Sheldon Stern, who was a historian at the JFK library for 23 years, points out that JFK stood up to his military leaders who were hell-bent on a full-scale invasion of Cuba, while today we are hoping that our military leaders might stand up to a President’s reckless decision to unleash the military and risk nuclear war.
It is all but impossible to imagine this kind of informed, rational and mature leadership coming from the Oval Office today. If discretion and common sense are to prevail, it will require, as noted above, turning the central dynamic of the Cuban missile crisis upside down; this time, the top military figures in the administration may be forced to try to short-circuit an impulsive over-reaction by their commander-in-chief. Today, fortunately, most senior military officers are vastly more politically sophisticated and historically educated than their 1962 counterparts (who received most of their formal military education before the advent of nuclear weapons). Indeed, Mattis has edited an important book about American views of our military and McMaster is the author of a highly-regarded study of the failure of civilian and military leadership to prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War. There is room for hope.
I too hope that cooler heads will prevail, and if the coolest heads are in the military at the moment I am behind them. But if the coolest heads are the military, it is a sign that the civilian leadership has completely failed. I am not confident that it will get us out of trouble this time, and even if it does it is a scary precedent for the future. Basically we are saying it is okay for the military to step in and take over in an emergency. Nothing in our constitution is supposed to allow that, and for it to happen the President has to be extraordinarily weak and the entire rest of the civilian government has to stand by and do absolutely nothing.