Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. Every president since John F. Kennedy has tried to learn from what happened back then. Today, it can help U.S. policymakers understand what to do -- and what not to do -- about Iran, North Korea, China, and presidential decision-making in general.
Map showing the full range of the nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba, used during the secret meetings on the Cuban crisis. (The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
DIPLOMACY, NOT DERRING-DO
James A. Nathan
Graham Allison ("The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50," July/August 2012) seems to believe that U.S. President John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis was an unalloyed success. He also contends that the Kennedy administration's response to the crisis forms a template for the kind of steadfast resolve that U.S. policymakers should adopt today, specifically with regard to Iran and North Korea. But the Cuban missile crisis was hardly a triumph of presidential fortitude. At the core of Kennedy's strategy was a deal: the United States pledged to remove its missiles from Turkey within six months in exchange for the Soviet Union's withdrawal of its nuclear forces from Cuba.
The Soviet side of the bargain was public, but the central U.S. concession was kept secret. The Kennedy administration feared that it would appear weak if its agreement on the missiles in Turkey came to light. But the missile swap was hardly a mere "sweetener," as Allison claims; it was the main reason the Cuban missile crisis ended peacefully.
The facts of the compromise were long veiled. It was not until 1989 that Kennedy's former speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, confessed that he had edited out the details of the missile swap from the published version of Attorney General Robert Kennedy's diary. It is now clear that President Kennedy engaged in two sets of negotiations: one with Moscow and the other with his ad hoc team of high-ranking advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). And in his negotiations with the latter, Kennedy made sure that only his few most trusted advisers were privy to the crucial missile concession...
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