Atlantic Worlds II
April 16th 2010
Characterizing the First World War as an epidemic of miscalculation, President John F. Kennedy pondered, “they somehow seemed to tumble into war … through stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur” (49). Reflecting upon these miscalculations, Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days documents the Cuban Missile Crisis and catalogues the President’s contemplative action amidst potential disaster. Considering the misjudgment that drove conflict in the early twentieth century, and the socio-technological paradigm shift of war, President Kennedy found remedy in the maintenance of open channels of external communication, while regarding the international domino effect of each action, and exhibiting constant skepticism in pursuit of a peaceful resolution.
German sociologist Max Weber wrote of the Great War, “this war, with all its ghastliness, is nevertheless grand and wonderful. It is worth experiencing” (EP 768). Embellishing the heroism of warfare, Weber reflects a common acceptance of war in the early twentieth century as one of sport and necessity. However, with the development of nuclear arms came a paradigm shift concerning war and its role amid international powers. Acknowledging the destructive potential of nuclear warfare, Kennedy adamantly stated, “We were not going to misjudge or challenge the other side needlessly, or precipitously push our adversaries into a course of action that was not intended” (75). Using historical precedent as his guide, President Kennedy acts upon the belief that war is rarely intentional, while also recognizing the evolving dynamic of war as one of an arms struggle.
The application of this lesson exists in Kennedy’s resolution to utilize quarantine as opposed to armed conflict at the Soviets Union’s initial threat. Foreign ships given orders to retreat would be afforded such an opportunity, any vessel refusing to stop would have its rudders disabled to avoid loss of life, and ships not belonging to the Soviet Union were the first and only to be boarded, as to not incite a military response. Executing such action demonstrates the President’s clear understanding of past misjudgment, and the paradigm shift that now characterized war as something not of sport, but of mass destruction. Robert Kennedy reaffirms such in declaring, “If we erred, we erred not only for ourselves and our country, but for the lives of those who had never been given an opportunity to play a role” (81). This statement epitomizes the overwhelming burden of nuclear war, and the cognizance necessary to avoid it.
Vital to the avoidance of miscalculation and the development of a mutual understanding were open channels of communication during the Cuban Crisis. President Kennedy recognized the importance of consistent communication to evade impulsive action, and promote logically sound decision-making. Such an example exists in Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days in which Soviet Chairman Khrushchev and President Kennedy exchange messages outlining the guidelines towards peaceful resolution. “We must not succumb to petty passions, or to transient things, but should realize that if indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war” (66). Stated by Khrushchev in pursuit of mutual amity, such communication demonstrates the importance of clarity and transparency under desperate circumstances. This quotation further exhibits recognition of the warped nature of warfare, and acknowledges history’s wrongdoings that provoked destruction. President Kennedy concluded deliberations in stating, “the effect of such a settlement on easing world tensions would enable us to work towards a more general arrangement … the United States is very much interested in reducing tensions and halting the arms race” (79). The clear and concise nature of this exchange lends praise to...