Cool Crisis Management? It's a Myth. Ask JFK.

Revisiting the 13 terrifying days in October, 1962, when the world stood at the nuclear precipice.
By Michael Dobbs
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Imagine a President McCain or a President Obama receiving the following top-secret briefing from his national security adviser: "Iran has successfully developed a nuclear warhead and may have already mated it with a medium-range Shahab-3 missile targeted at Israel. A preemptive strike could trigger a nuclear exchange. What do we do, Mr. President?"

After a week in which the campaigns duked it out over national security, it's reasonable to wonder how either man would react to such an emergency. Chances are that in such a bind, our next commander in chief will want to consider how one of his predecessors dealt with the ultimate crisis, the 1962 standoff over Soviet nuclear missiles secretly placed in Cuba. Both sides in the presidential race have already invoked the image of President John F. Kennedy going "eyeball to eyeball" with Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War: the McCain camp to emphasize the need for firmness in dealing with America's enemies, the Obama camp to praise JFK for opening a dialogue with the Soviets.

But it's easy to draw the wrong lessons from the missile crisis. The history of those 13 terrifying days when the world stood at the nuclear precipice has become encrusted in mythology and riddled with basic errors of fact.

To use the 1962 showdown as a guide to handling modern-day crises, we must separate history from political spin. Kennedy and his aides had an obvious interest in stressing the president's cool resolve under fire. Camelot's court historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., has described the way JFK "dazzled the world" through a "combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated." Kennedy's defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, declared that "there is no longer such a thing as strategy; there is only crisis management."

In fact, crisis management is an art, not a science. I have spent thousands of hours over the past three years assembling a minute-by-minute chronology of the crisis, combing through archives and interviewing American, Soviet and Cuban participants. I was startled to discover that the debates inside the White House (secretly tape-recorded by JFK) were often out of sync with events in the rest of the world. Much of what Kennedy thought he knew about Soviet actions and motivations during the crisis rested on flawed intelligence reports and assumptions. Far from being an example of "matchlessly calibrated" diplomacy, the Cuban missile crisis is better understood as a prime illustration of the limits of crisis management -- and the importance of the ever-present screw-up factor in world affairs.

Lest anyone think that faulty intelligence started with the Bush administration, let me say that I uncovered numerous examples of bad information flowing into and out of the Kennedy White House -- beginning with the celebrated "eyeball to eyeball" episode on Oct. 24, 1962, when JFK was led to believe that Soviet freighters transporting missiles toward Cuba had reached the U.S. blockade line around the island and turned around at the last moment. Declassified U.S. and Soviet records show that the Soviet ships were 500 miles from the closest U.S. warship at the moment when then-secretary of state Dean Rusk famously declared, "We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." The incident never happened, at least as depicted by Kennedy aides, Harvard professors and Hollywood moviemakers. Khrushchev had ordered his ships to return to the Soviet Union more than 24 hours earlier.

By contrast, historians have given scant attention to a much more frightening moment -- the accidental overflight of the Soviet Union by an American U-2 spy plane amid the swirling tensions of what White House aides called "Black Saturday," Oct. 27. Capt. Charles "Chuck" Maultsby was on a routine mission to keep an eye on Soviet nuclear tests when he took a wrong turn at the North Pole and ended up in Soviet airspace on the most dangerous day of the Cold War. Air Force chiefs failed to inform Kennedy and McNamara for an hour and a half that they had a plane over the Soviet Union, even though the Soviets sent MiG fighters to shoot Maultsby down and the Alaskan Air Command responded by scrambling nuclear-armed U.S. fighter-interceptors.

As I studied the Cuban missile crisis, I was repeatedly struck by modern-day parallels. For any future president struggling with an "Iranian missile crisis," I suggest the real lessons most worth learning from 1962.

1. The view from the Oval Office can be very limited. The president may be the best-informed person in the world, but there's still much that he doesn't know. The beginning of wisdom for any president -- certainly including JFK -- is understanding that you are groping about in the dark.

Consider just a few examples of "what the president didn't know and when he didn't know it." Unbeknown to Kennedy, the Soviets had deployed nuclear cruise missiles within 15 miles of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the early morning hours of "Black Saturday" -- something I learned decades later, from interviews with Soviet participants and declassified U.S. intelligence documents reporting the movement of "unidentified artillery equipment." The missiles, which were equipped with Hiroshima-sized bombs, could have destroyed Guantanamo in five minutes.

Nor was this the only major failure to see the full chessboard. While Kennedy had relatively good (if belated) intelligence about the medium-range Soviet missiles capable of hitting the United States, he had no idea on Black Saturday where the nuclear warheads were stored and how they had been dispersed to various missile sites. As it turns out, U.S. reconnaissance planes had actually taken photographs of the Soviet nuclear-storage bunkers at Bejucal and Managua, 15 miles south of Havana -- but the CIA concluded that neither site could have been housing the warheads because of the lack of adequate security.

Kennedy was also woefully misinformed about the size of the Soviet troop presence on Cuba. On Oct. 20, following the discovery of the missiles, McNamara told the president that there were about 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet "technicians" on the island. In fact, there were 43,000 heavily armed Soviet troops on Cuba, equipped with tactical nuclear weapons targeted at suspected U.S. beachheads. Kennedy rightly rejected as too risky the Joint Chiefs' calls to invade, but he didn't know the half of it.

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