The fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination has the world more preoccupied with the death of a president than his life. John Kennedy was, however, the leader who largely ensured that the world was saved from nuclear oblivion in thirteen crucial days in October 1962 as the fate of the planet hung in the balance. His brother, Robert (also later assassinated), wrote of this critical period (in “13 Days”) and showed that Kennedy learned from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion the year before.
The Bay of Pigs, in Cuba, was selected for the landing of an invasion force who would incite local resistance to ruling dictator Fidel Castro before toppling him. Unaware that this was Castro’s favourite holiday destination and that he had therefore invested into the local economy, the US troops were unprepared for Castro’s defence of the area. Cancelled air cover further exposed them to a rapid defeat and the US government was embarrassed by the fiasco.
Kennedy had felt pressured by the supposed experts against his better judgment and, as a new and young president, he relented. Yet when combatting the Cubans the following year as they marshalled Soviet nuclear weapons just ninety miles from Florida, Kennedy was able to use far more restraint and diplomacy to avert a global crisis.
It is a helpful reminder to any of us that there are times when we need to trust our gut instincts and calculated hunches against the self-interest of experts. Provocative reactions seldom achieve the results we might impatiently seek and negotiation becomes a necessary, though difficult, skill. To reflect on errors still needs experts to assist us in our processing, but when we have to carry responsibility for our own actions, discretion becomes the better part of valour.