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Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis to Detente Introduction

In A Nutshell


In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon both won the presidency in part by positioning themselves as fierce anticommunist Cold Warriors. Once in office, however, both presidents found their ambitions of rolling back worldwide Communism thwarted by the threat of apocalyptic nuclear war. In the nuclear age, direct confrontation with the Soviet Empire simply became too dangerous to contemplate—a fact dramatized with terrifying clarity by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. By the early 1970s, President Nixon—who had built his entire political career upon the principle of anticommunism—led a shift in American policy away from confrontation with the Soviet Union and toward détente, a policy of mutual acceptance and peaceful coexistence.


Why Should I Care?

Humankind has never come as close to apocalypse as it did in October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves locked in stalemate over nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba. For thirteen days, the world teetered on the brink. Finally, the Soviets relented and agreed to remove their missiles from the island. "We're eyeball to eyeball," said the American Secretary of State, "and I think the other fellow just blinked." Doomsday was averted, and Americans emerged from their backyard fallout shelters full of admiration for President John F. Kennedy, who had held his nerve with icy coolness to prevail in the standoff.

But everything Americans thought they understood about the Cuban Missile Crisis was wrong. Kennedy had not, in fact, prevailed through sheer resolve; he had defused the situation through negotiation and a secret compromise with the Soviet leadership. Kennedy's genius in the Missile Crisis was not truly his fearlessrefusal to bend to Soviet demands; to the contrary, it was his willingness to make a deal to avoid nuclear holocaust. But Kennedy's deal remained a secret, so most Americans learned exactly the wrong lesson from the crisis. Their determination to emulate Kennedy's supposed uncompromising resolve would not serve them well in Vietnam.

The true story is here. So is the story of how a ping-pong team changed the global geopolitical landscape.

What's not to like about that?

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