Friday, April 02, 2021

The Cuban Missile Crisis Revealed

Stephen Griffin

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

I use this title not only because of the outstanding qualities of Martin Sherwin’s masterful new book Gambling With Armageddon, but because in key respects this is the first book to truly reveal, in a thorough, judicious and analytical way, both the overt and covert story of the crisis as well as its somewhat stunning implications for our understanding of the relationship of the Cold War to constitutional developments in the American presidency.  It appears earlier significant volumes on the crisis did not have the benefit of the full record, including Sherwin’s revelations about how U.S. actions against Soviet submarines in the Atlantic nearly led to the first use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As a substantial bonus, Sherwin’s book contributes to the ongoing reconsideration of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, surely one of the more difficult challenges besetting historians studying the long middle of the twentieth century.

 Although Sherwin’s book provides several fascinating revelations in addition to the submarine incident, I will lay those aside to concentrate on its implications for the study of the presidency.  Sherwin highlights those features in his description of the book’s purpose: “How [Kennedy] freed himself from the conventional Cold War attitudes his advisers advocated—why he changed his mind and resisted initiating a military strike—is the central question of the Cuban missile crisis and the ultimate subject of this book.”  This arresting statement should command our most focused attention.

To put it another way, Sherwin gives us a lot to chew on.  The most unsettling observation Sherwin makes in his global assessment of the missile crisis is how much was left to chance.  In particular, neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev perceived until almost too late how little of the crisis was within their direct control.  And the potential stakes – destruction of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, not to mention the rest of the human world – are difficult to properly come to grips with.  This is especially the case as President Kennedy repeatedly tangled with advisers who, in effect, wanted to put the United States in harm’s way.  Not for nothing does Sherwin name the part of the book on the crucial thirteen days, “Kennedy vs. ExComm, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Khrushchev, and Castro.”  Kennedy thus had to contend with both foreign and domestic challenges.

Sherwin’s book should spur some rethinking of the role of the President in relation to his advisers, in relation to the military, and the relation of these last two supposed presidential agents to Congress.  I say “supposed” because at several crucial points in the events leading to the crisis and, in fact, during the crisis, agents of the executive branch acted more as independent instigators rather than subordinates.  The CIA’s all-too-easy assumption about the Bay of Pigs operation that Kennedy would have no choice but to make a full military commitment is well known.  Less well known is the pervasive assumption among the military that Castro’s very existence was a ideological (not existential) threat that the crisis offered the perfect opportunity to solve.  Well, not!  As scholars showed earlier and Sherwin reminds us, Soviet troops in Cuba had not only intermediate range nuclear missiles to deter attack, but battlefield nuclear weapons that could have easily been used against a U.S. invasion.  The result could easily have been not only mass casualties on both sides, but the permanent denudation and contamination of the entire island.

Sherwin’s book prompts me to reconsider the role of nuclear weapons in remaking constitutional relationships, not only within the executive branch, but between the branches.  I didn’t develop this role in my book on war powers, Long Wars and the Constitution, because I didn’t see evidence that these weapons played a unique role in increasing presidential power after World War II.  As Sherwin notes provocatively at one point, however, it is not just that Congress was not informed of various postwar covert operations, including the Bay of Pigs.  Not sharing information with Congress goes back to the establishment of the Manhattan Project.  Congress was dealt out of nuclear decision making from the very beginning.  Some decisions made by subsequent presidents, such as Truman’s decision to retain civilian control of the use of nuclear weapons, seem wise and defensible.  But Sherwin’s narrative supports the disturbing conclusion that Congress’s absence distorted the Constitution, not simply in creating dysfunctional and dangerous relationships within the executive branch, but obviating any meaningful role for the legislative branch.  As we move forward on war powers, Sherwin’s book can play a valuable role in forcing us to rethink these relationships anew.

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