Although I missed last night’s presidential candidate debate, I am guessing that Romney played the “get tough” card, and talked once again about “not apologizing” for America. Am I right? A classic example of toughness in foreign policy is alleged to be when Kennedy went eyeball to eyeball with Khrushchev and made him blink and forced the freighters with nuclear warheads on their way to Cuba to turn around. It was called “brinkmanship” by academics and pundits — something to celebrate, a high risk, high gain game that is won by the toughest, most steadfast player. In the game of chicken someone (the weakest?) swerves to avoid the collision.
I remember a comical “reenactment”of the Cuban Missile Crisis during an American Politics college course using pencils as ships on top of an overhead projector (no joke). The professor had the Soviet ship nearly touching our ships which enforced the blockade, then suddenly, just before they touched and set of nuclear war, the Soviet ships turned around.
It should not come as a surprise that this story is a myth. The Soviet ships turned around 750 miles from the blockade. It’s the false picture of Kennedy’s “toughness” that is most misleading according to Michael Dobbs who wrote a history of the Cold War. Kennedy was quite willing to negotiate with Khrushchev.
Kennedy was certainly bracing for an “eyeball to eyeball” moment, but it never happened. There is now plenty of evidence that Kennedy — like Khrushchev — was a lot less steely-eyed than depicted in the initial accounts of the crisis, which were virtually dictated by the White House. Tape-recorded transcripts of White House debates and notes from participants show that Kennedy was prepared to make significant concessions, including a public trade of Soviet missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey and possibly the surrender of the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay.
The “fog of war” was much more a significant part of the crisis than the “clash of wills” narrative that is prevalent and popular in American culture.
By Saturday, Oct. 27, the two leaders were no longer in full control of their gigantic military machines, which were moving forward under their own momentum. Soviet troops on Cuba targeted Guantánamo with tactical nuclear weapons and shot down an American U-2 spy plane. Another U-2, on a “routine” air sampling mission to the North Pole, got lost over the Soviet Union. The Soviets sent MiG fighters into the air to try to shoot down the American intruder, and in response, Alaska Air Defense Command scrambled F-102 interceptors armed with tactical nuclear missiles. In the Caribbean, a frazzled Soviet submarine commander was dissuaded by his subordinates from using his nuclear torpedo against American destroyers that were trying to force him to the surface. via The ‘Eyeball to Eyeball’ Myth and the Cuban Missile Crisis’s Legacy – NYTimes.com.
The macho talk about toughness turns out to praise stubborn, holding firm to one’s position and NOT compromising anything. It turns out that Kennedy did not give us an example of how the game of chicken is an apt metaphor for foreign policy.
Let’s stop pretending that he did.