DC at Night

DC at Night

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Words That Could Have Ended the World

Tension filled the room. Fear was present, too. And it wasn't a fake fear engendered by the Halloween masks that kids would be wearing (if there still were kids and Halloween) in a few days. It was the terrifying reality that a misstep here could result in a horrifying rain of destruction that would unleash mass annihilation on an unimaginable scale.

The known facts were these. The United States was engaged in the Cold War with its adversary the Soviet Union. The Russians had been secretly placing nuclear arms on the tiny Communist island of Cuba, only 90 miles from the Florida coast. The U.S. had discovered the secret. It wanted the missile threat eliminated. President John Kennedy and his advisers gathered in a White House room. They felt they only had 4 options: (1) issue an air strike to take out the missiles (2) invade the island to take out the missiles (3) combine options 1 and 2 (4) begin a blockade of Cuba to prevent any further deliveries and order the Russians to dismantle the weapons they had already set up.

World War II hero and war hawk Gen. Curtis LeMay believed he had the answer. Use the military. Of course, there was the real risk of provoking nuclear war. But the greater danger to LeMay was appearing to be weak to the Soviets.

"This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich," LeMay said, trying to force the issue and knowing full well those words would nettle the president. The British had tried to reason with Hitler at the Munich conference at the beginning of World War II. Obviously, it hadn't worked. And Munich had greatly cost Kennedy's father, who had been a big proponent of that plan because he didn't believe America should get involved in a European war since it would be bad for business.

Kennedy began tapping the table with his fingers. He believed LeMay was essentially wrong. He was trying to figure out a way to make General LeMay and the other generals in the room who supported him irrelevant.  Kennedy, himself a World War II hero,  realized that he was now a nuclear president and he could no longer view war in the same way. He also was acutely aware that once armed confrontation started, he, as president, would have very little control.

Although Kennedy had initially favored some type of military intervention, he now believed the blockade and ordered removal was the only prudent way to go. While it couldn't eliminate the unleashing of a nuclear holocaust, it was the option that made that possibility least likely. After hours and hours of discussion, President Kennedy went on nationwide TV, revealed the situation to the American people, and announced his intention to blockade Cuba. While the world held its collective breath at the time, we now know how that decision turned out. The world was saved from the greatest single crisis it had ever known.

And obviously that idea of those 13 October, 1962 days on the brink of world destruction still fascinates, especially this month as we observe the 50th anniversary of what has become to be called the Cuban Missile Crisis. Last week, a distinguished panel of 3 historians and President Kennedy's daughter Caroline engaged in a program at the National Archives entitled The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The panel consisted of:
Excerpts from those tapes were played during the discussion, giving a sobering take on just how real the crisis was and how daunting the task of those trying to end it peacefully faced. Naftali said the tapes allowed historians to examine "presidential thinking in real time in one of our most dangerous moments."

"It was a lesson in leadership for business schools," Widmer said. "The conventional thinking is to make a crisp decision and stand by it. But that would have been wrong.  They were able to sort through the issue without pressure. They changed their minds. The slowness of the decision led to a much better decision."

Widmer credited Kennedy with the success. "He had a crucial ability to think like his adversary. He was creatively thinking - how can I give him (Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev) better options. He had just read The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchmann  which showed how European leaders had tumbled into World War I and he said he didn't want there to be a book entitled The Missiles of October," Widmer said.

In some ways, the historians agreed, the earlier fiasco of the Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion gave Kennedy a healthy skepticism of military advice and helped convince him to reject the military options.

But despite the fact that the world breathed much easier after the 13th day of the crisis, President Kennedy's Cuban troubles didn't end then. Although the Soviet ships had turned around, there was still a grave numbers problem. "There were 42 MRBMs, 42,000 Soviet troops, 42 airplanes that could carry nuclear bombs to America and 1 promise from Khruschev," Naftali said.

The American public didn't believe the Russians. Kennedy had to grapple with making sure that the Soviets actually followed through on their word. One way would be to continue surveillance flights. But, if he sent up planes, what if one of them was shot down? What would we do then? Where exactly should the line be drawn?

Once again, Kennedy rejected rash action. He also made certain that neither he nor any other American official gloated over the fact that they had forced the mighty Russians to back down.

In fact, the total handling of the crisis and its aftermath actually led to a strengthening of  personal ties between Kennedy and Khruschev and their 2 countries. "They realized that they had been to brink and basically had seen something that no one else had seen," Coleman said. "They had a common understanding  that they had together worked to solve the crisis."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Caroline Kennedy (by Bruce Guthrie)
Caroline Kennedy, whose voice as a tiny child could actually be heard on one of the tapes played and analyzed by the panel, introduced the night's program. "My father's time is becoming a part of history instead of a memory," Ms. Kennedy said. She said her father found studying history intriguing and engaging. "My father viewed himself as an international president in a new, televised world," she explained. "He believed he was a man for his times. He was convinced that politics was a way of solving problems and he called the nuclear test ban treaty (which came in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis) his most important accomplishment."

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