Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Read On! "Thirteen Days"

(Read On! ... occasional posts on writing we're reading) Thirteen Days -- no, not that Kevin Costner film, though when stripped down to its essence it works well as an in-class intro to how international law can affect foreign policymaking. This one is the pithy memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis that Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General in the administration of his brother John F. Kennedy, wrote in 1967, 1 year before he was felled by an assassin on the night that he won the California Presidential primary.
Thirteen Days tells of the U.S.-Soviet standoff that this week marks its 45th anniversary. As stated in the very 1st words of the memoir, the crisis began "[o]n Tuesday morning, October 16, 1962, shortly after 9:00 o'clock," when the Kennedys 1st viewed intelligence photos showing that "Russia was placing missiles and atomic weapons in Cuba." Upon Russia's agreement to withdraw the missiles in exchange for the U.S. promise that it would not invade the island state, the crisis ended on Sunday, October 28. (Timeline here.) In the 100 pages or so pages of this book RFK related what happened in between: negotiations among U.S. officials and between officials of the 2 governments, consideration of law's role and the choice of a "quarantine" (a euphemism for blockade, intended to diminish the warlike import of the action), and the role that back-channel diplomacy played in ending the crisis.
3 points jump out at a reader steeped in U.S. foreign policy in this initial decade of a new century:
1st, that not 1 woman was a member of these policymakers, later dubbed "the best and brightest" by David Halberstam.
2d, the degree to which international legal regimes mattered. Once a plan was adopted, allies were sought, not only in the U.N. Security Council, but also in an international body to which the United States seems now seldom to attend, the Organization of American States. Having been treated as integral to success, those entities gave their support to the U.S. policy.
3d, that the Cabinet secretaries and other officials who made up the ad hoc Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or "Ex Comm," which RFK chaired, were encouraged to propose and debate all options in the hope of arriving at the best policy possible. As RFK wrote (p. 9):

They were men of the highest intelligence, industrious, courageous, and dedicated to their country's well-being. It is no reflection on them that none was consistent in his opinion from the very beginning to the very end. That kind of open, unfettered mind was essential.

It still is.

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