Newly elected presidents can be dangerous. Untested and inexperienced, they can act in the name of national security to soothe a personal insecurity. Appearing tough, they think, can make them tough. A case in point goes back 50 years ago today — the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which rescued a president from just this dilemma.
Early in his term, John F. Kennedy bungled the Bay of Pigs and was then roughed up by Nikita Khrushchev at the June summit in Vienna. No “cojones,” critics said. “Now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible,” Kennedy told Times columnist James Reston, “and Vietnam looks like the place.” By “our power,” he meant his own. Having dispatched a few military advisers to help ward off a communist insurgency far away, Kennedy now looked to Southeast Asia as the arena in which to show his nerve.