On The Brink

What the president didn’t know — and when he didn’t know it

"What did the president know and when did he know it?" was the question made famous by Watergate. During the two years I spent researching the Cuban missile crisis, I came to feel that a more appropriate question about the man waiting for that 3 a.m. phone call in the White House would be: "What ...

Cecil Stoughton, White House/John F. Kennedy Library, Boston
Cecil Stoughton, White House/John F. Kennedy Library, Boston

"What did the president know and when did he know it?" was the question made famous by Watergate. During the two years I spent researching the Cuban missile crisis, I came to feel that a more appropriate question about the man waiting for that 3 a.m. phone call in the White House would be: "What didn’t the president know and when didn’t he know it?"

Confronted with grave national security crises, we comfort ourselves with the image of a near-omniscient commander-in-chief able to draw on the vast resources of the world’s most powerful military machine. The historical record suggests a more realistic — and human — picture of presidents stumbling about in the semi-darkness as they attempt to master the chaotic forces of history. With rare exceptions, it is difficult for them to bend history to their will: the most they can do is avoid the obvious pitfalls. As Abraham Lincoln remarked at the height of the Civil War, "I do not control events, events control me."

In my book One Minute to Midnight, I tried to integrate the debates in the White House with a minute-by-minute account of events in the rest of the world. The disconnect was often jarring. Information flowing into the ExComm (the committee of "wise men" established by John F. Kennedy to handle the crisis) was often incomplete, misleading, or simply wrong. The president often had only a vague idea of what was happening in Cuba and the Soviet Union. Neither he nor his opposite number in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev, exercised full control over his own armies. And yet somehow, for all their mistakes and near-fatal miscalculations, they managed to avoid blowing up the world. (More, later, on how they accomplished this.)

Armed with hindsight, historians tend to attribute too much order and logic to events that seem chaotic and unpredictable to the fallible human beings who are caught in the middle of them. They lose sight of the confusion, chance events, and sheer ignorance that can make the difference between war and peace. For decades, the Cuban missile crisis has been studied and analyzed as a case study in successful "crisis management." In fact, it is better understood as a reminder of the limitations of crisis management and the constraints on presidential power.

By tweeting the Cuban missile crisis in real time, I hope to provide a corrective to the fashionable academic theories you are likely to hear as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the "thirteen days" when the world came closer than ever before — or since — to nuclear destruction. Over the next three months, we will record the Soviet military buildup on Cuba and the frantic attempts of the American intelligence services to figure out what was going on. It was not until the middle of October — when the missiles were almost ready to fire –that Kennedy finally understood that he had been duped by Khrushchev.

In the meantime, JFK was repeatedly fed erroneous information about the nature of the Soviet buildup. He was told by the CIA that the Soviets were most unlikely to deploy nuclear weapons on Cuba — when the weapons were already on their way. As late as October 20, the Pentagon estimated that there were 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet "technicians" on the island, when in fact there were 43,000 heavily armed troops, equipped with tactical warheads. He was misinformed about what was happening on the blockade line, and had no idea where the Soviet nuclear warheads were stored. He was not told that a U-2 spy plane had gone missing over the Soviet Union until the danger was over.

As we will see over the coming weeks, it was what the president didn’t know — rather than what he did — that constituted the most serious threat to the world’s survival in 1962. It is a lesson worth remembering if, by this fall, we suddenly find ourselves facing an Iranian missile crisis. (Harvard professor Graham Allison has termed the conflict over Iranian nukes "a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.")

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 Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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