Whenever there’s an international dispute, such as the one involving Syria through which we are passing, people are almost certain to drag out two previous crises as supposed lessons to us. They are Munich and the missile crisis. Neither of these are normally described accurately. Right now I am particularly concerned with the missile incident, because it got quite a workout recently. Publications from the Washington Post to Mother Jones to the Jewish Post invoked it over Syria.
For those who did not live through those scary few days, this is what happened:
After the United States sponsored an invasion of Cuba in an effort to overthrow its Soviet-allied government in April 1961 and then installed nuclear missiles on the border of the Soviet Union in Turkey in April 1962, Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev secretly sent nuclear missiles for installation in Cuba. When crisis-prone U.S. President John Kennedy learned of it, he went on television on October 22, 1962, told the public that the missiles were “offensive” weapons, and announced he had thrown a naval blockade around Cuba and demanded removal of the missiles (which were not yet operational). Under international law, the blockade was an act of war. Kennedy refused to discuss removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey.
There were all kinds of things the public was not told, which led to the public having a very simplistic view of the crisis. And the press did absolutely no scrutiny of JFK’s claims — none.
After almost two weeks of tension, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles and the U.S. agreed to stop invading Cuba. The Saturday Evening Post ran a cover that made a quote from the U.S. secretary of state famous — “We’re eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.” The public believed the president and the nation had stood tall and prevailed.
Here are some of the things we were not told at the time:
• The missiles were not offensive. Weapons don’t have motives. Whether one is offensive or defensive depends on the use to which it is put. The Soviet Union had been invaded by the U.S. without provocation once and Cuba had been invaded by the U.S. without provocation five times. Neither the Soviets or Cuba had ever invaded the U.S. Given that history, the missiles were the very definition of defensive.
• Both Kennedy and his secretary of defense said privately the missiles did not change the balance of power (other Soviet missiles had enough range to cover the same territory).
• Protests against Kennedy’s action took place around the United States, but were downplayed by the press.
But here’s the biggest thing we were not told: Kennedy secretly backed down on the Turkey missiles.
By the end of those frightening two weeks, Khrushchev was holding firm and Kennedy was coming very close to being forced into a nuclear war. Having painted himself into a corner (akin to the Obama red line), he needed a way out. He started acting like a statesman and negotiated. Both men agreed to remove their missiles — Kennedy from Turkey, Khrushchev from Cuba. The secret trade meant that the entire terrifying “crisis” had been unnecessary. If Kennedy had listened to U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson — who had proposed the same trade before the crisis started — all the drama could have been avoided.
It was not until the 1980s that declassified records made the trade public, though it then became well known mainly among scholars. Most people never learned the real lesson, that confrontation did NOT work and negotiation DID. The original myth lived on and left a legacy. The nation’s self-image of itself as throwing its weight around and winning made U.S. foreign policy more belligerent, creating tensions between the U.S. and both its allies and its adversaries.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.