Monday, October 15, 2012

The Dawn of the Cuban Missile Crisis

President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney will meet in their second debate tomorrow night.

It will follow a "town hall" format in which members of an audience made up entirely of undecided voters will ask the questions. I suppose the general idea is that the audience will ask the questions that are of the most concern for undecided voters, which should be instructive.

In fact, it should be interesting, but I kind of wish tomorrow night's debate was the one on foreign policy instead. It would be much more appropriate, given that half a century ago today, the Central Intelligence Agency's National Photographic Interpretation Center identified what it believed to be missiles in surveillance photos of Cuba.

The State department was notified that evening, as was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy decided not to inform President Kennedy until the next day.

Consequently, on the evening of Oct. 16, after confirming to his satisfaction that the photographs did indeed reveal the presence of missile sites in Cuba, Kennedy called the first meeting of what came to be known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) — the nine members of the National Security Council and five other advisers.

It is almost a cliche now to say that the Cuban Missile Crisis — which really can be said to have begun 50 years ago today because that is when the Photographic Interpretation Center first spotted missiles in Cuba although the president wasn't informed until the following day — is the closest the world has come to a nuclear war.

But there is certainly a lot of truth behind that assertion.

I suppose it seems anticlimactic to people who study that period in school today. Heck, it seemed anticlimactic to me when I studied it, and I can only imagine how it must seem to young people in 2012. When historic events are studied, it always seems the outcome was inevitable.

But the men who participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis did not know how the situation would play out, and it was in large part because of the lessons that were learned 50 years ago that the leaders of the larger governments of the world forged foreign policies that showed the proper respect for the truly awesome power that had been unleashed at the end of World War II.

They had stared into the abyss, to use language and imagery that became fashionable after the fact, and had resolved to do whatever was necessary to avoid a similar confrontation in the future.

It quickly became conventional wisdom that Harry Truman's decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved hundreds of thousands of lives because Japan promptly surrendered, sparing the Americans and their allies from a possibly prolonged invasion of Japan.

And, if the reports that the Nazis were on the brink of developing nuclear weapons and the Americans beat them to it are correct, then perhaps it is a good thing that the genie was let out of the bottle.

It was not a good thing that tens of thousands of civilians were killed on both occasions — but perhaps those sacrifices were necessary to impress upon those who had unleashed the power exactly how mighty was the power they held in their hands.

But the issue was not resolved in 1945. After the end of the war, the United States, the world's only nuclear power, chose to disarm, naively believing that merely having the most destructive weapon known to mankind would be enough to prevent acts of aggression.

America, to put it mildly, was caught with its pants down when it was revealed that the Soviet Union had developed the technology for assembling nuclear weapons.

Although most nations appear to recognize and respect nuclear power — and, to be fair, the world has seen no nuclear attacks in more than 65 years — the threat is very much with us today — in the form of terrorists who only want enough nuclear material to spread fear from sea to shining sea.

Reducing cities to piles of rubble is not in their plans — as far as we know.

Perhaps the greatest problem EXCOMM faced when it met for the first time 50 years ago tomorrow was that American naivete had backfired again. In spite of the fact that we had been involved in a Cold War since before the revelation that the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, the Americans foolishly believed the Russians would never put missiles in Cuba.

So, when the Russians did put missiles in Cuba, EXCOMM and Kennedy had to decide how to respond. There was no plan in place for such a situation.

For awhile, some members of EXCOMM probably felt that an invasion of Cuba was inevitable. The advocates of an invasion told Kennedy — forcefully — they believed the Soviets would do nothing in retaliation. Kennedy disagreed.

"If [the Russians] don't take action in Cuba," Kennedy reportedly said, "they certainly will in Berlin."

Fifty years ago, cooler heads prevailed. While diplomatic discussions, both formal and informal, went on, the Americans opted for a blockade in which the Navy would block any more shipments of missiles to Cuba.

Thankfully, things worked out in 1962. And one of the biggest reasons why things did work out was because Kennedy trusted the people of America enough to be honest with them about what was happening and what the risks were.

His actions were not guided by his memories of failure at the Bay of Pigs the year before.

But here we are, more than a month after four Americans were slain in a clearly coordinated attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya — and it is hard to tell if America has any friends left in the Middle East.

It is hard to tell because we get so much conflicting information from the administration that was going to be the most transparent in our history.

Even after the whopper that a video allegedly sparked a spontaneous demonstration that (allegedly) got out of hand had been discredited, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice continued to insist that it was true, as did the president.

My guess is that political considerations have been key factors in deciding what the president will or will not tell the American people — but I don't know that for certain. I'm simply acting on the old "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ..." rule of thumb.

I do know that jobs and the economy make everything else pale in comparison in this campaign, but I'd like to think that someone from the audience of undecided voters will ask the candidates about Libya and the four Americans who died there on the 11th anniversary of 9–11.

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