Wednesday, January 26, 2011

JFK and Decision Making During the Cuban Missile Crisis

Dr. Albert Schweitzer's birthday is not the only anniversary that I've missed this month. January 20th was the 50th anniversary of JFK's famous inaugural address in which he told viewers to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country". Now personally I've never been a huge JFK fan believing that his glorification by historians and popular imagination has had more to do with his untimely death and a nation's wishful thinking about what could have been given the decline in American prestige due to the Vietnam War, Watergate, etc, that followed his assassination.

Yet he did blunder considerably in office especially with the Bay of Pigs fiasco which was just as unilateralist and interventionist a move as George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq though you never hear of such a comparison made (here I'm sympathetic with Nixon who often complained about the hypocrisy of the American public in willing to turn a blind eye to Kennedy's blatant lie to them about the Bay of Pigs but giving him no quarter after the revelation of the Cambodian incursion during the Vietnam War). Also I think that Kennedy could have done more diplomatically to prevent the erection of the Berlin Wall. And then there is Vietnam. While scholars are divided on the issue of whether or not Kennedy would have eventually committed US ground troops to Vietnam what is clear is that more than any of his predecessors Kennedy increased substantially our commitment to South Vietnam by sending thousands of military advisers. And of course there are his character flaws most notably his constant philandering. But this is not really a major issue for me since I wouldn't be surprised if 90 percent or more of those in power cheat on their spouses.

Nevertheless, I have gained a new appreciation of Kennedy after reading one of my books that has a selection on his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. The book is entitled Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers and is a an analysis of both successful and unsuccessful uses of history by those in a governing capacity. One of the models of success that the authors point out is Kennedy's successful diffusing of the missile crisis. Essentially, argue the authors, Kennedy was successful because of the following actions he took:

1.) Kennedy immediately formed a special committee, known as ExComm, in which in addition to his cabinet personnel he also included diplomatic veterans from the past including former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and former Russian diplomat Charles Bohlen.

2.) Kennedy successfully kept these meetings secret from the American public and the media so as not to be unduly influenced in his decision making.

3.) Kennedy was patient, refusing to be persuaded by some (e.g., General Maxwell Taylor) to pursue rash solutions such as immediately bombing the missile sites or invading Cuba. Instead, Kennedy continually asked for more options to be put on the table.

4.) Kennedy carefully weighed suggested historical analogies put forward to him such as the Suez Crisis and Pearl Harbor.

5.) Kennedy, after six days of meetings, made a decision that was neither weak nor excessively hostile, namely, to implement a blockade or "quarantine".

6.) Kennedy was willing to interact with the Kremlin on the assumption that Moscow wasn't monolithic in its policies but that there may be individuals within the organization who might be persuaded to come to a peaceful solution.

7.) Kennedy was flexible diplomatically, ultimately, albeit secretly, agreeing to remove US missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of the Cuban missiles.

The result of course is that a crisis with the potential more than any other Cold War crisis to bring about nuclear war was prevented. And yet the authors are quick to point out that "It may be that the only decision-making that mattered was Moscow's. The main American contribution may have been delay that allowed the Soviets to collect themselves" (p. 7). Nonetheless, irrespective of Moscow's decision making process it's clear to me that Kennedy handled this crisis with diplomatic finesse. This, in my opinion, was certainly his finest hour. And thus, admittedly, I'm able to appreciate his presidency slightly more though I still think too many give him a free pass because he was assassinated.

On an administrative note there probably won't be any posts for a few days. It appears that I have one final mission to go on. That's the military for you.

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