THE STRATEGIC LAWYER

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Kennedy & Khrushchev at CIGI

I am fortunate to live in a town that has two universities, and two top-notch institutes. The Perimeter Institute (aka “PI”) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (aka “CIGI”) are within sight of each other, on either side of one of the main streets in Waterloo. PI does theoretical physics, and CIGI does international governance. Most awesomely for the likes of the general public, they both do public events, speaker series and outreach.

Last night, CIGI had a free event, featuring James Blight, Sergei Khrushchev and moderated by janet Lang. The purported topic was speculative–what sf writers might call “alternate history” and what they referred to as “virtual history”–namely, what might have happened if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, and he and Nikita Khrushchev might have had more time in which to pursue their approaches and policies.

Of course, the ouster for Khrushchev, as his son Sergei pointed out, was an internal matter, and would have been unaffected by the goings on in the US, so the question of whether they would really have had six more years (assuming Kennedy’s re-election), even if Kennedy had only been grazed on that fateful day, places the discussion into an even more speculative realm.

The talk itself, however, only got to the speculative stage relatively late, after a fairly long process of setting the scene–and in all honesty, I’m glad of it. The speculation was interesting, but I was truly engaged by having the opportunity to hear expert scholars, one of whom happened to be the son of one of the two key players, talking about their understanding and sense of what was going on behind the scenes of such events as the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I genuinely enjoyed just getting that deeper context, as the speakers honed in on the pivotal events of that particular period, and talked about the perceptions, the rationales, the assumptions and the paradigms behind certain strategic decisions and moves made by each side during these crises.

The talk is available as a webcast via the above link, so I won’t go into too much detail about the back and forth of the discussion. Instead, I wanted to share a few of the points, often just made in passing, that, often quite subtly, reframed my perspective on the era. I was born well after the events described, and so by the time I learned about this particular corner of history, all of those events, and the ways in which the consequences that flowed from those moments actually shifted the lens through which those pivotal moments were perceived and portrayed, meant that there were certain ways of thinking about that period that were well established by the time I got around to learning about it. Digging behind those assumptions can often be extremely instructive.

As a simple example, one of the significant re-framers for me was the emphasis on the fact that given its relative newness at the time of Kennedy’s administration, many in the military just saw nuclear warheads as the latest, greatest and most devastating in an arsenal of increasingly dangerous weapons to be deployed upon provocation. Kennedy saw them as something on a completely different scale–as pieces in a “Doomsday machine” as Blight put it, which, once deployed, would result in mutually assured destruction. This obviously became the prevailing notion, and is now so fundamental to us as to be obvious–and it always has been, since the moment I first heard about nuclear weapons as a child.

So it was a fascinating moment for me, to be taken to a time when that wasn’t just accepted and assumed wisdom, and would have been a disputed or minority position. Knowing that–the fact that this was not a presumptive starting point–helped make sense of a good deal of the debates and rhetoric of the era and why some would have taken a bellicose position that seems absurd to most of us today.

Similarly, the discussion around the idea of how warfare had, as a result of nuclear tech, shifted, because the focus was on weapons that no-one dared deploy, but the powers felt they needed to have, to prevent themselves from being vulnerable, was fascinating. Just as the trench warfare of WWI was as horrifying as it was because weapon technology had outpaced the strategies and tactics that had previously been standard in waging war, the Cold War was what arose when the technology moved so far forward that everyone had to work around ever having to deploy it. In some ways this is a point so obvious and foundational that it hardly bears mention, but at the same time, I find it rewarding to examine the reasons behind those established foundations because that can often re-illumine the events that resulted and the era to which those political/international relations/policy foundations gave rise.

Yet another example of one of those subtle shifts in perspective that came from examining moments that are not normally questioned: to set the scene, the speakers showed a few video clips of different moments. One was the live news footage from Kennedy’s assassination. Again, it’s obvious when one thinks about it, that in those initial moments of confusion, Kennedy’s death would not have been inevitable, but rather cause for astonishment, horror, grief and a sense of profound uncertainty at being poised at the brink of history. But by now, we have all lived with the immutable reality of his death for fifty years, and so we don’t think about the uncertainty of those brief moments, when the reality of Kennedy as president changed, and the incredible truth that someone had shot and killed him, emerged. (One of the ironies is of course that of the two leaders, many would have assumed, given the history of how leadership had been changing in the U.S.S.R. that it would have been Khrushchev who would have met with the violent death, not Kennedy.)

Other intriguing observations: the different ways in which the U.S. and European/continental states look at deployment of weapons near its borders and how, as a result, Krushchev miscalculated and misread the situation that gave rise to the Cuban missile crisis (in continental nations, many of the nations have been faced with “Enemy at the Gate” situations, often for hundreds of years. They’re used to playing chicken and and having guarded borders between hostile nations. The US, not so much, so they responded to the threat of an armed Cuba rather differently that Khrushchev had evidently expected).

Similarly, the speakers’ comments about the perspectives, errors and miscalculations of the two leaders during the Bay of Pigs and the building of the Berlin wall made for highly engaging content for me.

If you have some interest in this era, but like me, don’t necessarily have a great depth of knowledge of it, then the talk might uncover some intriguing tidbits and perspectives. I note that the webcast doesn’t show the video clips, so you may need to scan through those sections.

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This entry was posted on November 9, 2013 by in Politics.
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