According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, brinksmanship is “the art or practice of pushing a dangerous situation or confrontation to the limit of safety especially to force a desired outcome.” A less dire definition can be found at Vocabulary.com where “Brinkmanship is pushing a situation to the point of disaster without quite going over the edge.” It is a term that was first used during the Cold War and which has become a more and more prevalent tactic in negotiations since that time. When the more drastic definition is used, it is generally applied to “wars and rumors of wars.” When the more colloquial use is applied, it can be found in topics as diverse as a teacher’s strike to a star running back holding out for a better contract. In other words, it is a term that is familiar to us today. It is also a term that has this History Rhymer thinking about the current events in Washington and another event that endangered the world 51 years ago.
In the past few weeks and especially since the beginning of October, the world has been witnessing a new example of brinksmanship which seems to be of the especially stubborn variety. On the one side are President Obama and the Democratic Party. On the other is the Republican Party – especially the part of the party generally known as the Tea Party. The field of battle (at least initially) is on the question of whether or not the Affordable Care Act (ACA a.k.a. “Obamacare”), which went into effect on October 1, will be funded. The Republican controlled House of Representative, which constitutionally is where all spending bills begin, passed a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government without funding the ACA. This was opposed by the President and the Democrat controlled Senate. Without a continuing resolution in place, a government shutdown (or at least a partial one) took effect on October 1 and “non-essential” workers were furloughed. The sun came up that day, most people went to work, ACA started to take effect with people signing up for insurance plans.
This has not been the first time that the government has come to a standstill. The most notable example was in 1995-1996. What has made this situation different is that on October 17th, the government will not be able to borrow any more money to pay its debts. Depending on who is speaking, passing this deadline could be “chaos” as President Obama calls it or “would bring stability to world markets” according to Representative Ted Yoho (R-FL). Obviously not everyone is on the same page with this.
The part that interests this History Rhymer and probably the reason why two political leaders could come to such drastically different conclusions about the possible events of October 17th is the grand example of brinksmanship that has developed in the past month. On the one side, you have the Republican leadership in the House such as Speaker John Boehner (D-OH) that refuses to fund the ACA and who asserts that the President is to blame for the shutdown and the looming borrowing deadline. On the other side, you have the President and his Democrat allies who has stated that the shutdown is a “manufactured crisis” and that the President will not “negotiate under the threat of economic catastrophe that economists and CEOs increasingly warn would result if Congress chose to default on America’s obligations.”
Even more interesting is the fact that the deep divide and lack of cooperation seen in the statements of people like the President, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Speaker Boehner or Iowa Representative Steve King (R-IA), is not just limited to politicians or to Washington DC. It is a nationwide phenomenon. According to a poll released on October 7th, Americans are unable to agree not only whether or not passing the debt deadline would be a bad thing (40% think it would not be a big deal), but also disunited on who to blame for the stalemate (38% blame Republicans, 30% blame the President and 19% blame both).
What is not uncertain or debatable is that we are getting closer to October 17th, that there are growing signs of uncertainty in global markets (although there is a view that our politicians would not risk “mutually assured destruction” as Joseph Quinian of U.S. Trust told USA Today on October 7th) and that neither side seems to be willing to give up their games of brinksmanship. Only the future knows what will happen and the ramifications of any actions or inactions on the part of our leaders.
Well, the History Rhyme is not about the future. It is about the possible lessons or alternate possibilities that come from studying the rhyming events of the past. In this case, all of the prime examples of brinksmanship (especially the more dire definition cited from Merriam-Webster) have reminded some of the most dangerous and dire example of brinksmanship the world has yet known – the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Perhaps looking at what occurred 51 years ago will help us with ideas of what our leaders may be thinking as they approach their deadline and may give us some perspective on how dire our crisis may or may not truly be.
On the morning of October 16, 1962, the world began a crisis that lasted until October 28 which we generally call “the Cuban Missile Crisis” but which Robert Kennedy called the “Thirteen Days” in his posthumously released book of the same title (and hence the title of this essay). It was on that day that President John F. Kennedy was informed that Soviet made and operated launchers for short and intermediate range missile were being constructed on the island nation of Cuba (a Soviet client state). The placement of the missiles was a calculated risk taken by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev because he believed that the United States would be unwilling to risk World War III over the issue. This view had been formed in part by Khrushchev’s previous personal meetings with Kennedy and what he viewed as the indecisive and timid ways the young American president had handled the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the creation of the Berlin wall in 1961.
For the American people, this was the first time that they were directly presented with the possibility that their cities could be destroyed in a nuclear exchange. President Kennedy had to quickly decide how to handle this situation. Some of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (most notably Air Force General Curtis Lemay) and Vice President Lyndon Johnson were in favor of attacking the launcher sites and perhaps even invading Cuba. Kennedy however eventually considered that strategy as too likely to cause a war. Instead, he announced to the American public on October 22nd that he was imposing a blockade of future shipments to Cuba and warned the USSR that any attack by Cuba on the United States would be treated as an attack by the USSR and would lead to US retaliation. Kennedy was playing a very dangerous game of brinksmanship with the possibility of nuclear annihilation as a possible outcome if he played it wrong.
On the other side of this battle, Khrushchev did not have a united front either. The Soviet leader knew that there were some in his own party who would pounce on any signs of weakness as a pretense to remove him (a previous attempt had failed in 1957). In addition, their Cuban client, Fidel Castro, was urging the USSR to not back down and sent a cable to Khrushchev during the crisis stating that “If [the imperialists] actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear and legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.” In other words, he wanted a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
In the end, Khrushchev was unwilling to push the world into a nuclear war and backed down publicly. From Khrushchev’s perspective, the result was worth it since, as he told the London Observer later that year “Human reason won. Mankind won.” It also didn’t hurt that the United States secretly agreed to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Yet, in the end, the Soviet premier was the loser in this exchange and was removed from power in 1964. Kennedy, on the other hand was seen as the victor for not backing down (especially since the public did not know about the Turkey deal for several years after his death in 1963).
How does an examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis help us to understand our newest example of brinksmanship? Are there any rhyming passages that may help us to understand what may occur? Can we make any sense of this? Well, as with all things about the future, the answer is “maybe.” However, at the risk of over-reaching, here are some thoughts on this rhyme.
The leaders of both sides in this current struggle would undoubtedly see themselves as playing the role of Kennedy (or more broadly as the United States). They are fighting a battle that must be won or freedom will be endangered. From President Obama’s perspective, this means not giving in to the demands that “Obamacare” is abandoned. From the Republican side, this means not allowing what they see as an unwise law to ruin the country. Both sides would see Kennedy’s decision to not back down and the success he had as their ultimate goal. Of course, the real story of any crisis often happens behind the scenes. The American public did not know the deals that existed and the behind-the-scenes communications that occurred that led to the successful result. No doubt, there will be some secret negotiations that may lead to some public proposals to resolve the crisis (e.g. reports on October 10th that the Republican leaders in the House were considering a short term debt ceiling increase while not ending the government shutdown in order to avoid a default).
Despite whatever ways we might see parallels between events, it becomes apparent to this History Rhymer that in many ways the Cuban Missile Crisis had some striking differences from the current events that tell us quite a bit about how fractured we have become as a nation. When we talk about “us” and “them,” we are not talking about other nations with aggressive foreign policies. We are talking about Americans against Americans in inter-parts squabbling. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, this meant that the American people could unite behind their President. In our current case of brinksmanship, there can be no unified public as shown by the polling date which presents the divide between Right and Left in stark terms. Finally, the biggest difference between the two events is the consequences of failure. If Kennedy misjudged Khrushchev, most of us probably would not be here today. If our political leaders miscalculate in their game of brinksmanship, we may or may not (depending to whom one listens) have our shaky economy go into a dive and our prestige in the world diminished. Even though those consequences may seem dire, they won’t last nearly as long as radiation that would have been a consequence of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers in 1962.
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