The ‘Eyeball to Eyeball’ Myth and a 4th Take on the Cuban Missile Crisis

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.”

via The ‘Eyeball to Eyeball’ Myth and the Cuban Missile Crisis’s Legacy –

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.

via Missile Crisis Memories Transcript – On The Media.

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.

via The Long Shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis Transcript – On The Media.


7 thoughts on “The ‘Eyeball to Eyeball’ Myth and a 4th Take on the Cuban Missile Crisis”

  1. I took the advice of a MUN classmate on how to better prepare for our upcoming event in Springville, and watched the movie 13 days, starred by Kevin Coster and other well known actors.
    I had read about this chilling event before but had not realized how the president’s advisors have such a huge impact on the decision making process that goes behind his policies. We usually blame the head of governments for unwise or unsuccessful decisions, when in fact, it may have not even be his idea in the first place. The movie shows how most advisers to the president were strongly pushing for an immediate violent confront, and were consequentely, very upset with Kennedy’s uncompromising in pushing their decision’s forward. There was a lot of pressure over President Kennedy, and if he had decided to give in, the world would probably had witnessed a great amount of destruction. I also learned in a poli sci class last semester, how Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, although very criticized for his opinions, does not hold all the power at home. He has to answer to the religious leaders of his country, which are acctualy the ones who appointed him to the presidency. So, next time I will speak about a government lider, I will be carefull in noting that his decisions may not even be his own.

  2. There is a lesson about diplomacy here. We have taken what has “happened” in Cuba and used it to make it look like we can push the world around. That might have been true some decades ago, but having this mentality now is dangerous. The world has changed since the Soviet times and the Us verse them view of the world has caused us to have many problems. We need to remember to have cool heads when dealing with other nations. The missile crisis had a major issue with “fog of war” or basic lack of communication between the two sides and much suspicion over what the other would do. We shouldn’t act like this, there is nothing wrong with communicating with our opponents. The idea that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” is backwards. What is the problem with speaking and trying to understand our enemy, maybe we can avoid more death on both sides. From the missile crisis we have been plagued with this war hawk mentality that declares those of us who want to avoid conflict as weak. I say, it is them who are weak, and fairly unintelligent since there are issues that can be compromised. I am probably preaching to the choir, since we are all in a class about an organization that tries to avoid conflict, but we should remember that cooperation makes sure everyone wins, when war no one wins. Let’s remember that when it comes to Iran.

  3. What I gather most from this article and from the Cuban Missile Crisis in general is the importance of fact gathering and its importance and vitality in making good decisions. We saw with Bush and Iraq a lack of facts. And again, in recent weeks in Libya when both Romney and President Obama spoke out about the embassy attack that killed 4 Americans, before gathering facts.
    The news media of today(particularly TV news) too is guilty of this. On May 1st, 2010 an attempted suicide bomber was stopped in Time square. Immediately news broke of terrorist cells being alive and active in the US. Screams that Al Qaeda was attacking again broke out. The reality of situation was a lone ranger radical terrorist. Facts, in the end, win the day. Facts take time and patience. Lets all hope our future president will be patience.

  4. The Cuban Missile Crisis stands as a powerful example of excellent diplomacy. The sequence of events in 1962 are an inspiration and prove the effectiveness of god diplomacy. Diplomacy is absolutely crucial in dealing with countries with weapons. However, taking action is also important. We cannot merely talk with other countries in hopes of changing their minds. We must be proactive in designing interventions and the nuclear nonproliferation system should be updated in order to guarantee security. Also, diplomacy should be taking place every step of the way. This article points out steps that should be taken to prevent events like Kennedy managed to prevent in 1962:

  5. I really liked this article. The first and second story now seem exaggerated. The third story, just false. It is nice when you have evidence, like the white house tapes to show us what really happened. I also like the author’s implications on current foreign policy. I do want to note the following though. It was smart that America told the first story as it did. There is much literature in the study of conflict on how important signals are. We signal all the time. Our signals need to be believable, which means that they need to be costly to us, or else others will think we are bluffing. We did this with the Soviet Union multiple times. For example, we put troops in Germany after WWII. This was a costly signal. Our troops were completely outnumbered. If Russia wanted to take over all of Germany, they could have definitely done so. They had the boots on the ground that we did not have. But our costly signal helped prevent that. How? Not only did we say that we would protect West Germany, but we said that we were willing to sacrifice those soldiers lives to do so. If Russia killed them, then that would give us cause to use stronger force via bombs/nuclear weapons. If I remember correctly, that was our doctrine. If our troops in Germany were attacked and Germany overrun, we would use a nuke on Russia. So, my point is this, I think it was wise that we presented how Kennedy reacted to the Cuban Missile Crisis in the correct way. It sent a credible and costly message to not only the Soviet Union but other nations, that the U.S. would say, “This is the line and we will hold that line, and if you cross that line we will do something about it”. So, nice to know that we were willing to make concessions, but no American wants a president that will not put up the strongest most resilient message of, “the buck stops here” and hold onto that until minutes until midnight.
    Fearon discusses costly and credible signals more extensively.

  6. I think one of the most important lessons of this article is that the strength of the United States in its foreign policy during the Kennedy administration’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis came as a result of a calm head, a willingness to negotiate, and the ability and readiness to act if necessary. All to often, the U.S. has skipped to the last of these, sometimes forgetting to look at the current situation calmly and looking for ways to negotiate rather than exert our military power. While the tensions were extremely high, the realization that neither side wanted the world to end allowed for the leaders to reach an agreement and diffuse the situation. It is unfortunate that the “eye-to-eye” myth has influenced the U.S.’s view of its ability to power through difficult situations. Politicians and diplomats dealing with both foreign and domestic issues would do well to learn the truth about the diffusion of the crisis and apply its lessons to their own issues.

  7. It is interesting to think on the lesson that Kennedy was able to draw from his studies of past wars. That only one miscalculation can lead to much later damage. That one speech or one small memo can change the fate of the world. However it was good of President Kennedy to look to learn form the mistakes of others. I believe that we as citizen should do the same. We may not have as much effect in the big decision but I believe that we do have an effect on the future of this nation. Here is an article describing what exactly went wrong in Vietnam. It is our responsibility as human beings to think and feel for ourselves. Another clip that I love is one that is given by Charlie Chaplin. Yes, it is a dramatized speech but I believe the principles to hold true.

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