Because this fits with my general distaste for all things JFK, I think it’s quite interesting.
We already knew that Kennedy used trumped-up claims of a missile gap to attack Nixon in the 1960 election (claims that must have infuriated Eisenhower, who, in his farewell speech to the nation, had warned of the overweening power of the military industrial complex). We already knew that Kennedy’s addiction to brinksmanship goosed the nuclear arms race. We already knew that the ill-fated Bay of Pigs fiasco left Krushchev even warier of Kennedy’s bizarre obsession with toppling Castro. But I’m not sure I appreciated until now how (willfully?) dense Kennedy was about the specifics of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev’s motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: “Why does he put these in there, though? … It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamned dangerous, I would think.” McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: “Well we did it, Mr. President.”
Returning to what we already knew, Kennedy engaged in some world-historical fear-mongering during the crisis, trolling the United States at every opportunity.
Kennedy and his civilian advisers understood that the missiles in Cuba did not alter the strategic nuclear balance. Although Kennedy asserted in his October 22 televised address that the missiles were “an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas,” he in fact appreciated, as he told the ExComm on the first day of the crisis, that “it doesn’t make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was 90 miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much.” America’s European allies, Kennedy continued, “will argue that taken at its worst the presence of these missiles really doesn’t change” the nuclear balance.
And yet, Kennedy insisted on creeping to the brink of nuclear war, daring Kruschev to cross a series of irrelevant lines that the president drew in the sand, apparently not because Kennedy believed the missiles in Cuba represented a heightened national security threat but because they were a threat to his political standing and ego. Holy hell, when Robert McNamara is the voice of reason in the room, you’re in real trouble. Take it way, Bob:
On that very first day of the ExComm meetings, McNamara provided a wider perspective on the missiles’ significance: “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem here … This is a domestic, political problem.” In a 1987 interview, McNamara explained: “You have to remember that, right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically.” What largely made the missiles politically unacceptable was Kennedy’s conspicuous and fervent hostility toward the Castro regime—a stance, Kennedy admitted at an ExComm meeting, that America’s European allies thought was “a fixation” and “slightly demented.”
As the author of the piece linked at the top of this post notes, “This approach to foreign policy was guided—and remains guided—by an elaborate theorizing rooted in a school-playground view of world politics rather than the cool appraisal of strategic realities. It put—and still puts—America in the curious position of having to go to war to uphold the very credibility that is supposed to obviate war in the first place.” That sounds right.