The most-quoted line from history’s most dangerous confrontation declares, “We were eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.” Now, with the opening of Robert F. Kennedy’s personal papers on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, there can be no doubt that before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev blinked, President John F. Kennedy winked.
In the official narrative, Kennedy stood tall, hung tough and stared his opponent down. What this obscures is the critical role that cunning, craft and willingness to compromise played in resolving this crisis.
This narrative has informed — and misinformed — many presidential decisions over the past five decades. In 1964, for example, while choosing to Americanize the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “It required great American firmness and good sense — first in Berlin and later in the Cuban Missile Crisis — to turn back [Khrushchev's] threats and actions without war.”
More recently, in 2002, before sending U.S. troops to Iraq, President George W. Bush argued: “We cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. As President Kennedy said in October of 1962…’We no longer live in a world…where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril.’”
This attitude was echoed by, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his September address to the United Nations. “President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Netanyahu said, “That red line also prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.”