In the fall of 1979, a furor erupted in the United States over the discovery of Soviet combat troops in Cuba. Scarcely remembered today, it was an episode of the Cold War that seemed like a very big deal at the time, so much so that it prompted U.S. president Jimmy Carter to address the American people on nationwide television.
Ultimately, it was an uproar over practically nothing, but it helped derail a major nuclear arms agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union and signaled that the era of détente between the two countries was coming to an end.
Cuba had been a bugaboo of U.S. policymakers since the communist revolution that put Fidel Castro in power in 1959. The widespread American fear that the USSR would use the island nation as a foothold from which to threaten the United States in its own hemisphere reached its high point in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it didn’t end there.
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On Sept. 16, 1970, an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft detected evidence that the Soviet Union was constructing a long-term naval facility at the Cuban port of Cienfuegos, one which could serve as a permanent base for Soviet ballistic missile submarines. U.S. officials in the Nixon administration raised objections with Moscow, stating that such a move would contravene the USSR’s commitment following the Cuban Missile Crisis to refrain from introducing offensive military forces into the Western Hemisphere.
The Soviets, who denied that they were building such a base, ultimately withdrew the submarine tender and two support barges it had sent to Cienfuegos and for the most part the matter died down.
Another, more minor controversy arose in November 1978 when it came to light that the Soviet Union had provided Cuba with between 12 and 24 MiG-23 fighter-bombers seven months earlier. These were tactical aircraft, not strategic bombers, but they were capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
However, U.S. intelligence quickly determined that the Cuban MiG-23s were not nuclear capable. Officials in the Carter administration assured the public that there was no evidence of Soviet nuclear weapons being present in Cuba and that the MiGs were too few in number to pose a military threat to the United States.
The 1979 crisis arose not because of any specific action taken by the Soviets or the Cubans, but because of a reexamination of existing information already held by the U.S. intelligence community. Concern had been mounting for some time in the United States about Soviet-Cuban support for pro-communist forces in Latin America. In March, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski ordered Stansfield Turner, then Director of Central Intelligence, to undertake an overall assessment of Soviet forces present in Cuba.
The review, completed in July, determined that there was what appeared to be a brigade-size contingent of Soviet combat troops on the island, one that was separate from the Soviet training mission that the United States had long known was there.
It was unclear what the unit’s purpose was, but its presence represented a new and disconcerting discovery, one that was bound to create a stir in Washington. Rumors of the report’s findings began to surface in late summer, and the Carter administration decided at the end of August to begin informing key members of Congress.
What followed was a textbook example of a political crisis almost entirely devoid of substance. The presence of 2,000 to 3,000 Soviet combat troops in Cuba was unacceptable to many Washington leaders, both Republican and Democrat.
Sen. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat from Idaho who served as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, immediately demanded the brigade’s removal. “The United States,” he said on Sept. 4, “cannot permit the Soviets to establish a military base on Cuban soil, nor can we allow Cuba to be used as a springboard for real or threatened Russian military intervention in the hemisphere.”
Sen. Richard Stone of Florida echoed this sentiment, arguing that the brigade’s deployment violated the Monroe Doctrine. Howard Baker, the Republican leader in the Senate, stated that if the U.S. tolerated the presence of Soviet combat troops in Cuba, “we will in effect be letting the Soviet Union thumb their noses at us.”
Ronald Reagan, preparing for his run for the presidency in 1980, said that the United States “should not have any further communications with the Soviet Union” until the troops were withdrawn.
When the news broke, the Carter administration scrambled to get ahead of the issue. It faced the difficult task of persuading Congress and the general public that it was taking the situation seriously without further fanning the flames of alarm. On Sept. 5, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told reporters that “the presence of this unit runs counter to long‐held American policies.”