Starting October 16, we are currently going through the 50th anniversary of the 13 days in 1962 during which Cuban missile crisis grabbed the attention of the world and seemed to bring us to the brink of a nuclear war.
Peter Orsi of the Associated Press has a good article on five items of conventional wisdom that have taken hold about that crisis.
- The crisis was a triumph of U.S. brinkmanship.
- Washington won, and Moscow lost.
- It was a high-seas showdown.
- It was an intelligence coup for the CIA.
- The crisis lasted just 13 days.
What Orsi shows is that the crisis was averted due to the success of good old-fashioned diplomacy with the leaders of the two sides trying to find ways to take their nations back from a war that neither wanted, and realizing that each side had to give up something in order to do so. That is how things are peacefully resolved in the real world with long negotiations involving some give-and-take. But that important lesson was lost in the desire to make it appear that the US had ‘won’ by being inflexible and standing tough.
In a rebroadcast last week on the radio program On the Media of an excellent interview on the crisis that was first aired in 2002 on its 40th anniversary, Fred Kaplan confirms the major elements of Orsi’s account.
Kaplan says that almost right at the beginning, on the third day, Kennedy suggested that they propose a compromise with the USSR that the US would remove their missiles from Turkey if the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba. But his suggestion was ignored by his close circle of key advisors. They wanted him to take much stronger action such as bombing the missile sites in Cuba or imposing a blockade, both actions that would have triggered some sort of retaliation and likely led to war.
When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev offered a similar deal later in the crisis, Kennedy wanted to accept it, saying that the world would see it as a fair offer and that to reject it and go to war against a tiny Caribbean nation would make the US look bad. But again he was opposed by almost all his advisors, who said that this would make the US look weak, disappoint their allies in Europe, and destabilize NATO. They again insisted on bombing Cuba, with over 500 sorties per day.
But Kennedy finally overrode them, sending a secret emissary to Khrushchev offering to remove the missiles from Turkey but only after six months had elapsed so that the quid-pro-quo would not be readily apparent, and telling Khrushchev that this secrecy was part of the deal. The Soviet leader agreed and thus the crisis was averted.
After Kennedy’s death the next year, all the others involved in these negotiations made a pact that they would never reveal this deal, and so they all consistently lied to the media and the public about how the crisis had been resolved. The facts emerged when it turned out that Kennedy had been secretly recording the deliberations and the recordings were released in 1982. But as is often the case, the long-standing myths, which appealed to the macho sensibilities of the nation, were too strong to overcome.
So what the public has been fed is a steady diet of myths straight out of Western films, the crisis being portrayed as a high noon showdown in which the US stood strong and the Soviet Union ‘blinked’. It feeds into the Manichaean mind-set of good vs. evil and that the good side has to be strong and inflexible to achieve results. That rhetoric reverberates to this day and contributes directly to needless tensions and hostility between the US and other nations.
In another interview on the same program, Leslie Gelb of the Council of Foreign Relations explains how that false view bedeviled future attempts to peacefully settle conflicts elsewhere because of the need to have the US appear strong and unyielding.
Even now we see that US presidents have to tread gingerly when the issue of talks with countries like North Korea or Iran come up. The idea that one should have talks that lead to some sort of compromise is enough to invoke comparisons to Neville Chamberlain or even as borderline treasonous. The president is expected to lay down ultimatums and it is only after the other side has complied that talks can take place about how to comply with the ultimatums, which is absurd. As Orsi says,
Another modern standoff is over Iran, which the West accuses of pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In a recent U.N. speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a red line on a cartoon bomb to illustrate that a nuclear Tehran would not be tolerated.
“Take Iran, which I have called a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion,” said Graham Allison, author of the groundbreaking study of governmental decision-making “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
“This same process is looming on the current trajectory, inexorably, toward a confrontation at which an American president is going to have to choose between attacking Iran to prevent it becoming a nuclear weapons state or acquiescing and then confronting a nuclear weapons state,” Allison said.
“Kennedy’s idea would be, `Don’t let this reach the point of confrontation,'” he added. “The risks of catastrophe are too great.”
Kaplan says that the Cuban missile crisis shows that the frequently cited perception (a view that even I have subscribed to) that it does not really matter that much if the president is a weak or even negligible figure because his advisors would rein him in and prevent him from doing something crazy, is a mistake. In this case, the ‘best and the brightest’ (journalist David Halberstam’s ironic title for the advisors around Kennedy) were all urging Kennedy to be belligerent and intransigent with the Soviet Union and in effect, go to war. He was practically the sole holdout at the final stage and overruled all of them and averted the crisis. It is not often that the secretly recorded tapes of a president show him in a positive light but this is one of them.
I wonder if the people of the Soviet Union were fed the mirror image of that view of the Cuban missile crisis, that it was the Soviet Union that stood strong and the US that blinked.