J.F.K.'s response to Soviet missiles in Cuba carries lessons for
how to handle Iran.
Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to
the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, President John
F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was "between 1 in
3 and even," and what we have learned in later decades has done
nothing to lengthen those odds. Such a conflict might have led to
the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.
The main story line of the crisis is familiar. In October 1962, a
U.S. spy plane caught the Soviet Union attempting to sneak nuclear-
tipped missiles into Cuba, 90 miles off the U.S. coast.
Kennedy determined at the outset that this could not stand. After
a week of secret deliberations with his most trusted advisers, he
announced the discovery to the world and imposed a naval blockade on
further shipments of armaments to Cuba.
The blockade prevented additional materiel from coming in but did
nothing to stop the Soviets from operationalizing the missiles
already there. A tense second week followed during which Kennedy and
the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, stood "eyeball to eyeball,"
neither side backing down.
Saturday, Oct. 27, was the day of decision. At the last minute,
the crisis was resolved without war, as Khrushchev accepted a final
U.S. offer pledging not to invade Cuba in exchange for the
withdrawal of the Soviet missiles.
Every president since Kennedy has tried to learn from what
happened in that confrontation. Ironically, half a century later,
with the Soviet Union itself only a distant memory, the lessons of
the crisis for current policy have never been greater.
Today, it can help U.S. policy makers understand what to do --
and what not to do -- about a range of foreign policy dilemmas,
particularly the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program.
The current confrontation between the United States and Iran is
like a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion. Events are moving,
seemingly inexorably, toward a showdown in which the U.S. president
will be forced to choose between ordering a military attack and
acquiescing to a nuclear-armed Iran.
Those were, in essence, the two options Kennedy's advisers gave
him on the final Saturday: attack or accept Soviet nuclear missiles
in Cuba. But Kennedy rejected both. Instead of choosing between
them, he crafted an imaginative alternative with three components: a
public deal in which the United States pledged not to invade Cuba if
the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles; a private ultimatum
threatening to attack Cuba within 24 hours unless Khrushchev
accepted that offer; and a secret sweetener that promised the
withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey within six months after the
crisis was resolved. …