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

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.

2. Some body always screws up. When Kennedy learned that Maultsby's spy plane had gone missing over the Soviet Union on Black Saturday, his reaction was laconic: "There's always some sonofabitch who doesn't get the word."

Which, of course, makes precisely calibrated "crisis management" impossible. Kennedy understood that the chances of dangerous, unpredictable events occurring skyrocket once you set the machinery of war in motion. He knew that history is determined not just by the "rational actors" but also by the irrational ones -- the blinkered generals, the excitable ideologues, the prophets living in caves.

The president understood, better than any of his advisers, that events were spiraling out of control by Black Saturday. That's why he moved to bring the crisis to an end by sending his brother, attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, to meet with the Soviet ambassador to Washington and offer to dismantle U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey if the Soviets would withdraw their missiles from Cuba. That little detail remained a secret for nearly three decades, even as historians and journalists churned out books celebrating Kennedy's concession-free victory in his game of brinkmanship with Khrushchev.

3. Personality matters. The White House tapes from October 1962 demonstrate conclusively that Kennedy was the most dovish member of the 13-man Executive Committee of the National Security Council, known as the ExComm, that he set up to handle the crisis. On Black Saturday, most of the ExComm was unwilling to swap the obsolete Jupiters in Turkey for the Soviet missiles on Cuba. Kennedy "seems to be the only one in favor of it," Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Maxwell Taylor reported to his fellow generals. "He has a feeling that time is running out." So it was: Later that afternoon, the Joint Chiefs recommended a massive U.S. air attack on Cuba, to be followed by an invasion within seven days -- which we now know could have resulted in tens of thousands of U.S., Soviet and Cuban casualties, the nuking of the Guantanamo naval base and, quite possibly, full-scale nuclear war. We can only be grateful for JFK's restraint.

Kennedy derived his capacity for independent judgment from his own prior experience, both in and out of the White House. As the commander of PT-109, a patrol boat in the Pacific during World War II, he had learned to be mistrustful of abstract military theorizing. The Bay of Pigs fiasco of April 1961 had taught him to be skeptical of the assurances of the spymasters and the military brass.

Kennedy viewed history not as a propaganda argument to justify his decisions but as a cautionary tale. Earlier in 1962, he had read "The Guns of August," Barbara Tuchman's now-classic history of the way Europe blundered into World War I. He was so taken by the book that he asked all his aides to read it and had it distributed to every U.S. military base worldwide. The passage that impressed him most was a scene in which a German statesman asks why the war broke out and receives the reply, "If only one knew." Kennedy was determined that no survivor of a nuclear war would ever ask another, "How did it all happen?" only to be told, "If only one knew."

Had someone else been president in October 1962, the outcome might have been very different. We can only hope that the two men now vying for Kennedy's old job have absorbed the most important lesson of the Cuban missile crisis: that the choice between war and peace sometimes comes down to the decisions and judgment of a single, very lonely individual.

Michael Dobbs is the author of "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War." He writes the "Fact Checker" column for The Washington Post.

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