Lessons from Kennedy and Eisenhower

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?

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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