History gives us the tools to analyze and assess current events with a proper degree of perspective. The study of history reveals lessons learned from past mistakes and the factors that influenced past successes. The knowledge of history helps us make sense of new threats, the impact of foreign conflicts on our national interests, and the political and social controversies which affect the long-term direction of the nation. The wisdom of history helps us better judge those who would seek to become the next President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces.
The noise of our current election process, the incessant barrage of daily and hourly media stories, accusations and counter-accusations, and the incessant and indiscrete use of Twitter and social media can overwhelm even the most serious political junkie and overshadow what is truly at stake in this election. This will be the tenth presidential election in which I will have cast a vote in my lifetime, but this is the first time I have genuinely feared for the country and the world should the wrong candidate win.
Although our individual vote may feel insignificant, cumulatively our votes have serious consequences. Whom we elect or refrain from electing impacts the country for years to come – in the conduct of our foreign policy and the nature and extent of our military engagements abroad, in lifetime nominations to the Supreme Court and federal bench, and in the tone of our civic life at home. The election of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 resulted in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, a war Gore opposed from the start and which became the worst foreign policy blunder in a half century. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 over Jimmy Carter negatively influenced how Americans viewed the federal government and the meaning of public service. But though I strongly opposed Reagan and, later, George W. Bush, and though I disagreed passionately with many of their policies, I never doubted that they acted in good faith and pursued actions and policies they believed were in the best interests of the United States. This election is different. If Donald Trump is elected President, our country is in grave peril. We need only look to history to understand why this is so.
On October 16, 1962, U.S. intelligence officials informed President John F. Kennedy that a U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba had photographed the installation of intermediate-range nuclear missiles by Soviet military personnel. For months it had been rumored that the Soviet Union was engaged in military activities in Cuba, just 90 miles from the coast of Florida. Now there was solid proof. The implications were unmistakable. The missiles, if allowed to remain, would provide the Soviet Union with nuclear first-strike capability against the United States and its allies in the Western Hemisphere.
The pressures immediately confronting the 45 year-old president for a pre-emptive, offensive military response were intense. Almost all of Kennedy’s military and security advisers – the high-ranking generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, most of Kennedy’s Cabinet, and key members of Congress – advocated an immediate and forceful response. Kennedy was told he had no choice but to bomb the Cuban missile sites before they became operational. As Ted Sorenson recounts in Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (Harper Collins 2008), the solution sounded simple: “U.S. bombers could swoop in, eliminate the sites, and fly away, leaving the problem swiftly, magically ended. But further questions – JFK always had further questions – proved that solution illusory.” Kennedy’s questions revealed that the Air Force could only be certain of eliminating 60 to 90 percent of the missiles. What would happen when one of the remaining Soviet nuclear missiles was used to retaliate against the United States? Kennedy also learned that to restore order after the U.S. bombing campaign would require a full U.S. invasion of Cuba, likely resulting in the loss of 10,000 American lives “more or less” according to the Joint Chiefs.
Kennedy, to his everlasting credit, resisted this advice. He had discovered eighteen months earlier, during the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco, that the generals had their own biases, did not have all the answers, and were sometimes wrong. There had to be a better approach, one less likely to lead to all-out war. Kennedy favored a naval blockade to prevent more shipments of Soviet weaponry while he explored a diplomatic solution. But the generals argued that only air strikes could remove the missiles quickly and that the Soviet Union’s actions required a strong and unequivocal response. Merely imposing a blockade would make Kennedy and the United States look weak and permit the Soviets to think they could have their way in the future. General Curtis LeMay, who oversaw the massive firebombing campaign of Japanese cities during World War II, criticized the blockade as “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.”
A few days into the crisis, Kennedy sought the advice of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, considered a wise man of American foreign policy and an expert on Soviet motives and conduct. But Acheson agreed with the generals that the United States should bomb the missile sites. When Kennedy asked Acheson how the Soviets would respond, Acheson predicted they would bomb U.S. missile sites in Turkey. Of course, this would require the United States to honor its NATO commitments and bomb Soviet missile sites in Russia. When Kennedy asked how the Soviets would react to that, according to Sorenson, “[Acheson] paused and replied, ‘by then, we hope cooler heads will prevail.’”
Thankfully, Kennedy was consistently cool and level headed from the start. He resisted the overwhelming pressures for war. He sought instead to find a way for the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba without losing face. An air strike or invasion was easily the more popular course of action, but Kennedy favored a blockade while pursuing secret diplomatic back channels because he thought these actions more likely to lead to a peaceful outcome. He was right. Kennedy’s courage to trust his own instincts over that of his hawkish advisers – most of whom were older and more experienced than he – saved the world from possible nuclear annihilation.
It is hard to imagine today just how close to nuclear war we came during those tense days in October 1962. As Sorenson retells it, “The discovery that the Soviet Union had secretly rushed nuclear missiles into Cuba tested JFK’s wisdom, courage, and leadership as no president since Lincoln and FDR had been tested. No other test so starkly put at stake, depending on the president’s choices, the survival of our country.” Kennedy’s decision to pursue a more nuanced path, one involving skillful diplomacy and which risked cries of appeasement and weakness, demonstrated true presidential courage and judgment. Had Kennedy succumbed to the immense pressures and demands for an immediate air strike and invasion – and really, who could have blamed him given the nature and intensity of the crisis and the “advice” he received from such distinguished military and security experts – it would almost certainly have precipitated a nuclear assault on the United States. This would have led inevitably and rapidly to an all-out nuclear exchange, potentially rendering much of the world uninhabitable for centuries to come.
Based on the historical record, I believe we are alive today in no small measure because, for thirteen days in October more than a half-century ago, JFK exercised all of the attributes we most want and need in a president – judgment, courage, and moral fortitude. Kennedy combined a healthy skepticism for quick and easy military solutions with a concern for innocent lives. He listened patiently to his advisers, sought a wide spectrum of views, and reflected before acting. And he recognized, as Commander-in-Chief, that every decision has consequences.
I shudder to think what may have happened had Kennedy’s wisdom and patience not prevailed in October 1962, or if someone with less judgment on issues of war and peace – LBJ or Nixon, possibly, or God forbid, a man like Donald Trump. “In the eyes of history,” wrote Sorenson, “our greatest presidents have proved their qualities of greatness when confronted by great challenges.” We peacefully prevailed in October 1962 because, under the leadership of a wise and informed president, “we acted with vigilance, patience, and restraint.”
Although the precise circumstances of the Cuban Missile Crisis will not likely reoccur, some other crisis or series of crises almost certainly will confront our next President – an act of terrorism on U.S. soil or a military or security mishap in the Persian Gulf. Who do we trust with that responsibility? Which candidate has the capacity for thoughtful analysis? Who is more likely to exercise "vigilance, patience, and restraint" when the heat is on? Who do we trust to maintain responsible custody and control of the nuclear codes? Who can responsibly guide the nation through a major crisis?
The prospect of Donald Trump in the oval office under any of these scenarios is terrifying. Trump lacks even the most rudimentary knowledge of world affairs. He does not understand the Constitution or the day-to-day workings of government. He shows contempt for American institutions and American democracy. By all accounts, he does not read books or engage in serious study. He appears to have no capacity for self-reflection or informed analysis. He listens to no one and never, ever, admits that he made a mistake. He becomes easily unhinged, impulsively making outlandish statements disconnected from facts at the slightest provocation. He is emotionally immature, a boorish narcissist who seems incapable of empathy or compassion. He is the single most unqualified presidential candidate in American history, which is why he is opposed by every living U.S. president, Republican or Democrat.
I have not always agreed with Hillary Clinton on every policy issue, and I am at times frustrated by her lack of transparency and politically-motivated shifts on issues like TPP and free trade. But I greatly admire and respect her intelligence and work ethic. And there is no one at present more qualified to be our next President. Hillary has the experience, knowledge, and seriousness to be president. She has demonstrated a willingness to listen, analyze, and consider the consequences of presidential decisions. She remains calm under pressure, is deeply prepared, and has an impressive command of foreign and domestic policy.
Hillary lacks JFK's charisma and is not a “perfect” candidate. But she has spent her life engaged in matters of policy, in working to improve the lives of women and children, in forging meaningful compromise with her political opponents. For the past fifteen years, Trump consistently insulted women, self-inflated his insatiable ego with buildings bearing his name, and produced shallow, gimmicky television shows. During that same time, Hillary served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as Secretary of State; and she advocated for human rights abroad while protecting U.S. interests in every hemisphere. Before that, Hillary worked to improve the lives of women and children and had a front row seat at the highest levels of state and national government. There is simply no contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the race for president. Yet we have endured false equivalencies and thin polling margins throughout this election season. We are living in dangerous times. There can be little doubt our vote in 2016 is as critical as in 1960 to ensure our existence as a country and as a world.
In June 1963, several months after the missile crisis ended and the Soviets had dismantled and withdrawn their offensive weapons from Cuba, Kennedy gave a profoundly important and thoughtful speech at American University in which he argued for a limited nuclear test ban treaty. Kennedy recognized that, as the leader of the free world, his words mattered to friend and foe alike, more than many Americans understand. Our allies and enemies listen carefully to the president’s words. This was especially true of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. In this speech, President Kennedy acknowledged our common humanity and set the tone for mutual cooperation and respect:
So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.
It is not simply that Donald Trump is a highly flawed man. Kennedy and many other U.S. presidents were flawed men. But presidential character and judgment, the moral fortitude we need when the tests of history arise, have nothing to do with personal shortcomings. It has to do with experience, intelligence, discernment – qualities that cannot be taught, or learned on the run, but require a lifetime of study and a willingness to engage in critical self-reflection. Even great presidents make mistakes. But the only people we should ever entrust with the solemn obligations and responsibilities of the presidency are men and women of good will. Donald Trump is not that person.