Sunday, February 5, 2012

JFK's lesson: Studying history will keep nation safer, freer

From The Orlando Sentinel

JFK's lesson: Studying history will keep nation safer, freer

By Robert L. Moore | Guest columnist
February 5, 2012

The release this week of a long-lost audiotape from the day President. Kennedy was assassinated reminds me of some important anniversaries now looming on the horizon. One marks the president's decision, 50 years ago, to install a taping system in the White House.

The secrecy surrounding the tape recorders may make them seem rather ominous, but, in fact, Kennedy's motives were not merely self-serving or sinister. According to Robert Dallek's biography, An Unfinished Life, JFK wanted to record important White House conversations by virtue of having read The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman'sPulitzer Prize-winning account of the origins of World War I.

Dallek writes that Kennedy was particularly struck by a conversation in Tuchman's book between two German leaders speculating about Europe's plunge into war: "How did it all happen?" one asked. "Ah," the other replied, "if only one knew."

JFK was determined that if the world were to be destroyed in a nuclear war, he did not want the survivors to ask one another how it all happened, and be told, "Ah, if only one knew." Stumbling into a nuclear holocaust the way Europe had stumbled into the tragedy of World War I would be inexcusable, and the president was determined to record what was said in key areas of the White House not only for posterity, but to avoid misunderstandings among the living should a crisis arise.

The word crisis calls to mind another upcoming 50-year anniversary, that of the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the very brink of nuclear war. It was triggered by the Soviet Union'ssecretly installing nuclear missiles in Castro's Cuba in an effort to gain leverage against the United States. When American reconnaissance flights discovered the missiles in the fall of 1962, the world was plunged into the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War.

As a teenager living in Florida at that time, I must confess that, in my naiveté, I found the whole episode to be more than a little exciting. Descriptions of military convoys rolling south on A1A struck me as the most dramatic and exhilarating scenes imaginable. Years later, when I came to understand how close we had come to nuclear annihilation, my sentiments were quite different.

JFK's White House tapes have been mined by countless scholars for evidence of how he and his team handled the crisis. Most analysts give him high marks both for his courage and his wisdom in resolving the confrontation. The one casualty of the showdown was U-2 pilot Maj. Rudolph Anderson, shot down over Cuba during a reconnaissance mission.

Despite everything, Kennedy kept his cool and, through the pressure of a blockade on Cuba, managed to convince the Russians to remove their missiles in exchange for a guarantee that the U.S. would not invade the island nation.

Some on the Kennedy team pressed for a more aggressive approach. Air Force General Curtis LeMay pushed hard for an attack on Cuba as soon as the crisis erupted. Then, on the final day, even after Khrushchev had accepted Kennedy's deal, the general angrily demanded that the U.S. invade Cuba immediately.

All through the crisis, Kennedy remembered Tuchman's ominous warning about blundering into war. According to Thomas Reeves' biography, the president at one point told his closest advisers that he wished he could get a copy of the book "to every Navy officer on every Navy ship right now."

Historian Tuchman's influence on President Kennedy's handling of this crisis reminds us of how important a broad and widely shared education can be for a free nation. Currently there is some pressure to de-emphasize and even defund educational programs that focus on history and other liberal-arts disciplines. I would argue that to do so would undermine our democracy and our general well-being as Americans. And I don't feel I'm alone in making this argument, for, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, "If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be."

Robert L. Moore is a professor of anthropology at Rollins College and director of international affairs for the College's Holt School.

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