George W. Bush seems to have picked up one vital lesson about being president: When you’re having trouble selling your foreign policy, quote John F. Kennedy. It’s a striking phenomenon, given how regularly Kennedy was bashed on foreign policy in his lifetime, but somehow JFK’s words have since taken on an aura of holy writ. In Bush’s Monday night genuflection in Cincinnati, aimed at persuading cable-viewers of the need for pre-emptive action against Iraq, he invoked the Big Kahuna of JFK lore, the Cuban missile crisis. He quoted from Kennedy’s own urgent telecast back in October 1962: “Neither the United States nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril.”
At first glance, the analogy seems apt. Kennedy did not wait passively for the Soviets to finish setting up their nuclear missiles, which they were secretly shipping to and deploying in Cuba. Similarly, Bush does not want to let Saddam Hussein finish assembling his arsenal of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The sentiment, in both cases, is correct. Beyond that, though, the parallel goes astray. To the degree that Kennedy in Cuba provides substantive lessons for Bush in Iraq, the lessons are very different from the ones Bush appears to have drawn.
The biggest difference between the two crises is that Kennedy’s was far more serious, more so than many people recognize even today. The missiles that the Soviet Union was putting in Cuba would have not only directly threatened the United States but drastically altered the strategic balance of power.
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Nikita Khrushchev boasted that the USSR possessed hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles—in one speech, he said his factories were churning them out like sausages. This flamboyant rhetoric formed the foundation of his entire foreign policy, particularly his repeated threats to occupy all of Berlin. In the fall of 1961, one year before the Cuban crisis, Kennedy let Khrushchev know that we knew he was bluffing. New spy-satellite photographs revealed that there was indeed a “missile gap,” but it was dramatically in America’s favor. The Soviets, it turned out, had just four ICBMs. The game was up. Rather than embark on a crash ICBM program, Khrushchev did the next best thing—he planned to ship medium-range missiles to Cuba, his one outpost that bordered U.S. territory.
In October 1962, U.S. spy planes spotted 36 Soviet missile launchers—and at least that many actual missiles—on, or en route to, the island. Each missile was accompanied by a nuclear warhead with the explosive power of at least 1 megaton. If he could pull off the scheme, Khrushchev would match America’s nuclear arsenal and go it one better. Since his missiles were only a few minutes from their targets, he could destroy most of the airfields housing U.S. long-range nuclear bombers without warning. In the parlance of the day, the Soviets could launch a surprise first-strike that would kill millions of Americans and perhaps prevent us from retaliating—a capability that could give them great leverage in any future gambit over Berlin or some other “hot spot.”
This is a far cry from even the most catastrophic scenario that Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld envisions for Iraq. And yet, Kennedy decided not to bomb the Cuban missile sites, though all of the military chiefs and roughly half of his top civilian experts advised him to bomb them and quickly. Instead, he mounted a naval blockade—which he called a “quarantine,” to avoid issues of international law. As a purely military gesture, this didn’t make much sense (and the generals didn’t hesitate to say so). Most of the Soviet missiles and warheads were already on the island, just days away from becoming operational.
What Kennedy was doing was signaling his intentions while buying time. Secret tape recordings of the ExComm sessions—the meetings of the National Security Council’s Executive Committee, which Kennedy assembled to hash out options during the crisis’ “13 days”—show that, nearly from the beginning, the president was looking for a diplomatic way out. He did not want this act of Soviet aggression and deception to trigger a war. He didn’t doubt the feasibility of knocking out the missiles, but he worried about what would happen next if he did.
In an Oval Office meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (which he also secretly taped), Kennedy laid out his objections to an airstrike. “Here’s my point of view,” he calmly said. “We attack Cuba, we give them a clear line to take Berlin. … We will be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin. …. If we go out and take them out in a quick airstrike …. there’s bound to be reprisal from the Soviets. They’ll just go in and take Berlin by force, which leaves me with only one alternative, which is to fire …. nuclear weapons, which is a hell of an alternative.”
Even when provoked, Kennedy went out of his way to avoid open conflict. On Saturday, Oct. 27, the last day of the crisis, news came that a Soviet surface-to-air missile in Cuba had just shot down a U-2 spy plane. The pilot was missing and assumed dead.
“This is much of an escalation by them, isn’t it?” Kennedy mused.
“Yes, exactly,” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara replied. “We ought to go in at dawn and take out that SAM site, and we ought to send the surveillance aircraft in tomorrow, and we ought to be prepared to take out more SAM sites.”
At an ExComm meeting four days earlier, Kennedy had agreed to do just that if a U-2 were shot down. But now that it had happened, he decided against it. “I think we should wait,” he said.
A few hours later, he sent his brother Robert Kennedy to the Soviet Embassy to accept a deal that Khrushchev had offered that morning—to trade the Soviet missiles in Cuba for the 15 nuclear missiles that the United States had in Turkey (which the president was planning to dismantle, in any case). This deal was kept a secret for the next 20 years. The fact that all of JFK’s advisers opposed making the deal—even the so-called “doves” among them—was kept secret for another 15 years after that. The tapes have been available for a few years from the John F. Kennedy Library, but almost no histories of the crisis have incorporated or properly interpreted them.
The point here is not that George W. Bush should, or could, make a deal with Saddam Hussein. But if he wants to emulate John Kennedy, shunning the possibility of a compromise that avoids war may not be the way to go.
Then again, who knows? Does Bush really mean to go to war—or could he be taking a reel from Kennedy after all? It has been widely commented that, whatever Bush’s intentions, his talk of war has pushed Congress and the United Nations into a more pliantly hawkish stance—and, as a consequence, pushed Saddam toward agreeing to readmit inspectors. Who knows what’s being said in Bush’s version of the 1962 ExComm meetings? Check back in 20 or 30 years.