What Can Obama Learn From Kennedy?

From Havana to Tehran, Tom Segev takes a look at a world of 'what-ifs.'

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev

On Sunday, October 14, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy received aerial photographs of missile bases in Cuba; the Soviet-made missiles depicted in those images had nuclear warheads. These facts are common knowledge; every undergraduate studying international relations is expected to be familiar with this narrative. Nearly every book about the Cuban Missile Crisis also mentions the fact that the photos were presented to Kennedy while he was watching a football game.

Today, however, 50 years after the deadliest international crisis in history, two interesting thoughts have been raised in the American press. One of those belongs to the “what-if” category, which has become an established trend among U.S. historians: namely, what if Kennedy had chosen to destroy the missiles in Cuba? This train of thought is concerned with what lessons can be applied from that crisis to the present standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

Kennedy’s advisers told him he had two alternatives: either to attack the missile bases or to learn how to accept them as a new fact of life. Neither option appeared acceptable to him. Kennedy adopted a third approach: He imposed a naval embargo on Cuba, in order to prevent Havana from receiving any additional missiles, and he dispatched his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who was also attorney general, to speak with the Soviets.

Within a few days, an agreement was reached. The Soviet Union removed the missile bases and the United States promised that it would not attack Cuba. Washington also gave Moscow a secret pledge to remove its own missiles from Turkey within six months.

Both Kennedy and the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, were operating under heavy political pressures. U.S. Congressional elections were about to be held, and people were still talking about the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. In the USSR, some members of the Supreme Soviet were demanding that Khrushchev adopt a hard line.

But Kennedy and Khrushchev chose to enter into a dialogue. Although they deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, they never received it. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, it was decided that the prize would be awarded to United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. The following year , when the time had arrived to announce the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Kennedy had already been assassinated. He could have been awarded the prize posthumously, as was done in Hammarskjold’s case. In any event, Kennedy and Khrushchev will always be remembered as two leaders who prevented the destruction of the human race.

This may, however, be a misconception. American historian Eric G. Swedin’s celebrated 2010 book “When Angels Wept: A What-If History of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” describes a different turn of events. In Swedin’s book, Kennedy decides not to wait, and instead almost immediately orders an attack on the missile bases. So as to make sure that the missiles are destroyed, and in order to take advantage of the opportunity to get rid of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the president dispatches a U.S. Navy fleet to occupy the island. The Russians attack the fleet with tactical nuclear weapons. In retaliation, the United States drops 14 nuclear bombs on Cuba. On one of the missile bases, a number of Russians survive the U.S. attack. Unable to contact their superiors, the survivors decide to act on their own, and fire one of the missiles at New Orleans.

Now the Soviet Union has no alternative. Since it has only 110 nuclear bombers and the United States has 1,600, the USSR must be the first to attack . In retaliation, the United States launches more than 1,000 nuclear missiles at targets not only in the Soviet Union, but also at all the countries comprising the communist bloc, including the People’s Republic of China.

The real Dr. Strangeloves of the world estimated at the time that in a nuclear war, 200 million would be killed, half in Russia and the other half in the United States.

In Swedin’s scenario, the results are horrifying, but there is a twist: Whereas the Soviet Union and Europe are totally destroyed, the United States sustains only partial damage. The human race is not destroyed.

And what would have happened if the United States had resigned itself to the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil? Perhaps nothing, since, in any case, the Soviet Union collapsed. The same fate might await the present regime in Tehran.

That question has sparked the curiosity of the leading expert on the Cuban missile crisis, Harvard University Prof. Graham T. Allison, who sees the issue of Iran’s nuclear program as “the Cuban missile crisis in slow-motion,” and who recommends employing Kennedy’s approach to defuse the Iranian situation. Allison estimates that the chances of Iran deciding to abandon the idea of possessing nuclear weapons are slim.

Nonetheless, a possible Iranian-American treaty could look like this: Tehran would agree to slow up its nuclear weapons development program in return for an U.S. commitment not to attack Iran. An agreement would be reached on a stringent monitoring arrangement that would prevent Iran from secretly violating the treaty’s terms. A secret threat could be added to the treaty, like the secret pledge Kennedy made to remove the American missiles from Turkey: If the Iranians violate the treaty’s terms, the United States would take appropriate measures − including, if necessary, the use of force, to topple the present regime in Tehran.

U.S. President Barack Obama could use this approach to justify the Nobel Peace Prize he has already received. However, in the Iranian affair, there is a third factor, one that was not present in the Cuban missile crisis and which did not limit Kennedy’s maneuverability. That situation was dealt with solely by the United States and the Soviet Union; Castro played no role. In the crisis with Iran, there is another element: Israel.

The threats Jerusalem has made about attacking Iran could strengthen Washington’s position in its negotiations with Tehran; however, if Israel carries out its threat, the United States would find it very hard to manage the crisis. Allison believes that the Americans are actually basing their position on a domestic dispute over the subject that is raging in the State of Israel. According to this estimate, the course of history now hinges on Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz.

JFK and Kruschev.Credit: AP

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