Thursday, April 01, 2021

JFK and the President as the “Decider”

Sandy Levinson

For the Symposium on Martin J. Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis (Knopf, 2020).

            I begin with an anecdote of sorts:  In October 1962, I was a first-year graduate student at Harvard, in the department of government.  My aspiration at the time was to become a “defense intellectual”; I had written my senior thesis at Duke on aspects of nuclear deterrence theory, and one of my heroes, from afar, was Morton Halperin, who at the age of 21 or 22, had become a recognized figure in the esoteric world of “nuclear theorists.”  So one of the courses I was taking was a “seminar” with Henry Kissinger.  The scare quotes are intentional, inasmuch as it included something like ninety students, and each week featured a guest.  Kissinger was a notably indifferent teacher (though I did have a wonderful “seminar section leader,” George Armstrong Kelly).  It was perhaps overdetermined that by the end of the year, I had migrated toward what became my lifetime vocation as a student of American constitutionalism under the tutelage of Robert McCloskey.  I have often described myself as the happiest Harvard graduate student I’ve known, in large part because of McCloskey, who was everything as a human being that Kissinger most definitely was not.  But that is not the anecdote, however relevant it is to my personal biography.

             The Cuban Missile Crisis, of course, occurred quite early on in my first semester.  But what I remember most vividly is the extent to which I was relatively unconcerned at the time.  The reason is relatively simple:  As a “defense intellectual,” immersed at the time in the work of Thomas Schelling and other rationalistic game theorists, I “knew” that the event was something of a charade conducted between leaders of the two great powers, both of whom realized that it was literally insane to engage in a nuclear exchange (or, perhaps, any other armed conflict); this meant that we were observing a kind of Kabuki theater.  One could not quite say that it was “full of sound and fury signifying nothing,” but I was, nevertheless, secure in my rationalistic confidence that nothing truly ominous was on the horizon.  It would be settled peacefully because any other solution was truly irrational (and, therefore, “unthinkable”).  To put it mildly, my views changed subsequently in the course of the 1960s.  I lost confidence that our leaders were necessarily “rational”; Vietnam, in particular, exposed the fallacies of relying on “the best and the brightest” to make foreign policy, including, of course, to engage in brutal warfare. 

             Martin Sherwin’s remarkable book. Gambling with Armageddon:  Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis,  puts the finishing touch on any confidence one might have in the “rationality” of world politics, even (or especially?) where nuclear weapons are involved.  The book has many strengths, including a writing style that makes the reader turn the pages with increasing tension in order to find out what will happen next.  Even if one is aware—spoiler alert!—that war will be averted and the missiles withdrawn, it really doesn’t matter because Sherwin puts the reader so completely within the moment.  Were he writing of Lincoln’s assassination, one would want to shout to Lincoln, “don’t go,” in the hope that perhaps the encounter with John Wilkes Booth could be avoided.  Though Sherwin, as a gifted historian, takes pains to place his narrative within the larger structures of great power rivalry and the rise of “nuclear diplomacy,” he also has the historian’s flair for emphasizing the sheer role of contingency, what some might choose to call “blind luck.” 

So the book almost literally begins by emphasizing the importance of deliberations and decisions by obscure (to us) Soviet officers, Captain 2d Rank Valentin Grigorievich Savistsky, Brigade Chief of Staff Captain Vasily Alexandrovich Arkhipov and political officer Ivan Semyonovich Maslennikov.  Their names are worth spelling out because, as Sherwin writes, we might owe the fact that we are alive today because they collectively in effect disobeyed a command from on high that might well have triggered nuclear war by attacking a U.S. Navy vessel.  .  “Trapped in a floundering Project 641 Soviet submarine, [Savitsky] will be driven before sunset to a decision that, if executed, is certain to trigger the nuclear war that Khrushchev and Kennedy are striving to prevent” (p. 10).  But, of course, he chose otherwise.

The very title of his book, including the reference to “nuclear roulette,” captures the extent to which we may indeed be simply the playthings of the gods, who might, as Gloucester suggests in King Lear, simply “kill us for their sport.”  That that ultimately did not occur in 1962 was not at all preordained. Though one might focus on decisions made by the two key actors, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, it is almost completely mistaken to believe that they in fact truly controlled decisions made by multiple officials—their names known only to specialists, if at all—across the world. Tolstoy knew this, and Sherwin demonstrates it.  Our futures were at least as much in their hands. 

Indeed, especially in the case of Kennedy, much of his time was necessarily spent fending off the advice of the purported “wise men” he had called together to form the EXCOM (the extra-constitutional “executive committee”) that met in the White House over the now-fabled “thirteen days” (the title, of course, of Robert Kennedy’s self-serving memoir of the episode).  It is probably hyperbolic to describe some of those “wise men” as unbridled lunatics, though Curtis LeMay comes close; it is not, however, hyperbolic to describe many of them, including, say, Dean Acheson, as recklessly inclined to go to war in Cuba, come what may, in order to demonstrate American resolve against Soviet adventurism and, of course, to make up for the undeniable fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs as almost the inaugural episode of the Kennedy presidency.

There can be little doubt that Kennedy emerges as basically the hero of the tale that Sherwin tells, not least because, as already suggested, many of the people he surrounded himself with were decidedly less than inspiring in their zeal to confront the Red Menace in Cuba with a show of force, come what may.  Indeed, Kennedy was undoubtedly the big winner of the affair, wiping out the image of feckless ineptitude that accompanied the Bay of Pigs and then his disastrous encounter with Khrushchev in Vienna in June, 1961, which may have encouraged the Soviet premier to embark on his adventurism in Cuba. 

Sherwin quotes Kennedy as saying, on October 16, 1962, at the very beginning of the fateful “thirteen days,” that “After all, this is a political struggle as much as military” (p. 204).  He was referring, no doubt, to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.  But the reality is that Kennedy was also deeply engaged in a domestic political struggle as well.  Presidents rarely do well in mid-term elections, which were coming up less than a month later, in November, 1962, and Republicans, led by Senator Kenneth Keating of New York, were relentlessly attacking Kennedy as basically a weak president in terms of standing up to the Soviet challenge.  Having narrowly won the presidency in 1960, Kennedy had good reason to fear his prospects in 1964, especially if the GOP were to nominate someone like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, not yet tainted with his divorce and remarriage to Happy Rockefeller.  Sherwin justifiably concentrates on the monumental great-power politics signified by Kennedy and Khrushchev, but no one should be unaware that both leaders had to worry about domestic politics as well.  One might well believe that Kennedy would have been re-elected in 1964, even if Rockefeller had been the candidate instead of Goldwater, in part because of the plaudits he won after his perceived triumph in Cuba, when, to quote Dean Rusk, Kennedy’s resolution ostensibly caused Khrushchev to “blink.”    Khrushchev, on the other hand, paid for his willingness to appear the victim of Kennedy’s humiliation not with his life, as might have been expected in the “old days” of Stalinism, but, most certainly, with his job, from which he was ousted in 1964. 

 We will never know, obviously, exactly what might have happened had Kennedy not been assassinated.  It was left to his unlucky successor to inherit the disastrous American involvement in Vietnam that Kennedy began, including the American cooperation in the assassination of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem just three weeks before Kennedy’s own death in Dallas.  Kennedy, like Lincoln, left the stage at a relative high point, and both the public and historians were left to paint whatever portraits they wished of a Kennedy that might have been.  But one might say that Kennedy died at perhaps the highest point of what Henry Luce had labeled “The American Century,” and for many he epitomized the possibilities open to America to remake the world, as Kennedy seemed to suggest was his aspiration in his Inaugural Address. 

            What we do know is that Kennedy remained a favorite of the American public, and Sherwin’s book is evidence of the hold he continues to possess with regard even to historians who are unafraid, as evidenced in Sherwin’s earlier books on the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on Robert J. Oppenheimer, to offer probing criticisms of America’s highest leaders.  And, I must admit, I am persuaded by the book that we do have reason to be grateful for Kennedy’s “grace under pressure,” to cite the Hemingway quote that many of the Kennedy partisans were prone to use.  One might well believe that almost any other “leader,” including his Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, one of the Cuba hawks at the EXCOMM sessions, would have made worse ultimate decisions and perhaps taken us into World War III.. 

            But it is also true that I remain something of a Kennedy and Cuban Missile Crisis “revisionist” even after reading Sherwin’s monumental account.  Everyone seemed to agree that the missiles posed a vital threat to American national security inasmuch as it would obviously take far less time for a missile fired from Cuba to reach Washington, let alone Miami, than one fired from the Soviet Union itself.  But, as I was learning during my brief career as a “defense intellectual,” so what?  If in fact the United States had a secure “second-strike capability,” as Robert McNamara assured Kennedy we had, then the relentless logic of deterrence, summarized in the acronym MAD (mutually assured destruction) assured that any first-strike by the Soviet Union, whether initiating in the Soviet Union or in Cuba, would be met with a second strike by the United States that would obliterate the U.S.S.R.  The missiles in Cuba did nothing at all to weaken the second-strike capacity of the U.S.  From one perspective, then, the so-called “crisis” was all about political “optics,” i.e., the ability of the Soviet Union to place its missiles within 90 miles of Key West.  Surely that was unacceptable politically.  But the affirmative answer speaks requires that we ignore a certain notion of military “reality.”  And, even more to the point, it requires one to ignore another political-military reality, much noted by Sherwin, that the United States has with some insouciance placed its own Jupiter missiles in Turkey, very near the Soviet border.  Turkey, of course, had become part of the NATO alliance as part of the effort to encircle the Soviet Union and prevent any adventurism in Europe.  And the placement of threatening missiles very near the U.S.S.R. was conducive to the strategy of containment. 

            Cuba, of course, was (correctly) viewed as having become a communist enclave because of the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959.  There is no evidence that it was sparked by the Soviet Union, and historians continue to debate whether a different, and more enlightened policy, by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, might have prevented the disastrous turn in Cuban-U.S. relations even after Castro’s rise to power.  But, obviously, Kennedy had acquiesced in Eisenhower’s (and the C.I.A.’s) decision to try to remove Castro by military force, and the result was the Bay of Pigs.  At that point, Castro understandably sought protection from the Soviet Union, and the U.S.S.R., understandably or not, was willing to offer such protection.  Thus the placement of the nuclear missiles and, just as importantly, the presence on the ground of Soviet military officers who would necessarily be killed should the Americans attack.  Just as American soldiers in Europe and Korea were, in effect, “trip wires” against Communist aggression, so could Soviet personnel become such trip wires in Cuba, preventing repetition of the Bay of Pigs. 

            Needless to say, such “rationalist” accounts of the reality of the situation were unlikely to save the day against Keating’s attacks, and Kennedy’s acquiescence in the missile emplacement would have instantly been compared to Munich.  (That analogy, of course, applied to Vietnam, would ultimately wreck Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.  As Daniel Ellsberg argued, no American president could afford to be seen as having appeased Communist tyranny, let alone lost an actual armed conflict.) 

            Balkinization generally focuses on legal or constitutional questions rather than questions of “pure history.”  So why should Sherwin’s book be of immense interest to constitutional lawyers as well as more general readers (all of whom should find the book absolutely riveting)?  The answer is simple:  The EXCOMM was, if not “unconstitutional” (which it probably was not, given our tolerance of presidential “kitchen cabinets” from the earliest days), then, at the very least “extra-constitutional.”  That is, at no time during the thirteen days, did the President of the United States seemingly feel a necessity to take into his confidence, and seek the advice, of elected senators and representatives charged by the Constitution, among other things, with deciding whether or not to embark on war.  Nor, of course, was there any public debate about whether “we” really would all rather risk death rather than accept the existence of missiles in Cuba.  One might believe that this allocation of authority is especially important with regard to a conflict that might, if things go wrong, destroy what we like to think of as human civilization.  Ted Sorenson once wrote that Kennedy had suggested, during the Crisis itself, that there was a one-in-three chance that the U.S. “blockade” of Cuba, itself an act of war under much conventional legal theory, would eventuate in a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.  One might regard any such risk-taking as insane.  But if one is a procedure-oriented lawyer, as most lawyers are in fact are, one might independently believe that such a decision ought not be left to a single United States President, even one who has surrounded himself with ostensibly “wise” advisors (which Kennedy arguably did not, save for Adlai Stevenson, a figure much derided by many Kennedyites but a strong and admirable presence in Sherwin’s account). 

            So it is not simply that the Crisis can be viewed as one of the origin points of our belief in a truly imperial presidency defined, in part, by a willful ignorance of what Congress might want to say about matters of potential life and death.  It also becomes an origin point, more practically speaking, of our willingness to accept lying as a presidential prerogative.  That is, it appears clear that two important reasons for the Soviet capitulation were, first of all, a guarantee by the United States that it would not in fact repeat the attempt to invade Cuba.  Fidel Castro could be assured of at least a certain amount of security against American intervention, which in fact turned out to be the case.  Instead, he had to worry about mad C.I.A. assassination plots, and the Cuban people had to endure a now-half-century-long embargo that certainly diminished their standard of living.  Second, though, were back channel assurances that the Jupiter missiles in Turkey would in fact be withdrawn, as they were.  But, as Eric Alterman demonstrated in a book presidential lying, Kennedy solemnly assured the American public that the Soviet withdrawal was the result of the disciplined show of force by the President and not attributable to backroom deals in which the U.S. itself made import concessions.  He was lying.  Our willingness to overlook this aspect of the crisis, and its denouement, is far more serious than our willingness to overlook the extent to which Kennedy might well be described as a sex addict. 

            One might be glad that Kennedy became president instead of Richard Nixon.  One might focus on certain achievements of the Kennedy Administration, such as the founding of the Peace Corps, as genuine long-term contributions to both the world and to the United States itself inasmuch as it generated a cadre of youngsters who knew much more about the world—and its privations—than did their elders.  Many of them devoted their own lives to making the world—and the U.S.—better, undoubtedly inspired by Kennedy’s rhetoric. 

            But Sherwin’s book, for all of its success in making us grateful that Kennedy, and not other American politicians of the time, was President, also provides less reassuring lessons.  John Kennedy, in his own way, was a powerful transformative agent of our inchoate Constitution and of our understanding of the role that a president would play in our collective lives.  A full understanding of this aspect of the Kennedy presidency would have to include emphasizing his charismatic personality, his ability to use news conferences—not to mention the 1960 televised presidential debates—to his advantage, and what his widow Jacqueline Kennedy identified (and helped create) as the “Camelot” aspect of the Kennedy era.  We live with them still, including, most importantly, our willingness all too often to accept George W. Bush’s self-description as the “decider” with regard to great issues of war and peace.  No self-respecting constitutional order should put such power in the hands of one person, however charming they might be.  But it has most certainly happened, and JFK is a major explanation.


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