Essay By Jon Meacham for The New York Times
March 24, 2020
It was, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote long afterward, “the most dangerous moment in human history.” On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy had reviewed photographic evidence of the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off America’s shores. Thus began 13 days of existential crisis. The whole nature of life, the shape and future of humanity, was at stake. The Cuban missile crisis is a thrilling tale — but it is also a chilling one, for the showdown could easily have gone another, darker way, and none of us would be here to learn its lessons.
But we are here, and we are facing another crisis, and we are hungry for whatever the past can teach us about how to survive moments of great stress and strain. President Kennedy was cool, rational, careful and willing to compromise. He convened Ex Comm, a gathering of top officials, as well as opening private channels to Moscow. His view was informed by the writing of Basil Liddell Hart, the British military authority, who had advised leaders in crisis to “keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. … Avoid self-righteousness like the Devil — nothing is so self-blinding.” As Robert F. Kennedy’s “Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis” shows us, the key point is that a president should be driven by facts, not preconceptions; by the larger good, not by pride. For pride, as the Bible taught us long ago, goeth before a fall.
The literature of crisis is rich, and in our own hour of slow-motion but indisputably real panic, there’s utility in re-engaging with the stories of how leaders and citizens have reacted amid tension and tumult. The vicissitudes of history always challenge us in new and often confounding ways; that’s in the nature of things. Still, as Winston Churchill once remarked, “The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope” — the hope that human ingenuity, reason and character can combine to save us from the abyss and keep us on a path, in another phrase of Churchill’s, to broad, sunlit uplands.
Robert Kennedy’s account of the Cuban missile crisis is brief, bracing and revealing. I recommend the 1999 edition from W. W. Norton with a foreword by Schlesinger and an afterword by Richard E. Neustadt and Graham T. Allison. The book gives us a realistic, sober, almost unemotional understanding of how a president and his advisers should act in a crisis. “President Kennedy,” Robert Kennedy wrote, “wanted people who raised questions, who criticized, on whose judgment he could rely, who presented an intelligent point of view, regardless of their rank or viewpoint.” And, when it was time to go public, the president trusted the people. There was no happy talk, no mixed messages, no self-pity. “My fellow citizens,” Kennedy told the nation six days into the crisis, “let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead — months in which both our patience and our will will be tested, months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers.”
The importance of leveling with the public as directly as possible had seen America through depression and World War II in Kennedy’s youth. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who served in Kennedy’s White House as a special assistant, wrote compellingly of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first hundred days in “The Coming of the New Deal,” the second volume of his Age of Roosevelt trilogy. In the gloom of the Great Depression — the unemployment rate was 25 percent as Roosevelt took office — the 32nd president was reassuring but far from Panglossian. Yes, the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, Roosevelt said in his First Inaugural — but he also said that he might require wartime executive powers as if we had been “invaded by a foreign foe.” The crowd on the East Front of the Capitol roared its approval; it was, Eleanor Roosevelt recalled, the audience’s “biggest demonstration” during the speech. Nobody could say he wasn’t being straightforward.
The next morning, he went to work. The pace was dizzying, for good reason. “The machinery for sheltering and feeding the unemployed was breaking down everywhere under the growing burden,” Schlesinger wrote. “And a few hours before, in the early morning before the inauguration, every bank in America had locked its doors. It was now not just a matter of staving off hunger. It was a matter of seeing whether a representative democracy could conquer economic collapse. It was a matter of staving off violence, even (at least some so thought) revolution.”
Roosevelt declared a bank holiday and ordered his team to come up with answers — quickly. Officials had “forgotten to be Republicans or Democrats,” Raymond Moley, a Roosevelt adviser, recalled. “We were just a bunch of men trying to save the banking system.” Armed with expert policy provisions, Roosevelt spoke to the nation on the radio. He dictated his remarks to his secretary, Grace Tully, looking, Schlesinger wrote, “at a blank wall, trying to visualize the individuals he was seeking to help: a mason at work on a new building, a girl behind a counter, a man repairing an automobile, a farmer in his field, all of them saying, ‘Our money is in the Poughkeepsie bank, and what is this all about?’” Will Rogers was so impressed with the result that he said Roosevelt had “made everybody understand it, even the bankers.”
Clarity and candor are essential in crises — and so is generosity of spirit. John Lukacs’s “Five Days in London: May 1940” details the crucial period in which Winston Churchill, the new prime minister, consolidated his hitherto unsteady grip on power and shut down the possibility of negotiating with Adolf Hitler. “Then and there,” Lukacs wrote, Churchill “saved Britain, and Europe and Western civilization.” In legend, the story of 1940 is uncomplicated: Churchill, as Edward R. Murrow observed, mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, and once the fighting was over light triumphed over darkness.
The reality was very different. Churchill, who came to the pinnacle on May 10, 1940, was widely regarded as unstable, melodramatic and overly fond of strong drink. But he understood Hitler in a way many others in power in Britain did not, and he knew, too, that the survival of all that he loved required a nuanced exercise of political skill and a great measure of personal magnanimity. Locked in debate in the War Cabinet with Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary who favored talks with the Axis, Churchill benefited enormously from the support of the former prime minister Neville Chamberlain, whom he had personally cultivated after years of ferocious disputes over the rise of the Third Reich. When Churchill flew to France on May 16, he’d written Chamberlain, “Neville, please mind the shop!”
When the hour of decision came on May 28, it was Chamberlain’s willingness to bet on Churchill’s unflinching approach rather than on Halifax’s attempt at negotiation that made the difference. According to Chamberlain, Churchill argued that “the only safe way” forward “was to convince Hitler that he couldn’t beat us.” And the only safe way to do that, Churchill believed, was to fight on. By graciously reaching out to Chamberlain and forgoing score-settling, Churchill carried the day — and, ultimately, the age.
After the Cuban missile crisis, in a reflection on decision making, John Kennedy was realistic. Yes, Kennedy said, a president has many powers, but he must wield those powers “under extraordinary limitations — and it is these limitations which so often give the problem of choice its complexity and even poignancy.” One way to transcend those inherent limitations is by applying the lessons of those who have come before — and to hope that the performances of the present can light the paths of the future.
Jon Meacham is the author, most recently, of “The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross.”