By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Whether you love Donald Trump or hate him, there’s no doubt that his administration has been the most chaotic in the nation’s history.
There’s the constant staff churning: National Security Advisor Mike Flynn was gone in just 22 days followed by FBI Director Jim Comey, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, Chief Advisor Steve Bannon and who knows who’s next. So many people deserted Trump’s Manufacturing Council and his Strategy and Policy Forum that he disbanded them before they completely imploded. He’s insulted allies; picked fights with the leaders of his own party and threatened war with North Korea. One aide was quoted as saying, “You have no idea how much crazy stuff we killed.”
These are all what they call in sports, “unforced errors,” like dribbling the ball on your own foot in a basketball game. It makes you wonder what will happen when he’s faced with an actual crisis, as all presidents are.
In October 1962, the CIA informed the Kennedy administration that it had photographic evidence that the Soviet Union was building launch pads for ballistic missiles in Cuba — 90 miles from the American shore. Kennedy didn’t ask for the launch code. He convened a meeting of the National Security Council and other key advisors to discuss options and strategies.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff were in unanimous agreement that the only solution was a full-scale attack and invasion of the island country. If not a full invasion, they argued, we should at least destroy the missiles and launch facilities with an aerial bombardment.
But Kennedy would not be cowed by the military brass. He considered not only what we should do but what they would do in response and where that tit-for-tat progression would lead. “They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something,” he told the Chiefs. “They can’t, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don’t take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin.”
But, Kennedy also knew that doing nothing was not an option. He reasoned that allowing the missile installation would change the political balance of power. Credibility among U.S. allies and people would be damaged if the Soviet Union appeared to gain the upper hand by placing missiles in Cuba.
While the administration wrestled with what seemed like only bad options, construction on the missile sites progressed and the Joint Chiefs continued to pressure him for a military strike.
Finally, a third option emerged — a naval blockade — but that also presented dangers. A blockade is considered an act of war in itself and might instigate the kind of retaliation Kennedy wanted to avoid. To allay these fears, two steps were taken. One, was that it would be termed a “quarantine” and would affect only offensive weapons, allowing other goods to pass. Two, the administration moved to enlist the support of the Organization of American States under the Rio Treaty. With this, the quarantine would not be seen by the rest of the world as an act of aggression by the U.S. but as America standing up to defend the other 34 nations of the OAS.
On Oct. 22, the President prepared to inform the American people in a special address to the nation. Prior to his address, he met with the Congressional leaders to inform them and get their input. They strongly opposed the quarantine and demanded a stronger response.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev responded that the Soviet Union would consider the blockade as an act of aggression and instruct its ships to ignore it. Work on the launch sites continued. The U.S. was preparing to invade Cuba and to strike the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons if necessary.
At JFK’s request, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, the President’s brother, U.S. attorney general and most trusted confidant, opened up back channel negotiations with the Soviet ambassador. While these secret negotiations were going on, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, the Russians scrambled MIGs over the Bering Sea, and the blockade intercepted a Soviet nuclear submarine. Any of these could easily have triggered war, but Kennedy held steady.
The negotiations succeeded and the crisis ended on Oct. 27 when the USSR agreed to dismantle and remove its missiles. It’s the closest the world has come to nuclear annihilation and was only avoided because Kennedy would not be goaded into war. He moved carefully and cautiously and acted deliberately and not bombastically. We’re alive today because of the way he managed the crisis over those 13 days in October 55 years ago.
If faced with a similar situation, what would Trump do?
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 659-1977.
By ALAN J. ORTBALS