Clio, the muse of history, is in bed with a splitting headache, prostrated by the task of trying to correct the still multiplying misunderstandings of the Cuban missile crisis. Most Americans believe 'twas a famous victory won by a resolute president prepared to take the world to the brink of nuclear war. Actually, there was not much of a brink, and no triumph worth celebrating.
In last Sunday's New York Times magazine, J. Anthony Lukas reported on a reunion of former Kennedy administration participants in the crisis. The meeting was last April at a Florida resort with the wonderfully inapt name of Hawk's Cay.
Because the crisis began when the Soviet Union began putting missiles in Cuba and ended when the missiles were removed, it was considered an unambiguous triumph achieved by a president more hawkish than some of his dovish advisers. (The terms ''hawks'' and ''doves'' were popularized by this crisis.)
Now much is being made of a letter from former secretary of state Dean Rusk, a letter read at the April reunion. The letter is said to show that President Kennedy was a dove.
In the crisis, Robert Kennedy notified former Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that U.S. missiles in Turkey would be withdrawn within months of withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, but it was imperative (obviously for American domestic political reasons) that the linkage of the withdrawals not be announced. Rusk's letter reveals that if the Soviet Union had insisted on public linkage, President Kennedy would have complied.
That historical morsel is only redundant evidence of what should by now be patent: Kennedy succeeded because his military advantage was huge and his goal tiny.
The Soviet Union was not going to war at a time when U.S. advantages were three to one in long-range bombers, six to one in long-range missiles and 16 to one in warheads. The Kremlin must have been astonished -- and elated -- when Kennedy, in spite of advantages that would have enabled him to insist on severance of Soviet military connections with Cuba, sought only removal of the missiles. He thereby licensed all other Soviet uses ofCuba.
The stunning revelation in Lukas' report is not Rusk's letter; it is something said at the reunion by Ted Sorensen, the aide closest to Kennedy.
On Aug. 31, 1962, five weeks before the administration discovered the missiles, New York's Republican Sen. Kenneth Keating, trusting information received from intelligence and refugee sources, said offensive missiles were going into Cuba. Republicans were making an election issue out of Soviet shipments to Cuba. In September, Kennedy warned the Soviets, with interesting preciseness, not to put in Cuba ''offensive ground-to-ground missiles.'' Now, Sorensen says the president drew a line where he soon -- in October of 1962 -- wished he had not drawn it:
''I believe the president drew the line precisely where he thought the Soviets were not and would not be. That is to say, if we had known the Soviets were putting 40 missiles in Cuba, we might under this hypothesis have drawn the line at 100, and said with great fanfare that we would absolutely not tolerate the presence of more than 100 missiles.''
Sorensen is a member of the McGovernite wing of the practically one-wing Democratic Party. But he also is an assiduous keeper of the Camelot flame. Thus it is fascinating that he says, in praise of the former president, that Kennedy wanted to practice appeasement but calculated incorrectly.
This is amusing in light of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s rhapsodizing about Kennedy's handling of the crisis that the president, according to Sorensen, wanted to define away: ''He coolly and exactly measured. . . . He moved with mathematical precision. . . . This combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated . . . .''
Even assuming Sorensen is wrong, Schlesinger's romanticizing is not right. In 1978, MiG-23s (nuclear-delivery vehicles far more menacing than the 1962 missiles) were introduced into Cuba. Kennedy's noninvasion pledge, given as part of the crisis-ending deal, guaranteed the survival of this hemisphere's first communist regime and makes attempts to remove or reform the second seem disproportionate.
The Reagan administration, which began by talking about dealing with Nicaragua by ''going to the source'' -- Cuba -- is reduced to clawing for piddling sums for the contras, a recipe for another protracted failure. Today, most ''peace plans'' for Central America postulate the moral equivalence of U.S. and Soviet involvements in the region, another legacy of the missile-crisis ''triumph'' that killed the Monroe Doctrine.
A few more such triumphs and we shall be undone. The romanticizing of the missile crisis makes such triumphs more likely