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Cuban Missile Crisis
ON AN AUTUMN DAY in 1962, Under Secretary of State George W. Ball observed "a particularly macabre background" for the decisions that brought Russia and America to the brink of war. It was the weather. "Though we might be about to blow up the world, nature had never seemed so luxuriant," Ball recalled. "The air was light and the sky crystal clear. As [Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara and I walked through the White House Rose Garden that Sunday [October 21], I remarked: `Do you remember the Georgia O'Keeffe painting of a rose blooming through an ox skull? That's exactly how I feel this morning.'"
The enduring fascination with the Cuban missile crisis, the gravest collision in the history of the cold war, begins with this sense of sudden, unfathomable terror. On October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy had learned through CIA analysis of aerial surveillance that the Soviet Union was shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba, contrary to the Kremlin's repeated assurances and his own warnings. After nearly a week of secret deliberations, the president told a shocked nation of the weapons poised ninety miles from Florida and announced a naval "quarantine" of Cuba as a first step toward securing their removal. Americans braced for a Russian challenge as U.S. warships patrolled the Caribbean, the Strategic Air Command mobilized one step short of an all-out nuclear strike, and U.S. troops readied for a possible attack on the missile sites.
Whether the chances of war were really, in Kennedy's words, "between one out of three and even," the prospect of escalation by the nuclear superpowers cast a global pall. As schoolchildren practiced taking cover under their desks in case of a nuclear blast, parents strained for radio and TV updates on the approach of Soviet ships toward the blockade line around Cuba. McNamara left the president's office at dusk on Saturday night, October 27, thinking, "I might never live to see another Saturday night." The sixty-eight-year-old Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, spent "one of the most dangerous nights" sleeping on an office couch with his clothes on," and later said of the palpable aura of danger, "a smell of burning [was] in the air." But on October 28 Khrushchev publicly agreed to withdraw all missiles in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba.
The swift, bloodless achievement of American aims, relieving fears of imminent war between the nuclear superpowers, transformed Kennedy's image. Khrushchev's missile gambit had widely appeared as a bid to bully a young president of uncertain resolve. Instead the crisis vindicated Kennedy's mettle and became a symbol of national will to contain Communist aggression: in short, a compelling American parable of the cold war.
General Andrew. J. Goodpaster, chief of staff under President Eisenhower, recalled a "euphoria" in Washington over this display of "crisis management at its best." Camelot's literary courtiers added elegant exclamations to the nation's exultant mood. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, thought "it was almost as if [Kennedy] had begun to shape the nation in his own image," through a "combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that dazzled the world." The president's speech writer and special counsel, Theodore C. Sorensen, hailed an "effort that remains a standard for all time."
Through the 1960s these portraits of the missile crisis as Kennedy's finest hour gleamed in the twilight of America's staunch anti-Communist consensus. But as cynicism toward national leaders deepened amid daily body counts in Vietnam and revelations about abuses of power by the president and the CIA, a new school of writers disdained nostalgia over Kennedy's "thirteen days." These revisionist scholars agreed with traditional historians of the missile crisis that Kennedy had acted boldly at the edge of Armageddon, but they asked why this should be remembered fondly, let alone with reverence, simply because we happened to survive.
A British observer of American mores, Henry Fairlie, found in Kennedy's militant oratory and fixation with global challenges a deeper failing of character. "If he did not actually enjoy leading his country to the edge of danger," Fairlie wrote, "one could not tell so from his words or from his actions." Thanks to the president's continuing references to imminent Communist threats and his aggressive policies toward Cuba, the Congo, Laos, Vietnam, Berlin, and elsewhere, "From midday on 20 January 1961 until midday on 22 November 1963, the people of the United States lived in an atmosphere of perpetual crisis and recurring crises...."
Some writers sought clues to Kennedy's political conduct in newly unearthed evidence of scandals in Camelot, ranging from Kennedy's compulsive womanizing to his obsessive involvement in CIA plots against Castro (possibly including its recruitment of Mafia hit men). They recast the young prince of American memory as simply a glib pretender driven by amoral ambition, unbounded family yearnings for glory and power, and desperation to prove his manhood. History, in these accounts, was above all the story of greatly flawed men: "the Kennedys, not the Russians, were ready to go to nuclear war over Cuba," and the "compulsions" to risk war "were more within the leaders than upon their nations."
Despite a growing recognition that Kennedy tried to avoid war once the crisis was under way, historians still widely depict him as dangerously reckless. In his riveting narrative The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963, Michael R. Beschloss argues that the president was flawed by a craving to prove himself through confrontation. "At some level of Kennedy's thinking," Beschloss observes, "there was always the conviction, as he wrote in Profiles in Courage, that `great crises make great men.'" Lacking the experience and poise of Dwight D. Eisenhower, his predecessor in the White House, Kennedy "aroused the Western world to an hour of imminent danger that did not exist." Beschloss concedes of the missiles that "anyone who was President" arguably "would have felt compelled to demand their removal," but he faults Kennedy for a rash "blanket warning" to the Russians in the late summer of 1962 that "locked him into a specific course of action...." His public belligerence "had the effect of foreclosing any presidential action if missiles were found in Cuba short of risking nuclear war."
The belief that President Kennedy's actions during the missile crisis chiefly reflected his singular character, judgment, and leadership may be the last great myth surrounding this clash of superpowers. For more than three decades writers have variously highlighted Kennedy's efforts to rid Cuba of Soviet nuclear weapons as a triumph of heroic statesmanship, a near tragic indulgence in machismo, or, increasingly, a mixture of the two. (Popular culture has rendered a more consistent verdict: the 1974 TV drama The Missiles of October and the recent big-budget Hollywood thriller Thirteen Days portray President Kennedy and his brother Robert as the sort of larger-than-life patriots sorely missed in politics today.) On closer inspection, however, one finds that Kennedy explored no new policy frontiers but rather etched a mainstream profile in caution, bounded securely by diplomatic precedent, partisan pressure, and the values of American political culture during the cold war.
Accounts of Kennedy's unique grace—or disgrace—under Soviet pressure have centered on whether the president personally was right or reckless in committing to three bold policies: treating the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba as a crisis; relying on military action (a blockade of Cuba), not simply diplomacy, to remove the missiles; and resisting a formal agreement to withdraw American missiles from Turkey, as the Soviets had demanded in exchange for dismantling comparable weapons in Cuba. Yet in each of these areas President Kennedy's policies were largely inherited from the previous administration and hardened by a formidable public consensus that crossed party lines as well as regional and sectional borders.
Kennedy's insistence that the Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba was intolerable coincided with policies and public opinion that had crystallized long before his emergence in 1960 as the Democratic presidential candidate. American cold war attitudes were becoming more alarmist and belligerent, based on perceptions of proliferating global crises caused by Communist threats and subversion, growing Soviet nuclear and missile capabilities, and Cuba's increasing reliance on Soviet trade and aid, under its left-leaning president Fidel Castro. The appearance in Cuba of Russian military equipment and "technical personnel" further provoked fears that America was slackening in its anti-Communist vigilance and permitting a blatant violation of the Monroe Doctrine, which since 1823 had warned foreign powers against encroaching in the Western hemisphere. Before Eisenhower left office in January 1961, his administration had sanctioned covert efforts to topple Castro, and in scattered private remarks he had treated as self-evident that any Soviet attempt to build an offensive military base in Cuba would require a U.S. military response.
Kennedy's Cuban policy built on his predecessor's, though with scant initial success. In April 1961 the president's hesitant approval of a disastrous CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba by exiles seeking to oust Castro was a shock to his image and his ego, as well as his hopes of ending a Russian foothold in Latin America. Yet this defeat did not significantly alter U.S. policy toward Cuba, which remained to undermine Castro by all means short of occupation by American forces, and to deter the Soviets from converting the island into an offensive military base.
When President Kennedy learned that the Russians had covertly deployed missiles in Cuba capable of destroying American cities as far as Texas, he had, in theory, a wide choice of ways to secure their removal: private diplomacy, appeals to the United Nations, a blockade of Cuba, an air strike on the missile sites, an invasion of the island. But with rare exceptions, no one in the administration—and few Americans generally—believed diplomacy alone to be an adequate response to a nuclear intrusion ninety miles from the U.S. mainland. Of the possible military responses, Kennedy believed a blockade to be the mildest, offering the best chances for a peaceful settlement. For these same reasons, calls for a blockade of Soviet arms to Cuba (but not an air strike or an invasion) had earlier gained strong support among Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and among newspapers and magazines throughout the country and across a broad political spectrum. Once again, President Kennedy's course built on widely shared perceptions of vital national interests, tempered by a concern to curb the dangers of unchecked escalation.
Early in the crisis Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy's ambassador to the United Nations and twice the Democratic party's candidate for president, privately urged withdrawal of American Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets' removing their missiles from Cuba. Stevenson's advice was emphatically rejected, and when the Russians later pressed for such a trade, Kennedy publicly refused. Yet we know now that Kennedy and his aides repeatedly considered this proposal in their secret deliberations, and in fact it became a crucial though hidden addendum to a larger, public settlement. Kennedy's policy shifts on this issue appear, at first glance, to suggest the exceedingly personal and contingent nature of diplomacy during the crisis. On fuller consideration, though, these maneuvers underscore the extent to which the president's policies reflected his caution in both foreign policy and domestic politics.
The missiles in Turkey were a logical bargaining chip in the crisis, for they were by all accounts obsolete and militarily useless, whereas their proximity to the Soviet Union was a diplomatic embarrassment, tending to discredit professions of outrage over Russian missiles near Florida. Yet before Kennedy could include them in any deal, he had first to take a firm military stand, to signal American resolve and avoid appearing to reward the covert Soviet nuclear deployment. The president also feared alienating Turkey and straining the NATO alliance by reversing commitments dating to the Eisenhower administration; and feared as well incurring Republican charges of weakness toward the Communists. By pledging to withdraw the Jupiter missiles yet concealing this from all but a handful of Soviet and American officials, Kennedy reconciled several compelling but seemingly incompatible aims. His compromise cost nothing in military security, defused the risks of escalation, and achieved what Americans most wanted—removal of missiles from Cuba, all the while preserving his image at home and abroad as an uncompromising anti-Communist leader.
Kennedy's cautious attempts to accommodate both domestic pressures and Soviet interests may best be appreciated in relation to each other. Too often scholars have tended to equate Kennedy's top-secret deliberations and formal authority as commander-in-chief with vast practical latitude in responding to the missiles in Cuba. In fact the political context, though at times depicted mainly as a dramatic backdrop to Kennedy's decisions, acted more like a vise tightly wound around the entire decision-making process. In this light the president's policies, however fraught with risk, appear temperate and even unseasonably restrained compared with the alarums and calls for bold action by Democratic and Republican officials, the media, community leaders, and the general public. Within a sharply limited realm for maneuver, Kennedy sought to curb the risks of escalation while forging a consensus from an electorate and a political establishment consistently more militant than he.
That Kennedy assiduously gauged public sentiment should scarcely occasion censure, for no leader can effectively march to the beat of his own drummer unless others join the procession. As Franklin Roosevelt confided in October 1937, after isolationists in Congress and the press had denounced his call for a "quarantine" of aggressor states, "It's a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and to find no one there."
With his keen sense of history, President Kennedy discerned that democratic leaders are subject to constraints that even scholars may find elusive. In 1962 he had started to fill out a poll evaluating American presidents, then decided the project was fruitless. According to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., son of the distinguished historian who had sent the poll, the president objected that "some of his greatest predecessors ... were given credit for doing things when they could do nothing else; only the most detailed study could disclose what difference a President had made by his own individual effort." As for ranking leaders, he exclaimed, "How the hell can you tell? Only the President himself can know what his real pressures and his real alternatives are. If you don't know that, how can you judge performance?"
Such skepticism need not preclude a study of Kennedy's own leadership, but it should discourage interpretations detached from the dominant political values and concerns of his era. Persistent attempts to divine the president's character from his policies and to attribute his actions to unique personal traits too often float free of historical context. If Kennedy was obsessed with personal honor, Red shadows over Cuba, a nonexistent "missile gap," Khrushchev's arrogance, and reliance on military responses, he did no more than reflect the harsh and largely unyielding terrain of American politics during the early 1960s. The public mood was alarmist, even apocalyptic, for a nation officially at peace, and no public figure could expect to contravene that mood and still retain credibility.
The surest way to see Kennedy's role more clearly may therefore be, paradoxically, to pull back from the relentless close-ups that have formed our standard images of him. In accounts of the missile crisis, foreign policy tends to appear an exceedingly personal enterprise, in which, for good or ill, "one human being alone exercised the responsibility to decide a matter that could have determined the fate of 185 million others." Yet the impact on Kennedy of those 185 million citizens and their political system warrants a closer, more respectful look.
Excerpted from MAXIMUM DANGER by ROBERT WEISBROT. Copyright © 2001 by Robert Weisbrot. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.