Fifty years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted, pushing the planet to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. The “13 days in October” (Oct. 16 to 28) featured a story of foolish actions and smart diplomacy, engineered by President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to avoid the disaster. Since then, every president has tried to “learn from what happened in that confrontation” for “presidential decision-making,” according to Graham Allison, director of the Kennedy School of Government.
The drama began in October 1962, when Kennedy confirmed that nuclear missiles were being deployed in Cuba. Shortly after, the president aroused Americans with a polemic. It was forceful, but a superb example of the adage: “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
• Unlike the USSR, Kennedy declared, America had never transferred its strategic missiles “to other nations under the cloak of secrecy and deception.” Right! Washington had already put nuclear missiles near the Turkish-Russian border.
• Fidel Castro’s regime is run by “puppets and agents of an international conspiracy” endangering all the Americas, Kennedy claimed. In reality, it was Castro, himself, who pleaded with his Soviet ally to protect his country after Washington had launched the Bay of Pigs invasion along with plots to assassinate Castro and sanctions to strangle Cuba’s economy.
Behind the scenes, however, the tough talk gave way to serious diplomacy. Kennedy tried to “put himself in Khrushchev’s shoes,” wrote historian Lawrence Freedman, “groping for an acceptable solution as if he were Khrushchev.” Soon, the two enemies were reaching across the nuclear divide to divert a disastrous nuclear war. It was a gut-wrenching struggle, with both leaders trembling over the destructive power in their hands, each fearful that one false step could set off a catastrophic war.
During the struggle, the U.S. military pressured Kennedy to take out the Soviet missiles in Cuba via air strikes followed by an invasion; and to use naval force to block the Soviet ships carrying more weapons to the island. But fearing those strategies would shove the two nations closer to nuclear warfare, Kennedy opted for a naval blockade. Ships were ordered to hold their fire unless the president ordered them to do so. At the same time, Kennedy assured Khrushchev that the United States did not want to fire on Soviet ships. Fortunately, as the Soviet flotilla neared the blockade, the ships stopped dead in the water on orders from Moscow.
“For a moment the world had stood still,” Attorney General Robert Kennedy recalled. Then, like a streak of daylight in a dark sky, Khrushchev dispatched a proposal to avoid war: Should Washington pledge “not to invade Cuba,” Moscow would “remove those weapons from Cuba.” But just as Kennedy was about to grasp Khrushchev’s olive branch, a second letter from Moscow raised the ante: The United States also should dismantle the missiles in Turkey.
Unfortunately, Khrushchev’s tit-for-tat proposition put the president in a bind. “We can’t very well invade Cuba,” he groaned, after Washington had failed to remove America’s outdated missiles in Turkey. On the other hand, should Washington remove the weapons from Turkey, bending under Soviet threats, it would weaken NATO’s containment policy.
Meanwhile, Kennedy was dueling with the Joint Chiefs, who were pushing to bomb the missiles before they were loaded with warheads. After a testy spat with Gen. Curtis LeMay, JFK confided to an adviser: “If we do what … these brass hats … want us to do, no one of us will be alive later to tell them they were wrong.” To another adviser, Kennedy furiously asserted, “I’m not going to war over any damned useless missiles in Turkey.”
However, the president began losing control of the situation after an American pilot slipped into Soviet airspace, triggering a chase by Soviet aircraft. An American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a surface-to-air missile, increasing the pressure to take out the SAMs.
“The noose was tightening on all of us,” Robert Kennedy said. But at the eleventh hour, he concocted a last-ditch scheme to avoid disaster. Ignore Khrushchev’s second letter, and focus on the first message – America’s pledge not to invade Cuba in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.
Soon, JFK’s brother was negotiating with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, both eager to accept Khrushchev’s first proposal. As for the Jupiter missiles in Turkey, Kennedy told him the president planned to remove the missiles from Turkey after the issues had faded. If Moscow spilled the beans, the deal was off.
Khrushchev readily agreed to the deal. And for 25 years, neither American nor Russian citizens had a clue about the sneaky deals by Kennedy and Khrushchev. Sobered by the searing experience, JFK set out to tame the hatred fueling the Cold War, particularly with his striking commencement address at American University in June 1963. Americans must “re-examine our attitude toward the Soviet Union,” to reject the “distorted and desperate view of the other side” and “communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.” Among the traits shared by both peoples is “our mutual abhorrence of war” and “deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race.”
Among all the presidents since Kennedy, I submit, President Obama stands out as the heir to JFK’s diplomacy based on maximizing common interests shared with both allies and enemies, as presented in Obama’s Cairo Address in June 2009. “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Much of the bad blood between the West and the Middle East, he said, stemmed from European colonialism and Cold War intrusions, including America’s “role in the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government.” High on his list of troubles were America’s relations with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Unfortunately, Obama’s message ignored the post-coup history that led to Iran’s anti-Americanism today. After the 1953 assault, Washington took control of Iran’s oil and restored the shah to power. Under his regime, thousands of people were tormented and murdered, leading to the revolt against Shah Pahlavi and the attack on the U.S. Embassy in 1979. President Ronald Reagan turned to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime and provided weapons to wage war on Iran, taking tens of thousands of lives on both sides.
Given that bitter history – forgotten by Americans but never forgotten by Iranians – Tehran’s ayatollahs said their “top priority” was to preserve the Islamic Republic from the United States, according to Moysen M. Milani, an expert on Iran’s international affairs. In pursuit of that objective, Tehran set out to challenge the United States for influence in the region. By modernizing its economy and weapons, making friends through its oil trade and exploiting America’s failure to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran won “strategic depth” in the Arab world by supporting Hezbollah terrorists and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Milani said.
Despite the “tumultuous history between us,” Obama declared, we should not “remain trapped in the past. … The question now is what future [Iran] wants to build.”
What is missing in our diplomatic discourse is the common interests shared by both countries. Both have fought the same enemies – al-Qaida and the Taliban. When President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, Iran’s soldiers fought in tandem with the war and poured $660 million to modernize Afghanistan’s economy. After the United States toppled Saddam’s Iraq regime, Iran was the first country in the region to recognize the new government and sent a billion dollars for Iraq’s reconstruction, Milani said. Both want stability in the region.
In short, elements for successful diplomacy are in place. To pursue peace, Washington must address Iran’s vital security interests. The best strategy on the table is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, promoted by Obama.
While the dueling with Iran continues, Obama must address the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to siphon off the anti-American terrorism coming from the Middle East. After confirming America’s “unbreakable bond” with Israel in his Cairo speech, he turned to the plight of the Palestinian people and the “pain of dislocation” that comes with occupation. The “two-state solution is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest and America’s interest.” And America will “align her policies with those who pursue peace.”
Even if Obama falls short of his goals, both he and Kennedy have left a legacy to search for justice and peace in foreign policy, at the risk of losing support for cooperating with enemy leaders. But that’s the stuff that makes politicians into statesmen.
Edward Cuddy is a history professor emeritus at Daemen College.