Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Misreading History

We are exactly fifty years removed from the opening days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most extensively analyzed episodes in history. A brief bibliography published online by the Naval History and Heritage Command lists over fifty books on the events of those "thirteen days," to quote the title of Robert F. Kennedy's own book on the subject. Unfortunately, extensive analysis cannot guarantee that the right lessons will be learned.

Michael Dobbs makes this point in an essay in yesterday's New York Times. A single historical error, he argues, has contributed to the myth that John F. Kennedy's firm resolve--his willingness to face down both Khrushchev and the prospect of nuclear war--was decisive in an American victory in the Cold War. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."

But Rusk got it wrong, according to Dobbs, and leaders from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush and Benjamin Netanyahu have also gotten it wrong, believing that being tough like JFK yields victories like the one he supposedly won in the Cuban Missile Crisis. And thus we wind up in wars, somehow missing the point that Kennedy and Khrushchev were desperately trying to avoid a war.

Someday a candidate for the presidency of the United States will say, "I yield to my opponent in the area of firm resolve. I hope I will never be eyeball to eyeball with America's enemies, but if I am, I will blink--and swallow hard. I will do whatever it takes to avoid war." He--or she--will lose the election--unless, between now and then, we stop misreading history.