I just watched the movie Thirteen Days about President John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Throughout I was impressed with JFK’s handling of the situation and how he kept his head despite the enormous pressure. The fate of the world hung in the balance as he and the Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev played a very dangerous game of nuclear chicken.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Cuban Missile Crisis, here is a quick synopsis. The Soviets (Russia) placed medium and intermediate nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. It was the height of the Cold War and the enemy placing nuclear missiles so close to America was simply unacceptable. These missiles had to go. President Kennedy and his expert staff employed every tool at their disposal to get the Soviets to back down without resorting to a nuclear exchange with the United States, which was a real possibility.
Diplomacy, the media and the military were all used in an orchestrated, deliberate and systematic way to turn world opinion against the Cubans and the Soviets and get them to peaceably back down. The military piece involved reconnaissance and low-level bomber flights over the Cuban missile sites, a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific and a naval blockade of Cuba. Each move on the global nuclear chessboard was, as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it “language, a new vocabulary the likes of which the world has never seen” (watch the clip, below).
In the end, the nukes were removed from Cuba and there was no war. America, personified by President Kennedy, stood eye-to-eye with the enemy and the Soviets blinked. It took a tremendous amount of political skill and nerves of steel to maneuver through that crisis without a global war. Kennedy pulled it off.
Could we do it again? More specifically, could President Donald Trump do it again?
During a CNN moderated Republican debate in December 2015, Trump was asked about his priorities in modernizing America’s nuclear triad. The term triad is used to describe the three legs of America’s nuclear stool: ground based missiles, air bombers and nuclear submarine launched nuclear missiles; sea, land, air. Trump had no idea what the nuclear triad is.
CNN host Hugh Hewitt’s question:
“Mr. Trump, Dr. Carson just referenced the single most important job of the president, the command, the control and the care of our nuclear forces. And he mentioned the triad. The B-52s are older than I am. The missiles are old. The submarines are aging out. It’s an executive order. It’s a commander-in-chief decision. What’s your priority among our nuclear triad?”
“Well, first of all, I think we need somebody absolutely that we can trust, who is totally responsible, who really knows what he or she is doing. That is so powerful and so important. And one of the things that I’m frankly most proud of is that in 2003, 2004, I was totally against going into Iraq because you’re going to destabilize the Middle East. I called it. I called it very strongly. And it was very important. But we have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ballgame. Frankly, I would have said get out of Syria; get out – if we didn’t have the power of weaponry today. The power is so massive that we can’t just leave areas that 50 years ago or 75 years ago we wouldn’t care. It was hand-to-hand combat.
“The biggest problem this world has today is not President Obama with global warming, which is inconceivable, this is what he’s saying. The biggest problem we have is nuclear – nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That’s in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.”
Hugh Hewitt seemed perplexed at the answer because it didn’t address what the nuclear triad is. He went back to the root question: ” “Of the three legs of the triad, though, do you have a priority? I want to go to Sen. Rubio after that and ask him.”
Trump’s answer: “I think – I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.”
The fact that the candidate on the stage then didn’t have any idea what the American nuclear triad is will soon hold the key to all of our nuclear arsenal is troubling.
Don’t misunderstand the point here. I am not saying that Trump will be a bad president. It is just that there is definitely a different skill set required for this job than anything he has ever done before. Up to now, everything Donald Trump has done has been to better Donald Trump. That isn’t a bad thing. He is a very successful businessman. However, the job description for the post he assumes in January has a much broader scope and hopefully with much different objectives.
Trump has a way of making every issue and every question about him personally. When asked about Vladimir Putin during the last debate with Hillary Clinton, Donald immediately spoke of his personal relationship with the Russian president.
In the office of the presidency, issues cannot be taken personally. The whole of the country must be first and foremost in the minds of the man at the helm.
Right now, Trump and his staff is engaged in putting together his proposed cabinet for when he takes office. We can only hope that he surrounds himself with smart people who not only understand the nuances of global geo-military politics but are able to influence President Trump’s attitude and actions.