[NOTE – 10/22: On the news today, I heard a statement that Kennedy “quietly removed several obsolete missiles from Turkey” in exchange for the USSR turning backs its ships with nukes for Cuba. More jingoistic spin. If they were obsolete, why where they placed there (and in Italy) just the year before?
By calling them obsolete, the idea is conveyed that JFK gave up nothing significant, only making a gesture to help Kruschev save face. ]
An Op-Ed piece in the times today (The Price of a 50-Year Myth) examines those old myths of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their destructive effect on subsequent American policy. I’m not so sure about his teasing out of the policy implications, but the notes on the distortions of what actually happened during the crisis are illuminating.
JFK, for all his ideological bluster and image mongering, was a practical, some would say cynical, guy. Maybe he was one of the ruling elite who did not believe his own propaganda. He was willing to cut a deal to avoid a nuclear conflagration, and he did so. After all, he provoked the crisis by placing nukes in Turkey, right up against the USSR border, something they regarded as threatening – wonder why? – so he took the option of removing the missiles in exchange for Krushchev turning back his ships headed with nukes to Cuba. The article points out that the boats were thirty hours sailing time away from the US blockade when they turned back – not quite the eyeball to eyeball macho facedown of legend. The writer thinks that the power-elite believed their own spin, and used it to justify future exercises in destructive brinksmanship.
Well, brinksmanship was brought to the public eye by John Foster Dulles, and was a well established posture for dealing with the USSR, so the Cuban Missile Crisis was not its source. And JFK, as William Manchester said, was almost as good at crisis management as crisis creation. I give him credit for not caving to the militarist lunacy of advisors like General Curtis LeMay (a.ka. Colonel Jack Ripper.) But the image of an American president who negotiates with a powerful adversary to avoid a crisis, and even backs down from a provocation, is not part of the American self-image of global swagger, so it has been covered over with political pabulum and secrecy.