This week Theodore “Ted” Sorensen, who was John F. Kennedy’s closest aide from 1953 until the president’s assassination a decade later, appeared at Canada’s University of Western Ontario in London to speak about his career and to promote his recently published autobiography Counselor. While there, he was interviewed by Ian Gillespie of the London Free Press. Naturally, the 81-year-old Sorensen is asked what his most vivid memory is of the Thousand Days, and just as naturally, he replies that it was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. He speaks of the enormous weight he felt, as a “34-year-old kid,” when drafting JFK’s letter to Soviet leader Nikita Khruschchev – a document which, he knew, might make the difference between peace and nuclear annihilation. The article continues:
Sorensen says things might have turned out quite differently if Richard Nixon had defeated Kennedy in the presidential election campaign of 1960.
“In that same fall of 1962, when Kennedy showed the kind of patience, discipline and wisdom that I mentioned (in the book) and resolved the Cuban missile crisis without firing a shot, Nixon was having a self-destructive campaign for governor of California,” he says. “Imagine if he had been in the White House and faced with the challenge that faced Kennedy?”
Well, as tens of millions of TV viewers know, last month Seth MacFarlane had no trouble imagining what would have happened; in the season-premiere episode of his Family Guy series, precocious infant Stewie Griffin and his canine sidekick Brian, with the help of an alternate-realities machine Stewie’s invented, visit several worlds differing from our own. With a push of the button, the baby and dog find themselves in the twisted, crumbling ruins of their hometown, Quahog, Rhode Island. “What happened?” Brian asked. Stewie consults the machine and replies, with his authoritative British accent: “This is what would have happened if Nixon had been president in the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
In-deed, as Dr. Zachary Smith used to say long ago. Last year, I read the transcript of an interview, as yet unpublished, which had just been conducted with a pundit whose words often appear in the columns and on the airwaves of the US and UK.
The pundit was asked about the most tragic events in the career of President Nixon. In his reply, he emphatically said that RN’s defeat by JFK in 1960 was one of the most tragic events in American history. Asked to explain, the journalist (whose identify might surprise the reader, but who will remain unnamed, since the interview has yet to be published) expressed the view that, had RN assumed the Presidency in January 1961:
a) the Bay of Pigs operation would have received full air support, thus resulting in the overthrow of Fidel Castro’s regime;
b) as a consequence, there would have been no Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, and thus no Cuban Missile Crisis;
c) the resulting setback in Soviet power and prestige would have forced Khruschchev to agree to detente a decade before Dr. Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy set it in motion and thus might have hastened the end of the Cold War as early as the 1970s.
As for Sorensen’s (and Macfarlane’s) suggestion that having Richard Nixon in the White House in October 1962 would have produced disaster, it’s worth noting that the President handled himself very well when faced with unexpected and dangerously escalating events during the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973.