For thirteen days during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962 the world held its breath. After President John F. Kennedy weathered the terrifying ordeal, he ordered everyone in his cabinet (and I think the State Dept as well) to read Barbara Tuchman's classic work on diplomacy gone wrong - The Guns of August. This book was required reading because in it Tuchman deftly unfolds the massive diplomatic mistakes - on all sides involved - that led to one of the most bloody and consequential wars in history - the First World War. The book, which was published in 1962 and the following year won a Pulitzer prize in Non-Fiction Literature, perhaps may also need to be required reading in the Obama administration as the nuclear weapon crisis with North Korea unfolds.
Just as Khrushchev and Castro took advantage of a perceived young and inexperienced president, so North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il seems to be playing from the same playbook. President Kennedy showed amazing calm and restraint during the Cuban Missile Crisis as many of his military advisors pleaded for an attack and invasion of Cuba. Kennedy, who remembered well the British complacency during Hitler's buildup in the 1930s (he wrote the history of it himself), knew the limits both of diplomacy and of force. He had to walk a tightrope between these two. At times during the crisis Kennedy had to rattle the sword of American power - which was the only thing the Russians could understand and surely the only thing that will get the North Korean's attention as well - and at other times he had to be diplomatic by courting the world's opinion in order to get the United Nations behind his condemnation of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. All the while he had to downplay the fact that U.S. missiles had been based in Turkey very close to the borders of the USSR. We all know how the story ends - in the end Kennedy's diplomacy triumphed and the Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba. Kennedy managed to convince Khrushchev that he could and would use force if it came to it and, at the same time, convinced the world community to wholly support him. It was a diplomatic grand slam and probably, next to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the tragically short-lived Kennedy administration's greatest moment. Let's hope President Obama will learn from his predecessor and, in the same manner, deftly walk the line between force and diplomacy. The world is again holding its breath.