This week I threw it to the friends in my Facebook community (join us!) for requests about what I should write about for the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, which falls this Friday. I got a massive response—scores of questions. All this week I’ll be addressing the most popular and interesting ones.
The very first reply that came in was this: “I can never hear enough about how a liberal Massachusetts Democrat used intelligence and creative intelligence and creative diplomacy to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis and saved us all from nuclear annihilation.” With all due respect to the questioner, a smart and experienced liberal activist, plus the five folks who gave the question a thumbs-up on Facebook, I wondered initially whether his question wasn’t meant as snark—that he might be referring to Garry Wills’s very convincing argument that the Cuban Missile Crisis was all Kennedy’s fault. As it happens, I agree with Wills: I don’t think Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis is something we should celebrate at all.
Wills made the case in the final section of his 1982 book The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. Early in his term Kennedy fell in love with a plan, left over from Eisenhower’s administration, to send exiles to invade and overthrow Castro via a landing at the Bahía de Cochinos—the Bay of Pigs. He liked it so much because it was Kennedyesque: “A James Bond exploit blessed by Yale, a PT raid run by PhDs.” A failed invasion, his fault; then, despite the conventional wisdom that he learned from the failure, rather than leave well enough alone, Kennedy’s CIA kept on proliferating increasingly knuckle-headed schemes (exploding cigars!) to assassinate Castro, some using Mafia operatives. One set of plans on the drawing boards: “Operation Northwoods,” which proposed, among other ideas, creating the pretext for another American invasion. James Bamford wrote that the goal of the project was “for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro.”
We sometimes hear the argument that Kennedy never knew how about the depths to which such madcap plotting sunk, which were indeed always devised to protect the president via maximal “plausible deniability”—but what is undeniable is that the ultimate aim, overthrowing Castro, came straight from the top. The American people didn’t know about any of this, but the Cuban government did. So no wonder they wanted nukes. But there are also outstanding arguments that JFK’s admittedly outstanding and mature diplomacy once the missiles were placed in Cuba did not save us from nuclear annihilation at all. The logic of deterrence rendered those missiles virtually useless. For if a Communist first strike was launched from the Soviet Union, America could destroy the Cuban missiles before they could be used during this long time window; if the missiles from Cuba struck first, the president would have time to push the proverbial button and annihilate the Soviet Union. The only thing those Cuban missiles were useful for, in fact, was preventing America from illegally overthrowing the Castro government. So if you think that’s a splendid thing, yes, celebrate Kennedy for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Otherwise: not so impressive.