Fifty years ago today, the world breathed a sigh of relief because the superpowers managed to avoid nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban missile crisis. After 13 days of confrontation and escalating tensions in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union ended their showdown with a compromise as each side backed away from the brink.
The 50th anniversary of the crisis offers a valuable lesson on what really counts in a president. And the anniversary comes at an opportune time, when Americans are making their final choice between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. It's clear from the missile crisis that what really matters most for a commander in chief, when the chips are down, is not ideology or likability or the policies of the moment. What matters most is judgment.
As historian Robert Dallek told me, President John F. Kennedy showed excellent judgment in the crisis by ordering a naval blockade of Cuba rather than bombing or an invasion. This succeeded in persuading the Soviets to remove their nuclear missiles from the island, 90 miles from the American mainland. In return, Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba and pledged to remove outmoded U.S. missiles from Turkey.
Kennedy's deftness during the crisis surprised even some of his supporters because of his weak performance the previous year in authorizing an invasion of Cuba by exiles at the Bay of Pigs. It ended in disaster.
But Dallek, an acclaimed Kennedy biographer, told me that JFK learned some valuable lessons from the Bay of Pigs—notably the importance of studying the facts of every situation for himself and not investing so much trust in his top military advisers, who were too bellicose and seemed eager for war.
The missile crisis erupted in public when Kennedy addressed the nation at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Oct. 22, 1962. He said aerial surveillance had found nuclear missiles in Cuba and he accused Soviet leaders of "deliberate deception." His words were chilling.
"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union," the president said, adding:
"To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers."
The superpowers stood on the precipice of war, and any miscalculation could have led to catastrophe. In the end, after 13 days of excruciating tension and secret negotiations, Armageddon was averted.
As historian David G. Coleman writes in his book The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, those two weeks in October 1962 made Kennedy a better president. He became "more sure-footed, more confident, more thoughtful, and more at ease with the presidency," Coleman says.
"He was older and wiser, to be sure, and starting to show the first signs of graying, but he was also more experienced. His political career, from his first campaign for the Eleventh Congressional District of Massachusetts, was characterized by learning. And he was a quick study."
Handling emergencies has become a big part of the modern presidency. No president can escape them, as the candidates are learning again this week during the preparations for Hurricane Sandy. Looking to the future through the lens of the past, voters need to assess whether Obama or Romney would be more capable of demonstrating Kennedy-like judgment in whatever crises erupt over the next four years.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of five books, including most recently, "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook or Twitter.