A Cool Head

by digby

I realized a few years ago that I was getting old when I noticed that November 22nd wasn't a big deal anymore. Through most of my life, the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death was a major story and one of the things everybody knew was "where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot."

I was in elementary school, and was informed by my teacher, who was crying inconsolably when she told us. My right wing Dad was uncharacteristically subdued (for a day or so, anyway) and we got our first TV in order to see the funeral.

For people of my age, Kennedy was a martyred hero, and as I grew up it was conventional wisdom that his death was the catalyst that unleashed the violence and social unrest of the 1960s. (It was much more complicated than that, of course.) But it was the first of a series of assassinations, which, it's hard to believe now, seemed normal to me. When I was kid, political leaders got shot ... all the time. (And not by hippies, I might add.)

Kennedy's legacy has been revised more often in the fewest years than probably any president in history. Looking back, he falls short in many more ways than we all believed when I was young. He was a cold warrior to the bone and his actions sometimes failed to match his rhetoric. He was in office in very trying times with a very thin mandate.

But after the past few years of crazed chickenhawk neocons lifting his rhetoric of freedom and democracy to promote unprovoked wars of aggression, I came to especially appreciate his cool reaction to his biggest challenge --- the Cuban missile crisis. Imagine if Bush had been in office when that happened. Well, we don't have to, really. We know what they did after 9/11 and it certainly wasn't this:

To help him decide what to do about the Cuban situation, and how much risk to run of a nuclear exchange, Kennedy assembled a small group that came to be called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council - or ExComm for short. Early in his presidency, Kennedy had had to make a decision about a CIA plan to land Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, in Cuba, with the hope that these exiles would overthrow Cuba's Communist government, headed by Fidel Castro. Kennedy had asked for advice about this from only a handful of people - those he knew he was officially obliged to consult. The operation proved to be a fiasco, and afterwards Kennedy had resolved in future to consult more widely.

Included in the ExComm were the regular participants in National Security Council meetings, plus Kennedy's brother, the attorney general Robert Kennedy, and the President's chief speechwriter, the White House counsel Theodore Sorensen. Both of these men could help Kennedy to think about the domestic political aspects of the crisis. The President also invited several other key advisors to join the group: C Douglas Dillon, who had held high posts under Eisenhower and who gave Kennedy a link to the Republican leadership; Dean Acheson and Robert Lovett, who had served under President Harry Truman and could help Kennedy see the current crisis in longer historical perspective; and a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn (Tommy) Thompson, probably the person in the President's circle who was best acquainted with Khrushchev.


In the first day's debates, everyone favoured bombing Cuba. The only differences concerned the scale of attack. Kennedy, Bundy, and some others spoke of a 'surgical strike' solely against the missile sites. 'It corresponds to "the punishment fits the crime" in political terms', said Bundy. Others joined the chiefs of staff in insisting that an attack should also take out air defence sites and bombers, so as to limit losses of US aircraft and prevent an immediate air reprisal against US bases in Florida.

By the third day, 18 October, another option had come to the fore. The under secretary of state, George Ball, had commented that a US surprise attack on Cuba would be '... like Pearl Harbor. It's the kind of conduct that one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one expects of the United States.' Robert Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk concurred, Rusk observing that the decision-makers could carry 'the mark of Cain' on their brows for the rest of their lives. To meet this concern and to obtain time for gaining support from other nations, there developed the idea of the President's publicly announcing the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, ordering a blockade to prevent the introduction of further missiles, and demanding that the Soviets withdraw the missiles already there. (Both for legal reasons and for resonance with Franklin Roosevelt's 'Quarantine Address' of 1937, the term 'quarantine' was substituted for 'blockade'.)

To those of Kennedy's advisers who still favoured quick use of military force (the 'hawks' in later classification), this quarantine constituted an ultimatum. If Khrushchev did not capitulate within a day or two, a US air attack on Cuba would follow, followed before long by an invasion. For those in the ExComm who would later be classed as 'doves,' the quarantine bought time for possibly developing some diplomatic solution.


On 26-27 October, the crisis came to a head. Khrushchev cabled Kennedy that he was prepared to remove missiles from Cuba in return for a US promise not to invade Cuba - a promise that had already been given more than once. But, just as Kennedy and his ExComm began to discuss a response, Khrushchev broadcast from Moscow a second message saying the missiles would be removed if, in addition, the United States withdrew nuclear missiles and other 'offensive means' from Turkey.

The second Khrushchev message provoked furious debate. With Ball in the lead, Kennedy's advisers said almost unanimously that Khrushchev's new condition was unacceptable. America's NATO allies would think the United States was sacrificing their security for the sake of its own. Kennedy alone seemed unconvinced. When Ball said, 'If we talked to the Turks... this would be an extremely unsettling business', Kennedy replied with asperity, 'Well, this is unsettling now, George, because ... most people would regard this as not an unreasonable proposal ... I think you're going to have it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba ... when he's saying, "If you'll get yours out of Turkey, we'll get ours out of Cuba."'.

'What Kennedy wanted was to mollify Khrushchev without seeming to make a concession, and above all to avoid any prolonged negotiations.'

In the end, Kennedy found a way to finesse the situation. He sent Robert Kennedy to see the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, to tell him that the missiles in Turkey were obsolete, and that the US planned to pull them out within about six months. All this was true. He said further, however, that, if the Soviet Union used this knowledge to claim that the US had struck the deal proposed in Khrushchev's radio message, Kennedy would deny the claim and would not remove the missiles from Turkey. What Kennedy wanted was to mollify Khrushchev without seeming to make a concession, and above all to avoid any prolonged negotiations. He had to insist that Soviet missiles come out of Cuba unconditionally, or he would compromise the display of firmness that he judged necessary to protect against a Berlin crisis.

In fact, the exchange between Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin had no effect. Khrushchev had already decided to retreat to a simple request for a no invasion pledge. And the crisis ended on that basis. US reconnaissance aircraft kept watch while the Soviets dismantled their missiles and loaded the parts on ships for return to the Soviet Union.

This threat was far, far greater than the threat of Islamic terrorism where their weapon of mass destruction were hijacked airliners and box cutters. We were *this close* to nuclear war. The president himself was in charge and intelligent enough to seek advice from a range of people and analyze the situation with a clear dispassionate eye in the middle of a crisis. As that excerpt from the BBC shows, the initial reaction was to bomb first and ask questions later. It's probably human. But leaders of a great country, with massive military power, have an obligation to look beyond their understandable human reaction. Kennedy, cold warrior though he was, had a nimble, creative and serious mind and he was able to see beyond the emotional response to the bigger picture.

This stuff matters. It matters a great deal. In fact, as we look to choose our next president we may want to inform ourselves as to whether the candidates have those Kennedyesque qualities at least with the same degree of interest we take in whether they wear earth tones or cackle when they laugh.

Bonus Kennedy factoid for Democrats to ponder:


By James K. Galbraith

In response to The Adventures of Arthur (November 8, 2007)

To the Editors:

In his review of Arthur Schlesinger's Journals, 1952–2000 [NYR, November 8], Joseph Lelyveld writes that while "Kennedy had now and then spoken in private about withdrawing [from Vietnam] after the 1964 election; when he died it was a faint hope, not yet a plan." This is incorrect.


For Mr. Lelyveld to state that there was no plan, but only a "faint hope" of withdrawal, is clearly at odds with the plain wording of the source documents. There was a plan to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, beginning with the first thousand by December 1963, and almost all of the rest by the end of 1965. Moreover, President Kennedy had approved that plan. It was the actual policy of the United States on the day Kennedy died.