A new missile crisis, and a president ill-equipped to deal with it

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — More than half a century ago, America faced its first nuclear weapons crisis in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy avoided the threat of a Soviet missile attack then in a nail-biting confrontation with Kremlin strongman Nikita Khrushchev.

Relying more on a naval blockade and other cautious defensive measures than on bluster, he eventually got his adversary to remove nuclear missiles from our Caribbean island neighbor via negotiation, with a then-hidden deal whereby U.S. missiles in Turkey later were taken out as a rough quid pro quo.

Dean Rusk, Kennedy’s secretary of state, is supposed to have described the confrontation dramatically as Kennedy going “eyeball-to-eyeball” with Khrushchev, to which he added, “I think the other fellow just blinked.”

Actually, the deal was struck by JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy in secret conversations with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Only later did we learn how the slick diplomatic gambit helped both sides save face and avoid a first nuclear exchange.

Now, nearly 55 years later, it’s global nail-biting time again, as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un threatens the United States, protector of South Korea, with his rapidly building nuclear arsenal and menacing rhetoric.

This time a new and defiant American president, infamous for verbal bluster of his own, publicly warns of “fire and fury” on the Korean peninsula “the likes of which this world has never seen before” if North Korea continues on its reckless course.

President Trump declares that “hopefully, we will never have to use this power,” but he tweets that this country is working to “renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal,” adding “there never will be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”

His own menacing words have sent tremors along the Pacific Rim, including China, where U.S. diplomatic efforts have been laboring to recruit major cooperation in applying economic sanctions and other pressures on Pyongyang to curb its nuclear weapons buildup.

Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, a rather benign voice in the crisis so far, has jumped in with the explanation that “what the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in strong language that Kim Jong Un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language.”

A deputy assistant on Trump’s national security staff, Sebastian Gorka, argued on Fox News that North Korea’s brinkmanship “is analogous to the Cuban Missile Crisis.” He interpreted Trump’s remarks as warning: “Don’t test America and don’t test Donald J. Trump. … We are not just a superpower. We were a superpower. Now we are a hyperpower.”

Gorka stated the obvious, that “nobody in the world, especially not North Korea, comes close our military capabilities, whether they’re nuclear or whether they’re special forces.” But who would win such a war obviously is not the immediate question, when another holocaust would be the result.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis also weighed in, saying the U.S. has “the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.” It would have been more reassuring to know he had counseled Trump to button his lip, and his tweets.

Tillerson said his boss was just “reaffirming” that the U.S. “has the capability to fully defend itself” and “will do so.” He added: “So the American people should sleep well at night, (and) have no concerns about the particular rhetoric of the last few days.”

During the Cuban missile crisis, Americans endured some sleepless nights, as the ships carrying Russian nukes approached Kennedy’s naval blockade. As a Pentagon reporter at the time, I subsequently witnessed the withdrawal of the missiles at sea from an overflying Navy observation plane, one of the final acts ending the crisis.

The difference between then and now is that Kennedy never engaged in belligerent rhetoric while seeking behind the scenes to negotiate a way out of very frightening circumstances. Trump now appears to be using his reputation for aggressive confrontation, whether in politics or in a perilous foreign policy crisis, to stare or talk down the serious threat now facing this country, and the world, in the current face-off of conflicting egos.