The Truth About the Cuban Missile Crisis

Debunking the Kennedy hagiographies


Benjamin Schwarz has written a long and interesting article for The Atlantic that draws on recent scholarship (and not-so-recent scholarship) to debunk the conventional wisdom about the Cuban missile crisis, arguing that the Kennedy administration "risked nuclear war over a negligible threat to national security." The whole thing is worth a read, but this anecdote should be especially enjoyable for anyone who suspects that JFK was a playboy doofus in over his head:

On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev's motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: "Why does he put these in there, though?…It's just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that'd be goddamned dangerous, I would think." McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: "Well we did it, Mr. President."

If you prefer stories that make Bobby Kennedy look bad, you'll enjoy the part where the president's brother tries to conceal a document that "could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future."

But Schwarz has a deeper point to make than The Kennedys were kind of awful. The myths of the Cuban missile crisis, he writes, have encouraged a lot of dangerous and inaccurate ideas about foreign policy:

the idea that a foreign power's effort to counter the overwhelming strategic supremacy of the United States—a country that spends nearly as much on defense as does the rest of the world combined—ipso facto imperils America's security is profoundly misguided. Just as Kennedy and his advisers perceived a threat in Soviet efforts to offset what was in fact a destabilizing U.S. nuclear hegemony, so today, both liberals and conservatives oxymoronically assert that the safety of the United States demands that the country must "balance" China by maintaining its strategically dominant position in East Asia and the eastern Pacific—that is, in China's backyard. This means that Washington views as a hazard Beijing's attempts to remedy the weakness of its own position, even though policy makers acknowledge that the U.S. has a crushing superiority right up to the edge of the Asian mainland. America's posture, however, reveals more about its own ambitions than it does about China's. Imagine that the situation were reversed, and China's air and naval forces were a dominant and potentially menacing presence on the coastal shelf of North America. Surely the U.S. would want to counteract that preponderance.

Bonus link: Schwarz was one of the people I interviewed for this round-robin forum on Iraq and the War on Terror, way back in 2003.