Thirteen Days in October When Our President Saved the World

October’s Autumn Leaves – Maine

October 1962

Fifty-five years ago.

John Kennedy was President.

I was thirty-one. I was in the life insurance business.

I didn’t know much about Kennedy or about politics. Nor, as I reflect, did I really care. Philosophic and political thoughts, which led me to law school in 1964, were just beginning to stir in me. At that time, I was into Ayn Rand and her Philosophy for the New Intellectual, a tough philosophy about personal achievement. I hadn’t read Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, or his While England Slept, or his Nation of Immigrants. I didn’t know about PT 109 or his World War II heroism.

I grew up during the depression in a stout Republican household. Naturally, I voted for Eisenhower in 1952, my senior year at the University of Wisconsin. In the 1960 presidential election, I voted for Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard Nixon. But, Nixon lost the first presidential television debate and the election to Kennedy.

So, it isn’t surprising that in October 1962, Jack, my insurance partner, and I were totally into “business” as we motored to Winter Haven, Florida, to persuade a young doctor to buy a hefty amount of life insurance.

I remember that the doctor was scared, really scared.

The cold war was getting hot. Russia didn’t like America’s missile build-up in Italy and Turkey. Khrushchev, bent on catching up to the United States’s nuclear missile arsenal, boasted Russia was now building missiles fast, like making “sausages.” There were news stories circulating that Russia was helping Cuba build up its defenses against a future American attack. Castro was incensed about America’s 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, America’s failed attempt to overthrow his government – a plot designed by Eisenhower’s Vice President and the CIA, but implemented without too much thought by Eisenhower’s successor, Kennedy, upon advice of his military commanders.

There were also rumors that Cuba and Russia may have had more than “defense” on their minds: rumors that Castro wanted retaliation; rumors that Castro was conniving with Russia to make Cuba, ninety nautical miles south of Florida, a nuclear stronghold. Disaster in Winter Haven was but five minutes from a Cuban missile launch.

In October 1962 Jack and I weren’t very concerned about what Russia and Cuba might be up to, as I remember it. But the doctor was. He had built a bomb shelter, fully equipped with beds, food and water. It didn’t take much salesmanship to persuade him to buy a lot of life insurance.

It was several decades later before I fully grasped the political events that occurred during that beautiful fall month in 1962. Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy’s memoir of those apocalyptic days had not yet been scripted. The Kennedy Tapes, the historic record of those dangerous times, were classified and not published until 1997. (The movie based on the tapes, Thirteen Days, starring Kevin Costner, followed in 2000.)

Today, you can grasp the intensity and the dynamics of those fateful times from the John Kennedy Library’s World on the Brink website, which provides a day-by-day chronology. Early on, America’s Generals, perhaps still burning from the failed 1961 Cuban invasion, advised Kennedy there was but one choice: take out Cuba’s missile sites by air strikes and invade Cuba. Kennedy resisted.

• On October 22, crisis-day seven, after Gromyko (unaware that Kennedy had U-2 missile photos) denied the Cuban missiles build up, Kennedy wrote Nikita Khrushchev:

“I have not assumed that you or any other sane man would, in this nuclear age, deliberately plunge the world into war which it is crystal clear no country could win and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world, including the aggressor.”

• On October 26, day eleven, Castro urged Khrushchev to initiate a nuclear first strike against the United States in the event America invades Cuba. Seizing the idea, Khrushchev wrote Kennedy that he will remove the missiles if Kennedy agrees to lift the “quarantine” (American ships surrounded Cuba, inspecting all approaching ships for weapons) and promises not to invade Cuba. The letter was later supplemented by a further demand for the U.S. to remove missiles from Turkey.

• On October 28, day thirteen, Khrushchev and Kennedy came to terms. Russia agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for America’s non-invasion pledge. Secretly, but as part of the deal, the United States agreed to quietly remove the Turkish missiles six months later. Russia and the United States figured out how to cooperate. The give-and-take of their negotiations prevented a nuclear war. Our Winter Haven doctor never had to use his bomb shelter.

In 2008, Jeffrey Sachs wrote about those thirteen days in Common Wealth:

“The world trembled. Many Americans believed that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable, just as some Americans today believe that war with Islamic fundamentalism is inevitable. John Kennedy, in the finest hour of the American presidency after World War II, believed otherwise and helped to lead the Americans, Soviets and the world back from the brink by finding new paths of cooperation, starting with a partial nuclear test ban.

“Having nearly been pushed to nuclear war by the CIA covert operations, followed by Soviet nuclear provocation, and then by hotheaded U.S. generals eager to launch a first strike against Cuba in response to the Soviet nuclear missile placement, Kennedy was deeply shaken by the ease with which the world had slid toward an apocalypse and the fragility of life itself.”

I write this story in October 2017 – fifty-five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. We face another nuclear missile crisis. Not with Russia, but with North Korea. Some say the crisis is the making of North Korea. Others say that North Korea’s government is simply posturing to keep America off its back with an Asian version of the Bay of Pigs.

I wonder. If he were alive and our President, how would Kennedy handle North Korea?

• Would Kennedy “bully with the bomb?” Would he use Nixon’s Vietnam “madman strategy,” as Trump is doing with his threats of blowing North Korea to obliteration? Professor Jeremi Suri writes in Donald Trump and the ‘Madman’ Playbook:

“Among serious strategists, ‘madmen’ are not afraid to fail, or blow up the world and themselves. That is not their preferred outcome, but they are prepared to take massive risks for specific purposes. To be mad is not to be irrational. There is a steely rationality in the willingness to combine extreme force with potential suicide. The madman strategist is ready to press the nuclear button if the adversary doesn’t back down. The adversary will give in, according to the logic, because the potential damage is just too devastating, and he thinks the madman might be serious. The Nixon-Kissinger madman strategy failed because Soviet and North Vietnamese leaders, like Mao Zedong in China, recognized that the United States had much more to lose than gain from turning the Vietnam War into a nuclear conflict.

“President Donald Trump seems not to know this history, nor do most of his advisers. He appears, however, drawn to the same strategy as Nixon. Trump has many incentives to try and convince foreign adversaries that he is ‘mad,’ in hopes that they will back down from long-standing defiant behaviors without heavy costs to the United States. He wants big victories with small sacrifices—a good ‘deal’—and nuclear threats call out as the obvious instrument.”

• Would Kennedy, as Secretary of State Tillerson is doing through his back-door communications, look for areas of mutual cooperation with North Korea? Or would Kennedy criticize his Secretary of State for negotiating with North Korea as Trump is doing? Trump tweets:

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done.”

• Will Trump and his administration consider the advice of Jimmy Carter in his October 10, 2017 Op-ed, Jimmy Carter: What I’ve learned from North Korea’s leaders?

“Over more than 20 years, I have spent many hours in discussions with top North Korean officials and private citizens during visits to Pyongyang and to the countryside. …

“I have visited with people who were starving. Still today, millions suffer from famine and food insecurity and seem to be completely loyal to their top leader. They are probably the most isolated people on Earth and almost unanimously believe that their greatest threat is from a preemptory military attack by the United States. …

“The top priority of North Korea’s leaders is to preserve their regime and keep it as free as possible from outside control. …

“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement last week that “we have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation” is a good first step to defusing tensions.

“The next step should be for the United States to offer to send a high-level delegation to Pyongyang for peace talks or to support an international conference including North and South Korea, the United States and China, at a mutually acceptable site.”

As we ponder, consider Kennedy’s comments in a letter to his father, sent in World War II, after a Japanese destroyer rammed his PT109:

“When I read that we will fight the Japs for years if necessary and will sacrifice hundreds of thousands if we must – I always like to check from where he’s talking – it’s seldom out here. People get so used to talking in billions of dollars and millions of soldiers that thousands of dead sound like drops in the bucket. But if the thousands want to live as much as the ten I saw [his PT crew] – they should measure their words with great, great care.”

And consider Kennedy’s insightful Peace Address at American University, delivered in June 1963, five months before his assassination:

“Our problems are manmade – therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable–and we believe they can do it again. …

“[L]et us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Kennedy’s insights come not only from his intellect, but from personal experiences, the necessary “dirty-hands, wet-feet learning” I wrote about in a different context in Wonderlust.

Trump’s “wisdom” is not shaped by similar hands-on experience.

Kennedy, a Democrat, also consulted with Eisenhower, a Republican, and with others who had in-depth, broad-based experiential insights into Russia and war. Trump tweets his conclusions daily without the benefit of the wisdom of others with differing views and deeper experiences.

Will the Korean crisis be solved with the logic of the Madman’s Playbook? Or will the crisis be solved by the give-and-take of negotiations by otherwise rational men, who, even if they cannot end all their differences, at least will “make the world safe for diversity?”

Will the United States give North Korea a non-invasion pledge in exchange for its South Korea non-invasion pledge? With Trump’s willingness to “void” treaties with other nations that he doesn’t like, would North Korea and the rest of the world believe in the veracity and longevity of such a pledge from us?

We will soon find out.

_______

Extra Credit:

Carter Volunteers to Help Trump With North Korea

Trump’s Scary Policy on North Korea

Why the Fight With North Korea Is Really About China

Ending the Iran deal is an invitation to war

Why I Went to North Korea

Half of Republicans Polled Want Strike on Korea

1962 Cuban Missile Crisis Polls

Tillerson: Diplomacy With North Korea Will Continue “Until the First Bomb Drops”

No First Use Agreement, Not Threats, Could Work

14 Comments
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Jane
2 years ago

Thank you for this. It is an important article, especially since it did not come out of Washington but from a “real” person who has, as I, lived through the Kennedy days. (I remember standing at the window of a DB hotel watching our ships headed to Cuba!) I realize that the efforts–or unpredictable gyrations–of our current president may either settle down this conflict or set it off in a way that will change our world. I have watched his madman tactics with interest, the way both in domestic and international issues he proposes or mandates alarming solutions unacceptable to… Read more »

Devon Wadsworth
2 years ago

I’m slowly doing my history homework and wishing there was time for extra credit. I just read Why I Went To North Korea. I belive it does help build a (paraphrased from another’s comment) “humanizing bridge”.

As far as how to get Trump to listen and/or change his “good deal and Madman” strategies… Could Theodore Roosevelt help? – “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Devon Wadsworth
2 years ago

For now I’ll just say: The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.

Kami
2 years ago

Hi Richard (& Joanie)!

I have read your thoughtful essay..I agree with it. I have been worried ever since he won the election and he has proved my concern since since he’s been in office. We can only hope that he listens to all the legislators we have put in office and with whom we have contact!
Things are good here..and y’all?
Xoxo Kami

Karen Gibbons
2 years ago

“Against logic there is no armor like ignorance.” – Laurence J. Peter

Maura
2 years ago

Thank you for taking the time to write with “great, great care” this urgently important blog. And thank you for sharing it with me.
Maura

Richard
2 years ago

Hi, In case you weren’t aware, Oliver Stone is pretty much on the same page on this and so are several others I have followed. Great blog and now on my FB page!
thx,

Richard

Lance
2 years ago

Great thoughts. May this bizarre administration end before serious devastation occurs.

Lance

Jack
2 years ago

Dick, a day I will never forget! Thank you dear friend for this very special reminder about our younger days when we had so very much to learn about the world around us.
Our love to you and Joan,
Jack

Sally
2 years ago

Dick,

As always, I enjoy your insights and learn much from them. This is particularly thought-provoking and some of the scenarios of how it plays out are quite frightening. Thanks for sharing

Sally

2 years ago

As usual, your blog teaches us something, makes us think. How can we get Mr. Trump to read it before he does something dreadful?

Craig Wadsworth
2 years ago

I had just graduated from high school in ’61 ….. and had practiced “drills” ducking under my school desk in the event of a very bright flash of light. I’m getting the same sick feeling in my stomach as this privileged, egocentric, narcissist projects his TV Show mentality (attempting to boost his ratings).
He failed me at: “Your Fired”

Julia
2 years ago

Thanks Dick. I learned from this and really appreciate it.

Lois Patton
2 years ago

A thoughtful and intellectual discourse on what so many of us are losing sleep over. If only the “malignant narcissist” grasps the message. Thank you, Dick.