In a submission for the hotly contested prize for fatuous belligerence over Ukraine, Ben Wallace, UK secretary of state for defence, has spoken of a ‘whiff of Munich’ regarding negotiations to end the crisis. It may only be a matter of time before he, or some fellow tub-thumper, reaches into the historical locker and pulls out the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 as an even more pertinent parallel.
The story writes itself: just as the reckless Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev brought the world to the brink of nuclear war by installing missiles in Cuba but was forced to withdraw thanks to unyielding resolve from President John F. Kennedy, so the equally reckless Vladimir Putin can only be forced into abandoning his threat to Ukraine by firm and fearless defiance on the part of Joe Biden.
But that story, though almost universally accepted by the scholarly commentariat, is entirely wrong in just about every important respect.
Furthermore, the most important parallel between Cuba then and Ukraine today is unlikely to garner much public attention: Biden, inexorably sinking in the polls, faces crucial mid-term elections. Kennedy was in similarly dire straits prior to the missile crisis. Cuba and Ukraine were and are political crises, and both presidents’ actions must be viewed in that light.
Biden carries the stigma of weakness following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan (really the military’s fault, but they adroitly shifted the blame onto the White House) as well as the likely fall-out from the prospective nuclear settlement with Iran. Hence his need to invoke a supposedly imminent threat and display firm-jawed strength in confronting it.
Kennedy was under equally relentless assault from the republicans for being ‘weak’ in the face of communist Cuba, having failed to rescue the ill-conceived CIA-sponsored invasion the previous year. In addition, his domestic agenda was going nowhere in congress, just as Biden’s is going nowhere today. The record indicates that he didn’t really think Soviet nuclear missiles on the island mattered very much one way or another. ‘What difference does it make?’ he said when first shown photos confirming the presence of the rockets. ‘They’ve got enough to blow us up anyway.’ He certainly had no intention of going to war. But the domestic political threat was real enough, hence his public displays of martial resolve, complete with preparations to invade Cuba and deployment of a naval blockade against Russian military shipments.
Meanwhile, the real story was being played out behind firmly closed doors. In back-channel negotiations with Moscow, mostly relayed through Georgi Bolshakov, a Soviet intelligence colonel operating undercover in Washington, Kennedy almost immediately offered a significant concession – the withdrawal of US nuclear missiles from Turkey, with the proviso that the deal never be made public. He took care to conceal these negotiations from his senior national security advisors, who were urging hair-raisingly aggressive actions, including immediate air strikes on Cuba followed by full-scale invasion.
Khrushchev took the deal (which ultimately included the withdrawal of American missiles from Italy, a concession the Soviet leader had not even demanded) and withdrew the offending rockets from Cuba. Kennedy, his concession well concealed, was rewarded with a sweeping victory the following month in the mid-term elections. Advisors, including defence secretary Robert McNamara, later claimed to have counselled sage moderation, unaware that Kennedy had been secretly taping their hysterical fulminations for war.
We can only hope that Biden has the sense to follow his charismatic predecessor’s path and negotiate his way out of the situation. The prospects are not altogether promising, given that Biden, despite his claims to the contrary, does not have a sterling record as a negotiator, as senate republican leader Mitch McConnell could surely tell you. It is probably more difficult to make secret deals and keep them so today than it was in pre-internet days. Kennedy had the brains and confidence to ignore his senior advisors’ calls for war; it is not clear that Biden enjoys the same qualities. At the very least, we can hope that he isn't listening to the Ben Wallaces of this world.