Lessons in blinking from the Cuban Missile Crisis


Amid debate over how to best handle a nuclear weapon-ambitious Iran, the tale of the "eyeball-to-eyeball" U.S.-Soviet showdown 50 years ago may have renewed relevance.

The myth that President John F. Kennedy sucessfully starred down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev through sheer force of will has been a potent one in American politics.

It emerged almost immediatley, following a remark by then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk who said, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked" after Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles to Cuba turned around rather than confront a U.S. Naval blockade.

Legend says Soviet vessels were within a few miles of the blockade when they turned around and returned to base. But as reporter-turned historian Michael Dobbs writes in the New York Times, the ships were some 750 miles away from the blockade.

Futher, the Soviet Union withdrew missiles from Cuba only after reaching a  deal with United States involing the latter's agreement to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey and a promise not to invade Cuba, as Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, notes in an article. 

At the time, the Cuban Missile Crisis appeared to be a big American win because Kennedy insisted the missile trade be kept secret. 

Its legacy has likley been a harmful one, however. Dobbs says its most recent manifestation has come from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who  asked President Obama to establish a "clear red line" with Iran in the same light that President Kennedy set one during the Cuban crisis.

As nations around the world seek further sanctions against Iran, the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis should be remembered as ones of restraint from rash actions and the willingness of both sides to blink, Dobbs and Blanton say.

For more:
- read Dobbs' article (NYT)
- look at various Cuban Missile Crisis documents collected by the National Security Archive

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