I voted in a national election for the first time in my life today -- at the age of 62. During more than three decades as a foreign correspondent and a political reporter, I reported on countless elections in countries around the world. I have watched people patiently lining up to cast their ballot in places like Poland and Russia and Haiti -- but I have never actually voted myself. Wherever I lived, I was always a foreigner.
As a new U.S. citizen, I was struck by the contrast between the trivialization and coarseness of the political campaign and the solemnness and sanctity of the voting experience. Inside my polling station in Bethesda, Maryland, we were instructed to turn off our cell phones, symbolically zoning out the outside world, the misleading political rhetoric, the charges and counter-charges, the twisted truths and outright lies. For a few moments, I felt at peace, in the undefiled inner sanctum of American democracy.
I like to think that my vote was unaffected by the millions of dollars spent by the rival campaigns, the gotcha moments, the empty slogans. Urged to donate a few dollars to the one of the candidates, I replied with a question: Why would I want to do anything to contribute to the endless stream of inane political ads that are already polluting the airwaves? The insistent voice at the other end of the telephone line did not have a scripted answer to that question.
In the end, I voted on the kind of America I want my children to inherit. (See photograph above.) I also voted on how I thought the candidates would handle the gravest responsibility a president can ever face: the issue of war and peace. As a historian of the Cuban missile crisis, I thought of the president who guided us back from the brink of nuclear annihilation 50 years ago. Had someone else occupied the White House in October 1962, the result could have been very different.
I also thought of the military hero who extracted the United States from the Korean war and warned of the growing power of the military-industrial complex and the chicken hawk who led us into a disastrous war in Iraq. I thought of all the presidents, from Truman to Reagan, who guided us to victory in the Cold War not through military conquest but by making America a more attractive, vibrant society than its ideological nemesis.
I thought of the wasted lives and wasted opportunities squandered in the so-called "war on terror" -- and I voted for the candidate most likely to keep our country safe and prosperous.
As followers of my Twitter feed on the Cuban missile crisis will know, today was the day John F. Kennedy supposedly went "eyeball to eyeball" with Nikita Khrushchev. It is a moment that has been celebrated in dozens of books, political science treatises, and even a movie or two (viz "Thirteen Days.") One of our foremost historians, Robert Caro, repeated the "eyeball to eyeball" story in the latest volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography.
There is only one problem with this version of history. At the moment when Secretary of State Dean Rusk claims to have uttered the most vivid soundbite of the crisis -- "we're eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked" -- the Soviet missile-carrying ships were 500 miles away and heading in the opposite direction, back to Russia.
In other words, the "eyeball to eyeball" moment that we were led to believe took place on Wednesday, October 24, 1962 is itself a dangerous myth. (See my recent op-ed for the New York Times on this subject.)
As you can see from the map above, the ship that the U.S. Navy had been ordered to intercept -- the Kimovsk -- was even further from the blockade line, around 750 miles. As I established in research for my book, One Minute to Midnight, the Soviet ships turned back, thirty hours earlier, on Khrushchev's instructions.
There are a couple of lessons to be drawn from this story. First, don't believe the early, first draft of history, which is often written by the victors, channeled through uncritical journalists. Although U.S. intelligence established the truth within a few hours, the Kennedy camp did not have any interest in undermining the myth of a determined U.S. president facing down his reckless Soviet rival.
The second lesson is that the Cuban missile crisis was plenty dangerous -- but it was dangerous in a way that we failed to understand for many years. Having brought the world to the edge of nuclear destruction through their own blunders, Kennedy and Khrushchev did everything in their power to avoid an "eyeball to eyeball" moment that would lead to the other fellow being pushed into a corner. In contrast to practically all his advisors, Kennedy was unwilling to sacrifice world peace for a few obsolete American medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey. When Khrushchev offered JFK a Turkey-for-Cuba deal on October 27, he authorized his brother to accept it.
The real risk of nuclear war in October 1962 arose from miscommunication and miscalculation. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were in the position of Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, when he said that "I do not control events, events control me." Fortunately for us, both leaders understood that events that were spinning out of control. By acknowledging this fundamental fact, they succeeded in regaining control of the great historical narrative, at least for a time. (Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Khrushchev was over thrown in 1964.)
The question of human agency in history -- and particularly during the Cold War -- has always interested me. I deal with this subject in my latest book, Six Months in 1945, which describes how the giants of World War II -- FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman -- were unable to prevent the outbreak of a new contest for global dominance, despite their best intentions.
Earlier this week, I was invited to talk to a roomful of intelligence analysts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, commemorating the 50h anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. We were joined by two intelligence veterans, Dino Brugioni and Vincent DiRenzo, who first identified the presence of Soviet medium-range missiles on Cuba, on October 15, 1962.
The photograph above shows DiRenzo, then a young CIA officer, (far right) at a light table in October 1962, examining photographs taken by one of the U-2 spy planes that flew over Cuba. It was these photographs that triggered the hair-raising "thirteen days" when the world came closer than ever before-or since-to nuclear destruction.
As I told the NGA analysts, the Cuban missile crisis marked the hour of the photo interpreter. Having examined most of the intelligence that reached President Kennedy during the crisis, I concluded that 60-70 per cent of the useful stuff was "Photint," or photo intelligence. Signals intelligence-intercepts of Soviet and Cuban communications, radar and the like-played a secondary role.
Of course, the photo interpreters did not succeed in getting everything. Because of a White House-imposed ban on U-2 flights over Cuba in September and early October, they were very late in identifying the missile sites. And they were unable to answer the president's question, "Where are the nuclear warheads?", a mystery that remained unsolved until the publication of my book, One Minute to Midnight, in 2008.
Even on the edge of nuclear apocalypse, the photo analysts managed to retain a sense of humor. This is well illustrated by the photograph below, which they used to show JFK the difference between an "occupied" missile site, and an "unoccupied" one. Rather than explaining that an unoccupied site is one that still awaits the presence of an actual missile, in the vertical position, ready to fire, they dug up imagery of an "occupied" Soviet latrine at one of the missile sites, next to an "unoccupied" one.
The president took one look at the image below, and burst out laughing. He now understood exactly what the photo interpreters were trying to tell him. Can you figure out which site is "occupied"?
For Cuban missile crisis fans, there is a lot of interesting new material in the Robert F. Kennedy records that were partially opened today after a decades-long ownership dispute between the family and the National Archives. The newly-released material includes the clearest breakdown I have yet seen of the split in the White House between "the hawks" and "the doves" -- those who wanted to bomb Cuba right away, and those who preferred a negotiated solution the crisis.
The document below is a note jotted down by RFK on October 16, 1962, the day President Kennedy learned that the Soviets had secretly deployed dozens of nuclear missiles to Cuba. JFK responded to the crisis by setting up an informal group of wise men that came to be known as the ExComm, or executive committee. As you can see, the ExComm immediately split into a group favoring a naval "blockade" on Cuba (left-hand column) and those favoring an air "strike" to take out the missile sites (right-hand column).
The doves include: Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and his deputy, Roswell Gilpatric, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and his assistants, George Ball, Alexis Johnson, and Edwin Martin, Soviet experts Llewellyn Thompson and Chip Bohlen, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, Undersecretary of State and former Defense Secretary Robert Lovett, and presidential speech writer Ted Sorensen.
The hawks were led by National Security Adviser Mac Bundy, and included former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon, CIA Director John McCone, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze (a question mark originally, but then put into the "strike" column). The Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by General Maxwell Taylor, all favored an air strike.
In other words, the diplomats nearly all favored the softer option of a blockade that would allow for diplomatic negotiations. (RFK puts a minus next to Adlai Stevenson to indicate that he was not all that keen on a blockade, but willing to go along with the decision.) The uniformed military, including the legendary Air Force chief Curtis LeMay, were hawks to a man. (Probably not the case today with Iran.)
Everybody expected an air strike to be followed, within a few days, by a full-scale invasion of Cuba. What nobody knew at the time was that the Russians had 98 tactical nuclear weapons on the island that could have been used to wipe out an American invading force. That, in turn, could easily have escalated to full-scale nuclear war.
Like his brother, the president, RFK originally favored an air strike against Cuba. But they both quickly changed their minds and came down on the side of the blockade option outlined by McNamara.
The term "doves and hawks" can be traced back to the missile crisis. When it was all over, the leader of the hawks, Mac Bundy, had the grace to concede that the doves had got the better of the argument.
"Everybody knows who were the hawks and who were the doves," Bundy told the ExComm on the morning of October 28, after Khrushchev announced that he was withdrawing his missiles. "Today was the day of the doves."
There’s nothing like a big anniversary to galvanize the gatekeepers of history into action. Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, we are finally going to get to see the personal notes and records of Robert F. Kennedy, which have been held hostage to a long-running ownership dispute between RFK’s family and the National Archives.
Bobby Kennedy served as his brother Jack’s closest adviser and alter ego during the crisis, which brought the world the closest we have ever come to nuclear destruction. His contemporaneous notes will examined closely by historians as a unique window into the thinking of the late president as he sought to avoid nuclear war and negotiate a diplomatic solution with his Soviet opposite number, Nikita Khrushchev.
JFK Library officials in Boston plan to put hundreds of previously withheld documents online Thursday morning, prior to a conference of missile crisis experts that the library is hosting on Sunday. The new documents include memos between the two brothers written during the so-called “thirteen days” that marked the peak of the crisis between October 16 and October 28 1962, when Khrushchev finally agreed to withdraw his missiles.
A source who has seen the documents said that they include several versions of a note written by Bobby Kennedy on the night of October 27, following his meeting with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Acting on JFK’s orders, Bobby Kennedy made a secret promise to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey as a concession to Khrushchev. The episode remained secret from other members of the ExComm, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who had been urging the president to take a tougher line with Khrushchev.
The newly-released records, which amount to 2,700 pages, also include memos dictated by Bobby Kennedy on Operation Mongoose, a sabotage campaign designed to overthrow Fidel Castro by October 1962. Although the bungled sabotage effort had little chance of succeeding, it was one of the factors that provoked Khrushchev into sending nuclear weapons to Cuba.
negotiations between the National Archives and the family of Bobby Kennedy, who served as attorney general in the Kennedy administration. The Kennedy family has been pushing the JFK Library for a special building to house the RFK records, and has also explored the possibility of selling the papers.
The agreement between the Kennedy family and the National Archives to release the Cuban missile crisis records sidesteps the question of ownership. Dozens of other boxes containing RFK records remain withheld from researchers -- at least for the time being.
Earlier this week, I received a call from the Washington Post's political fact checker, Glenn Kessler, asking about a Benjamin Netanyahu quote relating to the Cuban missile crisis. The Israeli prime minister was citing President Kennedy's handling of the Soviet missile threat from Cuba to bolster his demands for a clear "red line" before Iran. Netanyahu would like the Obama administration to tell the Iranians that the United States will take military action if they seem likely to acquire sufficient weapons-grade plutonium to make a nuclear bomb.
"President Kennedy put a red line before the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis," Netanyahu told CNN on September 16. "He was criticized for it, but it actually pushed the world back from conflict and maybe purchased decades of peace."
In my reply to Kessler, I noted that "everybody quotes JFK when it is in their interest." President George W. Bush cited Kennedy's actions during the missile crisis approvingly back in 2002, as part of his justification for going to war with Iraq. But we should be wary of simplistic historical parallels, in both the Iraq and Iran cases.
"While it is true that JFK demanded the removal of the missiles -- which you could interpret as a red line -- he was deliberately flexible about the way he handled it.The blockade, or quarantine, was essentially a diplomatic maneuver to gain time for negotiations. Most of the missiles had already arrived.
"JFK's first instinct was to bomb the missile sites on Cuba, but he thought better of it, and chose a more subtle approach. It is a good thing he did, as the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons on Cuba. A U.S. air strike would have been followed almost inevitably by a U.S. invasion of the island, which could easily have provoked use of Soviet tactical nukes against the invading force, escalating rapidly to nuclear war.
"The parallels with the current situation are pretty interesting. Like Obama, JFK was facing an election in November 1962 (a mid-term) and was under attack from the Republicans for not doing enough on Cuba. There were rumors of missiles and other military equipment crossing the Atlantic, but officials lacked the definitive proof; JFK locked himself into doing something about deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba with a statement on September 4, in which he said that 'the gravest issues would arise' if the Soviets were deploying nukes to Cuba.
"Kennedy later regretted making this statement, as it made it impossible for him to shrug the deployment off. You could argue that Obama has done the same thing by saying, earlier this year, that the U.S. will not tolerate Iran gaining nuclear weapons. In other words, they both committed themselves to preventing nuclearization of a hostile country.
"After drawing this line, however, JFK went out of his way to avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, and was willing to go to considerable lengths to make concessions (including withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey). Obama is following a similar playbook, perhaps a little less flexibly than JFK."
Drawing the wrong lessons from history can be as dangerous as ignoring history all together. I will return to this theme in a future post.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Having just completed a trilogy of books about decisive moments in the Cold War, I am bemused by the "Who lost the Arab Spring?" debate that suddenly seems to be gripping Washington. Like many foreign policy controversies, this one is driven more by the domestic political agenda -- and specifically the presidential election in November -- than informed analysis of actual events.
To hear many Republicans talk, Barack Obama is to blame for the sudden upsurge of violence in the Arab world that claimed the life of our brave ambassador to Libya. The president's repeated "apologies" for American values have encouraged the extremists in Cairo, Benghazi, and elsewhere.
This kind of argument is similar to the "Who lost China?" debate that followed the Chinese Communist seizure of power in 1949. It supposes that China -- or the Arab Spring, in this case -- was ours to lose. The reality, of course, is that a U.S. president has very little influence over what happens in the paddy-fields of China or the streets of Cairo or the bazaars of Baghdad, unless he chooses to send in the First Armored Division. And as we have seen in Iraq, the forceful exercise of presidential power does not always produce the desired results.
A central theme of my three Cold War books -- Down with Big Brother, One Minute to Midnight, and Six Months in 1945 -- is the role of political leadership versus the chaotic forces of history. There are moments -- the Cuban missile crisis is a good example -- when the fate of the world hangs on the decisions and actions of a few individuals. More generally, however, the politicians are left scrambling to keep pace with events that are beyond their ability to control.
The most successful leaders are those who understand this fundamental truth, but keep plugging away all the same. At the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lamented that he did not control events. "Events control me." And yet he somehow steered the country through the greatest crisis in its history. JFK expressed very similar sentiments during the Cuban missile crisis.
Of course, there are different types of foreign policy crises. As I describe in One Minute to Midnight, the missile crisis is a good example of a crisis that Kennedy and Khrushchev helped to create. This is a rare case where two men actually had the power to blow up the world. Through a series of mistakes and miscalculations, Kennedy and Khrushchev led the world to the brink of nuclear destruction -- but also had the wisdom to lead it back from the brink.
The onset of the Cold War was a different kind of crisis, more akin to the kind of crisis we are facing in the Middle East right now. In my forthcoming book, Six Months in 1945, I conclude that neither FDR, nor Stalin, nor Churchill, nor Truman wanted the Cold War. They sought to postpone it, for as long as they could. But it happened anyway -- because of the larger forces of history identified by Alexis de Tocqueville more than a century before.
"Their starting point is different and their courses are not the same," de Tocqueville wrote of Russia and America in 1839, "yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe." I think we are seeing a historical upheaval of similar dimensions play out before our eyes on the streets of the Arab world.
For decades, U.S. presidents and their advisers have been drawing the wrong lessons from the Cuban missile crisis. On the fiftieth anniversary of the thirteen days that brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction, Foreign Policy and the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center are offering you the chance to outshine some of our most brilliant statesmen. Come up with an original, persuasive lesson from the crisis -- and you could win a brand new iPad.
To ensure a level playing field, the competition will be divided into separate categories for middle and high school students, scholar-practitioners, and the general public. Contributions are limited to 300 words, in response to the question: "What can statesmen learn from the most dangerous confrontation in human history to better address challenges of war and peace today?" Full details of the contest are available here.
The Cuban missile crisis is the most studied conflict of the Cold War, providing the raw material for countless books, Ph.D. theses, university seminars, and even movies, such as Thirteen Days and Doctor Strangelove. Scholars and policy-makers have scoured the historical evidence for insights into everything from the role of personality in politics to the theory of game play.
John F. Kennedy's skill in persuading Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuba without plunging the world into nuclear war was widely hailed as a masterful display of presidential power. But success breeds hubris. In seeking to replicate JFK's diplomatic triumph, future presidents frequently ended up in deep trouble. There is a good argument to be made that the drawing of erroneous parallels from the Cuban missile crisis contributed to two of our greatest national disasters, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
Encouraged by their success in defusing the missile crisis, the foreign policy advisers known as the "best and the brightest" thought they could use a similar strategy of "controlled escalation" and "flexible response" against the North Vietnamese communists. Ho Chi Minh and his followers were unimpressed, and matched the Americans escalation for escalation, dragging the United States ever deeper into an unwinnable war.
George W. Bush drew an equally erroneous lesson from the missile crisis when he cited Kennedy's refusal to accept Soviet nuclear weapons on Cuba as justification for his new doctrine of strategic pre-emption in Iraq. A few months before the invasion, the president evoked the memory of his Cold War predecessor in arguing that "we cannot wait for the final proof-the smoking gun-that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." Former Kennedy aides such as Ted Sorensen immediately cried foul, pointing out that JFK went out of his way to avoid the use of force in October 1962.
For a helpful archive of these and other missile crisis lessons by presidents, policy-makers, and scholars, see the Cuban missile crisis website put together by the Kennedy School's Belfer Center. I have pulled together some of my own lessons from the Cuban missile crisis in a study for the U.S. Institute of Peace, based on my book, One Minute to Midnight. A sampling:
I will be one of the judges for the competition organized by Foreign Policy and the Belfer Center. Remember, we are not looking for regurgitations of other people's lessons. We are looking for your own original thoughts-as applied to a world that has changed a great deal in the last fifty years. Back then, it took 10-12 hours to transmit a message from Washington to Moscow. Win an iPad, and you will be able to communicate with our former Cold War enemies virtually instaneously!
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the nerve-wracking peak of the Cold War. To commemorate this event, Foreign Policy is launching a "Tweeting the Cuban Missile Crisis" feed in real time, chronicling the days, hours, and minutes when the world stood on the brink of nuclear destruction.
See the entire project here