Chris Matthews: How John F. Kennedy's Appeasement Strategy Averted a Nuclear Holocaust

Roundup: Talking About History

Chris Matthews is the host of Hardball and the author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.

Fifty Octobers ago, the world faced a nuclear war that would have left this planet a very different place. The danger was every bit as it appeared. Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet leader who had secretly deployed 90 nuclear missiles in Cuba, had a back-up plan should the United States attack the weapon sites.

"I knew the United States could knock out some of our installations, but not all of them," he wrote in his memoirs. "If a quarter or even a tenth of our missiles survived—even if only one or two big ones were left—we could still hit New York, and there wouldn’t be much of New York left."

The U.S. never tested Khrushchev’s dire resolve. We never attacked his missiles. Instead, President Kennedy improvised a jerry-built policy that included an embargo on further shipment of Soviet missiles and a demand that all such weapons in Cuba be removed. Khrushchev turned back his cargo ships and removed his missiles. In this eyeball-to-eyeball conflict, he appeared to "blink" while his counterpart, President John F. Kennedy stood firm.

The full truth, which would only get out years later, is that the American president, dreading nuclear war and fearing a "miscalculation" that would trigger it, made an under-the-table deal. He gave Khrushchev precisely what he needed : something to get the hawks off his back. He agreed to remove the nuclear missiles we had deployed in Turkey, to do so in a short period of time but quietly, out of the glare of media—and Republican—attention. He did what was necessary, proffering a deal he knew he couldn't sell to his fellow countrymen.

This is the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis that gets overlooked but should be the key to all future confrontations with a dangerous enemy: Always leave the other side a way out. Otherwise, they will only have a way in... 

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