VPR203 INTRO: The final presidential debate, which will focus on foreign policy, takes place next Monday night in Florida. This morning, commentator and veteran ABC News foreign correspondent Barrie Dunsmore offers a historical context for viewing that discussion.
TEXT: Exactly fifty years ago we were in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis - when the world came frighteningly close to World War III. In the aftermath of the assassination of President John Kennedy, the books written by his former aides glorified his role, which given the circumstances is understandable. But these accounts also created myths which distort the lessons we should have learned from having come so close to nuclear annihilation.
Four years ago. Michael Dobbs wrote “One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War.” It is based on a great deal of new material and in my view is the best single book on the subject of the missile crisis. Dobbs does not set out to denigrate Kennedy. On the contrary in his account Kennedy emerges as a hero, but a different kind of hero than the myths suggest. He is not the tough guy, standing up to the Communist menace and willing to risk human extinction to prove that America’s power can never be challenged.
Just this past week, Dobbs wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that Kennedy at one point calculated the chances for war at one in two. This was not caused by a clash of wills. The real danger arose from nuclear war by miscalculation.
As Dobbs documents in his book, Kennedy was under enormous pressure within his thirteen member committee on national security. He was the most dovish member of the committee and when he decided to hold off an immediate invasion of Cuba and set up a naval blockade to stop further Soviet arms shipments, he was bitterly opposed. General Curtis Lemay, the Air Force Chief of Staff warned the blockade would send a message of weakness. Said Lemay, “It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich”
Although both Kennedy and Khrushchev were bellicose in the early days of the crisis, Kennedy later tried to see things from Khrushchev’s perspective - and sought to give him a way out.
And so when the Soviet leader publicly offered to swap the obsolete U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey for the Russian missiles in Cuba, Kennedy privately called it a “pretty good proposition” and sent his brother Robert to meet with the Soviet Ambassador in Washington to seal the deal. Ultimately then, it was a principled compromise which literally saved the world.
As I have written previously, I believe the United States needs a president who not only understands the meaning of nuance, but is prepared to conduct relations with the rest of the world in a balanced and thoughtful manner. That means deftly using all the strengths of this country – economic, diplomatic and yes moral- not just military. It also means showing the judgment of a President Kennedy rather than the jingoism of a General Lemay. No future crisis will likely be as serious as the one fifty years ago. But you never know.
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