One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
Alfred A. Knopf, 2008
426 pp., 31.58
Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
400 pp., 48.91
by Bruce Kuklick
The State and Its Servants
Michael Dobbs is a journalist, and Alex Abella also writes for the newspapers, although he makes his living as a novelist. Each of them has published a popular history about America's influence as a superpower in the 20th century. Together the books promote reflection about how nation states behave and who is responsible for their behavior.
The tale of the Missile Crisis has often been told. In the spring of 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to situate nuclear-tipped rockets, aimed at the United States, in Cuba. Under Fidel Castro, that island country had recently declared its allegiance to communism and had become an ally of the USSR. When the administration of John Kennedy learned about the missiles in the fall of 1962, Kennedy and his national security managers decided that the Russians had to remove the armaments—or else. In the next two weeks of October 1962, a watershed period in the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war. The narrative of the threats and counter-threats, deliberations, negotiations, and military posturing still makes for a great read. Dobbs has studied matters seriously and has some new information, mainly on the activities of the armed services. While he often proudly reminds us that this information has not been used before, his account is familiar, basically distinguished because Dobbs tells an outstanding story.
Good story or not, One Minute to Midnight adopts the unexceptional explanation of what went on. Dobbs argues that the world escaped harm for two reasons. First, Kennedy and Khrushchev were both reasonable men looking for a judicious way out of the crisis. Second, Dobbs allows, they both luckily avoided the unfortunate consequences of various accidents, miscommunications, and the deeds of uncommitted associates. It is this uncontroversial understanding that must be transcended.
Khrushchev was told that positioning missiles in Cuba would raise a firestorm in the United States. Why did he risk it? After World War II ended in Europe, the two great powers had partitioned Germany, but the western zone of that nation prospered more than the eastern, and Western Germany was soon formidably allied with the United States. The Russians feared growing West German strength, and as time went on dreaded that the West Germans would get nuclear devices. These issues centrally threatened the status quo in the fifteen years after 1945. Were the United States to endorse German nuclear weapons, the Russians might themselves resort to a pre-emptive strike. But the USSR had a standard move to signal its worries about West Germany. The old German capital of Berlin lay within East Germany, and the city too had been divided. An odd entity behind the lines, West Berlin was an exposed part of America's Cold War bloc. Every time the Russians wanted to show their anxiety about increased West German muscle, they attacked the status of West Berlin. Berlin crises defined much of the Cold War in Europe, and they intensified in the early 1960s as West Germany got closer to control of non-conventional bombs.
For a long time the Russians did not make their apprehensions explicit, and the Americans had only a clouded sense of Soviet concern. The United States did not seem to grasp why Russia was so disquieted about German possession of nuclear weapons. Well, Khrushchev seemed to say in strategic essence, let's see how the United States likes it when the USSR installs atomic rockets in Cuba. The Americans thought Fidel Castro was as rash as the Soviets thought the West Germans. As the communists were accustomed to urging, the "correlation of forces" had swung too heavily in the American favor; arms in Cuba would create a more equal correlation. Thus, from the point of view of individual ethics, Khrushchev made a dangerous choice.
So, the USSR made an agreement with the sovereign state of Cuba. The United States had circled the Soviet Union with nuclear missiles; those in Turkey and Italy under NATO were the most noticeable. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Why did Kennedy complain about Cuba? Why did he too make a dangerous choice? The answer to this question requires us to go back far before World War II. The United States had viewed Cuba as its bailiwick from the time of the Spanish American War of 1898. The United States took Cuba from Spain, and ran the island's affairs as it wanted for the first half of the 20th century. After Castro overthrew the oppressive American-sponsored regime in the late 1950s, American policymakers were often maddened beyond reason, and when the new Kennedy Administration failed to overthrow Castro in a bungled attempt at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, American statesmen lost their cool completely. They advanced a multitude of wacky plots to assassinate Castro. With the help of various Cuban refugees, soldiers of fortune, and the Mafia, the CIA implemented these schemes, which would be material for comedy if they did not display the extent to which the United States looked on Cuba as its own.
The Americans simply could not abide the idea of a communist Cuban government. When Kennedy learned about the missiles, he was more than incensed: he was willing to threaten a nuclear confrontation to compel the Russians to back down. He deliberately challenged the Soviet Union, just as Khrushchev had knowingly provoked America with his tit-for-tat move.
Yes, unanticipated events and unpredictable mistakes made things far more dangerous than they otherwise might have been. But these were not fundamental. And we wrongly argue that Kennedy and Khrushchev got us out of the jam because they were sober people, trying above all to extricate us from an unfortunate dilemma. From the viewpoint of personal accountability, the two men made reckless decisions that led to the crisis. In picking an international quarrel, they both resolved to do things that any normal person could see as provocative and aggrandizing.
Emphasizing the prudence of a man's character, as Dobbs does, misunderstands the circumstances. We must ask the deep question of what led the two principals to act without regard for ordinary ethical scruples. What framework of motivation makes sense out of their hazardous fixation on shoving the Soviet Union and the United States onto a path that might have led to mutual destruction?
Scholars of international politics have spilled a lot of ink trying to answer this baffling question, and here, along with many others, I walk on uncertain ground. Russia and America participated in a global organization of sovereign entities. As spokesmen for their respective countries, Kennedy and Khrushchev were not deciding how they might behave as private citizens. A formula that reckons leaders as acting in their individual moral capacity cannot explain the politics of nation states. The system has a life and reality of its own. It is brutal, and choice within it ought not to be examined in the way that we examine the strictly personal. Political scientists speak of the national interest—the considerations of geography, natural resources, national character, and political tradition and history—that shapes the judgments of those who operate in the system. Just as private individuals do, statesmen make choices. But statesmen make them in a unique structure of authority. The world of national powers is like a schoolyard without a cop but full of bullies with chains, brass knuckles, and baseball bats. And woe to him who doesn't have some deterrents!
The missile crisis was not settled in the way it was because Kennedy and Khrushchev were levelheaded human beings. Rather, the Soviets surrendered because they were outgunned. They had far too few missiles to compete with the United States. Khrushchev more or less worked out that in a nuclear face-off the USSR would destroy Miami, New York, and Washington. But the Soviet Union would be obliterated, and a lot of other communist countries along with it. Russian weakness had not only prompted the crisis but also molded its solution. In exploring the crisis we must look at international political morality, which exists in a different sphere from that of personal morality.
The substance of Abella's Soldiers of Reason: The Rand Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire intersects with that of One Minute to Midnight. Immediately after World War II, RAND—for Research ANd Development—came into existence as one of the nation's first policy-oriented think tanks. Controlled largely by the Air Force, RAND pondered military issues and weapons systems but soon was widely known for investigations of national security surrounding nuclear weapons. Later it became a clearing house for scrutiny of domestic policies, particularly those related to cities.
RAND reached its height in the late 1950s and the 1960s, and many of its most prominent members consulted for, or became officials in, the Kennedy Administration. Defense intellectuals with ties to RAND contributed to the policy making of the missile crisis, and the crisis itself became a staple of RAND analysis. Abella's history appraises RAND from the time of its origins to the present, and the author has a simple idea about its role in American life. The (mostly) men of RAND are geniuses interested in public affairs. For the past sixty years the organization has provided the brains of public service in America. RAND thinks; presidents listen; and, for good or ill, its policy recommendations are brought into being.
Soldiers of Reason is a bad book. It is lightly researched. Silly interpretations contradict one another from page to page, and gross errors of fact exhibit the author's ignorance of American history. Moreover, Abella has no grasp of the intellectual assumptions of the RAND strategists whom he is studying; he often leaves the reader perplexed about the ideas that are being unpacked. The less said about the book, the better. However, the volume does point in the direction of a significant question. What is the effect of ideas generated by academic or quasi-academic institutions on the harsh realities of national conflict? How do scholars, as scholars, serve the government? Many contemporaries—Abella is one—blame academics for leading a dopey President Bush astray in Iraq; the villains in this early 21st century piece are "thinkers" like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, both of whom turn out to have links to RAND.
The relation of the erudite to policy is complex, but if we keep in mind the curious way in which foreign policy changes the axis of choice, we will more easily come to terms with the men of mind in Washington. During the missile crisis they tended to be more belligerent than Kennedy, and there is little evidence that during the Cold War intellectuals had a benign impact. More important, the policy professoriate often had little impact at all.
The ethics of statesmen is not pretty, as I have suggested. While political morality has its own logic, we have a difficult time looking at its claims to merit with clear eyes. But like other people, politicians want to have an everyday good opinion of themselves. Policymakers did what they had to do, but they often encouraged explanations for what they did that obfuscated the cruel context in which they maneuvered. Defense intellectuals often provided that obfuscation and elaborated a kindly narrative of justice in which the decision-making had cohered. These rhetoricians of the state frequently legitimated action, but they did not energize it. They could offer up self-justifying chatter to the powerful and the public. Strategists with doctoral degrees paradigmatically made available to national security officials respectable verbiage for what was done.
Many wise people have argued that in a tragic universe we should honor political morality, and we can't rule out that academics may contribute substantively to policies. But in international affairs—in the scheme of things—the demands of power overshadow whatever teaching the classroom offers. The palaver of the learned retainers in Washington does tell us that political ethics needs to link up with something nobler. But we must first understand that statesmen do not operate with the usual moral compass.
Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his many books are Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger (Princeton Univ. Press) and, most recently, Black Philosopher, White Academy: The Career of William Fontaine (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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