When opinion surveys ask the public to rank the presidents, John F. Kennedy does extremely well. A swirl of positive images crowd in on his biography: the nation’s youngest president, touch football games on the White House lawn, the comparison to King Arthur’s Camelot. No doubt the tragedy of his assassination lends further sympathy. Historians have been harder on Kennedy, judging his accomplishments as relatively meager. They cite his reluctance to support the civil rights movement for fear of alienating white Democrats in the segregated South (a key component of FDR's Democratic coalition); and they debate whether Kennedy's willingness to become involved in anti-Communist “wars of liberation” led to the American quagmire in Vietnam, though it was Lyndon Johnson who sharply escalated the conflict.
These demerits certainly dim the president’s luster. Yet I rank Kennedy more highly than many historians do, simply because of those thirteen days in October 1962. The Cuban missile crisis is hardly ignored in histories of the era, but its peaceful resolution perhaps softens the realization of what almost occurred. In one of his most famous cases, Sherlock Holmes calls attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” When Scotland Yard's Inspector Gregory responds that “the dog did nothing in the night-time,” Holmes rejoins, “That was the curious incident.” Because the missile crisis ended well, the implications of the near miss fail to sink in. Surely World War III would have followed if events had fallen out slightly differently, and the world's civilizations would not have recovered even today. In the tense face-off, Kennedy as well as Khrushchev compromised, despite Dean Rusk’s famous boast that “the other fellow blinked.”
Over time, our knowledge of the crisis has deepened considerably, especially once the end of the Cold War opened Soviet archives to scholars. Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, provides a gripping narrative. Especially insightful on Soviet perspectives is Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble. But for those interested in the intricate details, I highly recommend Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes. These are transcripts of the secret recordings made of the ExComm committee meetings Kennedy convened to hammer out a response to the Soviets.
For a flavor of the intense back and forth, consider the following excerpt from the first ExComm meeting, held on Tuesday October 16, 1962. Secretary of State Dean Rusk outlined two possibilities for dealing the with missiles. The first was military: to make a surprise “quick strike” to take out the nuclear missile sites in Cuba without announcing American intentions in advance. The second alternative charted more of a diplomatic route, first announcing knowledge of the bases, then consulting with American allies and calling upon the Organization of American States (OAS) to assemble and demand that the Soviets remove their missiles.
Why bomb the Cuban air force? Well, it was impossible to discount the possibility that the Soviets had loaded a few nuclear bombs onto Cuban planes, which would be able to reach at least some coastal areas of the United States. But then—if you included the Cuban air force bases in the bombing campaign, the “quick strikes” became a much larger project and, as Deputy Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatric noted, the Russians and Cubans could logically assume that a strike that large signaled the preparation of a full U.S. invasion of Cuba: ”and it would seem to me that if you’re talking about a general air-attack program, you might as well think about whether we can eradicate the whole problem by an invasion just as simply, with as little chance of reaction.” So—literally within minutes—the discussion has moved from the notion of a quick, surgical air strike to a full-blown invasion of Cuba, with the knowledge that nuclear retaliation by the Soviets remained a strong possibility.
Kennedy saw this, though that first day he still assumed that somehow, the United States would have to launch a military strike to take out the missiles. By the climax of the crisis, however, he had changed his views—unlike the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who to the very end recommended a large air strike. It was Kennedy’s finest hour that he stood up to that pressure to launch an attack that would almost certainly have ended civilization as we know it. And so, in the depths of one dark Saturday night, the dog did not bark. Given the current instabilities in the Middle East and in Europe (with breaking news of a Turkish jet shooting down a Russian warplane as I post this), Kennedy's deliberative caution is a lesson worth remembering. "Quick strikes" and counter-punches are always more complicated than they first seem.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors