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.
"What did the president know and when did he know it?" was the question made famous by Watergate. During the two years I spent researching the Cuban missile crisis, I came to feel that a more appropriate question about the man waiting for that 3 a.m. phone call in the White House would be: "What didn't the president know and when didn't he know it?"
Confronted with grave national security crises, we comfort ourselves with the image of a near-omniscient commander-in-chief able to draw on the vast resources of the world's most powerful military machine. The historical record suggests a more realistic -- and human -- picture of presidents stumbling about in the semi-darkness as they attempt to master the chaotic forces of history. With rare exceptions, it is difficult for them to bend history to their will: the most they can do is avoid the obvious pitfalls. As Abraham Lincoln remarked at the height of the Civil War, "I do not control events, events control me."
In my book One Minute to Midnight, I tried to integrate the debates in the White House with a minute-by-minute account of events in the rest of the world. The disconnect was often jarring.
Cecil Stoughton, White House/John F. Kennedy Library, Boston
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