This column was inspired by an essay prompt from Professor Douglas Kriner’s PO 317 course on American Presidential Leadership.
The comparison between Presidents John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Barack Obama is not a new one. The charisma is certainly there, but would Barack Obama act the same way in a crisis as the legendary JFK did during his term as President?
When one thinks back to an event as historically significant as the Cuban Missile Crisis, its hard to imagine it playing out differently. What made the decisions of President Kennedy such a success really comes back to his administration, and the way that he set up the system in which his advisors would come to a conclusion. In actuality, they never did come to one consensus and left the choice between military action and a blockade up to President Kennedy. However, the entire process of advising involved heavy argument and disagreement amongst the members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (known as “Ex Comm”). Different opinions were thrown around and a clear example of the political science theory called “multiple advocacy” was deliberately instituted. From Attorney General Robert Kennedy to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, from Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson, many important figures and powerful members of the Cabinet stepped in to take their stances. Some, such as RFK himself, favored a blockade to end the Russian shipment of offensive weapons into Cuba. Others, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supported military action against Cuba. Adlai Stevenson took a far more liberal stance, suggesting that the United States remove missile systems in both Turkey and Italy in exchange for Russia removing them from Cuba.
In the end, after many days of debate, fluctuating opinions and intense deliberation, the main factions of opinion within the Ex Comm wrote up detailed recommendations to be presented to the President. President Kennedy chose the blockade, and although it did not have immediate success (and the United States did indeed concede the weapons in Turkey as Ambassador Stevenson had suggested), it is clear that well-reasoned clash of opinions afforded President Kennedy the opportunity to take a step back from the widespread panic circulating around the United States, maintain calm public appearances, and keep morale high. The country believed in him, and he believe in his advisors. Thus, a terrible disaster was avoided.
Considering the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is hard to correctly predict how the Obama administration would have acted or would act in a similar situation. It is doubtful Obama would be able to take the role as the sole decision-maker in a crisis, however, because he purposely picked a cabinet full of strong-minded political actors. Knowing this, we can assume that he would probably end up following Kennedy’s lead in that he would likely institute a “multiple advocacy” system.
Who would be the key leaders if a sudden change in Iran, Afghanistan, or North Korea were to lead to a national security crisis? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would clearly take a strong role in any matter involving national security, likely advocating fora more diplomatic solution. I would not be in the least bit surprised if she were to butt heads with Robert Gates, a Bush appointee who Obama kept in place as Secretary of Defense. Vice President Joe Biden has proven himself a dissenter on the issue of Afghanistan, so it would not be in the least bit surprising if he were to take an unpopular position, playing the role that Adlai Stevenson did for the Kennedy White House.
Looking back to the Cuban Missile crisis makes me more confident about the Obama administration. Clearly, a variety of opinions coming from able-minded leaders is what will lead us through any crisis our country may face. And having a President who stays calm under pressure and would take the time to not only consider every option available but to also make sure the country’s morale was maintained will only help. Is Obama the next JFK? It is too early to tell, and lets hope he isn’t tested in the way that the cuban missile crisis tested President Kennedy. However, I think his administration certainly has potential when it comes to crisis-management.
The book Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Robert F. Kennedy and Arnold Schlesinger was a resource for this column. W.W. Norton & Co publishers.