US President John F. Kennedy meeting with Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev

I just finished watching an episode of Commander In Chief: Inside The Oval Office on the Military Channel. This particular episode was about The Cuban Missile Crisis., and how President Kennedy dealt with it. It’s interesting that, these days, it seems like whenever people talk about JFK it’s usually just about either the alleged conspiracy behind his assassination (for the record, I tend to lean towards the idea that Oswald did it on his own, but I’m not gonna argue about it) or about all the woman he was banging. But I think his status as a leader has been under-reported. This particular incident was an incredible test of his character.

I own the dvd of movie Thirteen Days, starring Kevin Costner, where he plays Kennedy’s right-hand man, Kennedy O’Donnell, and Bruce Greenwood as JFK, so I was aware of the situation, but this particular docu-drama was even better because it interviewed some of the people who are actually involved, as well as having audio tapes from meeting in the White House during the crisis. You really get a feel for how serious and intense this was. The Soviets had secretly begun sneaking nuclear missiles in Cuba, missiles which, if launched, could hit almost any state in the USA with around 5 minutes, thereby hindering our ability to prepare and/or strike back. Obviously this was a huge problem which could not be tolerated, but the problem was what to do about it?

The show detailed the pressure Kennedy was under from his own staff, particularly the Joint Chiefs, who were mostly demanding an immediate military attack on the missile sites, followed by a full-scale invasion to remove Castro. However, this would likely lead to a retaliatory attack on the US from the Soviet Union, so that’s two wars started, involving nuclear missiles. I think in hindsight, considering the way JFK has been lionized, it’s easy to forget the perception that he faced from many while he was alive.

He was the youngest elected President, and many people thought he was too inexperienced, and not up to the job. This perception increased after the failure of the Bay of Pigs (where the US attempted to finance a coup in Cuba), which many thought encouraged the Soviets to place the missiles in Cuba in the first place, deeming Kennedy too weak to respond. A truly weak man would have taken the bait, and tried to show how “tough” his was, but Kennedy remained diplomatic throughout the crisis. At the suggestion of his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara he authorized the naval blockade (quarantine) of Cuba, to prevent new missiles being sent there, while his very own Generals, particularly Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell D. Taylor and Air Force General Curtis Lemay did everything they could to undermine his authority and push for military action. But, in the end, Kennedy prevailed, and diffused the situation.

The thing that strikes me most is exactly how close we came to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. This was 1962. 15 years before I was even born, and the world as we know it could have come to an end. Who knows how this would have turned out of someone else had been President at the time? Would Nixon, if he had won, gone ahead and pressed for the attack? And then where would be? It’s almost too horrible to even contemplate.

At the very least, watching and reading about this incident just reinforces my belief that anyone who actually wants to be President of The United States has to be at least a little bit nuts. Why the heck would anyone want have to deal the pressure of that job?!?

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