The missiles of September - hoping for a back channel, cooler heads, and a new American take on diplomacy

The author’s class at Morris Brandon Elementary School in Atlanta a couple of years before the Cuban missile crisis.

I was a third-grader at Morris Brandon Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia in October 1962. The ritualized duck-and-cover exercises intended to help us survive a nuclear attack had become had become increasingly urgent. The nuclear-tipped Soviet missiles just installed on the island of Cuba marked one end of a rainbow-like arc that connected to our classroom on the other end by the force of gravity and a less than 30-minute time of flight.

I can’t say that I knew very much about the political situation at the time. I wasn’t even eight years old. But I did know, along with almost every other American, that our young, handsome president John Kennedy was a champion we could depend on and he would guide us to safety and to victory against our Soviet enemies led by the scheming Nikita Khrushchev.

It was the accepted wisdom for much of my youth that JFK had emerged as the hero of that crisis; that our brave champion, who was doomed to be assassinated little more than a year later, had confronted his Soviet counterpart eyeball-to-eyeball and that, when all was said and done, it was “the other guy” and not Kennedy who blinked.

Over time, though, it became clear that the telling of the true story behind the Cuban missile crisis was less a profile in courage on Kennedy’s part as it was a profile in miscalculation.

In June 1961, less than 6 months into his term, the freshly-minted American president oversaw the installation of 15 nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles in Turkey in accordance with an agreement worked out by his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower. Although efforts had been made by Kennedy’s Secretary of State Dean Rusk to turn back this deployment, the Turkish government felt that such a reversal of policy would be embarrassing for them. Kennedy relented, and the deployment of the Jupiter missiles proceeded as planned.

This “forward deployment” of medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey turned out to be the immediate cause of the Cuban missile crisis the following year. Strategic missiles with short flight times to their targets are destabilizing; they provide those who possess them with an incentive to launch a surprise attack to destroy an enemy’s command and control structure and thus undermine his ability to retaliate. It should have come as no surprise to Kennedy and U.S. allies that Moscow would interpret such a placement of missiles as a provocation and that military leaders in the Kremlin would insist that their premier respond in kind with a forward deployment intermediate missile deployment of its own.

Fortunately, in October 1962, cooler heads prevailed. Neither Kennedy or Khrushchev wanted a devastating nuclear war. And each leader was able to fend off pressure from hawks in his own government who imagined that intimidation would be the key to geopolitical victory and who advocated for escalating the confrontation by force of arms. And fortunately, each leader was open to pursuing diplomatic measures, including back channel communications, to find a solution to their mutual problem.

The much ballyhooed public component of that solution was an understanding that the Soviet Union withdraw its missiles from Cuba immediately. In secret, though, the U.S. agreed to remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey at a later date. Any publicized arrangement which had required American concessions to achieve the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba would have been construed by much of the press and the public as “appeasement.” This could have been a non-starter for Kennedy because of domestic political considerations. The resulting behind-the-scenes diplomatic agreement allowed Kennedy to save face and gave him the political cover he needed to bring an end to the crisis without resorting to the use of force.

In this telling of the story of the Cuban missile crisis, although JFK still grabs the short-term glory, it is Khrushchev who emerges as the genuine hero. Boxed in by a destabilizing American decision to place nuclear missiles in Turkey and by pressure from his own wing of hardliners, he ultimately committed to a course of action which, although it meant that he and the Soviet Union would appear weak to the world, preserved the lives of tens of millions of people, including me and my classmates at Morris Brandon Elementary School. For this and other errors, Khrushchev was ousted from office two years later by his Politburo and packed off to political oblivion.

The parallels between our nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union in October 1962 and the one that exists in today with the now nuclear-missile-capable North Korea are, in some respects, obvious.

Cooler heads will also have to prevail to see us through this one. And, to be frank, I don’t count Donald Trump among that number. We can only hope that this small-minded, impulsive man defers to his generals — National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis — when it comes to making the grave decisions of war and peace and that he doesn’t end up undercutting their efforts with his reckless tweets and intemperate off-the-cuff remarks. As far as the state of mind of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is concerned, I share the prevailing opinion that he is a poker player, diabolical no doubt, but ultimately rational and committed to the survival of himself and his regime.

Also, there should be many more back channels of communication in play today than there were in Kennedy’s time. Not only are there a large number of regional powers involved, namely South Korea, China, Japan, and Australia, other countries such as our European allies are much more engaged on the international diplomatic stage than they were fifty-five years ago. And, thankfully, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s reorganization of the State Department has progressed slowly enough that there are still career U.S. diplomats in place to work the problem. So there’s hope there.

It is hard to imagine a diplomatic solution, though, that doesn’t address the security concerns of North Korea and, for that matter, those of China. So, what troubles me most about the missiles of September is the very same obstacle that Kennedy faced when presented with a possible solution of the Cuban missile crisis. And that is that the American media and the American people, forever haunted by the ghost of Neville Chamberlain, might reject any proposed agreement that includes concessions on our part by calling out “appeasement!”

This time around the American people, for a change, will have to accept the fact that negotiations are about give and take and that diplomacy isn’t always about getting your way, but sometimes about avoiding the worst possible outcomes. This time around there won’t be a heroic Nikita Khrushchev on the other side of the table willing to appear weak in order to give an American president political cover he needs to avoid a war that would be a disaster to the world.

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