What the Cuban Missile Crisis Can Teach Us About the North Korean Missile Crisis

What the Cuban Missile Crisis Can Teach Us About the North Korean Missile Crisis

What the Cuban Missile Crisis Can Teach Us About the North Korean Missile Crisis

To avoid catastrophe, Kennedy turned to diplomacy. Trump would be wise to do the same.


Are we stumbling toward the precipice?

The North Korean government tests an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile; the US president vows “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if the regime keeps up its nuclear provocations. Kim Jong-un threatens to fire four missiles at Guam; the White House warns of the possibility of “preventive war.” Editorials opine that we are involved in a “slow motion” Cuban Missile Crisis. Secretary of Defense James Mattis predicts “a catastrophic war…if we’re not able to resolve this situation through diplomatic means.”

In fact, diplomacy is the only rational option for dealing with the North Korean Missile Crisis, and it is well that Mattis understands the terrible consequences of diplomatic failure. But diplomacy is not limited to conversations; it includes sanctions and plausible threats, the cooperation of the United Nations, collaboration with South Korea, China, Japan, and, most certainly, serious negotiations with North Korea’s leaders.

The idea that talking with the enemy rewards bad behavior is ignorant nonsense. During more than forty years of Cold War hostilities we maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, the only nation in our history that was literally an existential threat; and it was fortunate for all concerned that we did.

The United States cannot attack North Korea’s nuclear facilities without putting 25,000,000 residents of metropolitan Seoul, and at least 25,000 US citizens (military and civilian) stationed in the Yongsan Garrison in the center of Seoul, at risk of being slaughtered by conventional or nuclear bombardment.

Moreover, South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, has decreed that the consent of his government is a prerequisite to any military action against the north.

Possessing overwhelming military force and being unable to apply it is frustrating; but it is not without precedent. Fifty-five years ago, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers faced a similar conundrum when they considered striking the Soviet missiles Premier Nikita Khrushchev had secretly shipped to Cuba. But mindful that even our nuclear superiority might not prevent the Soviets from seizing West Berlin, the president chose to blockade rather than invade.

Seoul Is the Berlin of 2017.

Nevertheless, an airstrike was Kennedy’s angry initial reaction when informed about the USSR’s perfidy. But the discovery of the missiles by a U2 spy plane was a secret that gave the president a week to dampen his outrage and reevaluate his options. And therein lies a lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis: Time creates room for balancing actions with consequences.

President Trump has even more time, and the question is whether he and his staff will use it as wisely. Beginning with an accurate (as opposed to political) risk assessment, it is possible to develop a strategic response to the North Korean challenge that minimizes the possibility of military conflict.

So what is the actual threat of Kim Jong-un’s ICBM?

It is an unwelcome danger that limits our options, but it is not a threat to our existence. It is North Korea’s deterrent against a US assault that could destroy the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a contingency already covered by Seoul’s vulnerability.

Kim Jong-un’s ICBM will not threaten the United States as long as the United States does not threaten North Korea. There is time to negotiate. The immediate existential threat is the possibility that President Trump will react irrationally, and his administration’s “preventive war” threats suggest that possibility. Empty or not, they create an atmosphere ripe for miscalculation.

In his October 22, 1962, address to the nation announcing the “quarantine” of Cuba, President Kennedy put forward a doctrine of nuclear threat perception that President Trump is following (whether he realizes it or not). Kennedy stated that, when coupled with ballistic missiles, the destructive force of nuclear weapons makes “any substantially increased possibility of their use” against the United States a direct challenge to our national security. The Trump administration’s many pronouncements that “all options are on the table” signals its willingness to use military force, and President Kennedy too made it clear that a military option was possible.

But Kennedy also came to recognize—far more clearly than most of his advisers—that a nuclear exchange, even if the United States got the best of it, “would be ashes in our mouth,” the “final failure.”

“Do you realize,” he asked his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, “that if I make a mistake in this crisis 200 million people are going to get killed?”

To avoid that catastrophe, Kennedy consciously stepped into Khrushchev’s shoes. Why did he send missiles to Cuba? What concessions did he need to take them back? What can I offer that will make it possible for him to retreat with dignity?

Despite having been hoodwinked and lied to by the Soviet premier—who had assured the president that he would never place offensive weapons in Cuba—Kennedy fully engaged his duplicitous adversary.

Privately, numerous communications, both personal letters and official communiqués, were the hidden diplomatic lubricants that greased the gears of compromise. Publicly, the administration enlisted the United Nations, a move that implicitly engaged every member nation with the crisis. Deep engagement and sunshine diplomacy encouraged a peaceful resolution.

Donald Trump has not been shy about trumpeting his skills as a dealmaker, and so the optimists among us can hope that he can be convinced to negotiate a resolution to the North Korean Missile Crisis. Thus far, there is zero evidence that the president has the mental discipline to accept this challenge, but his book, The Art of the Deal, offers several surprisingly useful suggestions.

“I always go into the deal anticipating the worst,” he advises (and that is certainly the right attitude for bargaining with the North Koreans). “If you plan for the worst—if you can live with the worst—the good will always take care of itself…. The point is that you can’t be too greedy.”

Another Trump aphorism suggests that—at least 30 years ago when he dictated his thoughts to his co-author, Tony Schwartz—he appreciated the need for compromise: “I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,” he explained.

President Kennedy would relate to these principles, and it is likely that most readers of this article will too. But the question remains whether Donald Trump is committed to his own words, or even if he understands the implications for diplomacy of what he said.

Focusing on his irreducible goal—the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba—Kennedy struck a deal with Khrushchev that allowed the Soviet premier to retreat and claim that he had accomplished what he set out to achieve. Publicly, the president pledged that the United States would not invade or support an invasion of Cuba. Secretly, he acceded to Khrushchev’s demand that the United States remove American Jupiter missiles in Turkey, a concession that most of his advisers opposed.

In other words, despite having an overwhelming military advantage, President Kennedy made potentially unpopular concessions (albeit one of them secretly) in order to peacefully remove the Soviet missiles. It was a practical solution that made him an instant hero; Khrushchev removed his missiles, and a holocaust was avoided.

What made it possible? He was not “too greedy.”

Of course, successfully resolving a challenge as serious as the North Korean Missile Crisis is more complicated than negotiating a real estate deal. But there are grounds to begin a conversation. The US government wants to be certain that the North Koreans do not possess a nuclear-armed missile that can reach North America. The North Korean government wants assurances that it will not be the target of regime change. Both nations are seeking a form of security that the other can guarantee. A deal is possible!

To get to the next step—the start of serious negotiations—one can look again to the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy was the undisputed navigator to its peaceful resolution. He saw more clearly than most of his advisers the inherent dangers the crisis posed, and the potential escape routes it offered, and he pursued those paths toward peace.

No one expects President Trump to assume President Kennedy’s mantle. But we can hope that the experienced members of the Trump administration, most especially Secretary of Defense Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly will help him navigate the ship of state into a safe harbor.

A “catastrophic war” is an unmitigated disaster, not a solution. Anyone who believes otherwise is an existential threat to tens of millions of innocent people.

There is another scenario, however, that daily becomes more likely, with each irresponsible presidential tweet. The negotiator in chief could be President Michael Pence. To be prepared for that possibility, the vice president might study a few of his boss’s negotiating aphorisms. Their author may no longer be capable of following his own strategies, but someone with more discipline might find them useful when negotiating with Kim Jong-un.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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