The Florida Keys War
by Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous five installments of this series, we dealt with the circumstances that led to the Florida Keys War, the course of the war itself, how Cuba struggled to establish a democratic government in the war’s aftermath, and the war’s long-term impact on world events from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. In this chapter we’ll recall the final collapse of the Soviet Union and analyze how the United States reacted to the new realities of a post-Cold War world.
"Tear Down This Wall!": 1984-1989
In geopolitics, as in show business, timing is crucial— and the CPSU’s timing couldn’t have been worse in appointing Konstantin Chernenko to succeed Yuri Andropov as party First Secretary. At precisely the moment when the Soviet Union most needed a clear - thinking and vigorous leader to resolve the countless internal and external problems it faced, it was instead saddled with a gravely ill Brezhnev-era relic whose health had already started to decline even as Andropov’s ashes were being interred in the Kremlin walls. Indeed, one US political commentator would quip two decades later that Chernenko "spent enough time in hospitals to qualify for an honorary membership in the American Medical Association"1.
The decrepit former clerk and border guard was considered a perfect symbol of the country he now led. The Soviet Union’s industrial and agricultural sectors were reeling from the cumulative effects of decades of chronic mismanagement; its social fabric was fraying as popular dissatisfaction with one-party rule approached the boiling point; its military capability was being questioned in light of its failure to win the guerrilla war in Afghanistan; and its prestige abroad was once again on the decline as the Reagan Administration continued to prosecute its global anti-Communist crusade.
With the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt, there may never have been an American president more media-savvy than Ronald Reagan. From his post-college stint as a radio sports announcer to his two-decade film and TV acting career to the speechmaking skills he perfected in two terms as governor of California, Reagan had time and again demonstrated a knack for for connecting with audiences that justly earned him the nickname "The Great Communicator". Even his toughest critics conceded his rhetorical gifts; those gifts, along with a granite-firm values system and a boundless faith in the greatness of the American people, would later be credited by his supporters with paving the way for his decisive victory over Democratic challenger Walter Mondale in the US presidential elections in November of 1984.
They also laid the groundwork for what may have been his most effective public relations tactic in his fight to end Communism. In late February of 1985, on his way back to Washington after a summit with NATO leaders in Oslo, Reagan visited West Berlin and delivered a passionate speech calling for the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies to institute political reforms; referring to the huge concrete barrier that had divided Berlin for nearly a quarter-century, he closed his address with this memorable demand of his Soviet adversary: "Mr. Chernenko, tear down this wall!"2
That challenge resonated on both sides of the Iron Curtain and exhilarated anti-Communist factions worldwide while unnerving the Soviets, who had hoped that the gruelling US election campaign and the ongoing crises in the Middle East might have exhausted Reagan sufficiently to influence him to finally begin adopting a less confrontational attitude towards the Kremlin.
The world never got a chance to find out whether First Secretary Chernenko would take Reagan up on his challenge— just three days after the President’s return to Washington, Chernenko died of a cerebral haemorrhage in a Moscow hospital, leaving the reins of the Soviet government in the hands of a relatively young former Stavropol regional party leader, Mikhail Sergeievich Gorbachev. Gorbachev took over as CPSU First Secretary on March 7th, 1985 and immediately set to work gauging the political and economic health of the Soviet Union.
What he learned in his first days in office was discouraging to say the least. Barring a miracle, according to his top economic advisors, the USSR would suffer total financial collapse within the next 5-7 years; his senior diplomatic aides told him Soviet international prestige was at its lowest point since the Stalin purges of the mid-1930s; the KGB warned that pro-independence movements were picking up steam in the Baltic states and Ukraine; and the espirit de corps the Soviet armed forces had enjoyed since the end of the Manchurian War was eroding in the face of repeated setbacks at the hands of the insurgents in Afghanistan.
Mere cosmetic changes to the Central Committee’s lineup were no longer sufficient to deal with the multiple problems the country faced; nothing less than a top-to-bottom overhaul of the entire Soviet political and cultural structure— or what Gorbachev would later refer to as perestroika ("reconstruction") –would do to keep Russia functioning as a nation. To revive an ideological climate he was convinced had grown dangerously stale, he implemented a reform system he dubbed glasnost ("openness") meant to relax some of the restrictions on opposition parties that had been in place since the October Revolution of 1917.
But as it turned out, there was little he could do to arrest the Soviet Union’s final breakup. Even as he was touting his reforms, the Ukraine’s pro-independence movement— nicknamed "the Orange Revolution" because of the orange armbands worn by its members – was mounting an increasingly successful non-violent insurgency to supplant the ruling Communist regime in that republic. On top of that, the Warsaw Pact alliance which they had dominated since its inception three decades earlier was eroding as its members sought one by one to shed their ties to the Kremlin.
Just over a year into Gorbachev’s tenure as CPSU First Secretary, the Orange Revolution would be suddenly handed a propaganda coup which would enable it to sever Moscow’s last faltering ties with the Ukraine. On March 10th, 1986, just after 10:00 AM Moscow time, the number 2 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Kiev suffered a catastrophic explosion which killed thirty people outright and condemned thousands more to slow death by radiation poisoning.
The Orange Revolution’s leaders quickly seized on the disaster and the Kremlin’s attempts to minimize its extent as proof that Moscow was willing to gamble recklessly with the lives of the Ukrainian people; through sympathetic foreign journalists they leaked photographs and video footage of the reactor site to the outside world, undermining Gorbachev’s reassurances that the explosion had only been a minor one. Before long the clamor for an independent Ukraine had risen to a deafening roar; within two months the Ukrainian regional Communist Party’s Central Committee resigned en masse in protest over Moscow’s mishandling of the explosion and its aftermath.
In the months following these resignations the Orange Revolution grew in strength and numbers until finally, in April of 1987, they were to proclaim the rebirth of an independent Ukraine. Some argue that even without Chernobyl, dissatisfaction with the state of the Soviet economy and the lack of success with the war in Afghanistan would have been sufficient to drive the Ukrainians out of the Marxist orbit sooner or later; whether or not one subscribes to this viewpoint, there is almost unanimous agreement among historians and Cold War scholars that Chernobyl was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Not that Moscow gave up without a fight: indeed, even as the new flag of the fledgling Ukranian Republic3 was being unfurled above the provisional government’s headquarters in Odessa, the Red Army was gathering troops in southern Russia to re-impose Communist rule on the truculent province. Opposing this assault force was a motley collection of ex-World War II partisans, civilians armed with hunting rifles, and dissident Red Army and KGB troops who’d defected to the side of the pro-independence forces.
On April 12th, 1987, little more than a week after the Ukranian Republic’s formal establishment, Soviet Communist forces entered the Ukraine. The nascent Ukranian army, although outnumbered at least 5-1 by the invaders, proved a very tough adversary for the Communist forces. Coming as it did on top of the futile effort to suppress the Afghan insurgency, the Red Army’s Ukranian campaign backfired in the most ironic way possible— far from squelching the Orange Revolution, it actually proved to be the single most galvanizing factor in that movement’s ultimate success. Within six weeks the Soviets found themselves stalemated, bogged down along the banks of the Dnieper River as volunteers swelled the ranks of the pro-independence forces and the Ukranians began receiving covert assistance from Yugoslavia and Romania.
Aroused by the Ukranians’ determination in pressing home their bid for independence, the citizens of the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia initiated uprisings of their own; Moldavia, whose ties with the Kremlin had been tenuous at best even before the Orange Revolution, seceded from the USSR and agreed to a mutual defense pact with Romania. A diverse coalition of pro-democracy factions in Belarus overthrew the Communist regime there and proclaimed its solidarity with the Ukranian independence movement. In Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikstan, and Turkmenistan long-suppressed Islamic faiths began to enjoy a resurgence; Kazakhstan made friendship overtures to China and the United States.
In post-Cold War historical studies, it has been fashionable to refer to the Orange Revolution as "the Soviet Union’s wake"; if one subscribes to that analogy, what happened in Berlin in the spring of 1988 could be considered the USSR’s funeral. Taking advantage of Moscow’s distraction by the Ukranian rebellion and the Afghan war, Erich Honecker, Walter Ulbricht’s successor as East German chancellor, had opened reunification talks with West Germany. Like many of his fellow heads of state in eastern Europe he had come to recognize that Communism was doomed, and rather than let his hardship-racked nation descend into chaos he chose to rejoin it with its more prosperous western neighbor so that a single unified German government could continue to protect the welfare of citizens in both countries.
The reunification pact was formally announced on May 3rd, 1988 at a joint press conference in Bonn by West German foreign minister Hans Dietrich-Genscher and his East German counterpart Oskar Fischer. The announcement triggered spontaneous demonstrations of joy throughout a soon-to-be reunified Germany; nowhere were those demonstrations more dramatic than in Berlin, where the citizens of that historic metropolis took hammers and chisels and began to dismantle the Berlin Wall brick by brick. In classic capitalist fashion, entrepreneurs were soon putting fragments of the Wall on sale as mementos of the Cold War.
President Reagan lauded the reunification pact as "a testament to the unquenchable yearning of the German people to live in a free, unified country"4 and a vindication of his unyielding opposition to the Soviet Union. Not long after the pact was ratified, the war in Afghanistan finally came to an end as the Kremlin accepted a negotiated cease-fire agreement with the Afghan insurgents; by early June of 1988 the Soviet occupation forces in that country had begun their withdrawal.
At that point the Soviet Union, once the most formidable opponent the West, was essentially on life support; the already weakened Gorbachev regime was debilitated further in mid-September of 1988 as hard-liners determined to bring back the glory days of Marxist rule tried to overthrow him in a coup attempt that was thwarted when crowds of demonstrators packed Red Square and prevented the hard-line faction from storming the Kremlin. It turned out be the last act of the 71-year-long drama of Communist rule in Russia: two months after the hard-liners’ uprising was crushed, Gorbachev announced that the USSR would be formally dissolved as of January 3rd, 1989.
This announcement struck most observers as carrying coals to Newcastle given that fourteen of the fifteen states which had once comprised the Soviet Union had already long since severed ties with Moscow. But nonetheless, the outgoing CPSU First Secretary deemed it necessary to issue the statement to dispel any doubts among his fellow countrymen that a new reality had taken hold in Russia and the rest of the world.
On January 20th, 1989, Ronald Reagan boarded Air Force One for the last time to begin the journey back home to California. He left behind a vastly improved US military and an economy more robust than the one he’d inherited from Carter; a legacy of triumph in the four-decade-long ideological struggle between East and West, and his former vice-president George Herbert Walker Bush as his successor.
With the Soviet Union no longer a threat to American security, the new chief executive decided it was time to rethink US foreign policy priorities. In one of the first Cabinet meetings held by the Bush Administration, the new US Secretary of State, James Baker, recommended that American diplomatic and military energies be focused on two areas in particular: the Persian Gulf, where Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had become the dominant power now that the Iran-Iraq war was over, and Latin America, where once-cordial relations between Washington and Panama were deteriorating as Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega became heavily involved in the lucrative Latin American cocaine trade.
Six months after Bush took office, in fact, it would be Noriega who confronted him with his first significant foreign policy crisis. So-called "Dignity Battalions"-- paramilitary squads of Noriega supporters --had taken to harassing US troops and their families along the Panama Canal Zone, and the Justice Department had turned up disturbing evidence suggesting Noriega had a hand in the deaths of at least three DEA5 agents probing a cocaine supply network operating out of neighboring Colombia. Noriega’s own words and actions had become increasingly belligerent; in one notorious instance, he even brandished a machete before the TV cameras during a speech to his country’s national assembly.
Bush finally made up his mind to act in early July, when Cuban intelligence officials advised the CIA that they had received credible evidence indicating that Noriega’s regime planned to seize the Canal Zone by force within 10-14 days. Activating a contingency proposal that had originally been drafted as a way of dealing with hypothetical Soviet amphibious assaults against US allies in Central America, Bush authorized Army and Marine Corps units to invade Panama on July 11th, 1989.
In a campaign lasting just three weeks, American forces ousted Noriega’s regime and cornered Noriega himself in the Vatican nunciate in Panama City; by August 8th, Noriega had surrendered and was in US custody in Miami on at least a dozen charges relating to his suspected involvement in the drug trade. American troops stayed in Panama until early October to ensure that the country’s newly formed democratic civilian administration would have a smooth transition into office.
Meanwhile, a dispute between Iraq and Kuwait over alleged Kuwaiti slant drilling6 into Iraqi oil fields was becoming increasingly ugly; even though the Kuwaiti government had supported Baghdad financially and diplomatically during its war with Tehran, Saddam Hussein was coldly rebuffing his neighbors’ efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution to the quarrel. Indeed, three weeks after the last US troops left Panama Saddam’s chief deputy Tariq Aziz made a troubling public statement to the effect that Iraq would not hesitate to invade its southern neighbor in order to achieve its desired aims. His words alarmed the Bush Administration, which saw in them a threat to US allies in the Middle East— especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, which were both within range of the Scud missiles that were the Iraqi army’s primary tactical weapon.
Mother of All Battles: 1990-91
Fears of a new war in the Persian Gulf became reality on April 3rd, 1990, when in defiance of UN warnings not to attack Kuwait the Iraqis invaded and occupied the country in a blitzkrieg assault that lasted just five hours. In addition to the slant drilling dispute, Saddam Hussein’s regime cited as its casus belli its claim that Kuwait was, by international law, merely a breakaway province of Iraq and the occupation was justified since it was simply a reclamation of territory lost when the British deployed troops to Kuwait to support that nation’s 1961 declaration of independence.
The Iraqi occupation led to severe economic sanctions by the UN and a decision by the Bush Administration to deploy massive air and ground forces to Saudi Arabia in support of a full-scale multinational military effort to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Saddam, however, was unfazed by these events and boasted that any foreign army which tried to enter Kuwait would face what he described as "the mother of all battles".
Some 28 nations were direct participants in the UN-backed force being deployed to liberate Kuwait, and at least a dozen others were indirectly involved in various support capacities. With the exception of the United States, the country with the largest commitment to this campaign was Great Britain, who had dispatched 200,000 men to serve in what its own military referred to as "Operation GRANBY" but was more popularly known throughout the world by the Pentagon’s designation "Operation Desert Storm". In November of 1990, the UN passed Security Council Resolution 678, which formally authorized the members of the multinational force in Saudi Arabia to go to war against Iraq if the Iraqi government did not withdraw its troops from Kuwait by January 13th, 1991.
Two months after the resolution’s approval, the night sky above Baghdad rang with the wail of air raid sirens...
To Be Continued
1 Quoted from the preface to Ann Coulter’s Cuba Si, Democrats No: How Liberals Almost Bungled The Florida Keys War, copyright 2005 by Regnery Publishing Inc.
2 I.e., the Berlin Wall; a complete recording of the speech is available at the archives of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
3 Consisting, appropriately enough, of two orange stripes and one white.
4 Quoted from a letter sent by Reagan to then-West German chancellor Helmut Kohl dated May 4th, 1988.
5 Drug Enforcement Administration, the primary US government agency for investigating suspected illegal drug manufacture.
6 I.e., the drilling of non-vertical oil wells.