Richard Holbrooke’s cheap shot, part 2

Two weeks ago I wrote at length about Richard Holbrooke’s cheap shot at the Bush administration in the conclusion of his Times Book Review piece on a new book by Michael Dobbs covering the Cuban missile crisis. Holbrooke wrote:

Life does not offer us a chance to play out alternative history, but it is not unreasonable to assume that the team that invaded Iraq would have attacked Cuba. And if Dobbs is right, Cuba and the Soviet Union would have fought back, perhaps launching some of the missiles already in place. One can only conclude that our nation was extremely fortunate to have had John F. Kennedy as president in October 1962. Like all presidents, he made his share of mistakes, but when the stakes were the highest imaginable, he rose to the occasion like no other president in the last 60 years — defining his goal clearly and then, against the demands of hawks within his administration, searching skillfully for a peaceful way to achieve it.

I noted that Holbrooke failed to observe that there would not have been a Cuban missile crisis if Kennedy’s pathetic performance in one foreign policy situation after another hadn’t caused Khruschev to conclude the United States was led by an inexperienced weakling who was susceptible to bullying. The Cuban missile crisis thus presents a timely lesson, if not the one that Holbrooke chose to present. To my surprise, today’s Times Book Review carries two letters making points compatible with the one I sought to make here:

At the end of his review of Michael Dobbs’s “One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War” (June 22), Richard Holbrooke says it is “hard to read this book without thinking about what would have happened if the current administration had faced such a situation.” His plain suggestion is that the result would have been a nuclear holocaust.

It is actually quite easy to refrain from such baseless speculation, since nothing that has occurred during the Bush administration bears the slightest resemblance to the 1962 crisis, which threatened nuclear war.

Ambassador Holbrooke, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of both John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, has chosen to use his review to take a wholly gratuitous shot at President Bush. I would therefore like to point out that on Jan. 11, 2001, Holbrooke said that Saddam Hussein’s “activities continue to be … dangerous … to the world, not only because he possesses the potential for weapons of mass destruction but because of the very nature of his regime.” He called Hussein “a clear and present danger at all times.”

If we are to engage in historical speculation, I think it is safe to say that President Kennedy, like President Bush, would have found it imperative to do something about this “clear and present danger.”

Howard F. Jaeckel
New York

To the Editor:

In your “Up Front” essay (June 22) about Holbrooke’s review, you quote him as saying that “Kennedy knew (and for that matter, so did Reagan, Eisenhower and the senior President Bush) that direct contacts with adversaries, if handled with firmness, enhance the negotiating value of American power.” He states in the review that “our nation was extremely fortunate to have had John F. Kennedy as president in October 1962.”

In the context of those two statements, he might have reminded readers that it was Kennedy’s admittedly disastrous performance at the 1961 Vienna summit with Khrushchev that encouraged the Soviet leader to believe that he could successfully pull off the missile installation.

Lloyd E. Williams Jr.

It is to the Times’s credit that these letters have seen the light of day in the paper’s pages.

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