National Security

How to Stop a Nuclear War

What the Cuban missile crisis teaches us about facing down North Korea.

As he ponders how to respond to the military bluster of North Korea, President Obama is learning a lesson that was driven home to John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis: When it comes to a possible nuclear confrontation, pre-delegating authority to the generals can be a big mistake.

According to a report this week in the Wall Street Journal, the White House has abandoned a pre-approved "playbook" calling for a show of force against North Korea in response to its nuclear saber-rattling. Instead of a series of well-orchestrated, and well-publicized, moves designed to increase the pressure on Pyongyang, the Obama administration is now reported to be looking for ways to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula. White House officials are said to be upset with the Navy for publicizing the deployment of two missile-guided destroyers off South Korea -- a step that could provoke an unpredictable response from North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un.

The hints of civilian-military disagreement are reminiscent of a celebrated confrontation at the height of the Cuban missile crisis between the secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, and the chief of naval operations, Admiral George Anderson. After the president announced a naval blockade of Cuba, Anderson felt he had all the authority he needed to stop Soviet ships from crossing the "quarantine line," by force if necessary. "We know how to do this," he told McNamara, waving his well-thumbed copy of the Laws of Military Warfare. "We've been doing it ever since the days of John Paul Jones."

The confrontation climaxed with an apoplectic defense secretary telling a red-faced CNO that there would be "no shots fired without my express permission." A few months later, Anderson was dispatched into exile as U.S. ambassador to Portugal.

The episode marked a significant turning point in civilian-military relations. During the Second World War, military commanders enjoyed a huge amount of autonomy. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was ordered to "liberate Europe" -- but he did not have politicians breathing down his neck, supervising every aspect of his operations. He took history-making decisions -- such as his refusal to race the Soviet army to Berlin -- all by himself.

The nuclear era spelled an end to the traditional military ethos of "Tell us what to do, but don't tell us how to do it." Mistakes are inevitable in war -- but there is no margin for error when it comes to handling nuclear weapons. Worried that a single misstep could lead to a chain of cataclysmic consequences, Kennedy and McNamara insisted on centralizing military decision-making. The symbol of this shift was the creation of the White House "Situation Room," which permitted the president and his advisors to acquire close-to-real-time information from the battlefront, and therefore exercise a much greater degree of command and control.

With sufficient material for just half a dozen nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un can hardly be compared to Kennedy's nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev. (As a second-tier bad guy, Kim is more reminiscent of the fiercely nationalistic Fidel Castro, who excelled at playing the "madman card.") In 1962, the Soviet Union had 300 nuclear weapons capable of reaching U.S. territory, including 32 in Cuba, 90 miles from the Florida Keys.

Nevertheless, there are unsettling parallels with the Cuban missile crisis. While it will likely be several years before Kim can reach the American mainland with a missile, he could turn the South Korean capital Seoul into a pile of ashes tomorrow. With his Mao-like suits and Doctor Evil persona, Kim may be fodder for the late night TV comedians, but he controls a growing nuclear arsenal that poses a threat to key U.S. allies. Like Kennedy before him, Obama must be concerned about the possibility of miscalculation that could result in what McNamara termed "a spasm response" by the other side.

Four decades have passed since the world came to the brink of nuclear annihilation in October 1962, but the reverberations from that near-miss remain relevant today. The following is a run-down of the most important lessons of the Cuban missile crisis, as they apply to North Korea (or Iran):

1. A single nuclear weapon changes everything. Confident that the United States enjoyed a 10-1 nuclear advantage over the Soviet Union, the advocates of war, led by General Curtis LeMay, urged the president to settle matters with the "Commie bastards" once and for all. But overwhelming nuclear superiority meant little to Kennedy, who later acknowledged that the possibility of a single Soviet nuclear warhead landing on an American city constituted "a substantial deterrent to me."

2. Avoid blind escalation. When a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba on October 27 at the height of the crisis, Kennedy was informed that existing war plans called for immediate retaliation against the offending Soviet SAM site. Worried that this could provoke a chain of unforeseeable consequences, he ordered the Pentagon to delay a response, to allow more time for diplomacy.

3. Pay attention to the "unknown unknowns." However confident your intelligence chiefs may sound, there is much they are unable to tell you. During the missile crisis, Kennedy was unaware that Soviet troops on Cuba possessed nearly 100 tactical nuclear weapons, capable of wiping out a U.S. invading force. The president was like a blind man stumbling through the semi-darkness, only dimly aware of what was happening around him. Like JFK, Obama is discovering that he must operate on instinct, as much as reliable, real-time intelligence.

4. Understand the limits of "crisis management." In the aftermath of the missile crisis, Kennedy acolytes such as Arthur Schlesinger fed the myth of a resolute president using "calibrated" military power and skillful diplomacy to face down his opposite number in the Kremlin. Believing their own propaganda, the "best and the brightest" felt that they could use a similar strategy during the Vietnam War. But they over-estimated their ability to control events. Unfamiliar with the principles of game theory as taught by the RAND Corporation, the North Vietnamese Communists matched the Americans escalation for escalation.

5. Avoid drawing lines in the sand that you might later regret. Prior to the missile crisis, Kennedy found himself under increasing pressure from Republican politicians who accused him of ignoring the Soviet military buildup on Cuba. He responded by issuing a public statement saying that the "gravest issues would arise" if the Soviets developed a "significant offensive capability" on the island. After it turned out that Khrushchev had in fact sent nuclear missiles to Cuba, Kennedy wished he could take back his earlier statement. He was compelled to take action, not because Soviet missiles on Cuba appreciably changed the balance of military power, but because he feared looking weak. He had boxed himself in.

6. Talk to your enemies. After seriously considering an air strike against the missile sites, Kennedy opted for the intermediate step of a partial blockade of Cuba, limited to "offensive military equipment." The blockade bought time for everyone to come to their senses. Khrushchev later praised Kennedy for his "reasonable" approach. Had Kennedy followed his initial instincts, and the advice of people like LeMay, Khrushchev would likely have been obliged to authorize some kind of military response, triggering an unpredictable chain of events.

7. Containment worked. Communism was not defeated militarily: it was defeated economically, culturally, and ideologically. Exhausted by the military competition with the United States, Khrushchev's successors were unable to provide their own people with a basic level of material prosperity. By acquiring nuclear weapons, the North Korean communists have warded off the threat of foreign intervention. But they have failed to resolve any of their underlying economic problems and may even have deepened them. Communism will eventually defeat itself in North Korea -- just as it did in the Soviet Union. We just have to be patient.


David Stockman’s Dystopia

Why Reagan’s former budget chief is like a crazy person howling in the wind. Let’s ignore him.

David Stockman, a former budget official in Ronald Reagan's administration and author of The Great Deformation: the Corruption of Capitalism in America, is one deeply pissed-off dude. The scope of his disdain is wide -- it would take a lot of fence to corral those he deems responsible for a century of wildly wrong-headed developments that, in his view, are destined to sink America.

What's more, his perps would have to be held in separate cells, because they're of remarkably different stripes. Milton Friedman is implicated (his sin: advocating managing the money supply), but so is Paul Krugman (and of course his spiritual mentor John Maynard Keynes).  Franklin Roosevelt is on the list of "policy villains," but so is Richard Nixon, who dealt the final blow to the gold standard. Former Reagan economic advisor Art Laffer (Mr. Supply Side) is there, a few names away from Larry Summers (these days, Mr. Demand Side), who served, most recently, as Barack Obama's top economic advisor.

If you can figure out what these folks have in common, you'll be on the way to understanding the connective tissue that (barely) holds together this tirade, which Stockman mercifully summarized in the New York Times. (The book is over 700 pages ... like I said, the man is really mad.) So what's the connection? I'll give you a hint: They all advocated economic interventions. They thought they could help boost growth, lower unemployment, raise revenues, stimulate investment, smooth out volatility, and so on. And, as Stockman sees it, the problem is not simply that they all failed miserably. It's that their failure has doomed America.

That's not hyperbole. In a way that would almost be refreshing if it didn't surpass the Hunger Games on the dystopia scale, Stockman's is not one of those arguments that tells you how screwed up things are but then leaves you with hope that all can be solved if we take the author's advice. Instead, America, according to Stockman, is in "end-stage metastasis." The nation "is broke -- fiscally, morally, intellectually."

It's easy to poke fun at a rant like this, and most of it is just plain wrong (more on that in a moment). But what's more interesting is to figure out where Stockman is on target. There are, unquestionably, aspects of American capitalism that have been corrupted -- in no small part through money in politics, something Stockman vividly rails against. He's also right that the U.S. economy is seriously underperforming and bad policy is implicated. One of his hobbyhorses, crony capitalism -- a frequent target of the very progressive economist Dean Baker -- is surely holding back growth, skewing the distribution of income and wealth, and steering investment not toward its most productive uses, but to those most favored by the tax code.

Unfortunately, those points are not central to his argument. What Stockman is most worked up about is that for almost a century, economic policymakers have ... um ... made policy, and that's led to cheap money, high indebtedness, and econo-moral turpitude. Sovereign debt is the biggest villain of all here, and there are lots of  big numbers -- in the trillions! (When folks like Stockman use trillions as opposed to shares of GDP, they're trying to scare you.) Fiscal and monetary stimulus, which contribute to the debt, are key accomplices. Stockman insists that the market should work out its failures without all these meddlers trying to fix them (there must be "a sweeping divorce of the state and the market economy"); no government investments in industry; central banks shouldn't mess with the money supply, and so on.

And it is here where he parts company with economic reality. The reader gets tons of invective against interventionists from FDR to Obama, but never a compelling explanation as to why America would have been better off if we did nothing to lessen the economic pain caused by the Great Depression or the Great Recession by applying Keynesian stimulus. Nor is there any analysis of why mainstream economics is wrong to believe, based on decades of empirical evidence from economies across the globe, that such stimulus, both fiscal and monetary, actually works.

Similarly, not only is there absolutely no benefit assigned to any of the Federal Reserve's actions over the years to push back on inflation and joblessness (and no question, they've made mistakes), but Stockman, with apparent ignorance of the historical record, atavistically pines for the gold standard. I urge anyone considering this libertarian canard to spend, oh, about five minutes comparing the length, depth, and frequency of recessions and the volatility of markets, growth, and prices during the years the United States was chained to that inflexible standard to the behavior of all those variables since.

He's right that the Fed, to its great discredit, missed the dot-com and housing bubbles, and for years (though not now), has overweighted the price side of its inflation/unemployment mandate. But talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater: If you want to get rid of central banks, you'd better come up with some other stabilizing mechanism a whole lot better than gold buggery. And I'm quite certain that would lead you right back to independent central banks.

Moreover, sovereign debt is neither bad nor good -- its assessment must be situational. Even a cursory analysis should stress that debt that's paying for inefficient health care is a serious problem. Debt that's financing productivity-enhancing public goods or temporarily offsetting a large demand contraction is a very different story.

The historical record of technological advances in American industry -- from machine tools to railroads to lasers to the Internet to fracking, nanotech, GPS, and on and on -- shows beyond doubt that private investors will under-invest in innovative sectors due to uncertain returns. Stockman never explains how a market failure such as underinvestment in such sectors would be overcome by simply not having the government help directly by subsidizing research and development or backstopping credit to offset the high risk premiums investors would otherwise demand. He's too busy ranting to analyze.

Instead, we get a "revisionist history of our era," as he puts it, where Keynes and FDR are villains, Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge heroes, gold is king, central bankers are legal counterfeiters, and debt is always evil. Like I said, he hits some high notes in a few places, but I suspect most readers will react to Stockman's screed the way I did. It's like hearing a crazy person on a street corner ranting against whatever: They invariably stumble on some profound and piercing insights, but it's mostly dark nonsense, and instinctually, we keep our heads down and move on.

Flickr/The Aspen Institute