Jon Wiener: The '13 days in October,' 50 years later

Roundup: Talking About History

Jon Wiener is a professor of history at UC Irvine and the author, most recently, of How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America.

In 2007, when President George W. Bush's White House spokesperson, Dana Perino, was asked a question about one of the biggest foreign policy crises in American history, she drew a blank. "I was panicked a bit because I really don't know about … the Cuban missile crisis," she later told NPR. "It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I'm pretty sure."

Perino was 35 in 2007, and thus had been born about a decade after the famous "13 days in October" 1962 when President John F. Kennedy confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over Moscow's installation of missiles in Cuba. The history books describe it as the closest the world has come to nuclear war.

Perino's ignorance revealed a striking shift in conservative perception. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Republicans expected that it would be remembered for generations as a moment when a Democratic president squandered a historic opportunity. Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley all suggested at the time that Kennedy's handling of the crisis represented a capitulation to the Soviets; that the president had bowed to Soviet threats when he promised not to invade Cuba. They believed Kennedy's actions had guaranteed that a communist outpost would remain, 90 miles from our shores, and that the president should have taken the opportunity to liberate the Cubans from their communist overlords.

These days, most conservatives wouldn't make such arguments... 

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