If by some chance you could enter a time capsule and travel back to October of 1962, you would see one thing all across America: fear. Bomb shelters were being stocked. Parents were speaking in hushed tones, schools were being cancelled. Americans everywhere were talking about their plans in case of a Soviet Missile attack. Churches were filled to capacity with young and old praying to the maker they wondered if they might soon join.
Photo Credit: The Woodstock Whisperer
It is known simply as “The Cuban Missile Crisis”, and taught as the closest the world has ever come to nuclear destruction. You probably remember learning back in high school about how Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev attempted to install nuclear missile bases in Cuba upon the request of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. You probably learned about the U.S. Naval “Quarantine” of the island 90 miles off of its shore, and the Autumn Days where Americans wondered at each family dinner if it would be their last.
The most important part of the lesson is not simply the factual recount, but the why. Why did the Cuban Missile Crisis not turn in to the third and probably last world war? There are many reasons to be sure, and one of the biggest is the leadership of President John F. Kennedy. Five and a half decades later, it my be worthwhile for all leaders to learn from Kennedy’s lessons and examples:
Encourage debate and dissent: President Kennedy didn’t simply surround himself with sheep, parrots, and chameleons who’s biggest fear was losing their job or being publicly embarrassed for saying the wrong thing. When Kennedy met with his most trusted advisors during this time, there were heated and passionate arguments from all sides on the best course of action to take. He had smart, strong, proud leaders in the midst of very prestigious careers who simply didn’t agree. Kennedy engaged and listened, promoting a marketplace of ideas, ultimately making his own decisions while valuing the opinions of all.
Photo Credit: Corbis
Respect the importance of every word: There is a reason we each have to take many classes in English, grammar, and writing during our educational journey. Words matter. All of them. Great leaders understand this and choose each word carefully, especially in times of crisis. When Kennedy decided to surround Cuba with American ships, he didn’t call it a blockade. A blockade is considered an act of war, so instead he labeled it a “quarantine”, which is not. When he sent messages to the Soviets, he meticulously pored over every single word, making sure they would convey the exact thoughts he wished. When he addressed the American people on October 22, 1963 to inform the country about the situation, he chose each word with precision knowing how American’s would react to this news, not wanting to fan the flames of fear any more than necessary.
Photo Credit: Daily Mail
Understand your adversary: Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev thought Kennedy was a young lightweight who could be bullied. Kennedy chose to be strong and forceful in his public statements, but was much more conciliatory in private messages sent through back channels. He didn’t publicly embarrass Kruschev, or resort to pointless name calling that would have forced Kruschev into a similar response. He also knew that Kruschev would have to save face in the eyes of his own people. The conflict ended when Kennedy agreed to pull U.S. missiles out of Turkey as part of a compromise to get the Soviets to stop missile deployment to Cuba. It was brilliant because: 1. They had little strategic value, and 2. We never actually did it, but it allowed Kruschev to call it a win to his people.
Kennedy and Kruschev, Photo Credit: CNN
Slow Down: Most mistakes in communication and decision making are made because of moving too fast, not too slow. There are multiple expressions out there telling us to think our actions over thoroughly before taking them. “Sleep on it”, “Count to ten”, etc…have all lasted because of their inherent truth. Smart people take the time to allow intelligence to defeat emotion. Kennedy moved deliberately, and thoughtfully. Had he acted quickly, he might have been more likely to act wrongly, and none of us might be here today.
President Kennedy’s handwritten notes, Photo Credit: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
Did John F. Kennedy’s leadership save the world from destroying itself? Maybe, maybe not. What we can safely say is that if he had acted wrongly it may very well have led to the end of civilization as we know it. It is vital to study history to learn from the things we did wrong and the things we did right. Thankfully, we had a President that handled this difficult situation correctly.