Presidents

In their own words and attributed.

  • John F. Kennedy
  • Lyndon Johnson
  • Richard Nixon
  • Gerald Ford
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Ronald Reagan
  • George W. Bush
  • Barack Obama
  • Total war makes no sense in an age where great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age where a single nuclear weapon contains almost 10 times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.”

Lesson: "A nuclear war cannot be cannot be won and must therefore never be fought.” (Often-quoted one-liner from President Ronald Reagan in 1984)

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • “But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles -- which can only destroy and never create -- is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men.”

Lesson: There are better ways to peace than simply building up one’s nuclear stockpile.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • “We must, therefore, persevere in the search for peace in the hope that constructive changes within the Communist bloc might bring within reach solutions which now seem beyond us. We must conduct our affairs in such a way that it becomes in the Communists' interest to agree on a genuine peace. Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy--or of a collective death-wish for the world.”

Lesson: Nuclear crisis management is too dangerous; we must therefore avoid confrontations that could force an adversary to choose between humiliating retreat or nuclear war.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • Let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.”

Lesson: Put yourself in the shoes of your adversary. What are their common interests with you? Are there ways to resolve your differences?

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • “[The United States and USSR] have also been talking in Geneva about our first-step measures of arm[s] controls designed to limit the intensity of the arms race and reduce the risk of accidental war. Our primary long-range interest in Geneva, however, is general and complete disarmament, designed to take place by stages, permitting parallel political developments to build the new institutions of peace which would take the place of arms. The pursuit of disarmament has been an effort of this government since the 1920s. It has been urgently sought by the past three administrations. And however dim the prospects are today, we intend to continue this effort -- to continue it in order that all countries, including our own, can better grasp what the problems and possibilities of disarmament are.

Lesson: States must eliminate nuclear weapons.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • “I'm taking this opportunity, therefore, to announce two important decisions in this regard. First, Chairman Khrushchev, Prime Minister Macmillan, and I have agreed that high-level discussions will shortly begin in Moscow looking towards early agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty. Our hope must be tempered -- Our hopes must be tempered with the caution of history; but with our hopes go the hopes of all mankind. Second, to make clear our good faith and solemn convictions on this matter, I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so.

Lesson: A step to reducing the risk of nuclear war: banning nuclear tests.

John F. Kennedy, “American University Commencement Address” (speech at American University, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1963).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • “President Kennedy was disturbed by [the military chiefs’] inability to look beyond the limited military field. When we talked about this later, he said we had to remember that they were trained to fight and to wage war- that was their life. Perhaps we would feel more concerned if they were always opposed to using arms or military means…But this experience pointed out for us all the importance of civilian direction and control and the importance of raising probing questions to military recommendations.” (p. 97)

Lesson: It is important for civilians to hold reins of power during crisis and to challenge the military.

Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1969).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  •  “Arthur Schlesinger noted that President Kennedy himself was concerned that people might draw the wrong lessons from the event -- he worried especially that people would conclude: Just be tough with the Russians, and they will back down.” (p. 24-25)

Lesson: America did not win the crisis as a result of its toughness towards the Soviets.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • “Kennedy believed his policy had worked for three reasons. First, the United States had overwhelming local superiority; second, Soviet security was not at stake in Cuba, so they could afford to back down if necessary; and third, “they did not have a case they could plausibly sustain before the world.” (p. 25)

Lesson: The United States won Cuban Missile Crisis for three reasons: (1) The U.S. had military superiority in the Caribbean; (2) Soviet national interests were not imperiled by the crisis; and (3) case for nuclear missiles in Cuba was unsustainable in world global public opinion.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as cited by Ted Sorensen in in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • The challenge we face in [Vietnam] today is the same challenge we have faced with courage and that we have met with strength in Greece and Turkey, in Berlin and Korea, in Lebanon and in Cuba.

Lesson: Soviet aggression and expansionism was at the heart of the Cuban Missile Crisis and future crises during the Cold War.

“The Communist Challenge in Southeast Asia” (speech at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, August 5, 1964).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  •  “There were times when [Khrushchev] was guilty of dangerous adventure. It required great American firmness and good sense -- first in Berlin and later in the Cuban Missile Crisis- to turn back his threats and actions without war.

Lesson: Crises require “firmness and good sense.”

“Recent Events in Russia, China, and Great Britain,” (radio and television Presidential address, October 18, 1964). [N.B. Speech made after Khrushchev had been removed from power.]

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  •  “In this pursuit we have defended against Communist aggression—in Korea under President Truman—in the Formosa Straits under President Eisenhower—in Cuba under President Kennedy—and again in Vietnam.”

Lesson: Syntactically equates the Cuban Missile Crisis with other crises of the Cold War, suggesting American military power defuses crises.

[N.B. aforementioned crises involved American show of force or use of force]

“State of the Union” (speech at U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., January 12, 1966).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  •  “In his announcement of the incursion into Cambodia, he compared himself to Kennedy who, in his finest hour, had sat in the identical room in the White House and made the great decision that removed the missiles from Cuba. Later Nixon used the Missile Crisis to justify his failure to consult Congress over Cambodia. “I trust we don’t have another Cuban Missile Crisis. I trust we don’t have another situation like Cambodia, but I do know that in the modern world, there are times when the Commander-in-Chief…will have to act quickly. I can assure the American people that this president is going to bend over backward to consult the Senate and consult the House whenever he feels it can be done without jeopardizing the lives of American men. But when it is a question of the lives of American men or the attitudes of people in the Senate, I am coming down hard on the side of defending the lives of American men.” (p. 189)

Lesson: Crises necessitate quick action that, at times, may mean acting quickly without input of other influential individuals.

“Richard Nixon’s Cambodia Incursion Address,” (radio and television presidential address, April 30, 1970), as cited in Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Imperial Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  •  “The most dangerous moment of the 45 year history of the Cold War took place in the early 1960s when we had the Cuban Missile Crisis. Where the Soviet Union threatened to move nuclear weapons into Cuba and President Kennedy recognized that that was totally unacceptable to the United States and he communicated that very forcefully to the head of the Soviet Union, and the net result was any Soviet actions that put nuclear weapons into Cuba was stopped. But if there hadn't been a negotiation on ending that action, by the Soviet Union, you could have had a serious military exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Because under no circumstances could the United States have permitted the installation of long range nuclear weapons in Cuba, 90 miles from the shores of the United States and when President Kennedy forcefully challenged Mr. Khrushchev on that issue, the Soviet Union withdrew I should say the action that they contemplated at one time.”

Lesson: Crisis management requires a combination of strength and diplomacy during negotiations with an adversary.

Interviewed by George Washington University National Security Archive, Washington, D.C., February 7, 1999.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  •  “In the 1960s we met the Soviet challenges in Berlin, and we faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. And we sought to engage the Soviet Union in the important task of moving beyond the Cold War and away from confrontation. And in the 1970s three American presidents negotiated with the Soviet leaders in attempts to halt the growth of the nuclear arms race. We sought to establish rules of behavior that would reduce the risks of conflict, and we searched for areas of cooperation that could make our relations reciprocal and productive, not only for the sake of our two nations but for the security and peace of the entire world. In all these actions, we have maintained two commitments: to be ready to meet any challenge by Soviet military power, and to develop ways to resolve disputes and to keep the peace.

Lesson: Engagement with adversaries and honoring past promises are necessary for crisis management.

“State of the Union” (speech at U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., January 23, 1980).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  •  “At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis…it had been relatively easy to stand up to the Soviets: Our nuclear weapons outnumbered theirs almost 10 to one; the Soviets took their missiles out of Cuba and Khrushchev backed down. But the balance of power had all been changed by the early 1980s. The Soviet Union was building missiles hands over fist, and their nuclear forces outnumbered ours.” (p. 295)

Lesson: Nuclear superiority was critical to the success of the United States during Cuban Missile Crisis.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • “In 1962, JFK stood up to Castro and Moscow and blocked the establishment on Cuban soil of a Soviet missile base capable of hurling nuclear weapons at the U.S. Nevertheless, 20 years later, Cuba was, in effect, serving the very function that had caused President Kennedy to face off against Khrushchev…” (p. 472)

Lesson: A strong stand against an adversary is required in a crisis.

Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  •  “Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. As President Kennedy said in October of 1962, 'Neither the United States of America, nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world,' he said, 'where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nations security to constitute maximum peril.'

Lesson: Preemption and force are necessary to solve crisis.

“President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat” (speech at Cincinnati Museum Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, October 7, 2002).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • President Bush and the Kennedy's watched Thirteen Days at the White House. “I felt a connection to history as we watched a movie about how his brothers had defused a crisis from the West Wing.” (p. 272-273)

George W. Bush, Decision Points (New York: Crown Publishing, 2010).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • When discussing presidents who displayed “uncommon courage,” Obama identified JFK. “During the Cuban Missile Crisis, facing intense pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and congressional leaders to bomb and invade Cuba, John F. Kennedy stood firm. With his determined leadership and his calm, rational judgment, he forged a strong path to peace that used aggressive diplomacy backed by military force, and helped bring the world back from the brink of war.

Lesson 1: Negotiate from strength. Lesson 2: Take time to discuss possible solutions.

“The Contenders: An Admiring Crowd,” Newsweek, May 13, 2007.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • On the campaign trail, about Iran: “In Montana, Obama said President Kennedy’s willingness to engage the Soviets defused the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Obama asked, ‘Why shouldn’t we have the same courage and the confidence to talk to our enemies?’”

Lesson: Talk with adversaries during crisis.

Richard Sisk, “Iran No ‘Tiny’ Threat, Mac Barks at Barack,” New York Daily News, May 20, 2008.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  •  “Obama often quotes JFK’s words from his inaugural address, ‘Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.’”

Lesson: It is necessary to negotiate in crises, but only from a position of strength.

Evan Thomas, “The Mythology of Munich,” Newsweek, June 23, 2008.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • How Obama and McCain see the world: “Obama himself, in private meetings, has cited Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a model, especially how JFK consulted widely and negotiated directly with the Soviets to defuse an intense situation effectively. Obama admires Kennedy’s steady, cool leadership and his ability to bring many people into the process: Ben Rhodes says that Obama also often cites the successful resolution of the crisis as an example of what can come from negotiations, even if there is no immediate resolution. Only five months before, JFK held a summit in Vienna with Nikita Khrushchev. "JFK had begun to acquire some knowledge of Khrushchev, which not only enabled him to be in touch with the Kremlin during the crisis, but to have a little bit of insight into the guy," says Rhodes. "There are benefits to direct contact with adversaries, even if you don't reach agreement. You get to know your adversary.” (Newsweek, 10/6/08)

Lesson: (1) Negotiation is necessary in a crisis. (2) Access to wide and varied opinions is necessary in formulating a crisis response.

Michael Hirsh, “World’s Apart,” Newsweek, October 6, 2008.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • During his senior year at Columbia, Obama participated in a seminar on U.S. foreign policy. “The first semester…covered such Cold-War flashpoints as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

William J. Broad and David Sanger, “Obama’s Youth Shaped His Nuclear-Free Vision,New York Times, July 4, 2009.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

  • About Afghanistan: “Aides said Obama looked to President John F. Kennedy's relationship with the military, in particular how he managed the Cuban Missile Crisis when his military leaders urged a quick strike on the island, an act he resisted. One senior adviser said Obama valued Kennedy's 'think before you shoot' ethos.

Lesson: Take time to determine a strategy during a crisis: “Think before you shoot.”

Scott Wilson, “The Making of a Wartime Commander in Chief,” Washington Post, January 19, 2010.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Share