Kennedy Negotiated — Lucky He Did

Two weeks ago the issue of negotiation with foreign enemies was brought to the fore by the hostile exchange among President Bush and the two presidential candidates, Barrack Obama and John McCain. With the obvious exception of North Korea once it had developed the atomic bomb, the Bush administration rejects any negotiations whatsoever with presumed enemies, and, if elected, Senator McCain apparently intends to continue this policy. In contrast, Obama wants to feature negotiations and has even suggested in front of a Miami Cuban audience the possibility of negotiating with the present Cuban government a loosening in Cuban visitation privileges. In their exchange both Bush and McCain have used the example of Ahmadinejad, the current President of Iran, as one example of a foreign leader with whom diplomatic negotiations would be impossible, quite aside from the opposite recommendation of James Baker’s Iraq’s Study Group Report as well as the current Secretary Defense Robert Gates and numerous others with extensive foreign policy experience.

Historians supportive of negotiations have also pointed out that most, if not all, of the major diplomatic accomplishments since World War II have been the result of negotiations with putative enemies. Kennedy negotiated with Khrushchev, Nixon negotiated with Mao, Kissinger negotiated with North Vietnam, Carter used negotiations between Israel and Sadat to resolve the Sinai issue, and Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev to end the Cold War. During the last several weeks of his presidency, Clinton brought to the very final stages of negotiations an agreement with North Korea that would have terminated its development of the atomic bomb in exchange for a variety of benefits. Once in office, Bush abruptly terminated this effort much to the surprise of Secretary of State Colin Powell. As a result, Bush ended up seven years later with a much less advantageous agreement that conceded North Korea’s possession of the atomic bomb.

Their memories refreshed about the history of negotiations since World War II, Bush and McCain diverted their argument with Obama to a basically different consideration, the pursuit of negotiations without sufficient preparations. But this had not been their original stance when they used Ahmadinejad to illustrate the impossibility of negotiations with truly evil enemies (not the ordinary version such as Mao and Khrushchev). Moreover, Obama had repeatedly conceded the necessity of sufficient preparations, so their argument was both uninformed regarding Obama’s stance and a dishonest shift in debate from total rejection to a presumably more defensible approach to negotiations.

Now the New York Times publishes an article supportive of Bush and McCain’s revised argument, “Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed,” by Nathan Thrall and Jessie James Wilkins. Here they emphasize the failure of Kennedy to hold his own in negotiations with Khrushchev in 1961. His embarrassment, in their opinion (and with some justification), was because he was unseasoned and insufficiently informed of diplomatic possibilities.

However, in their litany of harmful effects resulting from Kennedy’s failure, they include the Cuban missile crisis, probably the most dramatic example of successful negotiations since World War II, despite the lack of adequate preparations. Aware that the USSR was beginning to stockpile Cuba with nuclear missiles, a large White House contingent of professional Cold Warriors spurred by General LeMay (who could boast of having incinerated a hundred thousand Japanese in a single air attack on Tokyo) wanted to bypass negotiations and simply bomb all the missile sites before the missiles could be armed with nuclear warheads. In a crucial White House meeting, only one participant among dozens present continued to advocate negotiations instead, and he did so based on his personal experience with Khrushchev. Fortunately, he won the argument and one last feeler was extended to Khrushchev. This resulted in negotiations that led to the USSR’s withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Cuba in exchange for the U.S. promise not to invade Cuba.

Some consider this outcome to have been a defeat for the U.S., but it turns out to have been absolutely important for our survival as a nation as we know it today. What LeMay and his enthusiastic Cold War friends did not know at the time — nor anybody else connected with the White House — was that many dozens of Cuban missiles were already loaded with nuclear warheads and that Castro and Khrushchev had decided that IF an air attack were launched against Cuba by U.S. bombers, Castro would retaliate with a missile attack on ALL major U.S. cities on the eastern seaboard, probably from Miami to Boston. How many of these missiles would have reached their U.S. targets? Nobody knows, but a major catastrophe was very likely prevented through negotiations rather than the use of a surprise attack that would not have been much of a surprise.

My suggestion to Nathan Thrall and Jessie James Wilkins and everybody who takes heart with their argument is to view once again Robert McNamara’s brilliant account of what happened in the movie, The Fog of War, in which McNamara recounts his discussion of the episode with Castro many years later. During this crisis, as much as at any other time since World War II, diplomacy with a supposed enemy was of crucial importance. Our nation’s survival depended on it. I would suggest that we are up against a comparable situation right now in our relations with Iran. If a bunker-buster air attack escalates into full-scale warfare, for example resulting from the retaliatory destruction of one of our aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, regional warfare would be very possible throughout the entire Middle East from Gaza and Lebanon to the Khyber Pass and beyond. Not even Israel would benefit from the results.

Edward Jayne is a retired English professor with experience as a '60s activist. He can be contacted at: Visit his website at: Copyright © 2008 by Edward Jayne Read other articles by Edward, or visit Edward's website.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Martha said on May 28th, 2008 at 11:15am #

    A waste of time from someone who needs to live their golden years in peace. How about we focus on what really matters? What Obama’s got in store for Africa. As Glen Ford reports today at Black Agenda Report, it’s not pretty. As a general rule, if you’re in your golden years, stop pimping for Obama. It’s laughable.

  2. John Wilkinson said on May 28th, 2008 at 6:07pm #

    “and that Castro and Khrushchev had decided that IF an air attack were launched against Cuba by U.S. bombers, Castro would retaliate with a missile attack on ALL major U.S. cities on the eastern seaboard, probably from Miami to Boston”

    I very much doubt this. and then the ussr would get a volley of the us nuclear missiles. not to mention what would have happened to cuba. they were not that reckless and that suicidal, i don’t think. what is your reference.

    and no he should not live his golden years in peace. maybe you should live your child-bearing years in the kitchen. you can say he’s pimping for obama, if you want to find fault, or you can say he’s saying something about the bullshit “you’re either with us or against us” BS, which has gotten us so far in the world.

  3. Lloyd Rowsey said on May 28th, 2008 at 6:28pm #

    It’s in the literature, John, and emerged from a 1992 or 1993 meeting of “Cuban Missile Crisis” participants – which meeting occurred as a result of archives opened in Russia over the previous year or so.

  4. Lloyd Rowsey said on May 29th, 2008 at 6:31am #

    Thank you for this, Professor Jayne. But regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, you write that if Curtis LeMay’s plan to bypass negotiations and immediately launch an air attack on Cuba had been implemented, “…Castro would (have retaliated) with a missile attack on (major) U.S. cities…”

    My understanding of the situation is that the final decision to launch — in those circumstances – was to have been made by a Soviet commander. Not by Fidel Castro. Moreover, what happened is that while President Kennedy was confronting the Soviets with his hard-line interception of Soviet shipping, the Soviets in fact did believe an American air attack had been launched, and the Soviet commander in question did receive the order to launch against U.S. cities. But the commander couldn’t believe such an insane attack by the Americans was possible, and he found some reason or other to momentarily delay executing the order. And fortunately for the world, during this momentary break in the Soviet chain of command, the Soviets discovered their error and effectively cancelled the launch order.

    That is to say, it was not President Kennedy’s decision to negotiate that saved the world as we know it, but a Soviet military commander’s incredulity prior to that decision, and his dilatory tactics after receiving the order to launch nuclear missiles against the United States. And, Fidel Castro was not in the picture.

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on May 29th, 2008 at 8:02am #

    Or rather, to rewrite that last paragraph:

    That is to say, it was not President Kennedy’s decision to negotiate that saved the world as we know it. What us was a Soviet military commander’s incredulity at a moment when President Kennedy was stopping and searching Soviet Cuba-bound vessels on the high seas, in clear violation of international law. And, Fidel Castro was not in the picture.

  6. Lloyd Rowsey said on May 29th, 2008 at 8:03am #

    Or rather, to rewrite that last paragraph:

    That is to say, it was not President Kennedy’s decision to negotiate that saved the world as we know it. What saved us was a Soviet military commander’s incredulity at a moment when President Kennedy was stopping and searching Soviet Cuba-bound vessels on the high seas, in clear violation of international law. And, Fidel Castro was not in the picture.

  7. Edward Jayne said on May 29th, 2008 at 9:23am #

    The entire episode now described as the Cuban Missile Crisis was complicated and may be described as having had several turning points. As explained by Robt. McNamara in his long and chilling recapitulation of what happened in the documentary film, “The Fog of War,” certainly the most relevant turning point relevant to the issue of diplomacy was the choice of Kennedy and his advisors to postpone an air attack until one last feeler was sent to Krushchev. Relevant in what sense? Relevant in the sense that the pursuit of diplomacy was sustained just a bit longer before any planned attack, which could only have been catastrophic to the U.S. If the choice favorable to displomacy had not occurred, there would have been a full-scale air attack on Cuba in response to which the cautious Soviet officer in charge of the missile sites would have had fewer qualms about making a retaliatory strike. Finally, was Castro in the picture? According to Castro as recounted by McNamara, his role was essential. and he did in fact have an agreement with Krushchev that there would be a counterattack on U.S. cities if U.S. planes attacked Cuba.

  8. Lloyd Rowsey said on May 29th, 2008 at 1:29pm #

    Thank you, Professor Jayne, for the reply to my posts. You seem to be more impressed with Robert McNamara’s recollections in Eroll Morris’ documentary than with the voluminous written record of the Cuban missile Crisis. And to be more concerned about Castro’s role in the Crisis than in the evidence that what you think of as the US’s “pursuit of diplomacy” was preceded by an “almost-counter-launch” of nuclear missiles by the Soviets.

    Howsoever, let me address Castro’s role briefly, and then a broader issue even more briefly.

    My understanding is that when Castro and the Soviets first became aware that Kennedy knew about the missiles, Castro took a harder line than Khrushchev took, and was willing to risk the survival of Cuba to face down the United States. This frightened Khrushchev, who never anticipated (or even described as possible to his fellow Soviet rulers), such an adamant refusal by Castro to accept a devastating nuclear attack on Cuba and not retaliate — for the sake of world peace (ie, for the sake of the war’s not widening to include the USSR). To placate Castro, Khrushchev agreed not to back down if a pre-emptive nuclear bomber attack was launched by the United States against the island. Castro agreed and was placated by Khrushchev’s word, but it became an agreement without substance later, because no Cubans were ever in control of any Soviet missiles in Cuba, and Khrushchev did not promise Castro that he would retaliate with weapons located outside of Cuba if Castro insisted.

    Accordingly, Castro’s role was important at a preliminary, political stage, but increasingly unimportant as the situation became “operational.” (I saw “The Fog of War” about three weeks ago, for the first time – I think I will rent it and watch it again. I do not recall McNamara’s using the word “essential” to characterize Castro’s role in any aspect of the Missile Crisis. But even if McNamara did say Castro’s role was “essential” instead of “important,” Errol Morris’ greatest achievement in The Fog of War, in my opinion, was placing McNamara’s words in the context of pictures that totally refute them.)

    The broader issue is a no-brainer. Kennedy’s first response to learning that Cuba had exercised its sovereignty and allowed the USSR to place missiles on Cuban soil was to impose a “strict quarantine” on Soviet vessels in international waters approaching Cuba. This quarantine entailed stopping Soviet vessels and boarding them, which constituted a unilateral and aggressive violation of international law. Any subsequent negotiations offered by any American representative(s) to either the USSR or to Cuba were received under extreme duress. And a world already put on notice on April 17 of the previous year that America felt free to invade Cuba (at the Bay of Pigs) to accomplish “regime change,” was on notice after October 22, 1962, that America was capable of starting World War III if the little island of Cuba kept supporting revolutionary change in the Americas.

    In my opinion, this enduring lesson in America’s disdain for international law may not have been the Cuban Missile Crisis’ “turning point…most relevant…to the issue of diplomacy…,” Professor Jayne, but it was the Cuban Missile Crisis’ most salient fact, period.

  9. Lloyd Rowsey said on May 29th, 2008 at 1:37pm #


  10. hp said on May 29th, 2008 at 4:27pm #

    We’ll never know, will we?
    I for one find it hard to believe the Soviets were ready to be totally and completely obliterated on a bluff.
    Back then the US had such an overwhelming position that the concept of MAD hardly applied. Due mainly to the second strike submarine capability of the US and the relatively modest reply the Soviets were capable of.
    MAD is one thing, suicide is another.

  11. Edward Jayne said on May 29th, 2008 at 8:12pm #

    Lloyd Rowsey accedes to most of my assumptions in his attempt to refute them. So we have little to debate about relevant to my thesis in the paper as a whole, to wit that Kennedy’s choice to persist in the effort to negotiate with Krushchev was highly laudable and worthy of comparison with the successes of all the rest of the American presidents I mention who resorted to negotiations to prevent or terminate military conflict.

    I might add that there is a comparable list of cowboy aggressors in contemporary American history who are no less reprehensible in their excessive commitment to the military option. Besides General LeMay, these include General Patton, who sought at the end of the war to invade Berlin (its defense turned out to be one of the bloodiest chapters in World War II), General MacArthur, who turned victory into a truce by extending the invasion of North Korea to the Yalu River, General Westmoreland, whose incessantly optimistic reports from Vietnam turned out to be almost fraudulent, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (with a lot of help from the Neoconservatives), who staged a totally unnecessary invasion that led to probably the most useless war in contemporary history. What scares me about John McCain’s bid for the presidency is that his militant posture in just about everything he says about foreign policy puts him in this second category rather than the better and more useful category of those able and willing to negotiate peace rather than engaging in conflict and the threat thereof, whether or not it is finally brought into play.

  12. Lloyd Rowsey said on May 30th, 2008 at 6:29am #

    Edward Jayne is probably wise to not address the specifics of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and instead to make the blanket statement that I grant most of his assumptions, and then to proceed to generalizations about Presidents after Kennedy who negotiated and American generals other than LeMay who were “cowboy aggressors.” But for some reason he keeps sounding like he believes I’m disputing the desirability of negotiating. I am not, and on the contrary. I believe in the UN Charter and international law, and I’m a peacenik. As I recently summarized them in a post to Dissident Voice, my personal political priorities are: (1) to make some contribution, however small, to ending the War in Iraq; and (2) to make some contribution, however small, to ending the embargo of Cuba.

    My main point in my posts above is that Edward Jayne’s article congratulating the historical JFK for having made one last effort to permit the Soviet Union to back down, after JFK had established the public confrontational context in which that effort had to be evaluated by Khrushchev, is mighty slim congratulations. Moreover, hp’s comment subsequent to my immediately preceding post pretty much anticipates Edward Jayne’s defense of his congratulations: “Back then the US had such an overwhelming position that the concept of MAD hardly applied. Due mainly to the second strike submarine capability of the US and the relatively modest reply the Soviets were capable of. MAD is one thing, suicide is another.” I surmise that hp considered it unnecessary to add that with Russia’s incomparably more destructive nuclear capability in 2008, and so many other nations (and possibly, groups) having a nuclear option, the Bush-McCain “no-negotiations” position is also insane.

    In my opinion, the electoral situation makes it virtually certain that American voters will be presented with a choice in November direr than in any Presidential election in history. And I would be surprised if Edward Jayne disagrees with me in this regard. Moreover, I appreciate Jayne’s describing this situation so clearly in terms of “refusing to negotiate.” And I fully understand the difference between the hot war in Iraq where Americans are dying every day, and the cold war with Cuba with its porous embargo. Finally, to repeat once more what I’ve posted elsewhere in Dissident Voice: I do not believe Americans will be able to accomplish any progressive goals in America or abroad unless and until Americans force their national representatives to end the war in Iraq.

    I hope these points of agreement with Edward Jayne are different from acceding to most of his assumptions. But in any case, Jayne’s article “Kennedy Negotiated – Lucky He Did” touched my two principal political concerns, and since Dissident Voice has been the main internet site where I’ve expressed these concerns, I felt obligated to comment on the article.