To underscore just how dangerous the current Great Power proxy war being waged in Ukraine is, the point of comparison I and others often reach for is the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
In some ways, because the robust channels of communication built up as a result of that crisis no longer exist, and – alarmingly – because there is minimally competent leadership in Washington, the situation in which we find ourselves is even more dangerous than it was in October 1962.
There’s also a stunning lack of awareness, not least among the American intelligentsia (such as it is) and the political establishment, of the stakes involved.
If part of the legacy and legend of John Fitzgerald Kennedy includes a touch of playboy recklessness, what cannot be ignored is that, faced with the most serious national-security crisis since the Second World War, Kennedy – in the face of potentially catastrophic advice from a number of his political and military advisers – rose to the occasion.
The October 1962 nuclear-war scare gave rise, some eight months later, by way of a June 1963 commencement address at American University, to the most profound expression of human solidarity ever given by an American chief executive.
It is worth noting then, in this context, that in the month prior to Kennedy’s address the dean of Washington columnists, Walter Lippmann, criticized the president in a televised interview for being too timid, too cautious.
“He’s one of the boys,” Lippmann observed. “One of his two or three serious weaknesses as a public leader,” he continued, “is that he does not want to be unpopular anywhere – anywhere – with anyone; and I think that a public leader, at times, has to get into struggles where somebody gets a bloody nose, and Kennedy doesn’t want that ever.”
But the speech indicates (and too late, perhaps, given the events of tha November, that the days of go-along, get-along Jack Kennedy were over, and that instead the president was gearing up for a fight with elements of his own national-security bureaucracy, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon brass, of which he had come to think so little.
(Kennedy famously described his desire to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.”)
Kennedy told the assembled AU graduates that demonizing the Soviets and doubling down on a militarized version of containment, which had been enshrined as official US policy since the Harry Truman administration’s adoption of National Security Directive 68, was not the solution. The stakes, after all, were simply too great.
Kennedy said: “Should total war ever break out again – no matter how – our two countries will be the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours.”
Part of what Kennedy hoped to achieve with the speech was a jump-start in negotiations with the Soviets over a limited nuclear test ban treaty. And in that, he found success.
Yet his effort to humanize the Russian “other” has, alas, foundered over the course of subsequent decades, not least, ironically, in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Kennedy voiced his concern with the deteriorating state of relations between the two nuclear superpowers.
“We are both,” he said, “caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons.”
The president also suggested that one way to break out of such a cycle would be to re-examine the attitudes held on both sides of the Cold War divide.
Kennedy acknowledged that while it was “discouraging to think that their leaders may actually believe what their propagandists write,” it was also “a warning” to the American people “not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”
“No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.”
Sentiments such as these need to be voiced at the highest levels today – in both Washington and Moscow.
Instead, what we have is a shared belief in both capitals that East and West are separated by a wall of insuperable difference.
This article is based on a piece James W Carden contributed to a symposium for the anniversary of JFK’s famous American University commencement address in June 1963. Carden is a member of the board of the Simone Weil Center as well as a columnist for Asia Times.