Learn what the new Cuba offers its people — and its neighbors. To its people, peace, democracy, prosperity. To its neighbors, friendship, and the cooperation of men who respect each other. ...
— Daily Worker, Dec. 13, 1959
Unfortunately I was standing, not sitting, when I glanced at a periodical rack that displayed the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The question emblazoned across the cover should have been preceded by a warning to readers to sit before they read further. Instead, the innocent were accosted by this headline: "Was Fidel good for Cuba?"
Foreign Policy is published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a prestigious, left-leaning, and at times thoughtful foreign-policy voice in Washington. It is rarely noted by the likewise left-leaning Washington establishment that the Carnegie Endowment was once headed by Alger Hiss, the communist spy who served the Soviet Union during Josef Stalin's Red Terror. The sophisticated set in Washington considers it inappropriate, impolite, and, of course, a form of McCarthyism, to make reference to this inconvenient fact concerning the endowment.
Yet, as I stood speechless at this inconceivable thought on the cover of FP, I couldn't help but think of Hiss. I had an eerie feeling his ghost was back at the endowment running its publications, maybe with his wife and partner Priscilla again behind the typewriter. Worse, much like a motorist passing a car wreck, I couldn't help but open the pages to peer at the carnage inside.
To be fair, FP aims to be unpredictable and to challenge its readers, and this question was posed in a debate format with differing perspectives, plus an accompanying on-line forum, where, amazingly, 77 percent of the periodical's respondents surmised that, yes, Fidel was good for Cuba. Indeed, Alger Hiss' presence lingers.
Here's the reality: Whether Fidel was good for Cuba is not a matter of debate, even if FP scares up the usual suspects to pay homage to the dictator's personal trinity of "free" health care, collectivism and wealth redistribution. Fidel's failures are too numerous to recount, beginning with his 48-year postponement of elections or the tens of thousands of murdered victims or the countless dead at sea who tried to escape from an island prison forced to ban boats. Of course, the best evidence for resolving the debate would be a simple poll of everyday Cubans — if only such polls were permitted.
That said, the single most significant factor that should forever put to rest this absurd question is one that always get ignored by Mr. Castro's sympathizers: If Fidel Castro had his way in October 1962, Cuba would literally have ceased to exist. This is not an exaggeration. Fidel recommended to Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev that Cuba and the Soviet Union together launch an all-out nuclear attack upon the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even urged Khrushchev to do so if U.S. troops invaded the island.
This is no secret. Mr. Castro has openly admitted it many times. Robert McNamara, President John F. Kennedy's defense secretary during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was taken aback by Castro's candor when the two men discussed the incident years later. Fidel told him flatly, "Bob, I did recommend they [the nuclear missiles] were to be used."
In total, there were 162 Soviet missiles on the island. That, however, was not the sum total of missiles that would have been subsequently launched. The United States in turn would have launched on Cuba, and also on the Soviet Union. Kennedy made that clear commitment in his nationally televised speech on Oct. 22, 1962: "It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." In response, of course, the Soviets would have launched on America from Soviet soil. Even then, the fireworks would just be starting: Under the terms of their NATO and Warsaw Pact charters, the nations of Western and Eastern Europe would also start firing.
Once the smoke cleared, there would be hundreds of millions dead, possibly more than a billion, with Western civilization in its death throes. Given his way, Fidel Castro would have precipitated the greatest slaughter in human history.
Would that have been good for Cuba? Fidel has weighed in on that one, stating the obvious to Mr. McNamara: "What would have happened to Cuba? It would have been totally destroyed."
Fidel didn't care, and neither did his comrade Che Guevara, a cult hero to Hollywood and to college students brainwashed in anti-Americanism. Fidel and Che were ready for martyrdom, with Cuba the eternal triumphant symbol of the glorious fight against capitalism and American imperialism. As Mr. McNamara said of Fidel, "He would have pulled the temple down on his head."
Even the Soviets were stunned. Khrushchev quickly realized he was dealing with a lunatic and better immediately bring the missiles home.
Fidel Castro has been a madman and a menace for a long, long time. What explains his defenders? Why do they continue to defend the indefensible?
Paul Kengor is author of "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" (HarperCollins, 2006), professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.