Mr. Trump, Look to JFK's Cuba crisis on North Korea
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On July 4th, 2017, the day America celebrated its independence, North Korea fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile. This event flew in the face of President Trump’s recent tweet that North Korea building an ICBM capable of hitting the United States “won’t happen.” This development has turned a long-simmering conflict into an overnight existential threat for the United States.

Some newspaper reports have referred to this moment as the North Korean Missile Crisis, inviting comparisons to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.


During the latter crisis, President Kennedy was forced to decide under extreme pressure how the U.S. would respond to the Soviets placing nuclear missiles on Cuba that were capable of hitting the United States. The military solutions proposed were exceedingly dangerous and the diplomatic solutions seemed risky and fraught with political peril. Publicly, Kennedy engaged in aggressive bluster, famously, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk later commented, going “eyeball-to-eyeball” with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. But behind this public bluster Kennedy quietly chose a diplomatic path that ultimately ended the crisis and saved the world from potential nuclear destruction.

This week Trump announced that he was considering “some pretty severe things” in response to the current crisis. We can hope that this is simply Trump’s Kennedy-like public bluster, because as considers his actions he would be well served to remember the successful diplomatic resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Many international relations courses today study the Cuban crisis as a model for successful crisis management and government decision making, but studying the standoff in isolation and looking only at whether the crisis itself was a “win” or a “loss” for the Americans overlooks the longer-term benefits of successful diplomacy.

The U.S. has been attempting for years to stop North Korea’s nuclear program to little effect.

Back in 1962, the U.S. had been negotiating with the Soviets for over six years to get a nuclear test ban treaty signed that would put major constraints on Soviet testing and development of nuclear weapons. In this instance we see evidence that the successful diplomatic resolution of the missile crisis bore longer-term fruit and kept the door open to more important future deals.

President Kennedy used his brother Robert to open backchannel communications with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Lesser known, though, is the fact that Kennedy also turned to the prominent editor of the weekly magazine Saturday Review, Norman Cousins, who was then in the unique position of hosting the Dartmouth Conference where top U.S. and Soviet scientists, writers, and political advisors had gathered in the U.S. to discuss the Cold War. Present at the conference was Yuri Zhukov, Chairman of the powerful State Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. The White House considered him to be a rather hardline cooperator with Khrushchev. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, Cousins used his unique connections to pass messages between the White House, Kremlin, and even the Vatican to help seek a resolution to the crisis. It was probably the only place in the world where such high-level U.S. and Soviet citizens were speaking face-to-face.

(Not even the White House had a direct line to the Kremlin at the time. The Moscow-Washington Hotline, the famous “red phone” in popular culture wasn’t established until after the missile crisis.)

Months after the missile crisis ended, when the test ban negotiations hit an impasse again, President Kennedy again turned to Norman Cousins who traveled to Russia to undertake a private meeting with Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. Cousins carried a personal message from Kennedy about the U.S. desire to agree on a test ban treaty. Ultimately Cousins’ citizen diplomacy, and Kennedy’s willingness to pursue this diplomacy over the long term, even in the face of his critics, contributed greatly to the United States and the Soviet Union signing, on August 5th, 1963, the first ever nuclear test ban treaty — a treaty that remains in effect to this day even 26 years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.  

Recently, the Trump administration has apparently been conducting low-key communications with the North Koreans. Analysts see the release of Otto Warmbier as a move to open up space for diplomacy in Washington, even though his condition and later death provoked anger.

President Trump considers himself the greatest dealmaker of all time. As he studies his options for responding to the North Korean provocation, he should remember that choosing to use U.S. forces to attack North Korea will likely shut the door to future diplomatic dealmaking, not to mention cause horrific death and destruction.

The history of the Cuban Missile Crisis shows us, however, that there is still room for diplomacy even in these most bleak moments. The successful diplomatic settlement of that crisis led to, just ten months later, the limited nuclear test ban treaty, which was one of the greatest achievements Kennedy secured during his presidency.

Allen Pietrobon is a visiting professor of American history at Trinity University. He received his Ph.D. in American History and Foreign Policy at American University, where he serves as an Assistant Director of Research at the Nuclear Studies Institute. He is currently writing a biography of Norman Cousins.

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