In recent days, I’ve found myself studying JFK’s actions and reactions over the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, a period which found the world on the brink of nuclear disaster and which, by all accounts, brought out the best in a young US President who managed to stare down the ‘hawks’ in his administration to reach a diplomatic agreement with the Soviets and ensure that the world stepped back from total self-destruction.
In managing this crisis, JFK is reported as having drawn on some words written by a military strategist, B. H. Liddell Hart, in 1960:
Keep strong, if possible.
In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience.
Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save his face.
Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes.
Avoid self-righteousness like the devil—nothing is so self-blinding.
With the benefit of hindsight after nearly 60 years, it’s clear now that the unstable position in Cuba was created by both sides, not least the Americans who had sponsored all kinds of covert terrorist activity during 1961, including the unsuccessful ‘Bay of Pigs’ in April. Of course, nobody knew the whole story at the time.
We are currently living through an unprecedented period of volatility. Historians will look back in 60 years and explain some of the underlying causes and complexities which are currently hidden from us (or are too convoluted to report in 24/7 news sound-bites). In the meantime, our leaders need to channel JFK and follow the advice above, and the rest of us need to avoid the temptation to form premature judgements. It’s never as simple or as straightforward as it seems.