The Missiles of October
Or: Thirteen Days of Fear and Loathing
By Jose Rodriguez
It was only through John F. Kennedy’s leadership that the world narrowly avoided nuclear oblivion. The temperature of the Cold War was turned way up when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had begun construction on several new nuclear sites on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles south of Florida. By the end of the thirteen day stand-off in the Caribbean waters around Cuba, the U.S.S.R. promised to remove the missile sites if the U.S. promised not to invade the island. President Kennedy’s careful judgment was predicated on his ability to empathize and respect his adversary, his ability to weigh all the advice given to him, and his hesitation to use violence as a means to an end. One can only speculate about the holocaust that would have been wreaked on civilization had President Kennedy not been elected in 1960.
This thesis, however, is not shared by many revisionist historians who reject any claims that the crisis represented President Kennedy’s finest hour. The reassessments by these historians place full blame for the crisis on President Kennedy’s shoulders, and virtually give the Communist cohorts, Cuba and the Soviet Union, a pass. President Kennedy, they charge, unnecessarily brought the crisis to the brink of nuclear war in order to appear tough on communism during mid-term elections. They are also quick to point out that the memoirs of those involved in the crisis (Robert Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Walt Rostow, etc.) are all biased accounts that tend to view the President more positively than objectively, and are thus not suitable for any constructive discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis. These individuals, by implication, have done an injustice to the historical record by creating a false image of the President during those thirteen days. In the final analysis, these revisionists are guilty of ascribing motives to individuals where there is no evidence for such assertions.
Thomas G. Paterson, a revisionist historian, has been very critical of President Kennedy’s handling of the missile crisis. According to Paterson, Professor Emeritus at University of Connecticut, President Kennedy recklessly took the route of confrontation when the route of diplomacy was readily available to him. Why would President Kennedy take this route? In Paterson’s essay Bearing the Burden: A Critical Look at JFK’s Foreign Policy, he states: “The president’s desire to score a victory, to recapture previous losses, to flex his muscle, accentuated the crisis and obstructed diplomacy… Kennedy gave Khrushchev no chance to withdraw his mistake or to save face… He left little room for bargaining but instead issued a public ultimatum and seemed willing to destroy, in Strangelovian fashion, millions in the process.” The appearance of being weak or hesitant to act during an election season was unacceptable, so, according to his assertions, Kennedy built up the threat to be more dangerous than it actually was. Following the disastrous Bay of Pigs debacle, the Kennedy administration was eager for a confrontation that would demonstrate their power and superiority over the Soviets. Paterson concludes that President Kennedy was not the cool and collected decision maker that his adherents have maintained; Instead, President Kennedy was vain, reckless, and impatient, all of which generated the tensions that could very well have resulted in nuclear war.
Another proponent of this theory is Roger Hagan, who has asserted that it was Kennedy’s arrogant and hostile Cuban policies that forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to put missiles on the Cuban island. Like Paterson, Hagan states that “Politics, toughness, a sense of nakedness and military peril, a sense of being tested, silly rage, all were probably mingled into an unanalyzed conviction of the necessity of our action.” Cowboy diplomacy, in other words, was exercised by the President so that he would not appear soft on communism, a position that would have left him weak politically.
In the book The Crisis years, Michael Beschloss asserts that the President’s legacy enjoyed, for some time, an immunity from criticism. The Kennedy White House is described as being at fault for creating an official version of events and then cementing that version into the minds of several generations of Americans who were “relieved by the peaceful end to the crisis, [and] were eager to accept” the White House story (Beschloss, 564). Had the President lived in more modern times, Beschloss writes, he “would not have been so lucky.” (Beschloss, 564) The American people, he argues, ate up the “drama” over the missiles because it was more “comprehensible” than the “abstractions of Berlin.” (Beschloss, 568) By implication, if the public were not so ignorant they would have seen that their President was “(responsible) for provoking the crisis” to begin with (Beschloss, 568). The fact that the public bought the “official version” emboldened President Kennedy’s political status and his appearance of being tough on communism (Beschloss, 568).
Arthur Schlesinger jr criticized the revisionist historians in his memoir of Robert Kennedy. He points out that the left-wing revisionists portray him as a President “driven by psychic and political compulsions to demand unconditional surrender at whatever risk to mankind,” while the hard-liners, such as Dean Acheson, during the crisis thought “him fatally soft.” (Schlesinger, “Robert Kennedy” 554) This appears to be a paradox. Schlesinger, one of the people Paterson accuses of being a perpetuator of the Kennedy legacy, argues that the very individuals that faced off against the President during the crisis thought that he was striving for peace. Khrushchev, for example, wrote that Kennedy “was a man who understood the situation correctly and who genuinely did not want war… Kennedy was also someone we could trust… He showed great flexibility and, together, we avoided disaster… He didn’t let himself become frightened, nor did he become reckless… He showed real wisdom and statesmanship.” (Schlesinger, “Robert Kennedy” 554). He also quotes Cuban President Fidel Castro, who was speaking to Herbert Matthews: “[Kennedy] acted as he did partly to save Khrushchev, out of fear that any successor would be tougher.” (Schlesinger, “Robert Kennedy” 554) The point Schlesinger is trying to make is that the people who were closest to the President and those who went toe-to-toe with him better understood his motivations than those historians who would attempt to ascribe motives to a person they did not know in a situation they did not participate in. Having the benefit of hindsight, these revisionist historians overcompensate for the Kennedy legacy following his assassination by trying to destroy his legacy altogether.
The legacy began when Senator John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the Presidential election of 1960, much to his consternation. However, over the next seventy days, Senator Kennedy transitioned into President Kennedy, earning him a 75% approval rating in the days following the inauguration. Following the election, President-elect Kennedy reached out to President Eisenhower, seeking his advice on two separate occasions about a range of issues. Though the President-elect came away from the meeting unimpressed with the elder statesman’s grasp of the issues, the President gained a new appreciation for Kennedy’s talent and intelligence. He wrote to Clark Clifford in a memo: I had been “misinformed and mistaken about this young man. He’s one of the ablest, brightest minds I’ve ever come across.” (Dallek, 303) President-elect Kennedy also made a show of political unity by meeting privately with Nixon, though, he admitted to Kenneth O’Donnell, “I haven’t the slightest idea” about what to discuss with him, which turned out fine because Nixon did most of the talking during their meeting. The inaugural balls, however, introduced the country to the Kennedy clan and their attractive beauty and youthful vigor. The country, as well as the world, fell in love with the grace and style of the Kennedys.
Keep following my blog. Part 2 of the Cuban Missile Crisis series will be posted soon!