The JFK Library’s “To the Brink” exhibit opens at a propitious moment. The story of nuclear confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis comes just as North Korea is issuing missile threats of its own. Meanwhile, in Dallas, all the living presidents will come together later this month for the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, a reminder of how presidential decision-making remains the crucial variable in the chain of defense.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, TV docudramas of the Kennedys often portrayed JFK as reckless and profane behind the scenes, as he vented his frustration with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. But when tapes of the meetings during the missile crisis were released, in the mid-’90s, it turned out that Kennedy had been the calm eye of the storm, parsing advice with diligence and restraint.
“To the Brink,” which first opened at the National Archives on the 50th anniversary of the crisis last October, presents far more real-time substance than the usual historical exhibit. One hears good advice (from Under Secretary of State George Ball and UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, among others), and bad (from Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon and Senator Richard Russell, to name two), and can process it just as JFK did.
No foreign-policy crisis before or since — not Iraq, not North Korea — has played out against the threat of instant annihilation. “To the Brink,” replete with diagrams of nuclear fallout shelters, is the opposite of nostalgia: It’s a look back in horror.