The popular memory of the Cuban missile crisis—one in which the United States simply forced the Soviets to back down under threat of war—is both incorrect and disastrous as a guide for contemporary policy.
Jim Lobe, last updated: October 23, 2012
Inter Press Service
It was 50 years ago when then-President John F. Kennedy took to the airwaves to inform the world that the Soviet Union was introducing nuclear-armed missiles into Cuba and that he had ordered a blockade of the island – and would consider stronger action – to force their removal.
“It was the most chilling speech in the history of the U.S. presidency,” according to Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, who has spent several decades working to declassify key documents and other material that would shed light on the 13-day crisis that most historians believe brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any other moment.
Indeed, Kennedy’s military advisers were urging a pre-emptive strike against the missile installations on the island, unaware that some of them were already armed.
Several days later, the crisis was resolved when Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev appeared to capitulate by agreeing to withdraw the missiles in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba.
“We’ve been eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked,” exulted Secretary of State Dean Rusk in what became the accepted interpretation of the crisis’ resolution.
“Kennedy’s victory in the messy and inconclusive Cold War naturally came to dominate the politics of U.S. foreign policy,” writes Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations in a recent foreignpolicy.com article entitled “The Myth That Screwed Up 50 Years of U.S. Foreign Policy.”
“It deified military power and willpower and denigrated the give-and-take of diplomacy,” he wrote. “It set a standard for toughness and risky dueling with bad guys that could not be matched – because it never happened in the first place.”
What the U.S. public didn’t know was that Khrushchev’s concession was matched by another on Washington’s part as a result of secret diplomacy, conducted mainly by Kennedy’s brother, Robert, and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.
Indeed, in exchange for removing the missiles from Cuba, Moscow obtained an additional concession by Washington: to remove its own force of nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles from Turkey within six months – a concession that Washington insisted should remain secret.
“The myth (of the Cuban missile crisis), not the reality, became the measure for how to bargain with adversaries,” according to Gelb, who interviewed many of the principals.
Writing in a New York Times op-ed, Michael Dobbs, a former Washington Post reporter and Cold War historian, noted that the “eyeball to eyeball” image “has contributed to some of our most disastrous foreign policy decisions, from the escalation of the Vietnam War under (Lyndon) Johnson to the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush.”
Dobbs also says Bush made a “fateful error, in a 2002 speech in Cincinnati when he depicted Kennedy as the father of his pre-emptive war doctrine. In fact, Kennedy went out of his way to avoid such a war.”
To Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, whose research into those fateful “13 days in October” has brought much of the back-and-forth to light, “the lessons of the crisis for current policy have never been greater.”
In a Foreign Affairs articlepublished last summer, he described the current confrontation between the U.S. and Iran as “a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.”
Kennedy, he wrote, was given two options by his advisers: “attack or accept Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.” But the president rejected both and instead was determined to forge a mutually acceptable compromise backed up by a threat to attack Cuba within 24 hours unless Khrushchev accepted the deal.
Today, President Barack Obama is being faced with a similar binary choice, according to Allison: to acquiesce in Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb or carry out a preventive air strike that, at best, could delay Iran’s nuclear programme by some years.
A “Kennedyesque third option,” he wrote, would be an agreement that verifiably constrains Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for a pledge not to attack Iran so long as it complied with those constraints.
“I would hope that immediately after the election, the U.S. government will also turn intensely to the search for something that’s not very good – because it won’t be very good – but that is significantly better than attacking on the one hand or acquiescing on the other,” Allison told the Voice of America last week.
This very much appears to be what the Obama administration prefers, particularly in light of as-yet unconfirmed reports over the weekend that both Washington and Tehran have agreed in principle to direct bilateral talks, possibly within the framework of the P5+1 negotiations that also involve Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany, after the Nov. 6 election.
Allison also noted a parallel between the Cuban crisis and today’s stand-off between the U.S. and Iran – the existence of possible third-party spoilers.
Fifty years ago, Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro had favoured facing down the U.S. threat and even launching the missiles in the event of a U.S. attack.
But because the Cubans lacked direct control over the missiles, which were under Soviet command, they could be ignored. Moreover, Kennedy warned the Kremlin that it “would be held accountable for any attack against the United States emanating from Cuba, however it started,” according to Allison.
The fact that Israel, which has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear sites unilaterally, actually has the assets to act on those threats makes the situation today more complicated than that faced by Kennedy.
“Due to the secrecy surrounding the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, the lesson that became ingrained in U.S. foreign policy-making was the importance of a show of force to make your opponent back down,” Kornbluh told IPS.
“But the real lesson is one of commitment to diplomacy, negotiation and compromise, and that was made possible by Kennedy’s determination to avoid a pre-emptive strike, which he knew would open a Pandora’s box in a nuclear age.”
In recent testimony before Congress, the controversial nuclear non-proliferation expert David Albright argued that “Iran’s long history of violations, subterfuge, and non-cooperation requires extraordinary [verification] arrangements to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is indeed peaceful.” The remarks earned a sharp rebuke from retired British diplomat Peter Jenkins, who wrote that the “transgressions” Albright referred to “are not as exceptional as [he] would like members of Congress to believe.” Jenkins added: “It’s a pity that Congress turns so often to Albright for testimony on Iran. He is too inclined to over-dramatize Iran’s nuclear transgressions and to proclaim the necessity of making demands of Iran that can only lead to one thing: the failure of negotiations.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, is known for his hawkish views on U.S. security and close ties to prominent neoconservatives and “pro-Israel” megadonors. He recently gave his first major foreign policy speech, which one journalist described as coming “straight out of the neocon playbook, calling for a robust military and aggressive approach to intervention.” Rubio has lambasted the nuclear negotiations with Iran, supported Ukraine membership in NATO, opposed the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and promised to “reimpose sanctions” on Cuba. “Rubio looks, walks, and quacks like a dyed-in-the-wool neocon,” opined one observer.
One of The Israel Project’s (TIP) biggest donors, billionaire Paul Singer, has been in the media spotlight recently as observers have begun associating his political funding to his long-running dispute with Argentina over its 2001 debt default. Since Singer increased donations to TIP in 2012, TIP has “provided a steady stream of content critical of Kirchner’s government,” according to one account.
Billionaire investor Paul Singer gained media attention recently when Argentina President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner pointed out his generous financial support for neoconservative groups that have promoted the idea that Argentina abetted alleged Iranian terrorism. Kirchner and others have pointed out how Singer simultaneously has sought to collect on Argentinian debt, which he bought after Argentina’s 2001 default. The Washington Post predictably lambasted Kirchner for promoting “anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.” However, other journalists rebuked the Post, writing: “If the Post had ‘followed the money,’ it perhaps would not have been so ‘confused’ by the connections Kirchner highlighted between Singer and those who have attacked her government over its allegedly nefarious relations with Iran.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a presumptive contender for the 2016 Republican presidential candidacy, has been emphatic in his support of his brother’s presidency. Asked by Fox pundit Megyn Kelly if he would have authorized the Iraq War “knowing what we know now,” Bush replied: “I would have [authorized the invasion], and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.” Quipped conservative commentator Laura Ingram: “We can’t stay in this re-litigating the Bush years again. You have to have someone who says look I’m a Republican, but I’m not stupid.”
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