union had positioned ballistic missiles and tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, threatening the U.S. and pushing the world closer to nuclear war than it’s ever been. Fidel Castro had welcomed the Soviets and their subsidies with open arms, quickly turning Cuba into a puppet of the Kremlin, dependent on its largesse. And hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members battled police as they burned a cross on Stone Mountain, Georgia.
But, 55 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, 53 years after the Civil Rights Act and 26 years after the end of the Cold War, it’s "déjà vu all over again."
The white supremacists and neo-Nazis whose vitriol in Charlottesville led to the death of a young woman and dozens of injuries proved, all too painfully, that the flames of racial hatred still burn deeply. The Ku Klux Klan remains active and had hoped to repeat history by burning a cross atop Stone Mountain later this year. The plan was to commemorate a 1915 cross burning on Stone Mountain that marked the Klan’s rebirth. The application for a permit was rejected.
The nuclear missile crisis now involves another mercurial dictator who hates America, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The third in the line of the Kim despots has accelerated North Korea's missile program, developing missiles that could reach American territory. Most alarmingly, American intelligence agencies believe North Korea now has miniaturized nuclear weapons that could be carried by intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Meanwhile, as most of the U.S. has been focused on the shenanigans in Washington, the North Korean threat and the racial violence in Charlottesville; Venezuela, a Caribbean neighbor and the country with the world’s largest oil reserves, is quickly becoming Russia’s newest satellite. Kremlin cash has kept Nicolas Maduro in business and helped him repress almost five months of protests while solidifying his increasingly communist totalitarian regime.
As reported by Reuters, “Moscow is using its position as Venezuela’s lender of last resort to gain more control over the OPEC nation’s crude reserves.”
Discussions over whether the world had returned to a Cold War climate similar to 1962 intensified three years ago after Russia took over Crimea and instigated armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election increased tensions further. Earlier this year, none other than the man who helped end the first Cold War, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, warned we were heading into a new one.
That was before the U.S. imposed tougher sanctions against Russia or the Kremlin’s retaliatory move, ordering the U.S. to cut hundreds of people from the staff at the American embassy in Moscow. It was also before Russia furthered its influence in Venezuela.
One big difference between 1962 and 2017 is the temperament of the occupant of the White House. President Kennedy moved slowly on promoting civil rights, but racial upheaval forced him to take action and his Civil Rights Address in 1963 made him an icon among African-Americans. Kennedy was fond of a quote that says, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” It is difficult to imagine that JFK would equivocate, as President Trump did, in condemning neo-Nazis and the Klan.
On foreign policy, though, Kennedy’s indecision and poor judgment in the first months of his presidency led to the Bay of Pigs catastrophe. Fifty years later, the Castro brothers’ communist dictatorship remains a thorn in the U.S.’s side, causing mischief internationally and opposing American interests at every turn.
However, when the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil threatened the world with a nuclear conflagration a year-and-a-half later, JFK’s steely resolve made Nikita Khrushchev blink and withdraw the missiles, enraging Fidel Castro.
Trump’s response to Kim Jong Un was the opposite of Kennedy’s reponse to Castro and Khrushchev. Trump fiercely warned Kim Jong Un that if North Korea threatened the U.S. he would unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Soon after Trump’s heated public rhetoric, Kim toned down his threats on Guam, a U.S. territory. However, there is no indication North Korea will slow its missile and nuclear weapons programs.
While Trump has not directly addressed the Russian “takeover” of Venezuela, he has also raised the rhetorical temperature, specifically indicating he would not rule out a military option. Instead of cowing the Venezuelan dictatorship, the remarks seem to have emboldened Nicolas Maduro and his allies. In fact, the fraudulently elected constituent assembly decided recently to effectively dissolve the opposition-dominated congress, which was popularly elected in 2015.
The move would eliminate the last vestige of democracy in Venezuela and pave the road for the consolidation of a totalitarian regime.
Will the Trump White House live up to the challenges of 2017 as the Kennedy White House did in 1962? It won’t if the president hesitates before condemning white supremacist violence or if he undermines his cabinet with intemperate tweets or extemporaneous and provocative comments.
Kennedy learned quickly on the job, turning from the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 to using a strong and steady hand to guide the world through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Trump may have to mature more quickly. With so many major challenges, no less than the future of the world depends on it.
Antonio Mora is a former news anchor for “Good Morning America,” former host of Al Jazeera America’s primetime international news hour. He is both a Venezuelan and American lawyer who appears regularly on television as a Venezuelan-affairs analyst.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.