Saved from oblivion
Sean Farrell on the 13 days of nuclear brinkmanship that defined John F Kennedy's presidency
Fifty years ago today John F Kennedy left Ireland at the end of his three-day visit here in June 1963, a visit regarded by many as a watershed for this country. That unforgettable time in Ireland rightly has been remembered and celebrated over the past few weeks. But the year before JFK came to Ireland was unforgettable for very different reasons. This book is a timely reminder that the Kennedy presidency had another watershed moment – in 1962 – which was unforgettable both for Ireland and the rest of the world because it could have meant the end of civilisation itself.
As the subtitle suggests, the book, written by the renowned American economist and JFK admirer Jeffrey Sachs, is a study of Kennedy's foreign policy initiatives in the wake of the defining moment of his presidency, the Cuba crisis of October 1962. It was a year that saw Kennedy extend an olive branch and shift superpower relations on to a more stable footing, highlighted by the successful conclusion of the partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of July 1963, just a few weeks after he had been in Ireland.
Kennedy's presidency can be divided into the periods before and after October 1962. When Kennedy became president, US-Soviet relations were already at a low ebb, and JFK, to quote Sachs, came "out swinging . . . in three provocative ways". He ordered a major build-up of nuclear weapons, even though the US already had vast superiority, he sanctioned what would be a disastrous CIA-inspired invasion of Cuba and he went ahead with plans to install nuclear missiles, pointed at the USSR, in Italy and Turkey.
While Kennedy learned from his early mistakes, in particular not to trust the CIA or the generals, the next year saw superpower relations lurch from bad to worse. A disastrous summit, the erection of the Berlin Wall and the resumption of atmospheric nuclear tests by both parties did not augur well, though Kennedy seems to have grasped early on the depth of Russian fears of German rearmament and of a possible German finger on NATO's nuclear trigger.
Most of this was posturing but in the autumn of 1962 came a game-changer. The beleaguered Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, under political pressure from military hard liners, embarked on a plan to install medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from the US mainland. For Khrushchev it would be a propaganda coup, relatively inexpensive, a response to US aggression against an ally and would also give the US a taste of the sense of encirclement that Russians felt with NATO missiles on their borders.
Many books have been written about the Cuban crisis blaming either or both parties. That Khrushchev never intended war was irrelevant. That the move did not alter the strategic balance did not matter. There was an awful political reality. Kennedy could not ignore Khrushchev's action. The military and the US right called for air strikes or invasion. To do nothing invited rapid impeachment, with unforeseeable consequences. It was, in Kennedy's rueful words, "the week I earn my salary".
The superpowers were suddenly toe to toe. Kennedy, aware how the European powers had blundered into war in 1914 through miscalculation or misunderstanding, was determined that this would not happen. He grounded U2 spy planes.
He dismissed demands for military action (the generals could not guarantee complete success) and opted instead for a naval blockade of Cuba, a strategy that bought some time for negotiations. The world watched, in horrified fascination, as Soviet ships neared Cuba. Nuclear war seemed inevitable.
At the nadir, a U2 spy plane from Alaska strayed into Soviet air space. Soviet fighters were scrambled; the US planes sent to escort it back were authorised under their high-alert status to fire nuclear warheads. As Sachs notes, "by dumb luck the world survived".
JFK's comment: "There's always some dumb SOB who doesn't get the word." Disaster did not happen but the glimpse of catastrophe proved sobering. Khrushchev, shaken, backed down and withdrew the missiles from Cuba. Kennedy, shaken, gave a quid pro quo (on Turkey) and determined there would be no repetition.
The crisis changed Kennedy fundamentally. Sachs focuses on JFK's attempts during 1963 to forge a lasting détente. He reproduces four major speeches, including the address to the Dáil, concentrating in particular on the seminal 'peace speech' of June 10 to Columbia University in which Kennedy challenged the US to re-examine its view of the Soviet Union.
Sensing a growing rapport with Khrushchev, he prepared to cut the Gordian knot on nuclear testing by suggesting a partial rather than full treaty (excluding underground tests). The treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests was concluded in July 1963 and successfully shepherded through the US Senate by 81 votes to 17 – a considerable feat – in September.
It proved negotiation and agreement were possible. By then Kennedy, in his final UN speech, had attempted to prescribe further steps towards improving relations and eventually ending the Cold War. A 'hot line' was agreed, as well as cultural exchanges and the sale of wheat to the USSR.
A new era beckoned. But then came Dallas.
It was to be decades before the Cold War ended, a period that included nasty proxy wars, a continuing nuclear arms race and spells of superpower hostility and tension. Wasted years.
Yet nothing ever approached those 13 days in 1962 when the fate of mankind was truly in the balance.
Kennedy showed leadership when it mattered during and after October 1962. There's a lesson there for politicians today.
Sean Farrell spent 30 years in the Irish diplomatic service during which time he served as ambassador to Estonia and Irish Consul in the US.