The Domain of the Mind
The entire world changed in the few short hours between when John F. Kennedy went to bed on October 15, 1962, and when he woke up the following morning.
Because while the president slept, the CIA identified the ongoing construction of medium- and long-range Soviet ballistic nuclear missile sites on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles from American shores. As Kennedy would tell a stunned American public days later, "Each of these missiles is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean."
As Kennedy received his first briefing on what we now know as the Cuban Missile Crisis-or simply as the Thirteen Days-the president could consider only the appalling stakes. As many as seventy million people were expected to die in the first strikes between the United States and Russia. But that was just a guess-no one actually knew how terrible nuclear war would be.
What Kennedy knew for certain was that he faced an unprecedented escalation of the long-brewing Cold War between the United States and the USSR. And whatever factors had contributed to its creation, no matter how inevitable war must have appeared, it fell on him, at the very least, to just not make things worse. Because it might mean the end of life on planet Earth.
Kennedy was a young president born into immense privilege, raised by an aggressive father who hated to lose, in a family whose motto, they joked, was "Don't Get Mad, Get Even." With almost no executive leadership experience under his belt, it's not a surprise, then, that the first year and half of Kennedy's administration had not gone well.
In April 1961, Kennedy had tried and failed-embarrassingly so-to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs. Just a few months later, he was diplomatically dominated by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in a series of meetings in Vienna. (Kennedy would call it the "roughest thing in my life.") Sensing his adversary's political weakness, and likely aware of the chronic physical frailty he endured from Addison's disease and back injuries suffered during World War II, Khrushchev repeatedly lied to Kennedy about any weapons being placed in Cuba, insisting that they would be for defensive purposes only.
Which is to say that Kennedy faced, as every leader will at some point in their tenure, a difficult crisis amid complicating personal and political circumstances. There were many questions: Why would Khrushchev do this? What was his endgame? What was the man possibly trying to accomplish? Was there a way to solve it? What did Kennedy's advisors think? What were Kennedy's options? Was he up to this task? Did he have what it took?
The fate of millions depended on his answers.
The advice from Kennedy's advisors was immediate and emphatic: The missile sites must be destroyed with the full might of the country's military arsenal. Every second wasted risked the safety and the reputation of the United States. After the surprise attack on the missiles, a full-scale invasion of Cuba by American troops would need to follow. This, they said, was not only more than justified by the actions of the USSR and Cuba, but it was Kennedy's only option.
Their logic was both primal and satisfying: Aggression must be met with aggression.
Tit replied to with tat.
The only problem was that if their logic turned out to be wrong, no one would be around to account for their mistake. Because everyone would be dead.
Unlike in the early days of his presidency, when Kennedy allowed the CIA to pressure him into supporting the Bay of Pigs fiasco, this time he surprised everyone by pushing back. He had recently read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, a book about the beginning of World War I, which imprinted on his mind the image of overconfident world leaders rushing their way into a conflict that, once started, they couldn't stop. Kennedy wanted everyone to slow down so that they could really think about the problem in front of them.
This is, in fact, the first obligation of a leader and a decision maker. Our job is not to "go with our gut" or fixate on the first impression we form about an issue. No, we need to be strong enough to resist thinking that is too neat, too plausible, and therefore almost always wrong. Because if the leader can't take the time to develop a clear sense of the bigger picture, who will? If the leader isn't thinking through all the way to the end, who is?
We can see in Kennedy's handwritten notes taken during the crisis, a sort of meditative process by which he tried to do precisely this. On numerous pages, he writes "Missile. Missile. Missile," or "Veto. Veto. Veto. Veto," or "Leaders. Leaders. Leaders." On one page, showing his desire to not act alone or selfishly: "Consensus. Consensus. Consensus. Consensus. Consensus. Consensus." On a yellow legal pad during one meeting, Kennedy drew two sailboats, calming himself with thoughts of the ocean he loved so much. Finally, on White House stationery, as if to clarify to himself the only thing that mattered, he wrote one short sentence: "We are demanding withdrawal of the missiles."
Perhaps it was there, as Kennedy sat with his advisors and doodled, that he remembered a passage from another book he'd read, by the strategist B. H. Liddell Hart, on nuclear strategy. In Kennedy's review of Hart's book for the Saturday Review of Literature a few years before, he quoted this passage:
Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes-so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil-nothing is so self-blinding.
It became Kennedy's motto during the Missile Crisis. "I think we ought to think of why the Russians did this," he told his advisors. What is the advantage they are trying to get? he asked, with real interest. "Must be some major reason for the Soviets to set this up." As Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy's advisor and biographer, wrote, "With his capacity to understand the problems of others, the President could see how threatening the world might have looked to the Kremlin."
This understanding would help him respond properly to this unexpected and dangerous provocation-and give him insight into how the Soviets would react to that response.
It became clear to Kennedy that Khrushchev put the missiles in Cuba because he believed Kennedy was weak. But that didn't mean the Russians believed their own position was particularly strong. Only a desperate nation would take such a risk, Kennedy realized. Armed with this insight, which came through long discussions with his team-designated as ExComm-he began to formulate an action plan.
Clearly, a military strike was the most irrevocable of all the options (nor, according to his advisors, was it likely to be 100 percent effective). What would happen after that, Kennedy wondered? How many soldiers would die in an invasion? How would the world respond to a larger country invading a smaller one, even if it was to deter a nuclear threat? What would the Russians do to save face or protect their soldiers on the island?
These questions pointed Kennedy toward a blockade of Cuba. Nearly half of his advisors opposed this less aggressive move, but he favored it precisely because it preserved his options.
It also embodied the wisdom of one of Kennedy's favorite expressions: A blockade used time as a tool. It gave both sides a chance to examine the stakes of the crisis and offered Khrushchev the opportunity to reevaluate his impression of Kennedy's supposed weakness.
Some would later attack Kennedy for this choice, too. Why challenge Russia at all? Why were the missiles such a big deal? Didn't the United States have plenty of their own pointed at the Soviets? Kennedy was not unsympathetic to this argument, but as he explained to the American public in an address on October 22, it wasn't possible to simply back down:
The 1930s taught us a clear lesson: Aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word. Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere. . . . We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth-but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.
What's most remarkable about this conclusion is how calmly Kennedy came to it. Despite the enormous stress of the situation, we can hear in tapes and see in transcripts and photos taken at the time just how collaborative and open everyone was. No fighting, no raised voices. No finger-pointing (and when things did get tense, Kennedy laughed it off). Kennedy didn't let his own ego dominate the discussions, nor did he allow anyone else's to. When he sensed that his presence was stifling his advisors' ability to speak honestly, he left the room so they could debate and brainstorm freely. Reaching across party lines and past rivalries, he consulted openly with the three still-living ex-presidents and invited the previous secretary of state, Dean Acheson, into the top-secret meetings as an equal.
In the tensest moments, Kennedy sought solitude in the White House Rose Garden (afterward, he would thank the gardener for her important contributions during the crisis). He would go for long swims, both to clear his mind and to think. He sat in his specially made rocking chair in the Oval Office, bathed in the light of those enormous windows, easing the pain in his back so that it might not add to the fog of (cold) war that had descended so thickly over Washington and Moscow.
There is a picture of Kennedy with his back to the room, hunched over, leaning both fists on the big desk he had been chosen by millions of voters to occupy. This is a man with the fate of the world on his shoulders. He has been provoked by a nuclear superpower in a surprise act of bad faith. Critics are questioning his courage. There are political considerations, personal considerations, there are more factors than any one person should be able to weigh at one time.
Yet he lets none of this rush him. None of it will cloud his judgment or deter him from doing the right thing. He is the stillest guy in the room.
Kennedy would need to stay that way, because simply deciding on the blockade was only the first step. Next came announcing and enforcing this five-hundred-mile no-go zone around Cuba (which he brilliantly called a "quarantine" to underplay the more aggressive implications of a "blockade"). There would be more belligerent accusations from the Russians and confrontations at the UN. Congressional leaders voiced their doubts. One hundred thousand troops still had to be readied in Florida as a contingency.
Then there would be the actual provocations. A Russian tanker ship approached the quarantine line. Russian submarines surfaced. An American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and the pilot killed.
The two biggest and most powerful countries in the world were "eyeball to eyeball." It was actually scarier and more dire than anyone knew-some of the Soviet missiles, which had been previously thought to be only partly assembled, were armed and ready. Even if this wasn't known, the awful danger could be felt.
Would Kennedy's emotions get the best of him? Would he blink? Would he break?
No. He wouldn't.
"It isn't the first step that concerns me," he said to his advisors as much as to himself, "but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step-and we don't go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so. We must remind ourselves we are embarking on a very hazardous course."
The space Kennedy gave Khrushchev to breathe and think paid off just in time. On October 26, eleven days into the crisis, the Soviet premier wrote Kennedy a letter saying that he now saw that the two of them were pulling on a rope with a knot in the middle-a knot of war. The harder each pulled, the less likely it would be that they could ever untie it, and eventually there would be no choice but to cut the rope with a sword. And then Khrushchev provided an even more vivid analogy, one as true in geopolitics as it is in everyday life: "If people do not display statesmanlike wisdom," he said, "they will eventually reach the point where they will clash, like blind moles, and then mutual annihilation will commence."
Suddenly, the crisis was over as quickly as it began. The Russians, realizing that their position was untenable and that their test of U.S. resolve had failed, made signs that they would negotiate-that they would remove the missiles. The ships stopped dead in the water. Kennedy was ready too. He pledged that the United States would not invade Cuba, giving the Russians and their allies a win. In secret, he also let the Russians know that he was willing to remove American missiles in Turkey, but would do so in several months' time so as not to give the impression that he could be pressured into abandoning an ally.
With clear thinking, wisdom, patience, and a keen eye for the root of a complex, provocative conflict, Kennedy had saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.
We might say that Kennedy, if only for this brief period of a little less than two weeks, managed to achieve that stage of clarity spoken about in the ancient Chinese text The Daodejing. As he stared down nuclear annihilation, he was:
Careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.
The Daoists would say that he had stilled the muddied water in his mind until he could see through it. Or to borrow the image from the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher who himself had stared down countless crises and challenges, Kennedy had been "like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands, unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it."
Each of us will, in our own lives, face crisis. The stakes may be lower, but to us they will matter. A business on the brink of collapse. An acrimonious divorce. A decision about the future of our career. A moment where the whole game depends on us.
These situations will call upon all our mental resources. An emotional, reactive response-an unthinking, half-baked response-will not cut it. Not if we want to get it right. Not if we want to perform at our best.