HONOLULU — As the United States hurtles toward the brink of war with Iraq and North Korea, the confrontation bears a striking resemblance to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Therein lie lessons that might well be read in Washington, Baghdad and Pyongyang.
Then, as now, the issue is nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union was deploying nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba, 145 km from U.S. territory. U.S. President John F. Kennedy demanded that they be withdrawn. Today, Iraq is seeking and North Korea has acquired nuclear arms; both also have chemical and biological weapons. U.S. President George W. Bush has declared all of that intolerable.
Then, as now, the U.S. mobilized for war. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and preparations for airstrikes and ground invasion of Cuba. Bush has ordered land, sea, and air forces to deploy around the Persian Gulf, and has called 150,000 reserves to active duty. Kennedy was not bluffing then, and Bush is not bluffing now.
Then, as now, the U.S. faced an imposing adversary. The Soviet Union had massive conventional forces poised to invade Western Europe. Today, Iraq and North Korea appear to be coordinating their strategy, turning their defiance of the U.S. into one conflict on two widely separate fronts. Bush has tried to shove the dispute with North Korea into the future, but the North Koreans have refused to be ignored and have only increased the belligerence of their diplomacy by diatribe.
Then, as now, the administration in Washington has sought to have its adversary disarm by applying political pressure even as it has prepared for battle. Kennedy had the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, make a compelling case to the U.N. Security Council of the imminent threat from the Soviet Union. Bush sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Security Council to make an only slightly less compelling case against Iraq. Last week, the dispute with North Korea was sent to the same council.
Then, as now, miscalculation is the most severe threat to resolving the quarrel. U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother and confidant, wrote: “There was always a chance of error, of mistake, of miscalculation or misunderstanding.” Surely the same can be said of the current confrontation, which is even more complicated than the crisis of 1962.
Then, as now, Britain was America’s staunchest ally. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan has written that he had many secret conversations with Kennedy and that his position “was one of the complete support for the president at every stage.” Prime Minister Tony Blair has followed that precedent with no known deviation.
There are differences, of course. France allied itself with the U.S. in 1962; it has joined with Russia to oppose the U.S. now. The missile crisis blew up and was over in 13 days; the confrontation with Iraq and North Korea has been brewing for many months. Kennedy ruled out a preemptive strike on Cuba. Bush has made it an option.
Perhaps most important, Kennedy had a limited, clearly defined objective: Get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba without a war. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara has written that the strategy was to apply pressure “against the Soviets without ever pushing them to the point where they were forced to an irrational, suicidal, spasm response.”
Bush has defined part of his objective: Force Iraq and North Korea to give up their weapons of mass destruction. But whether his objectives go beyond that is far from clear, notably whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il must go, perhaps to a safe haven in an Arab nation for Hussein or into retirement in Russia or China for Kim, has been left in ambiguity.
In the end, Kennedy’s strategy worked and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev backed down after Kennedy gave the Soviets a way out that did not humiliate them. Khrushchev, to his credit, came to understand that he had underestimated Americans and thus pulled the missiles out of Cuba.
During a meeting in the White House at a turning point in the crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk turned to the national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, and whispered: “We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked.”
Today, Bush is eyeball to eyeball with Hussein and Kim, but nobody seems to have blinked yet.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.