Michael Dobbs: Cool Crisis Management? It's a Myth. Ask JFK.
[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.]
... 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....
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