Robert Weisbrot. Maximum Danger: Kennedy, the Missiles, and the Crisis of American Confidence

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Robert Weisbrot. Maximum Danger: Kennedy, the Missiles, and the Crisis of American Confidence. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

"Not another study on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962," was my first thought upon being asked to review Robert Weisbrot's new book. I was pleasantly surprised, however. Maximum Danger presents much more than another rehashing of the familiar arguments and evidence surrounding the 1962 diplomatic crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union. Weisbrot instead offers an interesting synthesis of the previous work on the missile crisis that points the way to future research and investigation into the defining moment of John F. Kennedy's foreign policy.

According to Weisbrot, most studies of the Cuban Missile Crisis (which began appearing as early as the mid-1960s) have focused almost exclusively on the role played by President Kennedy. Kennedy admirers or former members of his administration, such as Ted Sorenson, Arthur Schlesinger, and Joseph Alsop, authored a number of such books. These works were characterized by their nearly breathless accounts of Kennedy's "coolness" as he skillfully navigated the nation through the crisis. His management skills were lauded, as was his ability to stem the calls for a more warlike response from some of his military advisers. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, historians and political scientists (perhaps a bit more jaded after the experiences of Vietnam an Watergate) took a more adversarial approach, condemning Kennedy's "recklessness" and dangerous bravado. Instead of a consummate crisis manger, Kennedy came off in these studies as the main force driving the United States and the Soviet Union to the edge of nuclear oblivion. Indeed, for some the hero of the episode was not the American president, but Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. In more recent years, newly declassified U.S. government records, as well as previously unavailable Soviet records, have helped dispel some of the "myths" about the missile crisis but have failed, as Weisbrot concludes, "to produce and interpretive framework to encompass them" (207). Once again, the debates hinge on the character of President Kennedy: was he too aggressive or too passive; masterful in his leadership or merely a hapless pawn of his advisers; was he trying to prove his manhood or prevent a war?

Weisbrot calls for a different approach. "The surest way to see Kennedy's role more clearly may therefore be, paradoxically, to pull back from the relentless close-ups that have formed our standard images of him" (11). In the author's view, "A way to make sense of these seemingly disparate and even conflicting pieces of evidence is to view President Kennedy as a moderate leader in a militant age" (208). In short, Weisbrot argues that we need to view Kennedy's role during the missile crisis in its historical context and distance ourselves from the intensely personalistic focus of most studies of the events of 1962. Kennedy, according to Weisbrot, came into the presidency with a "remarkably open view of the Russians" (41). Neither the completely objective and statesmanlike leader portrayed by his defenders, nor the jingoistic cold warrior depicted by his detractors, Kennedy tried to take a balanced view of the Cold War and seemed to truly believe that better relations with the Soviets were possible. …