JFK and the truth about the Cuban Missile Crisis

February 4, 2013

TORONTO, ON, Feb. 4, 2013/ Troy Media/ – ‘We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.’ That was American secretary of state Dean Rusk’s famously pungent description of 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. It was also an encapsulation of what became the conventional narrative: John F. Kennedy staring down Nikita Khrushchev to win the day.

However, there’s a problem with this heroic rendering. In a nutshell, it’s not true.

Although historians began dismantling the conventional story as far back as the mid-1980s, the demolition process has been significantly enhanced by Sheldon M. Stern. And Stern is in a position to know what he’s talking about. (The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile) Working at the John F. Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000, he was the first historian to listen to the secret White House tape recordings Kennedy made during the crisis.

In reality, the crisis was resolved by an old fashioned diplomatic quid pro quo. Khrushchev agreed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba in return for Kennedy’s promise to forego any future invasions of the island and to dismantle the American intermediate-range missiles in Turkey. But the last bit wasn’t publicly disclosed. Hence the victory myth.

Indeed the missile-swap secret was even kept from Kennedy’s vice-president, Lyndon Johnson. In Stern’s words, ‘Johnson went to his grave in 1973 believing that his predecessor had threatened the use of U.S. military power to successfully force the Soviet Union to back down.’ One wonders to what, if any, extent this fundamental misapprehension influenced his ultimately futile policy in Vietnam.

Lest anyone get the impression that Stern is doing a JFK hatchet job, it should be stressed that he’s full of praise for the way in which Kennedy resisted the hawkish counsel of his advisers and manoeuvred his way to a peaceful resolution. Based on the tapes from the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) meetings held during the crisis, he reckons that ‘John F. Kennedy was the only person at the ExComm meetings who genuinely understood that nuclear war could never be a viable or rational choice.’

But there are things that give one pause. Kennedy is shown as quickly understanding that the Soviet missiles in Cuba did little to alter the strategic balance. Still, he opted to embark on a high stakes public confrontation that ran the risk of careening out of control. If the strategic balance wasn’t an issue and he was willing to cut a deal anyway, why not resolve the whole thing behind closed doors? That, after all, is what diplomats and diplomacy are for.

In fairness, hindsight is always easy. When you know the result of the game and have retrospective knowledge of everyone’s motivations and tactics, calling the optimum plays isn’t that difficult. But Kennedy was feeling his way forward in real-time and under great pressure.

Further, both he and his advisers were operating under what was seen as the great historical lesson of their generation: Munich 1938 and the folly of appeasement. To them, weakness – or even the appearance of weakness – was something to be avoided at almost all costs.

Years later, John Kenneth Galbraith related how Kennedy subsequently told him that ‘you have no idea how much bad advice I received in those days.’ Leaving aside the implicit self-congratulation, there’s something worth pondering here.

Kennedy’s bad advice didn’t just come from military men like Maxwell Taylor and Curtis LeMay, but also from his civilian advisers, including brother Bobby. And these men were ostensibly the ‘best and the brightest,’ the ultimate smart guys.

So the next time you hear the argument that some proposed course of action is irrefutable because the experts are all in agreement, remember October 1962. The smart folks are just as susceptible to preconceptions and misjudgements as everyone else. They too are completely fallible.

Stern’s concluding thought is that leadership matters. And he gives Kennedy generally high marks in this regard. Although deemed partially responsible for the onset of the crisis, Kennedy is considered to have been critical to its resolution.

Mind you, Stern is talking about real leadership, the kind that entails the ability to read people, assess situations, and shrewdly make difficult tradeoffs. Never confuse that with mere charismatic posturing. They’re not the same thing at all.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

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