Monday, March 15, 2010
Last week, my wife picked up a DVD with this title. Apparently, the film bombed at the box office. She found it in a bin at one of our local stores -- the equivalent of the remainder shelf at your local bookstore.
As I watched the film this weekend, I was taken back to my days as an elementary school student, when I ducked under my desk in the absurd hope that, in the event of a nuclear attack, I would be spared. And I remembered the day when, as a fledgling high school student, I left for school -- not knowing if I would make it home that night.
It was October 24, 1962. The United States Navy had built a blockade around Cuba. The whole world knew we were on the edge of Armageddon. I remember being in class when the intercom came on with a live radio report that the Russian freighters had turned back. I got on the bus and returned to my parents' home in Montreal.
I did not understand at the time that the crisis would go on for several more days. And I did not read until years later that it ended with the United States removing missiles from Turkey, while Russia removed its missiles from Cuba.
The film documented the meetings and heated discussions between President Kennedy and his advisors, as they struggled to arrive at a solution to the crisis. At one point, Kennedy told some of them that he had recently read Barbara Tuchman's book, The Guns of August, a history of the events leading up to World War I.
I was reminded of Tuchman's definition of wooden-headedness, which she offered in a subsequent book, The March of Folly. Wooden-headedness, wrote Tuchman, "consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing onself to be deflected by the facts."
Most of Kennedy's advisors, including the joint chiefs and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, favoured an invasion of Cuba. Kennedy and his brother Robert were not convinced that invasion was the best course of action. But they lived in the shadow of their father, who had advocated appeasing Hitler. They risked looking weak.
Most members of the Kennedy administration, however, had served as front line soldiers and officers during World War II; and they were aware by experience, if not by acquaintance, of what Karl von Clausewitz had written in On War: that war is "politics by other means;" and, that it "increases the uncertainty of every circumstance and deranges the course of events."
The proof of war's unpredictability occurred off Cuba, when a Russian submarine came between the freighters which were carrying the disputed armaments and the American armada. When the Russian ships refused to change course, Kennedy gave the order to blow the submarine out of the water. Suddenly, however, the freighters slowed down. Kennedy quickly countermanded his order and -- luckily for all of us -- the communication was received in time. Kennedy understood just how close the world had come to "mutually assured destruction;" and, unencumbered by wooden-headedness, he began to work on a nuclear test ban treaty.
Not everything worked out so positively in the Kennedy administration. There was, of course, the matter of Vietnam -- although recently released documents suggest that, before he was assassinated, the president had decided to remove all American troops from Vietnam by 1964. We will never know what would have happened.
But, as I watched the film, I could not help but think of the second Bush administration and the run up to the invasion of Iraq. The caution the Kennedys displayed was nowhere in evidence. Instead, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney served as prime examples of wooden-headedness. It would appear that Bush's and Cheney's lack of battlefield experience -- which both men worked very hard to avoid -- had something to do with the "preconceived fixed notions" with which they faced the world after September 11th.
Beyond that, the Cuban missile crisis proved that history is not an uncontrollable series of events. Character -- and intelligence -- make a difference. And, despite his personal flaws -- flaws which George W. Bush evidently does not possess -- the world can be grateful that Joseph P Kennedy's son was in office in 1962, instead of George H.W. Bush's son.