War Stories

This Is Not a Test

Sitting on an aircraft-carrier deck in 1962 didn’t prepare John McCain for the presidency.

John McCain

In the last few days, Sen. John McCain has told crowds that he’s “been tested” when it comes to dealing with international crises, and as proof he cited the big enchilada of crises, the showdown over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. “I had a little personal experience in that,”McCain said in Ohio. “I was there.”

But where was “there”? Was McCain a White House fellow or a junior aide in the Pentagon, watching, albeit from a distance, while President John Kennedy or Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara grappled with the dilemmas?

No, he was the pilot of a naval attack plane on an aircraft carrier in the Caribbean. As he put it at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, “I sat in the cockpit on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise, off of Cuba. I had a target.” Then he added: “My friends, you know how close we came to nuclear war. Americans will not have a president who needs to be tested. I’ve been tested, my friends.”

I mean no disrespect for carrier pilots, especially those poised for combat. The job requires a special sort of skill, nerve, and bravery that few of us have ever faced. (Certainly I never have.) But it is not at all clear how this experience tested McCain—or any of the other pilots on the four aircraft carriers off the coast of Cuba—for the job of making strategic decisions in a crisis, any more than working an assembly line tests someone to be president of a major manufacturing corporation.

As a 26-year-old Navy lieutenant in October 1962, John McCain was prepared to follow orders, fly his plane along a predetermined path to a preselected target, drop his preloaded bombs, and fly back. Again, this is not to be minimized. But neither does it constitute being “tested” to be—either then or 46 years later—the president of the United States.

Here’s what the president at the time, John F. Kennedy, did during the crisis.

The confrontation began when U-2 spy planes detected the Soviets surreptitiously shipping missile launchers and nuclear warheads to Cuba and, in some cases, already setting them up on Cuban bases.

Kennedy assembled all his top advisers in the Cabinet Room to discuss how to respond. (Lucky for historians, he secretly tape-recorded all these deliberations. You can buy copies of the tapes from the JFK Library or read Sheldon Stern’s bookAverting “The Final Failure”: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, an excellent account.)

On the first day of deliberations, Kennedy figured that he would have to bomb the missile sites. McNamara suggested blockading the island as an interim measure to buy some time. Kennedy agreed.

By the third day of the crisis, Kennedy was musing about Soviet motives and wondering what kind of “face-saving” gesture he might offer to get them to back off. One possibility, he said, might be a trade: We’d withdraw the missiles we had in Turkey—on the Soviet Union’s southern border—if they withdrew the missiles they had in Cuba. None of the advisers reacted to this remark.

On Oct. 26, the 13th and final day, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a telegram offering just such a trade. Kennedy favored taking the deal. “To any man at the United Nations or any other rational man,” he can be heard on the tapes saying, “it will look like a very fair trade. … Most people think that if you’re allowed an even trade, you ought to take advantage of it.”

All of Kennedy’s advisers—his brother Robert Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff—vociferously opposed the deal. All of them at this point—even McNamara—urged Kennedy to bomb the missile sites. They protested that trading the missiles in Turkey would amount to appeasement; it would wreck NATO, betray the Turks, advertise our weakness. On the tapes, they sound hysterical; you can hear the quivering in their voices.

Kennedy remained preternaturally cool. He recalled that the attack plan, drawn up a few days earlier by the Joint Chiefs and endorsed by McNamara, was calling for 3,500 conventional bombing sorties against the Soviet missile sites and air bases in Cuba—500 sorties a day for seven days—followed by an invasion of the island.

“I’m just thinking,” Kennedy said, with remarkable calm, “about what we’re going to have to do in a day or so … 500 sorties … and possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take missiles out of Turkey. And we all know how quickly everybody’s courage goes when the blood starts to flow, and that’s what’s going to happen in NATO … when we start these things and the Soviets grab Berlin” in retaliation, “and everybody’s going to say, ‘Well, this Khrushchev offer was a pretty good position.’ ” At another point, Kennedy noted that if we went to war and it was later learned that this deal had been on the table and we had rejected it, it was “not going to be a good war.”

At the end of the day, without telling more than a handful of his advisers, President Kennedy ordered his brother to tell the Soviet ambassador that he accepted Khrushchev’s deal—as long as it was kept a total secret, as indeed it was until the tapes came out 20 years later. (Not wanting to appear weak, Kennedy himself contrived the cover story—and ordered his palace historians, Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen, to perpetrate the myth—that he’d stared the Russians down.)

And so, the point is even more clear-cut than it might seem at first glance: Just because John McCain sat in a cockpit on a flight deck during the tensest five days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that doesn’t mean he absorbed the slightest bit of wisdom about how to handle a crisis from the top.

What about Sen. Barack Obama—has he ever been tested for a crisis of this sort? There’s no evidence that he has. In this sense, former President Bill Clinton’s evasive remark a few months ago when he was asked about Obama’s qualifications—”You can argue that nobody is ready to be president”—may well be true.

The lesson of Kennedy’s performance in the Cuban Missile Crisis is that a president should be cool-headed, ask the right questions, listen to a wide range of advice, then exercise his own judgment.

With this history in mind, which of the two candidates—McCain or Obama—seems best-suited to handle a crisis? That’s the appropriate question.