Where one is thoughtful, the other one is direct. Where one sees shades of gray, the other sees black and white. Where one thinks options through, the other declares himself ready to charge ahead. Obama and McCain at Saddleback Church? So they say.
But I’m thinking of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the movie version, Thirteen Days, I’m thinking in particular of the scene where President Kennedy meets with the Joint Chiefs. While Kennedy is bringing up all the obstacles and consequences, the Joint Chiefs generally, and Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay in particular, can’t envision any negative consequences from an American attack upon Cuba.
Fortunately for history, a tape of the real meeting between President Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs is avaiable here. It took place on October 19th (you need RealPlayer to listen to it).
Here’s the summary:
JFK concludes that an air strike would give the USSR “a clear line” to take Berlin – the way they took Hungary after the 1956 Suez invasion. [3:30] He states that our allies would think of us as “trigger-happy Americans” who lost Berlin because we did not have the guts to endure the situation in Cuba. Cuba is 5 to 6,000 miles from Europe he argues, and “they don’t give a damn about it… This is a very satisfactory position from their point of view.” [4:10]
JFK states that an air strike would neutralize the missiles but would likely force the USSR to take Berlin “which leaves me only one afternative which is to fire nuclear weapons – which is a hell of an alternative – to begin a nuclear exchange.” [5:15] “I don’t think we have any satisfactory alternatives,” JFK concludes, because the problem is not just Cuba but Berlin. If it were only Cuba it would be easy: “But if we do nothing, we will have problems in Berlin anyway. So, we have to do something.” [6:50]
Air Force chief of staff General Curtis LeMay, argues forcefully that the blockade and the political talks without accompanying military action will lead to war. He concludes that the Soviets won’t take Berlin if we act in Cuba but will take it if we fail to act [8:30]. “This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich…. I just don’t see any other solution except direct military intervention right now.” [9:30]
JFK cites the fact that nations automatically expel diplomats if their own diplomats are expelled and concludes that if we take military action the USSR will have to as weIl. [10:25]
Several members of the JCS argue for military action and express fears that the blockade alone is a weak response which could lead to nuclear blackmail. [14:25]
Thus, where Kennedy was thoughtful, LeMay was direct. Where Kennedy saw shades of gray, LeMay saw black and white. Where Kennedy thought options through, LeMay declared himself ready to charge ahead.
And whereas Kennedy averted a nuclear disaster, LeMay most likely would have caused the world to be blown up.
Robert Kennedy also was as thoughtful as his brother, according to Robert McNamara’s notes.
An ominous (and paranoid?) little snippet from the movie, as the meeting with the Joint Chiefs had just ended, went like this:
LeMay walk out of the Oval Office with Taylor, Carter and their staffers.
LEMAY: Those goddamn Kennedys are going to destroy this country if we don’t do something about this.
There are dark looks on the faces of the other officers. They agree.
I don’t know whether that snippet was a piece of dramatic license, although I guess it probably was. But the gist is sound. What else would a LeMay conclude about a “weakling setting up his country for nuclear blackmail?” Of course, LeMay and those likeminded eventually did get their way.
58,193 Americans of my generation subsequently died.
And to this day nobody can tell anybody else why they died.
Yes, temperament matters a great deal. Perhaps Caroline Kennedy noticed something when she compared Barack Obama to her father last Winter. At the time, everybody else saw the glitz, the crowds, the speeches, the “rock-star” persona. Did she see the thoughtful mind — the kind of mind that once saved the world from annihilation?