x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Myths of the Cuban missile crisis still shape US policy

In the Cuban missile crisis 50 years ago this month, John F Kennedy did not face down the Soviets. He compromised, something today's US leaders need to understand.

Next week will mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cuban missile crisis, the US-Soviet stand-off that brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. The crisis made the reputation of President John F Kennedy as a man of steely resolve who forced the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to remove the nuclear missiles he had installed in Cuba.

Most diplomatic negotiations are speedily consigned to history books, but those 13 days in 1962 when the world seemed on the edge of Armageddon are more memorable than most crises. This is partly because of the contrast between the key actors - the young and handsome JFK and his brother Robert, who was his attorney general and key adviser, both of whom were to be assassinated, and the uncouth Khrushchev, whose habit of overplaying his hand led him to be toppled in 1964 for pursuing "hare-brained schemes".

To this day, political leaders love to cite JFK's resolve when they are pushing for military action. George W Bush did so in 2002 ahead of his invasion of Iraq. And the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his quest to make the US set a trigger for war with Iran, last month praised JFK for putting a "red line before the Soviets".

With the US facing a presidential election in less than a month, JFK's record has become a political football, with policy analysts using it to draw conclusions about the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programme and about the prospect of negotiating with the Taliban ahead of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The crisis has embedded itself in the American consciousness thanks to three of the elements that make a good newspaper story - pictures, serious jeopardy and a simplistic quote.

The jeopardy was all too real: there was a genuine chance of nuclear war, since the Soviets had already installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Kremlin could have launched the warheads if JFK had decided to invade Cuba. Instead of that, he declared a naval blockade of the island, which gave time for a negotiated settlement.

The key quote came from Dean Rusk, the secretary of state at the time, who said: "We were eyeball to eyeball - and the other guy just blinked."

But this was mythmaking, not truth. In fact, Kennedy offered two concessions to the Kremlin in return for removal of its nuclear weapons from Cuba: a public promise not to invade Cuba and a secret agreement to withdraw US short-range Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy, a move that mirrored Khrushchev's withdrawal of his weapons from Cuba. Far from Kennedy staring down the Russians and not giving an inch, he ended the crisis with a compromise in which both sides had to make concessions.

This latter part of the deal was kept secret for decades. Amazingly, the Russians kept the secret. If it had been known, it could have torn apart the Nato alliance by showing Kennedy sacrificing the security of his distant allies for the sake of Miami. Russian silence is explained by two factors: the Kremlin was inexperienced in the arts of PR and, given Khrushchev's reputation for wild ideas such as growing maize inside the Arctic Circle, it wanted to draw a veil over any foreign venture that was less than victorious.

Some Washington policy analysts are now labouring to unpick the myth of 1962, seeing it a dangerous template that has bound the hands of Kennedy's successors to an ideal of American military power and resolve that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is plenty of evidence that the truth about October 1962 was far more complicated than the commonly held story. The Russians were prepared to back down before "black Saturday" on October 27 when Robert McNamara, the defence secretary, famously went out on to the White House lawn for a last look at the grass before it was incinerated in a mushroom cloud.

The balance of nuclear forces between the US and the USSR was overwhelmingly in favour of the US, and the Russians knew it. The Pentagon in fact favoured pressing the US advantage by invading Cuba to get rid of Fidel Castro, but Kennedy held the generals back.

Documents from the time show that Khrushchev was not simply a reckless gambler, but almost a partner with Kennedy in defusing the crisis. He wrote to JFK: "If you have not lost your self-control, then Mr President we and you ought not now to pull on the end of a rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied."

This is not just a heartwarming story of a lost era. In an election year, with Mr Netanyahu beating the Kennedy drum, there are fears among some in the Washington policy elite that the shadow of the martyred JFK will drive the next president of the United States to go to war with Iran.

Leslie Gelb, a US foreign policy grandee who is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, has weighed in to denounce the effect of the 1962 myth.

"For too long, US foreign policy debates have lionised threats and confrontation, and minimised realistic compromise," he writes. "Compromises do fail, and presidents can then ratchet up threats or even use force. But they need to remember that the ever steely-eyed JFK found a compromise solution to the Cuban missile crisis - and the compromise worked."

The lesson of 1962 is that Kennedy kept a cool head as he faced pressures from the Russians, from the US military and from the Republicans in the run-up to the congressional elections coming the next month.

He did indeed set an example for all to follow. But the sad truth is that the full extent of the compromise he worked out, if it had been made public at the time, would not have made him a hero. He would have been damned as an appeaser. And that is still true today.


On Twitter: @aphilps