HAVANA -- Two top advisers to President John F. Kennedy said President Bush is misreading history when he cites Kennedy's actions in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to justify a preemptive military strike against Iraq.
"I would flunk him in history," said Arthur Schlesinger Jr., one of several Kennedy administration figures who are here to join President Fidel Castro and key former Soviet officials at a three-day conference marking the 40th anniversary of what is often called the world's closest brush with nuclear war.
In an address Monday, Bush cited a speech by Kennedy during the October 1962 crisis over the Soviet Union's installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Bush portrayed it as an endorsement of the idea of attacking potentially lethal enemies even if they have not attacked first.
"It's taken totally out of context," said Theodore Sorensen, who wrote the words Bush cited and is also here in the Cuban capital. "It was not intended to justify a preemptive strike, because JFK had specifically ruled out a preemptive strike."
Schlesinger and Sorensen, both of whom voiced opposition to a preemptive attack against Iraq, said that Kennedy never endorsed a first-strike policy at any time during the crisis and was, as Schlesinger said, "determined to exhaust all peaceful remedies before resorting to military action."
"I think the whole shift from containment and deterrence, which is why we won the Cold War, to preventive war is most alarming," Schlesinger said. "That's the doctrine invoked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. FDR called that a day that will live in infamy, and the Bush doctrine is perpetuating that infamy."
The missile crisis conference, which begins Friday, has been organized by the Cuban government and the National Security Archive, a research organization at George Washington University that specializes in the declassification of foreign policy documents.
"This couldn't be more important or more timely in focusing the national and international debate over U.S. intentions toward Iraq," said Peter Kornbluh, who runs the archive's Cuba project. "There is no doubt that the conference will hold lessons for President Bush's doctrine of preemptive strikes."
Thousands of previously top-secret U.S., Soviet and Cuban government and military documents have been declassified in recent years, adding enormously to historians' understanding of the Cold War crisis.
Among the documents to be discussed is a detailed chronology of the crisis, compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence organizations and declassified by President Clinton on the last day of his presidency. The 58-page document, to be released by the National Security Archive at the conference, provides new details about another issue that has been hotly debated since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks: intelligence failure.
The document details how U.S. intelligence underestimated the Soviet Union's intention to station offensive weapons in Cuba as late as August 1962, even after Soviet ships carrying equipment and personnel to Cuba had been detected.
The conference is also intended to dispel many popular myths about the historic showdown between Kennedy and the Soviet leader, Nikita Krushchev, Kornbluh said. Many, including Schlesinger and Robert F. Kennedy, have portrayed President Kennedy's actions as a model of carefully controlled crisis management that systematically defused the situation.
But documents declassified in Washington, Moscow, Havana and other capitals in recent years have provided a more nuanced reading of history. Many people, including Robert S. McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense during the missile crisis and the highest-ranking former U.S. official at the conference, now say the crisis was not solved as neatly as had been previously believed.
"I now conclude that, however astutely the crisis may have been managed, luck also played a significant role in the avoidance of nuclear war by a hair's breadth," McNamara wrote in a statement to be released here on Friday.
McNamara would not comment directly on Bush's policy on Iraq, but he said tonight that Kennedy's strategy in 1962 "was not preemption. It was the reverse of preemption."
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