Bay of Pigs, Cold War, Cuba, Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy, Kim Jong Un, Michael Dobbs, Nikita Khrushchev, North Korea, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Robert E. Kelly, Soviet Union, The National Interest, Trump, Turkey, Vienna summit
The race for this year’s foreign policy chutzpah award couldn’t be tighter. Just when I thought political scientist Robert E. Kelly had grabbed an insurmountable lead with his new National Interest article downplaying the horror of a possible North Korean nuclear strike on the United States, along came Michael Dobbs with a jaw-dropping venture into fake history-land masquerading as an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post.
Dobbs’ achievement? An article comparing President Trump’s performance in the North Korea crisis so far with former President John F. Kennedy’s in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that failed to mention either the April, 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion: the June, 1961 U.S.-Soviet summit in Vienna: or the way in which the October, 1962 U.S.-Soviet showdown in the Caribbean actually ended.
According to Dobbs, a former Post correspondent turned historian (chiefly of the Cuban crisis), Kennedy was a model of reasonableness and restraint whose unique, “overarching sense of history” led him “to consider the interests of future generations of Americans, and ultimately all of humanity” and thus deserves much credit for preventing the showdown from turning into an apocalyptic nuclear war.
As Dobbs put it (employing terminology used in a contemporary letter from Kennedy’s wife, Jackie), the former president acted like a “big man” who knows “the needs for self-control and restraint.” Mr. Trump, however, has “indulgently” decided to “play chicken” and respond in kind to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s “explosive rhetoric” – a dangerous effort to “out-crazy” Pyongyang that reflects a “little man” outlook “moved more by fear and pride.”
But the Bay of Pigs invasion is kind of important because Kennedy’s support for this disastrously failed attempt by CIA-supported Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro persuaded Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to reach a secret deal with Havana to deploy medium-range missiles in Cuba in the first place – in part to deter another attack either by Cubans or by the United States. So the former President’s actions (which, to be sure, continued a policy of his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower) were largely responsible for creating the Soviet gambit in the first place.
Just as bad, as Kennedy admitted, his failure to order nearby American forces to come to the overwhelmed exile army’s rescue “no doubt” convinced “his superpower rival…that ‘I’m inexperienced. Probably thinks I’m stupid. Maybe most important, he thinks that I had no guts.'” The source for this passage? Dobbs’ own missile crisis history.
Has President Trump approved any similarly reckless blunders that sent such dangerous messages? No.
The Vienna conference is kind of important because this first meeting between the American and Soviet leaders reinforced Khrushchev’s impression of his Cold War counterpart as a weakling. According to one account of the summit and its aftermath:
“‘Roughest thing in my life,’ Kennedy had told James Reston of The New York Times, after it was all over. ‘He just beat the hell out of me.’ Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was contemptuous of his boss’s performance. ‘Khrushchev scared the poor little fellow dead,’ he told his cronies. British prime minister Harold Macmillan, who met with Kennedy shortly after he left Vienna, was only slightly more sympathetic. He thought that the president had been ‘completely overwhelmed by the ruthlessness and barbarity of the Russian Chairman.'”
The source for this passage? That same Dobbs missile crisis history.
Have any of President Trump’s exercise in personal diplomacy failed so utterly? No.
Finally, the Cuban crisis’ resolution is kind of important because Kennedy had a relatively easy out: an offer to remove U.S. missiles stationed in neighboring Turkey that Moscow (understandably) viewed as too close for comfort. This central element of crisis-ending deal struck by Kennedy and Khrushchev was kept secret (at Washington’s insistence), but it’s importance is now recognized by the historical community – including Dobbs.
Does President Trump have a comparable option? Evidently not – unless you count my proposal to pull American troops out of South Korea, which would remove any remotely plausible reason for North Korea to threaten U.S. territory, and turn the problem of handling North Korea’s nuclear forces over to its powerful and wealthy neighbors. Yet no American political leaders on any point on the political spectrum have expressed any support.
Dobbs of course has every right to idolize Kennedy and slight Trump. What he has no right to do after this piece of propaganda is to present himself as anything but a hack.