The Cuban Missile Crisis @50: A Reconsideration

Today is the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s nationally televised address informing the nation of the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and his intention to make sure they were removed.  The Kennedy glorification industry has pointed to this episode as Exhibit #1 of JFK’s coolness under pressure, etc, etc, and the outcome has always been regarded as a great triumph of American statecraft.

To be sure, as Churchill once put it, “talk-talk is better than war-war,” but the conventional “lesson” of the Cuban Missile Crisis could not be more incorrect.  The view that that U.S. “won” the Cuban Missile Crisis has more lives than a cat.  In fact, the Cuban episode was an American defeat, and it contributed powerfully to the thinking that led to the Vietnam quagmire.

In the conventional narrative, President Kennedy’s guarantee that the U.S. would not invade Cuba was seen as a small political victory for the Soviet Union, but on balance the outcome was represented as a military humiliation for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.  The Kennedy White House heavily spun the outcome that way, even to the point of concealing for a time that Kennedy had also agreed to remove American Jupiter missiles from NATO countries.

Kennedy and his circle approached the crisis as though it were a “misunderstanding” that needed to be worked out through “communication” based on the new strategic doctrine of “flexible response.”  In fact Khrushchev had calculated correctly that he could bluff the U.S. into giving a non-intervention guarantee for Cuba and a trade of Soviet missiles in Cuba for NATO missiles in Turkey.  Kennedy and his grandmasters thought they had “won” because they had avoided war, even though the Soviets were never prepared to engage in warfare at the time.  The Crisis ended with Cuba being secured not only as an intact political asset to the Soviet Union, but also potentially as a military asset for the future.  Some “victory.”

But the best and brightest of the Kennedy-Johnson administration were so self-deluded with their “success” that they decided to apply the same strategy of “flexible response” in Vietnam.  Cyrus Vance, who was a deputy secretary of defense at the Pentagon in 1962 and who later served as Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, confirmed this view: “We had seen the gradual application of force applied in the Cuban Missile Crisis and had seen a very successful result.  We believed that, if this same gradual and restrained application of force were applied in South Vietnam, that one could expect the same result.”  Not!

If, as Kennedy thought, wars start by “miscalculation” (one of Kennedy’s favorite books was Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which argued that World War I began because of “miscalculation”), then the task of leadership consists chiefly of sending the appropriate rational “signals” to affect the other side’s calculations about the chances of war.  During the heydey of this thinking, John P. Roche recalled, “Discussions of military security began to sound more and more like seminars in game theory.  There was a kind of antiseptic quality permeating the atmosphere; one often had the feeling he was attending a chess match. . .  The atmosphere made those of us who come from the harsh training of poker decidedly uneasy.”

In reviewing this whole period of liberal strategic thought, military historian Jeffrey Record wrote that Robert McNamara was “The most disastrous American public servant of the twentieth century,” combining “a know-it-all arrogance with a capacity for monumental misjudgment and a dearth of moral courage worthy of Albert Speer.”

Wonder what Record would say about Obama?

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