I will never forget my 17th birthday a half a century ago on Oct. 16, 1962, as it was also almost my last birthday—ever—for it was on that fateful day that began a 13-day crisis that came within a hair's breath of ending the world as we know it. My birthday that year was also the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The "terror" that I felt for those two weeks (and for a long time afterwards for that matter) was palpable and chilling. It was every bit as significant to me—and perhaps even more so—as 9/11 is to so many today who did not live through that crisis half a century ago this month when we all came within minutes—literally—of never seeing the sun come up again.
At 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 22, President Kennedy appeared on television to inform us of the installation of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba that had been discovered six days earlier. It was a speech that I will never, never forget.
"Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island," the President said matter of factly. "The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere."
The President then described in detail what had been found over the previous week and the danger it was to us all followed by the sobering words:
"It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."
I can still hear those chilling words in my mind today a half century later as if they were spoken just last night.
"I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations," he went on to say. "I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man.
"He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction—by returning to his government's own words that it had no need to station missiles outside its own territory, and withdrawing these weapons from Cuba—by refraining from any action which will widen or deepen the present crisis—and then by participating in a search for peaceful and permanent solutions."
The Generals in the Pentagon lead by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay— who incredibly called the eventual peaceful resolution of the crisis "the greatest defeat in our history"—were all for bombing Cuba "back to the stone age." However by the application of caution, judgement, and more than a little good luck of the civilian leadership so wisely mandated by the Constitution, the horrors of a global nuclear war were avoided at the last minute and tens if not hundreds of millions of Americans, Russians, and others were saved from incineration.
In the half century since many wars and lesser conflicts have been fought around the world with the loss of countless lives. Unfortunately this is the way it has always been with man and will always will be. But we have also not come as close again to the nuclear armageddon we all came face to face with half a century ago.
The lesson I take from this was that who we choose for President every four years is important for more than just "the economy"—much more. President Obama and Vice President Biden have shown me the judgement and understanding of world affairs over the last four years to give me confidence that they understand this. Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, not only have not, but they have offered virtually no demonstrable understanding of, or experience in, foreign affairs at any level.
What is much more troubling, however, is that the group of "advisors" they have surrounded themselves with in this area are made up almost exclusively of the "neo cons" from the Bush administration -- most of whom have never worn a military uniform -- that, as noted in the endorsement of the President's reelection in the current issue of The New Yorker, involved us in the "grinding and unnecessary war in Iraq, which killed a hundred thousand Iraqis and four thousand Americans, and depleted the federal coffers."
The vacuousness and constantly mixed messages that Mr. Romney has shown by his words and actions over the past months in this area were fully exposed in his "debate" on foreign relations with President Obama on Monday in Boca Raton, Florida. Ironically this debate was held just a few miles from where Mr. Romney had earlier betrayed his lack of leadership in this area at his now infamous behind closed doors $50,000-a-plate fund raiser last May.
"You say you move things along the best way you can," Mr. Romney said that night. "You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that it's going to remain an unsolved problem. I mean, we look at that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it. And we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."
In other words a Romney Administration response to a foreign policy crisis would likely be: "Punt and hope somehow it goes away."
The President probably said it best during the debate when he observed about the dangers of Mr. Romney's lack of understanding of—or even apparent interest in—the world outside the bubble of the corporate boardroom.
"Governor, here’s one thing I’ve learned as commander in chief," the President said. "You’ve got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean.
"I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq despite the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day. You indicated that we shouldn’t be passing nuclear treaties with Russia, despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it.
"You’ve said that first we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong but you were also confusing and sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies. So what we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map. And unfortunately, that’s the kind of opinions that you’ve offered throughout this campaign, and it is not a recipe for American strength or keeping America safe over the long term."
As it was half a century ago in October 1962, the world is still a dangerous place and what happens beyond our borders—and who we choose to be our President to deal with that—matters to both the preservation and economic success of the United States, and to world peace.
And it matters a lot.