The Magazine

The Cuban Missile Crisis, Reconsidered

Was John F. Kennedy really the model Cold War statesman?

Oct 21, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 06 • By PETER SCHWEIZER
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Once he was elected president, Reagan outlined ambitious plans to undermine and defeat the Soviet Union in a series of secret directives. Nothing quite like it had ever been undertaken in the history of the Cold War. Using economic, military, and psychological pressure, he developed a plan to defeat the Soviet empire.

Throughout he demonstrated tremendous resolve. He enacted the largest peacetime military build-up in American history, even though the plan was opposed by the majority of his cabinet. Early in his administration, William P. Clark and Tom Reed came to him to explain the super-secret Continuity of Government program. In place since the Eisenhower administration, COG was a plan to evacuate the president from the White House in the event of a nuclear war. Both Clark and Reed could sense Reagan's discomfort as they described the program, particularly the part about being hustled away on a helicopter to a safe location. When Reed was finished Reagan shook his head.

"No, I'm not going to do that," he told them. "If it happens--God forbid--I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying here at my post." The two men left and were forced to revise America's nuclear war-fighting plans.

Reagan developed an ambitious strategy and then stuck to it. Even during the heights of Gorbymania, there was very little change in the substance of his policies. Reagan was quite simply immovable, much to the frustration of the Kremlin. "No matter what diplomatic tack Moscow examined or actually took," recalls Ambassador Dobrynin, "the Reagan administration proved impervious to it. We came to realize that in contrast to most presidents who shift from their electoral rhetoric to more centrist, pragmatic positions by the middle of their presidential term, Reagan displayed an active immunity to the traditional forces, both internal and external, that normally produce a classic adjustment."

How we choose to look at the Cold War will determine how we face the strategic challenges of the war on terrorism. If we study JFK, we can learn about how to react to a crisis and the art of "crisis management." By studying Reagan, we can learn how to forge a strategy of victory and to defeat our enemies.

So as the television cameras carry 40th anniversary reruns of "Thirteen Days" with images of a resolute JFK, don't imagine that you are watching the apotheosis of Cold War toughness. Think back instead to Gdansk, Poland, on a rainy day in September 1990. Ronald Reagan is at the birthplace of Solidarity, standing in front of a crowd of thousands who are chanting "Thank You! Thank You!" while serenading him with "Sto Lat," a song in honor of Polish heroes. Lech Walesa's former parish priest approaches Reagan with a sword. "I am giving you the saber," he tells the former president, "for helping us to chop off the head of communism."

Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of a new book, "Reagan's War" (Doubleday), from which parts of this essay are adapted.