In the last few days, Sen. John McCain has told crowds that he's "been tested" when it comes to dealing with international crises, and as proof he cited the big enchilada of crises, the showdown over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. "I had a little personal experience in that,"McCain said in Ohio. "I was there."
But where was "there"? Was McCain a White House fellow or a junior aide in the Pentagon, watching, albeit from a distance, while President John Kennedy or Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara grappled with the dilemmas?
No, he was the pilot of a naval attack plane on an aircraft carrier in the Caribbean. As he put it at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, "I sat in the cockpit on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise, off of Cuba. I had a target." Then he added: "My friends, you know how close we came to nuclear war. Americans will not have a president who needs to be tested. I've been tested, my friends."
I mean no disrespect for carrier pilots, especially those poised for combat. The job requires a special sort of skill, nerve, and bravery that few of us have ever faced. (Certainly I never have.) But it is not at all clear how this experience tested McCain—or any of the other pilots on the four aircraft carriers off the coast of Cuba—for the job of making strategic decisions in a crisis, any more than working an assembly line tests someone to be president of a major manufacturing corporation.
As a 26-year-old Navy lieutenant in October 1962, John McCain was prepared to follow orders, fly his plane along a predetermined path to a preselected target, drop his preloaded bombs, and fly back. Again, this is not to be minimized. But neither does it constitute being "tested" to be—either then or 46 years later—the president of the United States.
Here's what the president at the time, John F. Kennedy, did during the crisis.
The confrontation began when U-2 spy planes detected the Soviets surreptitiously shipping missile launchers and nuclear warheads to Cuba and, in some cases, already setting them up on Cuban bases.
Kennedy assembled all his top advisers in the Cabinet Room to discuss how to respond. (Lucky for historians, he secretly tape-recorded all these deliberations. You can buy copies of the tapes from the JFK Library or read Sheldon Stern's bookAverting "The Final Failure": John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, an excellent account.)
On the first day of deliberations, Kennedy figured that he would have to bomb the missile sites. McNamara suggested blockading the island as an interim measure to buy some time. Kennedy agreed.
By the third day of the crisis, Kennedy was musing about Soviet motives and wondering what kind of "face-saving" gesture he might offer to get them to back off. One possibility, he said, might be a trade: We'd withdraw the missiles we had in Turkey—on the Soviet Union's southern border—if they withdrew the missiles they had in Cuba. None of the advisers reacted to this remark.