Meyer: “One Hell of a Gamble” – World Policy Journal – World Policy Institute


CODA: Volume XVIII, No 1, SPRING 2001

“One Hell of a Gamble”
Karl E. Meyer  

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To speak of “movie history” is to risk an oxymoron. No fabrication is too outlandish, no tale too tall, or liberty too gross, in a genre commonly concocted by the uncaring to amuse the gullible. A prime American specimen last year was U-571, a submarine epic inspired by the British Navy’s capture in May 1941 of a German Enigma deciphering machine. By adroit Hollywood witchcraft, the British sailors were turned into Yanks, and the daring raid attributed to the U.S. Navy, though America had not yet entered the war. (I did not make this up.) A contender for this year’s prize is a big-budget European production, Enemy at the Gates, set during the 1942-43 siege of Stalingrad, centering on a purported duel in gutted back alleys between a Russian and a German sharpshooter. Posters vow the film is “based on a true story.” Yet military historians can find no credible evidence that any such duel took place, or that the German marksman ever reached Stalingrad.

We are reminded that Enemy’s director is Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose earlier works include Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt as the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who fled to Tibet in 1943 from a British prison camp in India. In 1997, not long before the movie’s scheduled premiere, the curiously incurious Annaud finally learned that Harrer had concealed his Nazi past, indeed he had served as a ski instructor in the SS, a fact established by a journalist who sifted through the Third Reich documents accessible to all in Washington’s National Archives. When the German press broke the news, the film was hastily amended, and the director now explained, “Seven Years in Tibet revolves around guilt, remorse, and redemption.” An illustration, par excellence, of the “don’t ask, don’t check” auteur theory.

Given such lapses, I brought modest expectations to Thirteen Days, based on Robert F. Kennedy’s memoir about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet having observed the crisis as a young Washington Post editorialist, I found unexpected merit in this technically impressive reconstruction, directed by Roger Donaldson and written by David Self. Granted, the film exaggerates the role of Kenny O’Donnell, a White House aide whose part in the crisis was as exiguous as the Boston accent perpetrated by his cinematic stand-in, Kevin Costner. (It appears that the O’Donnell family helped finance the project.) Similarly, the actors purporting to portray Adlai Stevenson and Maxwell Taylor were risibly off-key, and nobody involved seemed aware that McGeorge Bundy, JFK’s national security adviser, was a nonsmoker.

More substantially, the crisis is viewed almost exclusively through American eyes. One would never guess that Nikita Khrushchev had plausible grounds for fearing an American invasion of Cuba, or for worrying about the Kennedy administration’s military buildup and the presence of NATO missiles on nearby Turkish bases. We tend to forget that after the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, which is when Fidel Castro proclaimed himself a Communist, the Kennedy brothers stepped up a CIA operation codenamed “Mongoose” to depose the Cuban, with toxic cigars if need be-all unmentioned in Thirteen Days. To be sure, Nikita Khrushchev erred recklessly in deploying missiles by stealth in Cuba, and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko compounded Moscow’s offense by failing to acknowledge the deed at a meeting with Kennedy just before the crisis. But when the United States blockaded the island, and when the nuclear superpowers wrestled in the fog, Khrushchev was as responsibly aware as Kennedy of the spiraling risks of force. The Soviet leader expressly ordered that no American surveillance planes over Cuba were to be fired upon; the rockets that felled a U-2 on October 27 were the work of a local commander, a vital point that Thirteen Days also failed to make clear.

Still, it is hard to overstate the film’s salutary value for those under 30 to whom terms like fallout, civil defense, and brinkmanship reek of mothballs. The full context is expertly documented in the well-titled “One Hell of a Gamble”: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Norton, 1998) by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy J. Naftali. Out of frustration, ignorance, and fear, the authors conclude, Kennedy and Khrushchev each grasped for a magical solution to their Cuban problem, but none was to be found: “Kennedy’s choice of covert action and Khrushchev’s missile gambit proved not only costly failures but catalysts for the single most dangerous moment of the Cold War. Even after the solution of the crisis, Cuba exacted a heavy toll, inspiring the hateful act that claimed John F. Kennedy’s life and the political conspiracy that ended Nikita Khrushchev’s career.”

Moreover, by drawing on transcripts of taped debates within Ex Comm (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council), Thirteen Days makes an overwhelming if tacit case for civilian control of the military. Had President Kennedy heeded his Joint Chiefs, who proposed taking out the missiles in a surgical assault, it is unlikely that any of us would be around today. The president was able to face down his generals, and their civilian boosters, because he was a decorated war hero, because he learned of braided fallibility at the Bay of Pigs (that rare thing, a “perfect failure,” in the historian Theodore Draper’s memorable phrase), and because he had a trusted brother as go-between in the secret talks that resolved the crisis. Bill Clinton had none of these advantages; nor seemingly does George W. Bush, whose judgment and spine have yet to be tested.

Yet by what right does any single person hold the world’s fate in his or her hands? No insider has brooded longer or harder on the Cuban Missile Crisis than JFK’s secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara. Elsewhere in this issue, he and his co-author, James G. Blight, reflect on the weight of history that burdens America’s relations with Russia and China. But I was also struck by this remarkable passage in Secretary McNamara’s foreword to a thick, technical book, Nuclear Weapons and International Law in the Post Cold War World, by Charles J. Moxley, Jr. (Austin & Winfield, 2000). There McNamara writes:

I am convinced that the American people do not understand the reality of the nuclear weapons policies our leaders are following and that, if they did, they would broadly repudiate them. Our policy of nuclear deterrence puts in the hands of the American President-acting alone, without public debate-the ability to destroy an enemy state and, if that state is a nuclear power, the initiation of an action which would lead to suicide for our country. And the nuclear exchange, because of fallout, would cause heavy damage to non-belligerent nations as well.

The United States’ refusal to rule out First Use, the Senate’s recent rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the extension of U.S. nuclear deterrent theory to counter chemical and biological weapons threats, the failure to fulfill our obligations under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the threat to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Treaty are all disturbing developments begging to be addressed by thoughtful members of our society and leadership.

As I have noted, human beings are fallible. Even with the best of efforts and intentions, we make mistakes. In our daily lives, they are costly but we try to learn from them. In conventional war, they cost lives, sometimes thousands of lives. But if mistakes were to affect decisions relating to the use of nuclear forces, they would result in the destruction of nations. Thus, the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons carries a high risk of a potential catastrophe. There is no military or policy justification for our continuing to accept such risk.

I can think of no more succinct or accurate summary of the perils of what Robert Jay Lifton elsewhere in our issue calls “the second nuclear age.”

On a wholly different matter, a half-dozen sharp-eyed readers noted the misspelling of Osborne House in the essay by the undersigned on Edwardian England in our winter issue. Another slip was due to plain ignorance: the qualifying word “peacetime” was omitted from a sentence in the Coda noting that the New York Times carried six-column headlines on page one for 22 consecutive days after the November election, a peacetime record. But nobody seems quite sure what the wartime record was.

And finally, we are pleased to note that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has bestowed the Nisar Osmani Award for Courage in Journalism on our contributor Ahmed Rashid. The commission specifically cited his coverage of Afghanistan, which resulted in his widely praised book, Taliban (Yale, 1999). He not only reported on Taliban’s military operations but, as the citation related, he faced “serious hazards to his life” in meeting belligerents in a chaotic country. The award was presented in Lahore, and we add our own congratulations to a talented and brave correspondent.

-Karl E. Meyer

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