Monday, November 2, 2020

The Consequences of (Secret) Compromise

Fifty-eight years ago in October, the world came closer to nuclear war than at any other time in history. I'm talking about what's become known as the "Cuban Missile Crisis". We're alive to talk about it today because war didn't break out. Why didn't it break out? A peaceful compromise was found.

R.F.K. was charged with making an offer to the Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. If the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, the Americans would pledge not to invade the island. As an added incentive, the U.S., in the next several months, would pull its missiles from Turkey. Key to the deal, Dobrynin was told, was that the provisions about Turkey be kept secret.
Source: The New Yorker.

I highlighted a concession Khrushchev made to Kennedy. Kennedy's concession, removal of Turkish missiles, was enough for Khrushchev to save face inside the Politburo. Khrushchev's own concession, agreeing to keep the removal of the Turkish missiles secret, allowed Kennedy to save face with the American electorate. He didn't cave in to Khrushchev, or at least no knew whether he did or didn't. Win-win all around, right? The world lived happily ever after, right?

Maybe not. The myth the Kennedyites nurtured was not one of compromise. It was one of toughness. Kennedyites said their man stood up to Khrushchev, stared him down, and Khrushchev blinked. There may have been a high price for that myth.

In fact, [the provisions] were kept so secret that most members of [the Executive Committee of the National Security Council] were unaware of them. Johnson wasn’t informed that the President had traded away American warheads, even after he became President. The lesson L.B.J. seems to have drawn from the crisis was that Kennedy had succeeded by refusing to compromise. This would have deeply unfortunate consequences when it came time for Johnson to deal with North Vietnam.
Source: The New Yorker.

LBJ had to live in JFK's shadow. When a crisis arose in Vietnam, compromise was out of the question. Kennedy, with his reputation of not compromising, was the martyred hero. LBJ didn't even know of the secret compromise, but couldn't adopt that tactic even if he were inclined to. LBJ couldn't be seen to be weak. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Tomorrow is Election Day. I'm not sure how this story applies, other than noting that Americans' choice tomorrow could end up being a matter of life and death for the planet. Choose wisely.

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