This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, when the unthinkable -- nuclear war with the Soviet Union -- suddenly seemed likely. The release last week of seven boxes of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s files from that period enrich our knowledge of that harrowing moment in history, but in this presidential election year the missile crisis is of more than academic interest.
The documents released by the John F. Kennedy Library also further reveal the depth of the administration’s obsession with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, which led to misguided attempts to overthrow him, most notably in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. The president shone, however, during the 13 harrowing days in October 1962 that followed the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba. The president promised to launch a strike against the missiles if they were not removed, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened to respond, triggering nuclear war. According to one of RFK’s notes released last week, one scenario predicted the deaths of 40 million Americans, another 92 million. In Pittsfield and across America, students were practicing "duck and cover" drills as if their desks would protect them from nuclear Armageddon.
We have learned from exhaustive research over the last half century that war-mongers in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were spoiling for that horrific war. The young president, however, sought to avoid it, and did so by secretly proposing to his adversary that American missiles would be removed from Turkey if the Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba. This enabled Premier Khrushchev to save face with his hard-liners, so he took the deal and the crisis was averted. The president then launched a campaign to improve relationships with the Soviet Union and avoid the carnage of nuclear war.
The hotheads seeking war did not prevail, but they did in launching a war against Iraq during the Bush administration with predictably dire consequences. Many of the architects of that war have re-emerged in the camp of Mitt Romney, who is engaging in tough talk about Iran. Americans should keep in mind that the Iranian people don’t all share the belligerent attitude of their leadership, and a war there will have unforeseeable consequences across the Middle East.
Fifty years ago, JFK kept his cool, ig nored the noise from the armchair warriors, and found a way to peace. Today, that is still the best approach to foreign crises.