Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the great historian, has made a new discovery in the science of foreign relations. Writing in the Washington Post, Professor Schlesinger argues that the course pursued by President Kennedy in his confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is a model that ought to be followed by the United States in its dealings with other hostile nations, such as Iran.
According to Professor Schlesinger, the Missile Crisis was successfully resolved because Kennedy “was determined to get the missiles out peacefully.” Once the president had the wisdom to dispense with all bellicose courses and adopt this thoroughly pacific policy, all difficulties vanished; the Soviet Union, impressed, doubtless, by the president’s conciliatory intentions, his manifest goodwill, and the justice of his arguments, embraced his proposals, and the missiles were promptly carried off. Kennedy followed this success, Professor Schlesinger informs us, by calling on both Americans and Russians to reexamine their “attitude” towards each other, “for our attitude,” the president said, “is as essential as theirs.”
So successful a strategy deserves a universal application. If the United States would only make it clear that its policy is always to act peacefully, and that it will never use what Professor Schlesinger calls “preventive” force, its diplomacy would proceed smoothly. It is the saber-rattling of men like President Bush that creates the danger, Professor Schlesinger contends; a thoroughly Quaker policy will dissipate it.
Doubtless if President Bush were now to foreswear all use of force, Iran would step down from its nuclear program, just as, if Winston Churchill had pursued such a course in 1940, Hitler would have seen that there was no need for him to invade France, and that he could have set about at once relinquishing his gains in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Certainly if the Emperor Theodosius had eloquently beseeched Attila to reconsider his “attitude” towards the Roman empire, much bloodshed would have been averted. Similar communications from the House of Austria would undoubtedly have deterred Frederick the Great from invading Silesia and Bismarck from marching into Bohemia. Alas, for the Habsburgs, they had no Harvard-trained historians to guide them in the true principles of diplomacy.
Of course, outside the Platonic universe of Professor Schlesinger, no nation, in vindicating its interests in the world, can rely on the goodwill and reasonableness of its adversaries. It is only the threat of “preventive” force, express or implied, that makes the policy of a great power effective. This does not, of course, mean that all diplomatic crises will result in the use of such force by the power in question; the perceived threat of force will lead to the peaceful resolution of many conflicts. But as soon as a power makes it clear that is determined at all costs “to get the missiles out peacefully,” it must surrender any hope of deterring its most aggressive adversaries.
The lesson of the 1930s remains a vital one. Had England and France been willing, in 1936, to use “preventive” force against Germany, the subsequent catastrophes of 1938-1945 might have been averted—or so Winston Churchill argued. In March 1936, Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in contravention of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. “We know now,” Churchill wrote in The Gathering Storm, “of the conflicts of opinion which arose at this time between Hitler and the German High Command. If the French Government had mobilized the French Army, with nearly a hundred divisions, and its air force . . . there is no doubt that Hitler would have been compelled by his own General Staff to withdraw, and a check would have been given to his pretensions which might well have proved fatal to his rule.”
Instead, England and France made it clear that they wanted to avoid a clash, and that they were determined “to get the missiles out peacefully.”
–Michael Knox Beran is the author of The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy and Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind .