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Jay Paterno: Lessons From a Crisis 50 Years Later

by on October 11, 2012 6:00 AM

Fifty years ago this month the world teetered on the verge of World War III at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the end, the worst was averted by diplomacy, a naval blockade and ultimately some luck.

Robert F. Kennedy wrote a book on the crisis called “Thirteen Days,” a very good read about the inside story of those fateful days. It was a key historical moment. President Kennedy faced internal and external pressures to prevent nuclear missiles from being based just 90 miles from our shores.

There are parallels to today’s debate about Iran and its attempts to develop a nuclear weapon. In 1962 many advocated for direct military action. Some of that same sentiment exists today as it relates to Iran. Our best future course remains to be seen in 2012, but clearly in 1962 the right actions were taken amid a fog of information and misinformation.

The early 1960s were a time where communication was much trickier. The slightest misreading of intent could have led to war. If either side had miscalculated the intent of the other side, one estimate concluded that the ensuing nuclear attacks would have left 100 million dead in both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. In this country, that meant an immediate loss of more one-half of the entire nation (the 1960 census pegged the entire U.S. population at around 180 million).

It is not overstating the case to say the stakes were the highest in human history. President Kennedy faced an existential threat not just for his country but perhaps for the entire human race.

What a burden he must have carried with him into each minute of those 13 days. You want to talk about pressure? No one had ever faced stakes so high and perhaps no one ever has since that time.

Another great read on the subject is the Michael Dobbs 2008 book, “One Minute to Midnight; Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro On The Brink of Nuclear War.” Dobbs gained access to new information from sources on all sides of the crisis.

When you read how close the two nations were to the brink of nuclear war on Sat., Oct. 27, 1962, it is frightening. As leaders went to work in the White House that day, they left their families wondering whether any of them would live to see each other again.

Ultimately it was our common humanity that allowed the worst case scenario to be averted. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were haunted by the specter of all-out war and the devastating costs of what that final authorization would be. They and the men and women around them had children. They understood that turning the key could end the world as they knew it.

Plain and simple, both leaders knew that it was suicide to unleash man’s greatest weapons.

As we look at the world today there appears to be a number of potential pitfalls. Knowing one’s adversary may be as important as anything in the game of foreign policy. Looking at nations we feel may threaten the stability of the planet. How much of a threat to our shores do they really pose? That is the tricky question.

Does Iran represent a real threat to our existence or Israel’s existence when it hears the threatening rhetoric of Iran’s President? Or is it a domestic political message designed to play to the population at home in Iran?

All these years later there are still murky waters to navigate.

The trickiest part about the world we live in now is the threat posed by non-state actors, terrorists and their organizations. They operate in the shadows and outside the world where we can retaliate and punish nation-states. As the world’s dominant military power and largest economy, our nation and our interests around the globe provide the biggest target for terrorists.

But how we react and operate in that world will be critical. Irrational panicked reactions are what terrorists hope to provoke.

As we look back 50 years and see how close we were, we are reminded that we were fortunate to have talented actors on the world stage. Jackie Kennedy made that point in a letter to Nikita Khrushchev after her husband had been assassinated.

“You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the need for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride.”

We must always understand the need for self-control and restraint and never be led by fear. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

After those 13 October days 50 years ago, the United States emerged more powerful because of our leaders’ restraint. The shadowy threats we face require leadership that is every bit as measured and deliberate.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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