Dr. Bill Atwood

Game of ‘chicken’

It has been 55 years since the world held its breath waiting and praying about what John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were going to do. The Cuban Missile Crisis began on Oct. 16, 1962 and it wasn’t until Oct. 28 that we could all relax. During those scary days, the world wondered who would win the showdown between those two very powerful men.

I was 10 years of age but I remember watching television and hearing Walter Cronkite discussing the dangers of the crisis. The American intelligence agency had found the existence of Russian missiles on Cuba through photographs taken by our spy planes. President Kennedy demanded the removal of the missiles which were now only 90 miles away from the United States.

Khrushchev refused stating that the American government had nukes in Turkey close to the Soviet Union. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and the people of the world held their breath as Russian Naval vessels approached that blockade. My late friend, Karl Aube of Coarsegold participated in that blockade. Cronkite and the other news anchors were all asking the same questions. Would the Russians try to run the blockade? Would the American’s actually fire upon a Soviet Naval vessel? Would WWIII breakout?

There is a game in diplomacy of a similar nature to the child’s game of “Chicken.” Who will blink first? This game is played when nations seem at the brink of a conflict and “Blinksmanship” seems to replace “Brinksmanship.” He who blinks first loses.

Khrushchev was under pressure within his party of having to stand up to the American President. Kennedy was seen as weak on these issues having endured the Bay of Pigs disaster in April 1961. Khrushchev sent one letter with a solution and while Kennedy was contemplating that letter another letter came with much tougher demands.

Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General, suggested that they ignore the second letter and respond to the first one.

John Scalia of ABC News had a contact with a person in the Russian Embassy. Scalia met with that contact that then passed along some “back channel” information which Scalia then passed along to the Kennedy Administration. The American public had no idea of these back channel discussions.

Bobby Kennedy met with the Soviet Ambassador, Scalia was meeting with his contact, and Adali Stevenson was making his statements to the Security Counsel of the United Nations demanding answers from the Soviet Ambassador who said they we would have to wait for a response.

In the meantime the US sent a few U-2 planes over Cuba and the Soviets shot one down. Rudolf Anderson, Jr. became the only casualty of the missile crisis. When news of Anderson’s death hit on Oct. 27, people were ready to go to war. Kennedy and his team decided that a Russian soldier, probably without orders, decided to shoot at the U-2 and Kennedy wasn’t willing to go to war over a lucky shot.

Scalia’s contact got word to Khrushchev who suggested that it was as if two men were tugging on a rope with a knot in the middle and the knot tightens to a point where it can’t ever be loosened. If one drops his end the other is seen as the winner but if both men drop the rope at the same time then neither wins nor loses. Kennedy accepted that plan. Kennedy could not give up the missiles in Turkey because he would look weak and Khrushchev accepted Kennedy’s word through the back channels. The missiles in Turkey were removed six months later.

There’s hope with North Korea.