JFK’s greatest legacy: He avoided nuclear war

Late president showed great courage and wisdom during Cuban missile crisis


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As hard as it is to believe, it has been 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For those of us who lived through those times and are lucky enough to still be around, I would say no single event has had the seismic shock of JFK's death.

Talking to people my age (62) and older, pretty much everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. I was in school near Philadelphia in the 7th grade. We all knew something was up because all the students were herded together into an impromptu assembly. School officials made the announcement. I remember getting the news, walking home afterwards, shell-shocked, crying.

That was the beginning of a shocking couple days that has been fairly described as the end of American innocence. Along with millions of others, I watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, live on national TV. That was an unmatched dose of reality. Then there was the unbearably sad funeral of President Kennedy. I have a vivid image of John-John saluting his dead father.

Thinking back on that time, it is not the assassination that grabs me. I have no idea whether a conspiracy killed President Kennedy, and I am unwilling to devote the time to become an obsessive tracker of those long-ago events.

I have a different take away. I think President Kennedy's most lasting accomplishment is that he did not participate in blowing us all up. Maybe only those who lived through that period know how close we came to a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. The fact that JFK helped to avert what could have been an utterly disastrous outcome is his greatest legacy.

Given the experience of the last 50 years with our excessive militarism, including fighting stupid wars that have had little, bad, or no justification, it is remarkable that we survived that time. The same mentality which counseled reckless military adventurism in the Cuban missile crisis repeatedly got us into trouble later.

History is littered with miscalculations, blunders and grievous errors made by political leaders that have caused massive amounts of unnecessary suffering and death. This could so easily have been such a miscalculation.

Just to flash back: the missile crisis occurred in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs operation. In April 1961, a Cuban exile brigade, organized and trained by the CIA, invaded Cuba and unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro's government.

Responding to the continuing threat to Cuba and also to the threat posed by the installation of Jupiter nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey near the Soviet Union, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev secretly deployed nuclear-armed missiles inside Cuba, only 90 miles from the United States. When President Kennedy became aware of the Soviet Cuba missiles, he ultimately ordered a naval quarantine around Cuba and he demanded that Khrushchev remove all the missiles. Kennedy would not allow any more Soviet ships to reach the island.

For 13 days in October 1962, the world held its breath as the crisis unfolded. President Kennedy was under tremendous pressure to opt for an aggressive military response. No one knew if Khrushchev would send his ships across the quarantine line. It looked like a nuclear war was imminent.

To his great credit, President Kennedy resisted the military leaders who wanted to bomb and invade Cuba. On White House tapes declassified in the 1990s, we know that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis Lemay, who was the inspiration for a “Dr. Strangelove” character, taunted Kennedy in front of all the Joint Chiefs in a meeting on Oct. 19. LeMay accused Kennedy of weakness and appeasing the Soviets.

After the meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Kennedy told his aide Dave Powers, "These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and we do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them they were wrong."

We now know from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s memoir that the Soviets possessed well over 100 nuclear warheads in Cuba that were ready to launch. That does not include their ICBMs, bombers or their submarine-based missiles. Even considering the vast nuclear superiority of the United States, there were more than enough nuclear warheads to kill multiple millions on both sides.

Khrushchev ordered Soviet ships not to cross the quarantine line. This brave act on Khrushchev's part set the stage for a de-escalation of tensions. It is not entirely clear why Khrushchev stopped his ships. But both leaders legitimately feared that any military action could spiral out of control into a nuclear exchange.

It was revealed in 1993 that Kennedy and Khrushchev had a secret correspondence that started in September 1961 and continued for two years. It is possible this simple act of communication, later known as the “pen pal” correspondence, contributed to some level of trust and to a peaceful resolution.

Since that time, as a result of investigative journalism, we now know much more about the dark side of President Kennedy. All of the revelations may well be true, but for me they do not change the underlying conclusion that in the clutch, Kennedy's good judgment saved us from a nightmare.

In fairness, I would also note Kennedy's charm, humor, style and cool. It is ironic that someone who was actually so physically disabled publicly represented vigor and youth.

I submit that we are extremely lucky President Kennedy had the wisdom and courage to go against the tide at a most critical juncture. Otherwise, we might not all be here.

Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is a federal administrative law judge. This column reflects only his views, not those of his employer, the Social Security Administration.

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