Stephen Sestanovich: Of Myths and Missiles ... What Les Gelb Gets Wrong About the Cuban Missile Crisis

Roundup: Talking About History

Stephen Sestanovich is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book, The Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, will be published next year by Knopf.

Is there a better measure of an international crisis than how long we keep arguing about it? This month, umpteen retrospectives will remind us that it has been 50 years since the United States and the Soviet Union were "eyeball to eyeball" over nuclear weapons in Cuba. The basic facts have been known for a long time, yet the arguments about this legendary confrontation go on and on.

The latest entrant in the wars over the Cuban missile crisis is Leslie Gelb, whose article "The Myth That Screwed Up 50 Years of U.S. Foreign Policy" appears in Foreign Policy's November 2012 issue. Gelb is one of the most stimulating and provocative interpreters of American diplomacy, and he has an interesting story to tell. John F. Kennedy and his advisors, he says, falsely claimed to have given nothing away in getting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back down in Cuba. By keeping secret their promise to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey, they made "toughness and risky dueling with bad guys" the default mode of U.S. foreign policy.

"American leaders don't like to compromise," Gelb explains, "and a lingering misunderstanding of those 13 days in October 1962 has a lot to do with it." For him, what we really need to remember about the missile crisis is that the key to resolving it was flexibility, not rigidity. The same flexibility, he suggests, might enable the United States to make headway with Tehran, the Taliban, and others.

A bold reading like this shows how much new juice can be squeezed out of events half a century in the past. But there are two problems with it...

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