Historian pens letter from JFK to Joe Biden on how to defuse nuclear tensions with Russia
Dear Mr. President:
I send greetings from the other side — and no, I don’t mean the other side of the aisle. I refer to the place where old politicians go to make amends for their sins.
Apart from our shared Catholicism and affinity for sunglasses, I suspect you and I don’t have a lot in common. Actually, that may not quite be true. After all, your family and mine have both experienced more than our share of tragedy and you and I both did make it to the top rung of American politics.
Forgive me for being blunt, Joe — may I call you Joe? — but after more than a year in office, your administration clearly needs help. Having had ample time to reflect on my own abbreviated stay in the White House, I thought I might share some things I learned, especially regarding foreign policy. Sadly, you seem intent on repeating some of my own worst mistakes. A course change is still possible, but there’s no time to waste. So please listen up.
I’m guessing that you may be familiar with this timeless text: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
I no longer have any idea what prompted my aide and speechwriter Ted Sorensen to pen those immortal words or how exactly they found their way into my inaugural address. No matter, though. People then thought it expressed some profound truth — a Zen-like aphorism with an Ivy League pedigree.
Its implicit subtext, though, totally escaped attention: If negotiations don’t yield the desired results, it’s time to get tough. And that turned out to be problematic.
Fearing Fear Itself?
Candor obliges me to admit that, politically speaking, my administration made good use of fear itself. If my run for the White House had an overarching theme, it was to scare the bejesus out of the American people. And once in office, fearmongering formed an essential part of my presidency. The famous Jack Kennedy wit and charisma was no more than a side dish meant to make the panic-inducing main course more palatable.
Here’s me at the National Press Club early in the 1960 campaign, sounding the alarm about “increasingly dangerous, unsolved, long-postponed problems” that would “inevitably explode” during the next president’s watch. KABOOM! Chief among those problems, I warned, was “the growing missile gap, the rise of Communist China, the despair of the underdeveloped nations, the explosive situations in Berlin and in the Formosa [i.e., Taiwan] Strait, [and] the deterioration of NATO.”
Note the sequencing. Item number one is that nuclear “missile gap,” with its implications of an Armageddon lurking just around the corner. It was my own invention and, if I do say so myself, a stroke of pure political genius. Of course, like the “bomber gap” that preceded it by a few years, no such missile gap actually existed. When it came to nukes and the means to deliver them, we were actually way ahead of the Soviets.
President Eisenhower knew that the missile gap was a load of malarky. So did his vice president, Dick Nixon, the poor sap. But they couldn’t say so out loud without compromising classified intelligence.
Even today, people still treat my inaugural address — “The torch has been passed,” etc. — as if it were sacred scripture. But when it came to putting the nation on notice, the Kennedy-Sorensen fright machine really hit its stride barely a week later during my appearance before a joint session of Congress.
“No man entering upon this office,” I said with a carefully calibrated mixture of grace and gravitas, “could fail to be staggered upon learning — even in this brief 10-day period — the harsh enormity of the trials through which we must pass in the next four years.” Then came a generous dose of Sorensen’s speechwriting magic:
Each day the crises multiply. Each day their solution grows more difficult. Each day we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger, as weapons spread and hostile forces grow stronger. I feel I must inform the Congress that our analyses over the last ten days make it clear that — in each of the principal areas of crisis — the tide of events has been running out and time has not been our friend.
For eight years, Ike had been asleep at the switch. Now, in a mere 10 days as chief executive, I had grasped the harrowing magnitude of the dangers facing the nation. Time running out! The enemy growing stronger! The hour of maximum danger is approaching like a runaway freight train!
But not to worry. With a former PT-boat skipper at the helm, assisted by the likes of Mac Bundy, Bob McNamara, Max Taylor, brother Bobby, and a whole crew of Harvard graduates, the Republic was in good hands. That was my message, anyway.
Okay, Joe, now let me come clean. In the months after that, we hit a few bumps in the road. Having promised action, we did act with vigor, but in ways that may not have been particularly judicious. (Had I lived long enough to finish my term and win a second one — that was the plan, after all — things might have been put right.)
So, yes, the CIA’s Bay of Pigs Cuban debacle of April 1961 was an epic snafu, although as much Ike’s fault as my own. Viewed in hindsight, my escalation of our military involvement in Vietnam, that distant “frontier” of the Cold War — thousands of U.S. troops test-driving the latest counterinsurgency theories — wasn’t exactly the Best and Brightest’s best idea. And the less said about my administration’s complicity in the murder of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem the better. That was not our best day either.
You didn’t know Bobby, but when my brother got a bit in his mouth, he was unstoppable. So I will admit that he got more than slightly carried away with Operation Mongoose, the failed CIA program aimed at assassinating Fidel Castro and sabotaging the Cuban Revolution.
If given the chance to do it over again, I also might think twice about ordering the deployment of 1,000 Minuteman land-based ICBMs, a classic illustration of Cold War “overkill,” driven more by domestic politics than any strategic calculus. Mind you, the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command was lobbying for 10,000 ICBMs so it could have been worse! (In the things-never-change category, I hear that your administration is quietly pursuing a $1.7-trillion upgrade of the U.S. nuclear strike force. Does that form part of your intended legacy?)
The Limits of Fear
Learn from our mistakes, Joe, but pay special attention to what we got right. Yes, fear led us to do some mighty stupid things. On occasion, though, fear became a spur to prudence and even wisdom. In fact, on two occasions overcoming fear enabled me to avert World War III. And that’s not bragging, that’s fact.
The first occurred in August 1961 when the East German government, with the approval of the Kremlin, began erecting the barrier that would become known as the Berlin Wall. The second took place in October 1962 during the famous Cuban Missile Crisis.
On the first occasion, I did nothing, which was exactly the right thing to do. Doing nothing kept the peace.
As long as East Berliners (and by extension all East Germans) could enter West Berlin and so flee to the West, that city would remain, in Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s words, “a bone in the throat” of the Communist bloc. Dividing Berlin dislodged that bone. Problem solved. Khrushchev got what he wanted and so did I. As a result, the likelihood that Berlin-induced tensions could trigger a great power conflagration eased markedly. True, the outcome might not have pleased East Berliners, but they weren’t my chief concern.
On the second occasion, I employed skills I learned from my father Joe. Whatever his reputation as an appeasement-inclined isolationist before World War II, my dad knew how to cut a deal. So while Mac, Bob, Max and the rest of the so-called ExComm were debating whether to just bomb Cuba or bomb and then invade the island, I called an end-around.
Using Bobby to open a back-channel to Khrushchev, I negotiated a secret compromise. I promised to pull U.S. nuclear missiles out of Turkey and Italy and pledged that the United States would not invade Cuba. In return, Khrushchev committed to removing Soviet offensive weapons from that island. As a result, both sides (along with the rest of humanity) got a rain check on a possible nuclear holocaust.
Let me emphasize, Joe, that the theme common to both episodes wasn’t toughness. Both times, I set aside the question of fault — the U.S. not exactly being an innocent party in either instance — in favor of identifying the terms of a resolution. That meant conceding their side had legitimate concerns we could ill-afford to ignore.
This crucially important fact got lost in the grandstanding that followed. I’ll bet you remember this comment, reputedly from my secretary of state Dean Rusk, about the negotiations with the Soviets over Cuba: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” That invented quote supposedly captured the essence of the showdown over Cuba. The truth, however, was that Khrushchev and I both stared into the abyss and jointly decided to back away.
As for Berlin, Ted Sorensen wrote me a great speech to give there (“Ich bin ein Berliner,” etc.). In it, I pretended to be unhappy with the Wall, when in truth that structure allowed me to sleep well at night. And, of course, my memorable star-turn in Berlin created a precedent for several of my successors to stage their own photo-ops with the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop. (Don’t count on Kyiv offering a similar opportunity, Joe.)
You’ll never get me to acknowledge this on the record, but in both Berlin and Cuba, I opted for “appeasement” — a derogatory term for avoiding war — over confrontation. Not for a second have I ever regretted doing so.
Just Say No
You may be wondering by now what any of this has to do with you and the fix you find yourself in today. Quite a lot, I think. Hear me out.
I inherited a Cold War in full swing. You seem to be on the verge of embarking on a new cold war, with China and Russia filling in for, well, the Soviet Union and China.
I urge you to think carefully before making the leap into such an unmourned past. Whatever your political advisers may imagine, displays of presidential toughness aren’t what our nation needs right now. You’ve extricated us from the longest war in U.S. history — a courageous and necessary decision, even if abysmally implemented. The last thing the United States needs is a new war, whether centered on Ukraine, the island of Taiwan, or anyplace in between. Military confrontation will drive a stake through the heart of your “Build Back Better” bill and kill any hopes for meaningful domestic reform. And it may also boost your predecessor’s prospects for making a comeback, a depressing thought if ever there was one.
You probably caught this recent headline in the Washington Post: “With or without war, Ukraine gives Biden a new lease on leadership.” The implication: perceived toughness on your part will pay political dividends.
Don’t believe it for a second, Joe. An armed conflict stemming from the Ukraine crisis is likely to destroy your presidency and much else besides. The same can be said about a prospective war with China. Let me be blunt: the leadership we need today is akin to what the nation needed when I steered a course away from war in Berlin and Cuba.
And please don’t fall for the latest propaganda about growing “gaps” between our own military capabilities and those of potential enemies. Take it from me, when it comes to endangering our security both China and Russia trail well behind our military-industrial-congressional complex.
“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” A nice turn of phrase that. Damned if it doesn’t turn out to be a sentiment to govern by as well.
Joe, if I can be of any further help in these tough times, don’t hesitate to call. You know where to find me.
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