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Nov 21 2013

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Remembering JFK

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A Great American President....

A Great American President….

Was John F. Kennedy a “great” president, a chief executive who belongs in the pantheon of America’s most consequential leaders? Continuing debate about Kennedy’s place in history rivals the cottage industry of assassination theorists who even now thrive, 50 years later.

The answer is yes – an unqualified yes – but not for the reasons commonly associated with Kennedy.

No matter how hard supporters try, you cannot be great for what you might have done. But much of the mythology that has grown around Kennedy does just that, elevating the 35th to greatness for his unrealized potential, cut tragically short in Dallas. “If only he had lived,” is the standard preface to a host of maladies that might have been averted in the 1960s had November 22nd not happened.

But the truth is that we can’t know.

Would Kennedy have gotten out of Vietnam before it became a full-fledged war? Would race relations and gender politics that exploded on the national stage have been more smoothly managed had he lived? Without Kennedy as a martyr, could the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act have passed? Would Nixon’s 1970’s “détente” have begun in the mid-60s, reducing Cold War tensions? Consider Kennedy’s health. Given the multiple and compound health problems he suffered from outside the public view, would he have been hobbled in a second term?  No amount of speculation can confirm what never actually happened.

The truth of Kennedy’s record is more tangible and pedestrian. He was a moderate Democrat in his day, a strong anti-communist and internationalist who believed in strong US global leadership. In a very real sense, he was an American nationalist in a way that makes today’s progressive shiver in distain. During the 1960 JFK campaigned to the right of Richard Nixon on defense and national security issues. JFK was a business-friendly, economic conservative who favored tax cuts to spur growth. He was pro-active but incremental in addressing the brewing caldron of racial inequality. His legislative record at the end of 1963 was unimpressive, though his legislative agenda held promise.

While this is all fodder for good stewardship, it is hardly the stuff of greatness. Indeed, Kennedy’s approval rating before the assassination had dropped to a three-year low; down to the mid-50s. While modern president’s would envy that kind of job approval today, in Kennedy’s era, it marked a 20 point drop in popularity from his inauguration. The truth is that a year out from re-election, Kennedy was in a bit of political hot water. The trip to Dallas was, after all, a political trip to shore up his shaky standing in the south.

So if it wasn’t the myth or the Administration’s record, what makes Kennedy great?

13 days in October in 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The rationale is best understood by recounting the events of the October 27th – the 12th day of the crisis.

October 27th was a Saturday.

The revelation that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear tipped ballistic missiles in Cuba – capable of hitting almost anywhere in the United States – had set off an international crisis, resulting in a US naval quarantine of the island and the very likely prospect of US air, naval and ground attack against Cuba to end with the missile threat. The consequences of such an attack had the potential to catalyze a chain reaction around the world of unknown, but frightening consequences.

There was never a higher level of tension between the Superpowers during the Cold War.

In the Kennedy White House, they called the 27th, “Black Saturday.”

On that day, a promising, private diplomatic initiative regarding Cuba fell apart.

Compounding the urgency of the crisis, the morning intel  brief from the CIA was stark. Though the flow of supplies to Cuba had been disrupted by the Quarantine, five medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) bases in Cuba had become operational. A sixth would become operational on following day. These missiles immediately placed the entire southeastern US at risk, with the outer limits ranging in an arc from DC, through Cincinnati, St. Louis, Dallas and San Antonio. Longer range missile sites, under construction, would put most of the rest of the US under threat by December.

And on the 27th, the crisis had drawn its first American blood when a U-2 reconnaissance flight over Cuba had been shot down, killing the US pilot. At the onset of the crisis on October 15th, this very act had been defined as a “red line” requiring a retaliatory response from the US.

On that Saturday, the US military was at Defense Readiness Condition 2 (DEFCON-2), bringing US missile and strategic bomber forces to war readiness in final preparation to wage a global nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis remains the only time in American history that US forces reached this level of alert status.

After DEFCON 2 there is only DEFCON 1 – war – which would trigger the American nuclear war fighting plan, known as SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan).SIOP called for the dispatch of 2,258 missiles and bombers carrying 3,423 nuclear weapons to attack 1,077 targets in the Soviet bloc. In less than 24 hours, the US could unleash a level of destruction greater than ten centuries of conflict combined.

 At the same time, off the Gulf coast, a huge conventional military buildup was nearing completion with 120,000 combat troops and 1,000 aircraft preparing for an invasion of the Cuba that was set to begin on Monday, October 29th.

At the nexus of it all sat President Kennedy.

From the beginning of the crisis, Kennedy had attempted to balance immediate threats to US security and the abstract requirement for steadfast American leadership in the Cold War balance of power, against the horrifying reality of what an actual nuclear war would entail.

Kennedy understood that if he didn’t make good on his threats to take out Soviet missiles in Cuba, the US would face a new, more imminent nuclear threat, would lose credibility globally and open itself up to nuclear blackmail around the globe. Yet, if Kennedy went ahead with the invasion, it is hard to see how such a conflict could have been kept from escalating into global war.

Complicating this diplomatic calculus, Kennedy was burdened by his military advisers who were deeply skeptical of his leadership. They have watched in dismay as the Soviets have rushed to use the 12 previous days to bring their nuclear missiles to operational status, while the US engaged in diplomacy and measured military responses such as the Quarantine, to try to resolve the crisis. There had been a military consensus that an attack immediately after the missiles had been discovered would have ended the crisis before it began, and that every day without an overwhelming attack on Cuba would make the military situation worse.

And Kennedy was burdened by Congress, particularly some vocal Republicans, who considered his diplomatic efforts and restrained military actions as nothing short of an epic show of weakness. They demanded instant military action, but of course bore no responsibility for the result.

In sum, it is literally impossible to comprehend the multiple gargantuan pressures that President Kennedy was under; the enormous consequence of his every decision. In the history of the presidency, indeed in the history of the country, this was one of the most consequential days in the life of the nation. While every president since Truman has known the burden of being Commander-in-Chief in the nuclear age, only Kennedy faced the very real prospect of triggering or retaliating in a global Armageddon.

But throughout these 12 days, and despite the fairly voracious criticism and the doubts of politicians and military leaders alike, Kennedy maintained his cool and his control. JFK rapidly adapted ad hoc structures (the EXCOM) to ensure that high level decision-making was tightly managed from within the White House.

In managing the crisis, Kennedy decisively moved beyond one-dimensional Cold War caricatures. His decision-making reflected a strong desire to incorporate realistic Soviet motives and intentions – from their personal  points of view – into US strategy. This led to an action plan that incorporated “strategic pauses” – critical windows of time to enable Soviet leaders to fully assess the implications of their actions – before events themselves overwhelmed the power of decision makers to maintain control.

As much as he sought to understand the Soviets, Kennedy never wavered in questioning the certainty of his own political and military advisors. Would an air attack get all the missiles? Could an attack be conducted without killing Soviet citizens? What would be the Soviet response if some of their personnel were wounded or killed? What would be the Cuban response to a US invasion? Where might the Soviets respond other than Cuba and how would the US respond?

As we would later find out, this tolerance for ambiguity, and determination to question every assumption, served the President, the crisis and the country well.

In 1962, the US  did not know that there were 40,000 Soviet combat troops in Cuba, not the 10,000 technicians as reported. Had there been a US invasion, American troops would have faced a fundamentally different tactical situation than had been assumed.

The US  did not know that the Soviets had also deployed tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and had inexplicably provided local commanders with authority to use the weapons if necessary. A US conventional invasion could have quickly escalated into a nuclear conflict without the Soviet leadership in Moscow making that critical decision, or even knowing about its first vital minutes.

And the US didn’t know that Soviet subs in the waters surrounding Cuba were armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, again with vessel commanders provided launch discretion. At one point, US harassment of a Soviet sub on the Quarantine line – B-59 – had so exercised the sub commander that he ordered preparations for use of his 15 kiloton nuke against the harassing US ships, who, in turn, had no idea the submarine carried nuclear weapons. Only the intervention of other senior officers prevented the use of the device

As for the actual Soviet missiles that would have been the target of any air assault, the US misidentified storage depots for nuclear warheads, and would have bombed an empty building if the attacks had gone ahead, while leaving an actual site unscathed.

 Given these highly volatile unknowns, at then end of the day, it was Kennedy’s judgment and resistance to the easy reassurance of absolutes and categoricals  that was decisive in preventing apocalypse. In retrospect, even the most aggressive and optimistic US assessments for immediate military action would have ultimately gone awry with what we know today about Soviet/Cuban capabilities/authorities. An attack on that following Monday, the 29th, would most certainly have led to the first use of nuclear weapons since WWII, if not an uncontrollable general nuclear war.

And on the 27th, Kennedy cut the deal that ended the crisis.

The Soviets would dismantle and ship home the offensive missiles and warheads in return for a US no-invasion pledge.

In an additional side deal, that would remain secret for decades, the US agreed to dismantle its obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey, but only after a significant amount of time had passed so that the withdrawal of American missiles would not be publicly seen as a quid pro quo for Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The remaining caveat was that the US had to have a Soviet answer within 24 hours, lest the US be forced to initiate action against Cuba. The Soviets agreed, broadcasting their response publicly on Radio Moscow on Sunday, October 28th, bypassing normal diplomatic channels, to ensure that Kennedy and his aides received the response.

The broadcast came at 9am EST, 20 hours before the planned beginning of US hostilities the next day.

It was that close.

 For those 13 days, but particularly October 27th, John F. Kennedy held the future, not simply of the American nation, but of civilization itself, in his hands. It is said that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara watched the sun set on October 27th, wondering if he would ever live to see a sunset again.

Kennedy’s deft and determined management of a provocative crisis, instigated by an emotional and impulsive Soviet counterpart, and in opposition to the majority wishes of the US military establishment, a deeply skeptical Congress and  hedging diplomatic corps are the primarily reasons why we are still here today. In those 13 days, a man and his moment became one.

For that, John F. Kennedy belongs in the first rank of presidents.

RIP.

 

 

 

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