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JFK, Barbara Tuchman and the Cuban Missile Crisis


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From “Struggling with destiny: Barbara Tuchman’s legacy as an historian,” by Robert Zaretsky, TLS: Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 2012:

“[A] vantage point from which to consider Tuchman’s work takes in its influence on a man whose job it was to respond to present pressures: President Kennedy. Much has been made of the influence ‘The Guns of August’ had on Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis – and for good reason. Kennedy himself made a point of referring repeatedly to the lessons of Tuchman’s book (which had been published just a months before that fateful October). In the midst of the crisis, he told his brother Bobby: “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a book about this time [and call it] ‘The Missiles of October’.”

“Given the passions of the moment, this was a nearly superhuman task. Would someone who had not read the book, or who had not studied history (as Kennedy had at Harvard), have been able to resist the advice of military men like Curtis LeMay, who wanted to evaporate the island with nuclear bombs? In such a nuanced reading of the ways in which Tuchman’s book may have inflected Kennedy’s response, Ronald Carpenter (in ‘Rhetoric in Martial Deliberations and Decision Making’, 2004) has suggested that this is not a foolish question. He explores how Tuchman’s masterly use of rhetorical tools, as well as her unwavering focus on ‘miscalculations’ made by statesmen and generals on all sides, may have shaped Kennedy’s appreciation of the crisis. There are to be sure, intriguing parallels between Tuchman’s discussion of the naval blockade successfully implemented by the risk-adverse British Admiralty and Kennedy’s equally successful decision to impose a ‘quarantine’ on Cuba. Is it possible that, in the pages of Tuchman’s narrative, Kennedy found a prescription for action?

“It is tempting to say he did. Kennedy told his brother Bobby, ‘I wish we could send a copy of that book to every Navy officer on every ship right now, but they probably wouldn’t read it.’ At the very least, Kennedy’s remark hints at the possibility that a certain kind of historical narrative – faithful to fact and expert to exposition – can serve as a guide to the perplexed. Mostly faithful and always expert, Tuchman told a story about August 1914 that not only made sense of the story unfolding in October 1962, but also changed the ending. When the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was asked how the war happened, he replied, ‘Oh, if only I knew.’ A half century later, at least one of the Tuchman’s readers refused this staggering claim of ignorance.”

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JFK rejected General Curtis LeMay's advice during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that likely would have led to World War III.

It is interesting to note that General LeMay was the vice presidential running mate of American Independent Party presidential candidate George Wallace in 1968.

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Thanks for that Doug. Though by most accounts JFK handled the crisis as best as he could have under the circumstances some critics on the left and right criticized him for being too forceful or too weak in response.

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Every step of the way during the Cuban Missile Crisis JFK made the right steps even when the U-2 was shot down.

He know the fate of the world hinged on what he & Khrushchev did.

That is why he gave Khrushchev a way to save face to remove the Missiles from Cuba.

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