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The Coldest Days of the Cold War

Lessons from Two American Presidents

SOURCE: AP/Paul Vathis

President John F. Kennedy, left, and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower with their heads bowed as they walk along a path at Camp David in Thurmond, Md. in April 22, 1961, as the two met to discuss the Bay of Pigs invasion.

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On the morning of August 8, the world awoke to news that Russia had invaded the neighboring democracy of Georgia. The transgression continues to pose a number of difficult questions for policymakers in the United States. What to make of Russia’s boldness? More importantly, how should the United States—with its ground forces tied down in Iraq and in Afghanistan and preoccupied with its own presidential election—respond to a resurgent Russia?

Tensions between the United States and Russia are not new, but the invasion of Georgia and the U.S. response once again stirred the argument over engagement versus isolation. Conservatives have resorted to the Myth of Munich—the belief that the use of diplomacy and negotiations are ineffective and fail to stop aggression—and charges of appeasement in arguing for forceful intervention in the Caucasus. This debate, as before, plays out not against facts, strategic options, and consequences, but rather in political commentary and op-ed pages, surrounded by analogy and conjecture, and in an atmosphere of tough posturing and accusations of weakness.

Newsweek recently examined the Myth of Munich and found that, “In modern American history, no metaphor has been more used—or abused—than ‘Munich.’ The lesson of appeasement—that giving in to aggression just invites more aggression—has calcified into dogma.” Examples abound: U.S. President George W. Bush has accused those who want to speak with adversaries of falling victim to “the false comfort of appeasement.” And recently the Munich card was played over the U.S. response to the Russian action in Georgia. A conservative commentator wrote, “If the United States appeases Russia now, it will pay the same price British Prime Minister Nevelle (sic) Chamberlain paid in the 1930s.”

For four dangerous years nearly a half century ago, from 1959 to 1963, the United States faced mounting challenges not unlike those today: an unpredictable Soviet Union, limited American leverage, questions of strategy among allies, rising new powers, and shrinking old ones. Those four years were every bit as complicated and daunting as the global security situation awaiting the new American president in 2009. Pursuit of mutually beneficial security agreements were often thwarted by mistake, error, or miscalculation. Reputations were challenged.

Recall that in 1960 a summit in Paris was dashed by a May Day downing of the U-2. A Vienna exchange in 1961 was made more difficult by a failed Bay of Pigs. Troubles in Berlin, Cuba, and Laos commanded the front page. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took to reminding countries of the number of hydrogen bombs it would require to destroy them. In the face of these tensions, two successive U.S. presidents, Dwight David Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, acted to protect America, often made decisions against apparent self-interest, and managed to protect freedom and avoid war. Lessons from those four dangerous years, the coldest of the Cold War, are valuable for today’s America and its leaders.

Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy were willing to take risks. At home, both leaders faced critics who, not unlike those in current American politics, argued that talking with enemies would be a grave mistake and, worse, a sign of appeasement and weakness. In spite of these criticisms and a number of partisan attacks, Eisenhower and Kennedy each chose to hold summits with Chairman Khrushchev. Those conversations gave them the perspective and relationship to defuse ongoing dangerous crises like the U-2, the Berlin Crisis, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The conversations were not always easy, but the efforts of Eisenhower and Kennedy to speak, communicate, and relate with Khrushchev prepared them to deal with the most dangerous days of the long conflict. The two presidents relied on the wisdom from their experience and responded in tempered ways to limit the overheating of events.

Today, the next U.S. president can learn much from looking at that time and the approaches of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Their pragmatism and willingness to talk not only allowed them to manage those crises-riddled years, but demonstrate to today’s leaders the value of diplomacy and provide the lessons needed to overcome today’s challenges.

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