Tuesday, February 05, 2013

What We're Reading: New History

The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by David G. Coleman

Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In popular imagination the duration of the crisis is thought of as having lasted thirteen days, from October 15, when confirming evidence of the existence of nuclear missiles in Cuba was presented to President Kennedy until Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles on October 28. After being much on edge and terrified during that time, the nation was happy to view that agreement as conclusively defusing the crisis. But Coleman’s book makes it clear that for several months after the agreement, well into February of the following year, the situation in Cuba remained a major preoccupation of the Kennedy White House. There was concern about how the handling of the crisis would be viewed by the American public, and about how it would play out politically, which caused the administration to seek to carefully control intelligence leaks and manage what information got into the hands of the reporters. Tensions between the press and the administration ran high.

Kennedy was also confronted with the problem of working out with the Soviets the details of what weapon systems Khrushchev meant to consider in his promise to remove “those arms which you described as offensive.” We learn in Coleman’s book that there was a range of Soviet armaments besides just the long-range missiles that had been sent to Cuba: bombers, fighter planes, anti-ballistic missile systems, tactical nuclear missiles and warheads, and a large number of Soviet advisors and combat troops. It was up to Kennedy to decide which armaments could be allowed to remain if the Soviets were not willing to remove them, and which weapons if not removed would force him to re-escalate the crisis with all its attendant dangers. Above all, there was the problem of trust and verification, of monitoring Soviet compliance with the agreement, a problem aggravated by the fact that Castro, now armed with the ability to do so, promised to shoot down any high- or low-level U.S. reconnaissance planes that flew over Cuban territory. And certainly this last problem pointed to a much larger unknown, that of trying to ascertain who was in control of the various weapons systems on the island of Cuba as well as who was managing the political situation. The Cubans were enraged by the Soviet back-down and spoke in favor of forcing some sort of apocalyptic revolutionary confrontation. It was a rashness and instability that worried the Soviets deeply and may in the end have had more to do with their evacuation of all nuclear weapons from the island than U.S. demands.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is the speculation within the administration of what impact the settlement of the Cuban crisis would have on what until this time had been the perennial flashpoint in the Cold War: Berlin. At the time it was a bit of a mystery (and it remains so) exactly what the Soviets hoped to gain by the move in Cuba, but speculation centers around the notion that the Soviets had hoped to use their presence in Cuba to force Western evacuation of Berlin. They ended up making Cuba, in effect, a hostage that the United States could hold against Soviet aggression in Berlin, something that effectively diffused Berlin as a continued Cold War problem. This neutralization of the Berlin issue became an important early step on the road to d├ętente. Coleman makes a convincing argument that the Cuban Missile Crisis became, in the way Kennedy managed it and its immediate aftermath, a defining turning point in both his presidency and in the Cold War.

Coleman is chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia, and one of the features of this book is that he uses new material from Kennedy’s secret White House recordings in his exposition and analysis of these crucial months following the high point of the crisis. But it is it is hard to say exactly to what degree these recordings add to our understanding of events, and indeed Coleman’s use of more traditional resources is plentiful in this exposition. You would think that verbatim transcripts from recordings would be definitive in providing an understanding of motives and actions, but when you read some of the exchanges it becomes clear that an understanding of free conversational exchanges depends much on context and timing, that spoken words are often vague or nuanced, and that the thoughts of speakers trail off. Extemporaneous language can be imprecise, and drawing meanings from it can be more difficult than from more considered prose. It perhaps says something about how hard it is to get history right, even when you are right there in the room where it is being made.

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