Dispelling a myth that decreases the drama for a classic international relations standoff, but could be important for future presidents facing challenges in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere, the NYT explains:
Kennedy was certainly bracing for an “eyeball to eyeball” moment, but it never happened. There is now plenty of evidence that Kennedy — like Khrushchev — was a lot less steely-eyed than depicted in the initial accounts of the crisis, which were virtually dictated by the White House. Tape-recorded transcripts of White House debates and notes from participants show that Kennedy was prepared to make significant concessions, including a public trade of Soviet missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey and possibly the surrender of the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay.
While the risk of war in October 1962 was very high (Kennedy estimated it variously at between 1 in 5 and 1 in 2), it was not caused by a clash of wills. The real dangers arose from “the fog of war.” As the two superpowers geared up for a nuclear war, the chances of something going terribly wrong increased exponentially. To their credit, both Kennedy and Khrushchev understood this dynamic, which became particularly evident on the most nerve-racking day of all, “Black Saturday.”
This is a different narrative versions of the crisis than has been previously suggested. In a helpful interview by Brooke Gladsone, these are the iterations:
- 1st version comes from “Stewart Alsop, who was a very establishment columnist of the day and creates the eyeball myth, with a cool, calm ExCom staring down the Soviets and Cubans and coming away victorious.
- 2nd version were enhanced versions of the first, adding authoritative emphasis from insider “palace historians” Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen.
- 3rd version focuses on Gary Wills assertions that Kennedy was “a maniac” unwilling to make a deal.
The latest and 4th version reveals reasonableness in both Kennedy and Kruschev and a willing to negotiate, compromise, and avert global thermonuclear war.
FRED KAPLAN: Yeah, that, that clip is just hilarious, diametrically opposed to the way John Kennedy was acting at any of those sessions. In fact, this does lead us to the fourth draft of history, tapes that Kennedy had secretly been making. Long before Nixon and before Johnson, Kennedy was taping a lot of things that happened in the Oval Office and in the Cabinet Room where the ExCom meetings took place. And we hear very clearly in those meetings that Kennedy took Khrushchev’s offer of the missile trade very, very seriously.
In fact, on the third day of the crisis, Kennedy is already musing that, well, you know, Khrushchev, he’s made a miscalculation. He’s obviously done this for bargaining leverage and we’re going to have to help him find a way to save face. Maybe if we trade those missiles in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba that might be the answer. Nobody even takes him up on it.
So on the last day of the crisis, when Khrushchev does bring it up, he’s very eager to take it. And, in fact, he is the only one in the room who’s willing to take it.
You know, there’s been this, this model, from the first draft of history on, that the room was divided into hawks and doves and centrists. But, in fact, on the last couple of days of the crisis, the room was divided between John Kennedy and everybody else. Everybody else in that room wanted to bomb the missiles in Cuba, and only John Kennedy wanted to take the trade.
So why does this discussion of how we understand the past matter today? Certainly our historical foreign policy stories shape our future, as Leslie Gelb explains:
LESLIE GELB: I know for a fact that it was very much of a part of the conversations there because Lyndon Johnson was one of the believers in the Kennedy Cuban missile crisis myth. It’s always been hard to do any compromises in foreign policy. The Cuban missile crisis myth made it harder. So take Iran…
We’re squeezing them economically, and that’s good. But they’re never going to say ‘uncle’ with that alone. You have to put some proposition on the table that allows them to say ‘yes.’ And the one proposition you could put on is to allow them to do uranium enrichment up to some very small level, under a very careful inspection regime. But we can’t actually put that on the table because that would look soft.
Take Afghanistan. I don’t like the Taliban, I think they’re horrible, but they are part of the fabric of Afghan society; Taliban are Pashtun. Pashtun is 60% of Afghanistan. At some point, you’re going to have to do some compromising with them. We can’t even compromise now in order to get negotiations going.