To appreciate the gravity of the confrontation between North Korea and the United States – or, if you prefer, between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump – flip the calendar back 55 years to October 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For days, the world was balanced on a knife’s edge as the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy ratcheted up the pressure. One wrong move, one misstep, one provocation could have unleashed a nuclear war.
Robert McNamara was Kennedy’s secretary of defence. In retirement years later, he wondered aloud whether the world realized how close it had come to disaster that long ago October.
“At the end we lucked out. We came that close to nuclear war,” McNamara said, moving his index finger until it was just a millimetre from his thumb. “It was luck. Kennedy was rational. Khrushchev was rational. [Cuba’s Fidel] Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to the total destruction of their societies.”
McNamara described those desperate hours of decision-making when Errol Morris interviewed him at length for The Fog of War, the film that won the 2003 Academy Award for best documentary feature. The United States had already made at least four bids to overthrow Castro – in the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and, by McNamara’s count, three attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate Castro.
To protect its client state 90 miles off the coast of Florida, the Soviet Union had installed missiles in Cuba. Nuclear warheads for the missiles were aboard a ship headed for Cuba in October 1962, according to intelligent reports.
Air Force General Curtis LeMay demanded that Kennedy authorize the bombing of the missile sites, while McNamara and Llewellyn (“Tommy”) Thompson, longtime American ambassador to Moscow and a Kennedy confidant, counseled restraint. President Kennedy was ambivalent. He wanted to de-escalate the confrontation, but he also very much wanted the Soviet Union and its missiles to get out of America’s sphere of influence.
In the end, Kennedy received two messages from Khrushchev. In the first – which McNamara suspected Khrushchev sent while drunk – the Soviet leader said he would pull the missiles out if the United States would guarantee that it would not attack or invade Cuba. That was the “soft” message. The second appeared to have been dictated by Soviet hardliners. It promised massive retaliation if the United States dared to attack Cuba.
Tommy Thompson saved the day. He knew Khrushchev and his family well from his years in Moscow. He advised Kennedy to ignore the second “hard” message and to respond to the “soft” message. Thompson believed that all Khrushchev really wanted was to be able to tell the Soviet people that he had saved Cuba from the Americans.
That’s the way it played out. Kennedy promised he would leave Cuba alone and Khrushchev took the missiles out.
McNamara used that episode to illustrate a lesson: empathize with your enemy. In other words, put yourself in the other leader’s shoes to see where he is coming from and where he is really trying to go.
Unfortunately, empathy seems beyond reach in the North Korean confrontation. There is no wise Ambassador Tommy Thompson. Kim Jong Un is an enigma. No one in the West really knows him, what he really wants, or how independent he is of his hard-line military advisors. He does not impress as a leader susceptible to soft messages or responses. He is too young, too inexperienced and perhaps too insecure to seek a peaceful way out.
On the other side, Donald Trump threatens force one day and talks about negotiating the next. He is changeable and unpredictable. He has no sense of history and no grasp of diplomacy. He has advisers who can compensate for his ignorance, but he doesn’t necessarily listen to them.
As Robert McNamara observed, in 1962 the principals, Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro, were all rational leaders. Rationality seems to be in dangerously short supply in 2017.