John F. Kennedy was a man of many secrets.
In his private life, his character was questionable or mysterious enough that a reporter as serious as Seymour Hersh and two network news departments could fool around with fraudulent documents "proving" the president was being blackmailed by Marilyn Monroe.In his public life, his work was important enough that his decisionmaking during the Cuban missile crisis 35 years ago is still worthy of admiring study.
Recently published transcripts compiled in "The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis," show that Kennedy's public "character" was more elevated than his personal character - not such a bad thing to those of us who try to be better than we know ourselves to be.
Jack Kennedy was personally careless and impatient, so much so that W. Averell Harriman estimated that his attention span was less than seven seconds. Yet, in the transcripts of taped White House meetings during the missile crisis in October 1962, Kennedy was cool, careful and patient as he deliberated how to handle the Soviet threat.
The transcripts, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, are a wonderful read. One can feel the real difference between the president and his men, especially the generals who were demanding invasion of Cuba. Only Kennedy understood Nikita Khrushchev and the reasons the Soviets would risk the horrendous consequences of a nuclear exchange.
The first meeting of those 13 days in October was only a few minutes old when the president said: "What is the advantage? Must be that they're not satisfied with their ICBMs." Later, he said: "It makes them look as if they're co-equal with us . . . This is a political struggle as much as military."
He was exactly right. The United States had surrounded the Soviet Union with a picket fence of medium-range missiles in Europe capable of reaching important targets in only a few minutes. Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles - ICBMs - were thousands of miles from targets in the United States, and their guidance systems were primitive. In effect, America held a loaded gun to the head of the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev was willing to gamble that he could match the American advantage with medium-range missiles in Cuba aimed at the Americans' "soft underbelly."
Kennedy knew his man, a tough old politician. After it was over, Kennedy said he would have tried the same trick if he were in Khrushchev's position.
The two of them also knew something else: Neither of them intended to use nuclear weapons first. Something could have gone wrong and missiles might have flown - but neither of them intended to push the first button.
In the end, Kennedy, who chose a naval blockade over direct military action, was surprised at how little the Soviet leader settled for in exchange for withdrawing the missiles: an American pledge not to invade Cuba, allowing Khrushchev to claim he "saved" the island from Yankee imperialists.
Jack Kennedy was no saint. President Kennedy was no fool. The rich boy was capable of using friends and strangers, then discarding them. The president was capable of safely guiding his country and the world through the first nuclear confrontation. He was among the most compartmentalized of men, able to separate private and public, a trait we now seem to have lost.