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A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis
by Robert F. Kennedy
(Click for Amazon book review)
OnTheIssues.org BOOK REVIEW:
This book encapsulates the biggest lie perpetrated by the American government on the American people in the 20th century. In October 1962, the United States and the USSR came to the brink of nuclear war – historians regard the event as the closest the world ever came to WWIII – that part is true, and the book documents it in detail. The Big Lie is about how we avoided WWIII: "Kennedy and Khrushchev went eye-to-eye, and the Russians blinked," goes the standard line that we were all taught in civics class from 1962 until 1997 – that's untrue – JFK and RFK made a secret deal that stayed hidden for 35 years. But teaching that Big Lie to America for 35 years endangered the world because of its false lessons.
I was one of those taught wrong. At Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government (HKS), the Cuban Missile Crisis is the first case study for first-year students, and we were taught the Big Lie that "Khrushchev blinked." Those students then went on to careers in the diplomatic corps and government, where they spread that Big Lie and sometimes acted on it. Our textbook for the Case Study was Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow (both professors at HKS) – that book got heavily edited after the 1997 release of the "classified" information telling the truth instead of the Big Lie.
But if you ask people who were around in 1962, they'll still say, "oh, yes, Khrushchev blinked," because that's what they were told for 35 years and nobody except pundits read the secret documents finally released in 1997. United States policy was based on the expectation that other enemies would "blink" if confronted like Americans believed that Kennedy confronted Khrushchev -- that's the Big Lie that was perpetrated on the American people. The danger of our presidents lying to the American people is that we'll expect different results from reality, like we've expected since 1962.
-- Jesse Gordon, OnTheIssues editor-in-chief, December 2018
2022 Update applied to Ukraine:
The result of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, we were all told, was that "Khrushchev blinked." JFK's Big Lie claimed, because JFK stood firm against Russian missiles in Cuba, that the Russians backed down -- that was the official story for 35 years. Finally, in 1997, secret documents revealed the full story -- JFK made a deal with Khrushchev: the U.S. would remove our missiles from Turkey, in exchange for the removal of Russian missiles from Cuba.
But because we were all "educated" in the Big Lie, we still apply the false lesson to the current standoff between Russia and Ukraine. Applying JFK's Big Lie, we say, "Biden should stand firm against Russian aggression in Ukraine, and Putin will blink, just like Khrushchev did." Applying the truth would point toward a policy more like, "Biden should make a deal with Putin: no NATO forces in Ukraine, in exchange for no Russian forces in Ukraine."
JFK's deal with Khrushchev was a reasonable quid-pro-quo: Russian missiles in Cuba could reach the mainland United States in minutes; American missiles in Turkey could similarly reach the Russian heartland in minutes. Removing both reduced tensions between the two superpowers by removing a real threat to both. But Kennedy felt that the American public would not accept that deal as reasonable, so he hid the full deal from the American people, and instead pretended that it was a one-sided deal: the Big Lie was that Khrushchev removed Russian missiles from Cuba because Kennedy demanded it and stoood firm in that demand.
Now Kennedy's successor faces a similar situation with Khrushchev's successor: while Putin masses Russian troops on Ukraine eastern border, Biden deploys U.S. troops on Ukraine's western border. The underlying source of the dispute is that NATO declared that Ukraine could eventually join, which means U.S. troops could be stationed in Ukraine, like Biden is currently deploying U.S. troops under the NATO banner to Germany, Poland, and Romania. The latter two countries, both of which border western Ukraine, joined NATO after the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia protested but had insufficient strength to do anything about it -- now they do. Putin has made clear that Ukraine is off-limits to NATO -- but NATO and the U.S. offered a path to Ukraine membership in NATO anyway, in 2008. Putin responded by annexing Ukraine's Crimea in 2014, and has kept military tensions high with Ukraine ever since.
American politicians say things like, "Russia should respect the sovereignty of Ukraine; every country is free to pursue NATO membership." That's a noble principle, but here's how Russia looks at the situation: Let's say Texas seceded from the United States, and Mexico offered a mutual defense deal with Texas, including Mexican troops right up to the Oklahoma border. Would the United States accept that on the principle of the sovereignty of Texas? No; we wouldn't accept that Texas was free to secede (as Putin didn't accept that Crimea was really part of Ukraine); and we certainly wouldn't accept foreign troops stationed in Texas (as Putin won't accept NATO troops potentially stationed in Ukraine).
So what is the reasonable quid-pro-quo for Biden? Putin has always demanded that NATO exclude Ukraine's potential membership. We could make a deal based on that -- doing so would reduce tensions throughout Europe as well as with U.S.-Russia relations. Poland and Romania are full-fledged NATO members already, so NATO troops on Ukraine's western border is already an established fact. But Putin also demands that NATO exclude Georgia's potential membership -- NATO also offered a path to membership for Georgia, another former Soviet Union country at war with Russia. Maybe an extended deal could exclude Georgia in NATO in exchange for military de-escalation in Poland and Romania.
Biden faces the same public demand now as Kennedy did in 1962: When Biden even hints at a deal with Russia, hawks screech "Stand firm! Toughen the sanctions! Deploy more troops!" That's exactly what the hawks screeched at Kennedy in 1962 -- and Kennedy pretended to appease them, but secretly made a deal. Maybe Biden is making a secret deal with Putin right now, like JFK sent RFK to secretly talk to the Russian ambassador. But why is secrecy needed?
JFK's secrecy in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 has dramatically damaged the United States' position in world leadership. For decades, that secrecy has strengthened the hawkish argument that "standing firm works." Even though that was disproven in 1997, that policy is permanently ingrained into most people's thinking: "The U.S. should never make a deal with Russia, because unblinking toughness works," the hawks say. But unblinking toughness didn't actually work in 1962, and won't work either in 2022. There IS a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis -- if we apply the REAL lessons of 1962, not the Big Lie!
-- Jesse Gordon, OnTheIssues editor-in-chief, February 2022
A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis
by Robert F. Kennedy.
Page last edited: Apr 06, 2019