Forty years ago this week, America faced an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction. There were pictures of missiles aimed at our cities that, with only five minutes' warning, could kill 80 million men, women and children.
In his October 7th speech urging action against Iraq, President Bush invoked the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as a precedent for dealing with today's threats. If so, what did we learn in history's first nuclear showdown?
From my interviews with President Kennedy in the last months of his
life and involvement in publishing Robert Kennedy's memoir, "Thirteen Days," some lessons are clear: Nuclear warfare has new rules. Instead of destroying an enemy, the goal is to keep from destroying each other and, since mushroom clouds know no boundaries, to enlist the rest of the world in the effort.
Lesson # 1: Don't rush into all-out military action. A few weeks before Congressional elections, Kennedy learned there were Russian missiles in Cuba. The Soviet Premier and Foreign Minister had lied about them and were still denying they existed. When the President consulted the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congressional leaders, they almost unanimously urged him to attack or invade Cuba immediately.
"Too many people," he said, looking back, "want to blow up the world. There are an awful lot of powerful groups and interests, all very strong patriots, who believe in policies that could end up in disaster."
Instead of a "surgical strike" to remove the missiles (which military leaders could not guarantee) or an invasion of Cuba (which could involve massive casualties and inflame world opinion), JFK announced that the missiles must be removed and ordered the Navy to stop and search all ships approaching Cuba to quarantine further weapons shipments.
Lesson #2: Don't go it alone. Before making it public, our emissaries showed evidence of the missiles to governments around the world and, before confronting the Soviets at the United Nations, got almost universal support in Europe, Latin America and Asia for our actions to remove them.
Then our U.N. ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, on television challenged their ambassador to confirm or deny what they done. When the Russian tried to evade the question, Stevenson told him, "I'm prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over" and dramatically unveiled huge pictures of the missile sites.
Lesson #3: Give the other side every chance to back down. At each step, Kennedy made sure no shots would be fired without his order. He had read "The Guns of August," a book about how Europe had blundered into World War I, and he wanted to do everything to avoid a comparable account of "The Missiles of October."
"If anybody is around to write after this," he told his brother, "they're going to understand we made every effort to give them room to move. I'm not going to push the Russians an inch beyond what's necessary."
While keeping options open, Kennedy kept reminding the Russians that the blockade was only the first step in our effort to take out the missiles. Firmness and flexibility were the watchwords.
Lesson #4: Get the weapons out and don't gloat. After the Russians finally agreed to remove the missiles under inspection, Kennedy ordered members of his government not to give interviews or make statements claiming victory. He never raised the question of regime change anywhere. Forty years later, Cuba, still led by a dictator in our own hemisphere, is only a minor nuisance to our interests. The Russians, after the U.S.S.R. was dismembered, are our allies, however reluctant, is trying to deal with weapons of mass destruction.
"In Cuba," JFK told me almost a year later, "a lot of people thought we should take more drastic action. I think we did the right thing, more drastic action would have increased the possibility of nuclear exchange. The real question now is to meet conflicts year after year without having to escalate."
He insisted that we have to fight our natural temptation to use increasingly powerful weapons to solve political problems.
"There are a great many instincts implanted in us growing out of the dust," he mused. Can we control them? "I think we've done reasonably well--but only reasonably well."
In such military matters, Kennedy was asked, can the average American make his or her opinion count against the weight of presidents, legislators and generals?
"There's no lobby in Washington for our children or grandchildren," he answered. "But a nuclear exchange could kill 300 million people. Everybody is involved in these debates."
Robert Stein is Peace Action member and a former chairman of the American Society of Magazine Editors.