April 17, 2018

JFK: Learning From Your Mistakes

In April 1961, John F. Kennedy had a really unpleasant – but enlightening – experience.

The invasion of Cuba by a force of exiles from that unhappy island, which had been hatched and supported by the government of the United States, met disaster at a place called the Bay of Pigs. The event was a major embarrassment for the Administration and for the country. In what may have been worse, the outcome actually had the opposite of its intended effect: strengthening – rather than eliminating – the Castro government and further raising tensions between the newly “liberated island” and its uncomfortable neighbor to the north.

To his credit, Kennedy took responsibility for the disaster, noting that “Victory has a hundred fathers; defeat is an orphan.”

His subsequent public approval ratings went up…not down…perhaps suggesting the potential benefits of accountability to our current crowd of politicos.

Douglas MacArthur, one of the architects of victory in the Second World War, told Kennedy afterward that he’d been lucky to screw up so badly when there was – in reality – so little at stake beyond professional embarrassment. But he’d need to do better next time.

Once JFK got over that embarrassment (“How could I have been so stupid?”), he began to review the lessons embedded in the fiasco. There were several worth mentioning:

1. He learned that the so-called “experts” may not always offer sound advice,
despite their impressive pedigrees.

2. He learned that his own failure to ask the really tough questions about the
operation had allowed fatal flaws in the plan to go unchallenged.

3. He learned that his own gut was a good guide and that, when you find yourself
justifying a course of action intellectually while your gut says otherwise, it’s
a good time to slow down and examine your assumptions.

Readers may not be old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis personally but one could argue that it was the closest the world has come to a major nuclear exchange between superpowers…one that would have devastated the planet and cost millions (no exaggeration) of lives.

That event – with its enormous risk – arrived in JFK’s lap only 17 months after the Bay of Pigs (October 1962).

Once again, the President surrounded himself with a roomful of “wise men.”

And, once again, he got plenty of bad advice…most of it, in fact.

The best and brightest he had assembled – including representatives from the Joint Chiefs Of Staff – urged him to hit Cuban missile facilities with a series of air strikes and then follow those attacks with an invasion of the island.

JFK resisted this advice and pushed for an alternative and less drastic solution, reasoning that triggering a nuclear exchange would be the “final failure” in a very literal way.

We now know that the missiles were capable of being armed with nuclear warheads on short notice, that the Cubans (and Russians on the island) had both tactical missiles – some zeroed in on the U.S. base at Guantanamo – and intermediate range versions capable of reaching New York.

In the end, Armageddon was avoided and a solution agreeable to both Russians and Americans (Fidel Castro was not happy) reached, which tacitly included the removal of American missiles from Turkey following a decent interval.

Not a bad example of the value of learning from one’s mistakes.