Missiles of October: A Crisis and a Time When Americans Trusted their Commander-in-Chief

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GELFAND’S WORLD--Some of us here may be old enough to remember looking at black and white television as President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation about offensive missiles that the Soviet Union was installing in Cuba. It was October, 1962. This recollection is stimulated by the reshowing on late night TV of the 1974 dramatization, The Missiles of October. Those with a critical eye will notice a much younger William Devane as the president and an equally younger Martin Sheen as Robert Kennedy. Even more curious, celebrated actor Ralph Bellamy played then ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson. Bellamy had previously starred in Sunrise at Campobello, a Broadway play about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a role he reprised on a local stage in Los Angeles. 

Why is this forty year old made-for-television movie of interest all of a sudden? Obviously there is the contrast between JFK and the current occupant of the office. But it is the nature of this contrast that is concerning, and therefore worth dissecting. 

The year 1962 found the western world and the Russian empire locked in an ideological struggle that had been escalating on the nuclear front for a decade. The development of the hydrogen bomb had made the world an unsafe place. The competition to be able to deliver thermonuclear explosives over long distances was an active area for technical research and military development. The placement of intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba would have made the United States more vulnerable at the time. One day, a U.S. spy plane brought back aerial photos from Cuba showing the construction of a missile site. 

The plot of the movie bounces back and forth between the Kennedys and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. Each leader is involved in intense debates which include their top military commanders and their foremost political analysts. Krushchev, as portrayed in this dramatization, first rationalizes the risk he is about to take and later begins to understand that the risk of a disastrous war is the result. And it is growing. 

JFK is faced with the task of getting the Russians to back down and to remove the missile emplacements. A ray of hope begins to develop as each side begins to understand that it is necessary to give the other a chance to compromise without losing face. 

The movie portrays Kennedy's inner circle as a group of influential men who bring enormous experience and education to the task. What begins to dawn on the present day viewer is that we are expected to view the characters as people with intelligence, honesty, and honor. It's not surprising that generals and admirals try to push the president in the direction of air strikes and invasion. JFK and his broth Bobby do their best to keep the war talk under control. But each of the participants shows respect towards all of the others. JFK knows how to give orders and the others understand how much they can push back. 

As the crisis continues, we realize that even a leader of the caliber of JFK is driven by real world events. Depending on how the Russians act, he may be forced to order the invasion. He understands the grave danger this would bring. 

That was real life in 1962. Over the past couple of election cycles, we have endured irritating political ads in which a telephone call to the White House at 3 AM about some developing world crisis is used to represent the immediacy of presidential responsibilities. 

In the year of 1974 when this televised movie appeared, viewers were entitled to consider the president and his advisors as people who took their responsibilities seriously, who brought depth and broad intelligence to the table, and who didn't lie to each other. There is a lot of back and forth in the movie about how to withhold information from the press and when exactly to reveal it. But there is no inkling of a president or a presidential press secretary telling lies just for the sake of trivial expediency. 

There is no doubt that The Missiles of October glorifies its participants and avoids their all too human blemishes both as human beings and as politicians. But all of the characters in the story manage to maintain their dignity in public as they did in real life. Then again, they didn't have Twitter in 1962. 

These are characters who would take care to avoid being caught in a public lie. They would avoid becoming the public buffoon. The real life versions of these men didn't always live up to the public perception, but they at least paid lip service to the expectation and the ideal. 

It's hard to imagine the American people of 1960, in the face of thermonuclear risk, supporting a buffoon for the Oval Office. Even Richard Nixon, the 1968 winner, had the ability to carry on fairly learned discourse about international affairs without looking like a complete idiot. 

Perhaps the lesson of 2016 is that Americans simply don't worry very much about mass destruction on the scale that 1960s era Americans faced on a daily basis. Nowadays we are entitled to think about terrorism, but that is at a different level than the prospect of tens of millions of dead in a nuclear exchange. 

Jack Kennedy was aware of the danger, and at least in this dramatized portrayal, does his absolute best to avoid doing anything that would humiliate his opponents. Let this be a reminder. 

As I was watching this old rerun, there was the increasing sense of dismay that at one time, we had the right to expect our top elected officials to act at least in their official capacities with some sense of honor and in the performance of their duties with a considerable amount of intelligence. 

Addendum 

The Congressional Budget Office, as expected, came up with an estimate that the current House bill to replace the Affordable Care Act would reduce the number of insured by 14 million people, and over a decade, by nearly twice that many. Then the White House mentioned that their estimate was even a little worse. It remains to be seen how House Republicans will deal with wide scale public fears about the potential loss of Medicaid benefits. We can expect that Democrats will start to talk about Paul Ryan's stated intention of cutting back on Medicare. I'd like to think of some other descriptive term besides perfect storm, but that's what fits.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net

-cw

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