President Kennedy noted that the presidential seal bore a bald eagle. In the symbolic bird’s talons are the arrows of war and the olive branch of peace. “We will give equal attention to both,” our young president said. And give them equal attention he did; his Peace Corps and the Alianza para el Progreso (for Latin America) projects were intended to establish a goal of his administration. The Peace Corps succeeded rather more than his Latin initiative, but his goals were clear.
Kennedy’s announcement of his Moon Project on May 25th, 1961 captured the world’s attention. The Soviets’ first man in space had given them the lead in this new frontier, but Kennedy deftly moved the goal posts. Ever after in the new decade, Soviet firsts in space—first space walk, longest time in space, first woman in space—were “scooped” by Kennedy’s proclaiming the Moon as the object of the space race. Amazingly, however, he avoided making space a new and dangerous arms race with the Soviets. He even went so far as to invite the USSR to join us in our quest.
His staff was stunned. Wasn’t the space race all about “beating the Russkies”? Kennedy understood that if the Soviets joined us in space, they would have to open up their closed system. And if they did that, they could no longer survive as a totalitarian state. Understanding this potential, the USSR rejected Kennedy’s peaceful overture. (Gorbachev would seek to apply glasnost a generation later. When he did, Kennedy’s shrewd approach proved insightful; the USSR opened up and soon collapsed).
Kennedy’s handling of the Berlin Wall crisis in 1961 proved masterful. His military chiefs implored him to knock down this ugly, inhuman scar in the heart of Europe. But Kennedy knew that Khrushchev (and his East German puppet, Walter Ulbricht) had taken care to build this monstrosity on East German territory. Kennedy hated it, but he concluded, wisely, that “a wall is better than a war.” Especially as it might have been a nuclear war.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was under the greatest pressure. Khrushchev had overturned the “balance of terror” as daringly as Hitler had in the Czech Crisis of 1938. What Churchill had denounced in the Munich concession as “disturbing the equilibrium of Europe” was in Cuba just as dangerous, but on a global scale.
Air Force Chief of Staff, cigar-chomping Gen. Curtis LeMay wanted Kennedy to attack the Medium Range Ballistic Missile installations just ninety miles from our shores. Kennedy’s brother Bobby rejected any such sneak attack. He said that could be interpreted as our own Pearl Harbor, in reverse. The Kennedy brothers knew that hundreds of Cubans and scores of Russians would die in any such assault on the Communist island.
JFK instead skillfully instituted a quarantine. Not exactly a blockade, because that would be an “act of war” under international law. But the device of a quarantine applied only to offensive weapons targeted on the continental U.S. and its Latin American allies. President Kennedy reputedly said of the aggressive Air Force general: “If we have to go to war, I want that man to lead our air attacks; but I never want that man to decide if we go to war.” He was right.
Today, we are facing a slippery slope over Ukraine and Taiwan. President Biden was doubtless correct in limiting our involvement with the defense of Ukraine. And he was also right in denying the Ukrainians the “no-fly zone” they pleaded for. Training Ukrainian pilots in the U.S. is also a more cautious course than allowing our instructors to go to besieged Ukraine. President Biden helpfully cleared up the “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan that invited misinterpretation in Beijing. Such uncertainty let Germany catastrophically miscalculate the British reaction to their 1914 invasion of neutral Belgium.
Still, there are grave missteps being taken in both theaters. When the International Criminal Court recently indicted Gospodin (Mr.) Putin for war crimes in Ukraine, the President endorsed this move. The Kremlin leader has been sharing with cohorts videos of Gaddafi’s lynching (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s grotesque cackling over this grisly film). Now, the U.S. and Europe are endangering hopes for a negotiated end to this tragic and unjust war.
On Taiwan, the visits of Speaker Pelosi and a high-level congressional delegation to Taipei could only have served to provoke and enrage the rulers of the People’s Republic of China. Stand firm but do nothing to rattle the dragon’s cage.
German friends have warned me of what they call the Thucydides Trap. Thucydides taught us in our first classic of history, The Peloponnesian War, that thinking war is inevitable is what makes it inevitable.
The German High Command in 1913-14 dragged all of Europe into the maelstrom of the Great War. We must never assume war with Russia or China is unavoidable. It must be the task of all diplomats, military leaders, and responsible democratic leaders to take care: We are walking on nuclear eggshells.
Deterrence calls for arming and preparing all NATO allies for defense. But we should take no steps that provoke or show disrespect for our adversaries. When President Biden calls Gospodin (Mr.) Putin and Chairman Xi Jinping “murderous thugs,” he takes grave risks. Kennedy avoided all such name-calling. So did Ronald Reagan. Reagan let the Kremlin tell the world who the evil empire was even without directly referring to the Soviets.
With a just and durable compromise peace achieved at an international conference, we could include a liberated Ukraine in NATO (but not Crimea). Similarly, we should invite Japan, South Korea, and Australia to join NATO with the understanding that it is a purely defensive alliance. NATO is based on a commitment to defending democracy, not a geographic descriptor.
Russia and China have massive domestic problems. Demographically, both superpowers face a grim future. We can and should offer our assistance to them in coping with such dangers. The Peace Corps was Kennedy’s brilliant rhetorical response to violence and subversion. It reaped decades of benefits for the host countries and for ours, as well. The future does not have to be what the past has been. Russians know that their past is their present plight: Все ешо кровавы (all is still bloody).
The future should be Mir i Druzhba—Peace and Friendship. That is why Harry Truman turned the Eagle’s head to the olive branch, which the Eagle still firmly clasps.