Here’s the good news, America: The Donald Trump versus Kim Jong Un showdown may be making you nervous, but it isn’t the first time a reckless, lecherous U.S. president obsessed with his own vigor and out of his depth on foreign policy faced off against a 30-something dictator armed with nukes. If we survived the Cuban missile crisis without a thermonuclear war, there’s probably a way to get through this one, too.
I know, I know: According to official baby boomer history, we’re supposed to be grateful for the “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom,” in the hagiographic words of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., with which John F. Kennedy forced Nikita Khrushchev to remove Soviet missiles from Fidel Castro’s island without war.
But this is mostly mythmaking. In reality, the Cuban missile crisis was the kind of scenario many of us feared could follow the election of Donald Trump: An inexperienced president gets elected on promises of toughness and flagrant lies, makes a series of bad decisions that provoke escalation from our foes, at which point political considerations make him feel he can’t back down, and suddenly we’re staring at nuclear war.
That’s basically the sequence of events that gave us the Cuban crisis, as Ben Schwarz pointed out in a revisionist Atlantic essay in 2013. Kennedy was elected after attacking Richard Nixon over a supposed “missile gap” with Russia that did not exist. He proceeded to fulfill his promise to Make America Tough Again with a series of poorly planned, Mafia-entangled, occasionally ludicrous attempts to unseat Fidel Castro, culminating in the Bay of Pigs disaster. At the same time, he went ahead with a plan to place Jupiter missiles in Turkey, a provocative gesture that made the Soviets suspect that we were looking for opportunities for a nuclear first strike.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
When Khrushchev responded to this aggression and incompetence with the missiles-to-Cuba scheme, Kennedy decided that while the missiles did not place the United States in greater military danger (a nuke is a nuke whether fired from Havana, Russia or a submarine off the U.S. coast), they created an unacceptable political problem for his presidential credibility. Thus the escalation that followed – the quarantine, the invasion threat, the nuclear brinkmanship.
Which, officially, succeeded: The Russians backed down, the missiles went away, and the world was saved. But really that “success” required giving the Russians the strategic concession they had originally sought. The Jupiters were removed as well, but on a delayed timetable to allow the Kennedy White House to deceive about the crisis’ resolution. Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to overthrow Castro diminished, and his regime endures today.
There are ways in which Donald Trump is a kind of Dorian Gray’s portrait of JFK – with the same appetitiveness and clannishness (swap Ivanka for RFK) and personal secrets (tax returns for Trump, medical records for Kennedy), but without the youthful looks and eloquence and a patina of intellectualism and idealism to clean those failings up. And in the Korean crisis as in Cuba, our new president’s obsession with looking tough risks making an already dangerous situation worse.
Of course the differences are manifold. The nukes are Kim’s this time, whereas they weren’t Castro’s, so despite China’s crucial role we ultimately have to deal with the 30-something’s regime more directly. The weapons’ purpose is blackmail and self-protection, with no Cold War grand strategy involved. The U.S. military seems more likely to be a restraining force in this crisis than a hawkish one.
Meanwhile Trump himself is far more publicly unmastered and privately ignorant than JFK. But in fairness, Trump also has confined his real bellicosity to Twitter, without ordering any Kennedy-esque military misadventures or escalations yet. Then again Kennedy ultimately did get us out of his crisis unscathed, for which even the revisionist take on his failures needs to give him credit.
Can Trump do the same? My sense is that he would gladly – nay, eagerly – take a version of the deal that Kennedy ultimately struck: a bargain that looked better publicly for the U.S. than in secret, that allowed him to claim success even if the reality were different.
But it is harder to see how such a deal would be made, since the concessions we would have to make to Pyongyang are unlikely to be kept secret. (And in Khrushchev’s post-crisis loss of power, Kim can see the price of letting a U.S. president save too much face.)
So it’s more likely that if we avert war, it will be because Trump is fundamentally a bluffer, who will issue threats on Twitter but won’t overrule his advisers if they tell him not to give an order that will leave hundreds of thousands dead.
Unfortunately, the bluster and incompetence will also probably make any deal worse than it otherwise might be.
But that’s the nature of the Trump presidency: You root for the least-bad outcome, knowing that the best one is probably already out of reach.