President Donald Trump’s exchange of threats with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is drawing comparisons with the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The exchange deserves those comparisons, but not for the usual reason.
In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the sound judgment and self restraint of President John F. Kennedy, ably advised by his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, supposedly saved the world from the nuclear war advocated by hawks like Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay. But that triumphalist story is plausible only if the Cuban Missile Crisis should count as a crisis. The confrontation began when American intelligence discovered Soviet missiles on Cuban soil (the Soviet Union ultimately deployed about forty.) Those first discovered were medium range missiles, able to strike targets as far away as the Midwest; subsequently, intermediate range missiles were identified: these could strike targets as far as Seattle.
Forty missiles carrying one nuclear warhead each are far from a good thing. But were they a crisis?
By risking nuclear war, Kennedy forced removal of the Soviet missiles from the Americas. But early in 1965, the Soviet Union began deployment of more than a thousand missiles in its homeland, all capable of reaching any target in the United States; their replacements later carried ten or more warheads each. Some of these replacement missies remain aimed at us today. Yet Americans have learned to tolerate the threat of nuclear attack on a far grander scale than the Cuban missiles because the potential for retaliation from American nuclear weapons has prevented Soviet and now Russian authorities from ever launching a strike.
If the Cuban Missile Crisis was no crisis—and it was none—neither Kennedy nor McNamara actually prevented nuclear war, and despite his grossly irresponsible advocacy at the time, General LeMay did not try to start one. Instead, like President Trump and Kim Jong Un today, they all tried to make political hay by staging an international drama. Kennedy had promised to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” But absent an antagonist, he could not keep that promise. Deployment of missiles in Cuba supplied the pretext for a display of strength.
LeMay also needed a stage. He counted either on Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev to challenge Kennedy’s quarantine of Cuba, forcing the American president to back down, or, if Khrushchev waffled, on the Soviet high command to stiffen the dictator’s spine. Then LeMay would be able to say—or leak—that he had urged decisive action on a spineless president who had let Khrushchev push him around. Either way, LeMay hoped a manufactured crisis would help elect a more ardent militarist in 1964—perhaps his fellow Air Force general Barry Goldwater, instead of a man who may have been a war hero but whose highest command had been the Navy’s smallest boat.
The same applies to President Trump and Kim Jong Un, matching jellyfish both needing to look muscled. President Trump tries to keep what is left of his approval rating by tough talk about North Korea that his loyalists like. Having already executed his own uncle, Kim Jong Un knows that plenty of other schemers await their chance to end his family’s misrule. He may have ordered the poisoning of his half-brother, or his rivals may have. Confronting a fearsome American president makes him look too tough for mere Koreans. And his nuclear weaponry frightens his own entourage, who are certainly within the weapons’ reach, at least as much as Americans who for the time being remain beyond reach.
A former CIA Soviet analyst and then House intelligence committee staffer, Richard D. Anderson, Jr. is Professor of Political Science at UCLA and most recently author of Discourse, Dictators and Democrats: Russia’s Place in a Global Process (2014).