People under 50 don’t remember, but the human race almost destroyed itself in 1962. You can learn a lot by studying the Cuban Missile Crisis, especially if you are too young to remember it yourself.
If you like multimedia learning, rent a DVD and watch the movie “Thirteen Days.” It’s a docudrama, not a documentary, but its basic facts are historically accurate. It should be required viewing for every American citizen and for everyone anywhere who wants to know why judgment matters.
The facts are simple to state. At the height of our Cold War with the Soviet Union, our spy planes and satellites discovered what looked like parts of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Other intelligence indicated they were medium-rage nuclear missiles. Once launched, they could obliterate New York, Washington, D.C., and our entire Eastern seaboard in less than fifteen minutes.
Our leaders went to the United Nations and showed the world photos of the missile sites and the missile parts, still not fully assembled. Rather than make an all-out military assault on Cuba—a “solution” proposed by military advisers—President Jack Kennedy took less drastic action. He ordered our Navy to impose a blockade of Cuba until the missiles were removed.
What happened next is as deeply engraved in my own memory as President Kennedy’s assassination thirteen months later. There was no Internet, but I worked part time at a place with a teletype (an electrical machine that transcribed, letter by letter, news releases from the Associated Press).
Normally that place was full of noise. On this day, it was silent as a tomb. All of us who worked there were gathered around the teletype, ashen faced, four deep, as the Soviet Fleet approached within range of our blockading Navy. World War III seemed only minutes away.
Hardly daring to breathe, we kept silent as the Soviet ships got closer and closer to ours. The teletype also was silent. Suddenly, it burst into life, slowly typing the words—letter by letter—“Soviet fleet turns back.”
We all cheered. Some of us cried. All of us felt a shiver of divine redemption.
But the redemption we experienced was not divine. It was due to the cool and wise judgment of one man, President Jack Kennedy.
As we learned later, not all the Cuban missiles were still disassembled. A few were already operational—enough to destroy New York and Washington and start World War III. In addition, some of the Soviet ships had nuclear-tipped torpedoes, and their captains had been authorized to use them at their discretion. As the Soviet fleet approached ours, Armageddon was indeed minutes away.
For public consumption, President Kennedy played the macho role. In one of the most famous quotations of the Cold War, he said, “The other fellow blinked.”
But what actually happened was quite different. Kennedy had gotten on the telephone with Nikita S. Khrushchev (the Soviet leader at the time) and worked out a deal. We would remove our medium-range missiles from Turkey, our ally, if the Soviets would remove theirs from Cuba first. The Soviets also got a guarantee that we would never invade Cuba, which stands to this day. Those concessions were a small price to pay to remove the Cuban missile threat and avoid Armageddon and the destruction of Earth’s biosphere.
Whenever I think of that day in October 1962, I recall my own feelings. I looked up into the blue October sky and wondered whether I would see the incoming nuclear missiles before they exploded. I tried to imagine how it might feel to be vaporized.
If Richard Nixon had won the 1960 election, I am sure that would have been my fate. He was a smart man, but he had none of Kennedy’s self-confidence, coolness under fire, or judgment. He would not, like Kennedy, have ignored the advice of his gung-ho military leaders and made a deal with Khrushchev to avoid nuclear war. The 30,000 votes by which Kennedy won the 1960 election saved us all from nuclear Armageddon.
That’s why, of all the presidents of my lifetime, Kennedy is the one I most revere. He had a chance to start the biggest fight in history: a climactic battle between the forces of freedom and “lawless, godless, atheist Communism.” He had plenty of encouragement. Nearly all of his Cabinet (except for his brother Robert) supported immediate and massive air strikes and a full-scale invasion of Cuba. Doesn’t that sound a lot like our Senate just before we invaded Iraq?
But Jack Kennedy was cleverer than his advisers and kept his own counsel. He didn’t fall for the cheap emotional appeal of taking out the threatening missiles at any risk or cost. Instead, he avoided a climactic battle and let humanity muddle on for another day.
Whenever people claim that experience is more important than judgment, I recall the Cuban Missile Crisis. But for the good judgment of two men—President Jack Kennedy and General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev—nearly all of you reading this post would not be alive today. Those under 55 would never have been born. Those older, if alive at all, would be part of an eviscerated society working its radioactive way back up from the Stone Age.
Today the risk of that sort of Armageddon seems remote. But is it? What would happen if one of our cities exploded in a nuclear terrorist attack? What would we do if we received a credible threat of such an attack? Would a mini-Armageddon ensue? Would a new Dark Age of suspicion, martial law and totalitarian rule emerge?
No experience can prepare anyone for such a thing. No one alive has that sort of experience: Kennedy, Khrushchev and their principal advisers are all gone.
As we face the intertwined threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, plus the longer-term threat of global warming, the only thing that can save us is good judgment. There is no substitute for wise judgment, and no way to undo the disasters that bad judgment precipitates. Just think of the war in Iraq.
Hillary Clinton voted to authorize that war without even reading the crucial report. You might say it was a single mistake of judgment. But there have been several others. And a single mistake can be fatal. Just imagine Richard Nixon with his finger on the button in October 1962.
UPDATE (2/6/08):Cynthia Tucker, the well-known Editorial Page Editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote on this theme just before Super Tuesday. Maybe that’s one reason why Obama won Georgia so decisively. People are slowly beginning to realize that Obama is not just an inspiration and a “movement,” but by far the best candidate, and the one who can best keep us safe.