Fifty years after the superpowers were poised to annihilate each other over nuclear missiles sent to Cuba, the myth prevails that President Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to back down by threatening to unleash nuclear war.
It took three decades after October 1962, when the world hovered on the brink of a cataclysm, before documents were declassified that disclosed the back-channel diplomacy and compromise that led to peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. But even today, hard-liners cling to the narrative that taking a tough, inflexible stance with adversaries is the path to diplomatic triumph.
That misguided interpretation hampers diplomacy today, say veterans of the perilous Cold War standoff and the historians who study it. The notion that threatening military action can force an opponent's surrender has created dangerously unrealistic expectations, they say, in high-stakes conflicts like the U.S.-led challenge of Iran's purported quest to build nuclear weapons.
Kennedy didn't stare down Khrushchev with vows to bomb Cuban missile sites, although that was the tactic pushed by his military advisors, recently revealed history of the crisis shows. The president sent his brother, then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, to secretly negotiate with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. In the strictest of confidence, RFK offered withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey and a promise not to invade vulnerable Cuba in exchange for the Kremlin pulling out the nuclear arms it had deployed to Fidel Castro's island.
"The secrecy that accompanied the resolution of the most dangerous crisis in foreign policy history has distorted the whole process of conflict resolution and diplomacy," said Peter Kornbluh, Cuba analyst for the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "The takeaway from the crisis was that might makes right and that you can force your opponents to back down with a strong, forceful stance."
Documents released sporadically over the last 20 years show that the crisis was resolved through compromise, not coercion, said Kornbluh, who has spent decades pushing for declassification of U.S.-Cuba history documents related to the crisis. Some 2,700 pages from RFK's private papers were released by the National Archives and Kennedy Library just last week.
R. Nicholas Burns, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service now teaching diplomacy at Harvard's Kennedy School, sees applications for the Iran dispute from the real story of the missile crisis resolution.
The fundamental breakthrough in the confrontation occurred "because Kennedy finally decided, against the wishes of most of his advisors, that rather than risk nuclear war he was going to make a compromise with Khrushchev," Burns said. He pointed to the confidential offer to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Europe, a turning point still "not well understood -- people think Khrushchev backed down."
In the real world, Burns said, "it is exceedingly rare that we get everything we want in an international discussion. To get something of value, you have to give up something."
Burns sees the outlines of a negotiated agreement with Iran that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon, a plan he believes would be acceptable to Democrats and Republicans once the presidential election is over and the campaign rhetoric that rejects compromise dies down. In exchange for Iran's submitting its nuclear facilities to regular international inspections, Burns said, U.S. and other Western leaders could recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium to the levels needed in civilian arenas, such as energy production and medicine.
Lessons learned in the U.S.-led wars against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan also argue for exhausting every diplomatic option before engaging in armed conflict, Burns said.
"Sometimes it's necessary to use military force -- I'm not a pacifist," said the retired diplomat, who was an undersecretary of State for political affairs under President George W. Bush. "But more often than not, you have to put your faith in diplomacy. We have the time and space to negotiate with Iran."
Differentiating between national interests and those of allies is an even more important lesson gleaned from the missile crisis, said Robert Pastor, an American University professor of international relations and former National Security Council official in the Carter administration.
"Fidel Castro actually urged Khrushchev to attack the United States because he felt American imperialism would try to destroy both Cuba and the socialist world," said Pastor, who credits Khrushchev with wisely rejecting Castro's adventurism in favor of peace. Pastor sees a similar danger of Israel provoking war with Iran, confronting Washington with the need to decide between trying to restrain Israel or fighting a new Middle East war.
Sergei N. Khrushchev, the late premier's son who is now a U.S. citizen and international affairs analyst at Brown University, has been campaigning for a correction of the Cuban missile history at anniversary events this week.
"Khrushchev didn’t like Kennedy any more than President Obama likes [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," he said in an interview. "But he realized you have to speak to them anyway if you want to resolve problems. We say we will never negotiate with our enemies, only with our friends. But that's not negotiating, that's having a party."
For the record, 8:35 a.m. Oct. 17: This post originally said the RFK papers made public this week were posted on the nongovernmental National Security Archive website. They were released by the National Archives and Kennedy Library.
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Photo: Caroline Kennedy, daughter of late President John F. Kennedy, shows her mother's original copy of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to Sergei Khrushchev, son of late Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, next to a photograph of their fathers at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston at a commemoration Sunday of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. Credit: Michael Dwyer / Associated Press