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Trump could take a lesson from Kennedy’s crystal-clear warning about Cuban missile sites

Among his special skills, President Trump likes to make vague, blustering threats to those who annoy him. Often the threats are hollow. Often he cleans them up within a few days, or at least changes them around so that it becomes clear that he doesn’t have an actual plan to follow through. Sometimes it’s as juvenile as the time, during the campaign, when he said of a protester who had just been removed from one of his rallies, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” That passes for brave and tough in some quarters, although he never actually punches anyone and, if he did, it probably would cost him a lot of money, unless presidents have immunity for face-punching.

This faux toughness is sad and pitiful, but not world-threatening, and his admirers lap it up.

More serious is when he seems to be threatening a possible nuclear attack, as when he issued this warning to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un like this one to a gaggle of reporters from his golf club semi-vacation, which we’ll call threat iteration No. 1:

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States … They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

Which he later clarified with this nonclarification, which we’ll call threat iteration No. 2:

He [Kim Jong-Un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said, they will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.

What does Trump believe would qualify as a sufficient “very threatening” action by Kim to bring about this historic act of “power,” considering that the world has previously seen two cities hit with atomic bombs?

Maybe you are comfortable with this level of ambiguity as to what “threatening” action by North Korea would bring on this unprecedented display of power. According to me, it would be better to make clear what the lines are, so Kim would not accidentally cross one in the act of trying to figure out how far he is allowed to go (if he cares, and who among us wants the fate of the earth to hang on the ability of Kim to figure out what Trump views as sufficiently “threatening” to bring on the new world record for a display of destructive power?).

I wished, I hoped that Trump’s third iteration of the red line that would bring on the show of power that the world has never seen before had been a little clearer. And for a second I thought it was. But he seems to either be unable to discipline what comes out of his mouth, or perhaps he believes that it is wise to promise massive retaliation for a transgression that he can’t describe with any precision. Iteration No. 3 went like this:

This man will not get away with what he is doing. … If he utters one threat in the form of an overt threat … or if he does anything with respect to Guam, or any place else that is an American territory, or an American ally, he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.

I like that he mentioned Guam, and other U.S. territories and U.S. allies. It seems to begin to circumscribe what it is that he thinks would justify the massive blood-shedding that he keeps threatening. But the problem remains that he won’t even vaguely specify what sort of action would justify this retaliatory carnage, especially because he never actually says that Kim would have to do anything more than “utter” a “threat.”

If uttering a threat violates the laws of nations, Trump had better book a flight to The Hague to stand trial for threat-uttering, because he can’t seem to stop. Of course that won’t happen, but what bothers me is that if he is trying to communicate the boundaries of behavior that Kim should respect, Trump is failing utterly, because he can’t stop drawing a line for carnage that is called “threat uttering.” Threat uttering is what the Kim dynasty does, and the world has survived it for three generations.

OK, enough about that. Instead, I’ll close with what it looks like to draw a clear line, and it turns out to come from a very famous case that ended pretty well.

On Oct. 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy asked for time on all TV networks to inform America and the world of a problem his administration had been grappling with in secret, the confirmed evidence that Cuba, with Soviet support, was erecting sites that would soon be capable of launching Soviet-supplied nuclear missiles at targets in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States.

You can read the speech here, or (even better, because you get the drama of JFK’s calm but composed delivery, you can watch it here. It’s almost 19 minutes long and worth your time if you are a history nerd like me.

I’ve had plenty of ups and downs in my life in my view of JFK. And they continue. But in the matter of delivering an ultimatum at a time of planet-threatening danger, he seemed to get that it was time to be serious, sober, prepared and crystal clear.  

Unlike Trump, who even when he does have a worked-out statement can’t seem to help ad libbing in ways that fuzz up his message, Kennedy read his threat carefully and calmly, from a prepared script, so Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was behind the covert construction of missile launching sites in Cuba, would know exactly what he had to do avoid a world-threatening nuclear war, and exactly what would happen if he didn’t do it. On that last point, the big line in Kennedy’s broadcast was this:

 It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

I wish Trump would study it as a lesson in clarity. By the way, although the full story is more complicated than just what JFK read on the air, the plan worked.


P.S. After writing this piece Monday I saw that John Harrigan of Falcon Heights also decided to explore the Cuba Missile Crisis for “lessons in leadership” across that tale and Trump’s contretemps with Kim on the op-ed page of the Monday Strib. He drew “six lessons in leadership” from the comparison, and you can read it here.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/15/2017 - 10:17 am.

    Ending well

    Indeed, the Current Occupant could take many lessons from John Kennedy and quite a few other Previous Occupants, but emperors seldom seek guidance from past emperors, especially dead ones. Kennedy was far more articulate on his worst day than the Current Occupant is capable of being on his best, but beyond vocabulary and delivery, it seems useful to point out that Kennedy’s address was part of a calculated gamble.

    He hoped/believed that Russia and Kruschev didn’t really want to engage in a war of mutually-assured destruction. While they might convince themselves that destroying the United States with a nuclear onslaught was a worthy goal, the price—a similar obliteration of the Soviet Union’s major (and minor) cities—was far more than they were willing to pay. Underlying Kennedy’s hope/belief was an assumption that Kruschev and Russian leadership generally were rational, or as rational as humans are likely to be in stressful situations. I’ve not read everything published about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but what I have read suggests that Kruschev and Russian leadership in general held similar views of American leadership: that we were rational.

    Much of the behavior of both North Korea and the Current Occupant suggests that that assumed rationality is not necessarily in play in the current scenario. Emperors and dictators often believe themselves to be above any conflict, likely to be untouched by any of its negative effects. It’s an attitude that seems certain to eventually bring self-destruction, with only good fortune or divine intervention, depending upon your own spiritual beliefs, preventing that self-destruction from being part of something much, much worse.

    I can’t speak for the MinnPost audience as a whole, but as an 18-year-old at the time, I can vouch for the fact that a good many of us in the U.S. were carefully reviewing instructions, futile though they would have been, on how to survive a nuclear attack. Yes, Kennedy’s plan worked, but not without a good deal of public and private anxiety, and he was a rather popular Current Occupant at the time, so there was quite a bit of public support for the stand that he took. I, for one, was glued to the tube with every evening news report showing reconnaissance film of what the Russians had done, or not done, in Cuba. Confrontation requires skill, nerve, accurate information, and the knowledge that the other side is not crazy. Those don’t seem like qualities we’re seeing in abundance from national leadership on either side at the moment.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/15/2017 - 10:24 am.

    The best way to ensure cordial relations between North Korea and the United States would be for the North Koreans allow a Trump resort to be developed somewhere in their picturesque county.

    Development, hard currency and jobs for North Korea, and greater glory to Trump !

    A win for both dear Leaders !

    Problem solved !!

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/15/2017 - 11:52 am.

    What has to be considered are these two possibilities:

    What does the US do if NK brackets Guam with a couple of missiles (no warheads) ?

    Or, what if NK actually fires a missile with a warhead ?

    What response will be possible considering the lives of the millions in the area ?

    Given the vast disparity in power and deliverability, this is not a MAD standoff, it’s a hostage situation. It’s a guy who is depending on our worries for the innocent victims to keep him safe.

    That is how this needs to be approached as opposed to the Missile Crisis..

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/15/2017 - 01:28 pm.


    I am sure President Trump appreciates your advice. I only wish that your advice would have been given to President Obama when he was drawing “red lines” and allowing N.K to nuke-up.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/15/2017 - 03:59 pm.

      While you may want to forget, you should draw the trajectory to when the “axis of evil” was declared…

      From 2006:


      ….Nearly five years after President Bush introduced the concept of an “axis of evil” comprising Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the administration has reached a crisis point with each nation: North Korea has claimed it conducted its first nuclear test, Iran refuses to halt its uranium-enrichment program, and Iraq appears to be tipping into a civil war 3 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion…

      …All three issues came to a head in 2003: The United States invaded Iraq and discovered no weapons of mass destruction; North Korea began to obtain weapons-grade plutonium from fuel rods that had been under international observation; and Iran disclosed that it had made rapid progress with a previously secret uranium-enrichment program….

      (end quote)

      and from 3003


      August 27-29, 2003
      The first round of six-party talks is held in Beijing. The talks achieve no significant breakthroughs.

      North Korea proposes a step-by-step solution, calling for the United States to conclude a “non-aggression treaty,” normalize bilateral diplomatic relations, refrain from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, complete the reactors promised under the Agreed Framework, resume suspended fuel oil shipments, and increase food aid. Pyongyang states that, in return, it will dismantle its “nuclear facility,” as well as end missile testing and export of missiles and related components. North Korea issues an explicit denial for the first time that it has a uranium-enrichment program.

      The North Korean delegation, however, also threatens to test nuclear weapons or “demonstrate the means that they would have to deliver” them, according to a senior State Department official.

      (end quote)

      Looks like the North Koreans did exactly what they said they would and in the end, we’ll probably end up agreeing to the terms of the 6 Party Talks from 2003.

      Gee, 6 years before Obama was President, but hey, he’s to blame.

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 08/15/2017 - 04:21 pm.

      Get a calendar

      North Korea detonated it’s first nuclear device on Oct 9, 2006. A Republican allowed them to nuke up.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/15/2017 - 09:18 pm.

    Our failure in our ….

    inability to take responsibility. If the events of the 20th century were to be examined without the poison of imperialism possibly we could maybe examine our own accountability fir the world we have today including our throwback leader. But honesty escapes us.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/15/2017 - 09:49 pm.

    Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech

    Was after his abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
    The sort of thing that Trump has threatened but never carried through.
    Maybe Trump’s ineffectiveness has its advantages.

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