Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 January 2008

Why Judgment Matters

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.


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  • At Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 10:44:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    That's an excellent point, Jay, and well made. It took me back to a scene in my fraternity house with JFK on TV, his voice trembling a bit as he explained the situation, and the brothers trembling a bit too, likely considering the vapor trails on one hand and the draft on the other.

    Please forgive me if I use your illustration to go on a tangent I consider at least as important.

    When you said " I tried to imagine how it might feel to be vaporized." you added momentum to a misconception that makes the whole world more dangerous.

    A very small percentage of victims of a nuclear explosion would be lucky enough to be vaporized, or even killed within a merciful fraction of a second.

    Look at the geometry. A relatively small circle defines the instant-kill radius. A series of concentric circles with ever-larger areas (hence larger numbers of people) contain victims who will die slowly, whether in hours or days or weeks, from radiation effects. A bad sunburn not limited to the skin, but damaging every organ in your body. Bloody diarrhea, vomiting blood, dehydrating, for several hours until death.

    Perhaps you remember the pigs that were exposed to tests in the US? The footage is not often seen in its entirety.

    Everyone remembers the white-painted house that chars to black under the flash, starts to show some smoke rising, then gets hit by the blast.

    More seldom shown is the same thing happening to the pigs. The viewer just has time to think "well, those guys are well done" as they char and get knocked over. Then they rise to run around wildly, before collapsing much, much later. A half-body charring burn is fatal, but it sure ain't quick.

    The same myth is widely believed about the famous Hiroshima silhouette: the image of a vaporized pedestrian. What nonsense! There *is* no brief flash of radiant energy that will vaporize a human body (with all that water) and still leave a wall standing behind him unmelted. That person was undoubtedly charred by the flash faster than he could fall, casting his shadow on the wall behind him and protecting it by absorbing all that radiation. Then he picked himself up and ran away screaming, to die elsewhere.

    People should consider the reality of the ugliness that would follow nuclear weapons use rather than succumbing to what amounts to pro-nuke propaganda that there is a quick clean vaporization for the victims. Not to spread this fact is playing into the hands of those who would normalize nukes as just one more tool in the arsenal.

    And yes, I would rather trust Barack than Hillary with that button.

  • At Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 11:07:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    ok i'm a 6th grader and im doing a progect on the cuban missile crisses and i need some help have u ever done a history fair well thats what m doing so i need a little information on the cuban missile crisses. if this is not on ur subject and u dont know any thing about it then thank u marah

  • At Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 11:12:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    what is u e-mail so it will be a lot esier to talk to u

  • At Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 9:51:00 PM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Anonymous,

    I assume that the last two comments came from the same person (you), so I'll take them both together.

    If your parents will fund some research through the New York Times on-line archives, you can retrieve and read some front-page articles from the period October 25, 1962 (when the Soviet fleet turned back from our blockade), to October 29, 1962 (when secret negotiations had mostly resolved the crisis).

    I think the most your parents would have to pay is $2.50 per article, only after you locate it by headline. Some articles are free. By reading these "real-time" accounts, you will get a good idea what the Crisis felt like at the time. You might even feel the fear of impending nuclear annihilation that we all felt.

    You can also rent a copy of "Thirteen Days," a fictionalized movie account of the crisis, which is generally accurate.

    As for your request for my e-mail, you should know this blog is anonymous. Nice try.

    One other thing: You write like a precocious child, which is good. But you ought to learn to write right, with proper punctation and complete sentences. Not only will you please your teachers and get better grades. When you grow up into a globalized world, you will find that foreign cultures don't appreciate kids acting "smart" by screwing up any language, let alone one as useful and universally respected as the King's English.

    Many foreigners spend lots of time and money learning to read and write our language. Don't abuse it.




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