For two days at St. Gregory we are celebrating Mission days, a new way of organizing our out-of-class days. In each of four quarters, we will take two days to focus on learning more deeply each of our mission’s four core values, character, scholarship, leadership and innovation. For character, the first of these, we have a broad-based learning program, including a storytelling session in which we are sharing those inspirational tales oft-told in our families about ancestors or relatives who inspire us in the realm of character.
I was delighted to be invited, and delighted to share this story of my grandfather, Ambassador Edwin M. “Ed” Martin.
Students, let me open by saying how happy I am that you are here to learn more about character by participating in storytelling and story-listening. It has been said that the two most powerful words in the English language are “for example;” in other words, the two most important words in effective communication are “for example,” because there is no better way to understand something being explained– to better retain it, internalize it, apply it– than to hear about the action in practice, particularly when that action is performed by characters we care about. The characters we care about the most are often, of course, our own family members, which is why family stories can be so powerful.
Many of us revere our grandfathers and grandmothers; many of us think of them as our heroes. For instance, I remember vividly being 6 years old, when my next door neighbor friend told me full of sincerity and certainty that his grandfather killed Hitler. I believed it at first, but then over time I slowly realized he was exaggerating, but it speaks to how much he viewed his grandfather as a hero in his life.
I’m going to tell you now about the time when my grandfather saved the world—or at least saved the US & Russia from a major nuclear war— and I will understand that you may be skeptical about this claim, as I should have been skeptical about my friend’s claim about his grandfather. So be skeptical, and understand that perhaps in a few small ways I am exaggerating, but, nonetheless, I am serious too: As you will see, my grandfather saved our nation, and Russia, from a devastating nuclear war.
The story is set during the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis: how many of you know about the Cuban Missile Crisis? Anyone know when it took place? It was October, 1962. Nearly all historians of the era agree that this was the moment in the decades from 1945 to the present when nuclear war between the US and the USSR came closest to occurring, and many Americans living in that time thought it was the most frightening moment they have lived through. It was a very scary ordeal.
In the background of the crisis was very high tension between the two superpowers. The crisis began when spy planes flew over Cuba, taking photos of things happening there, and you need to remember that Cuba under Fidel Castro had just recently become an ally of the Soviet Union. Back to the lab they took the photos, and examined them with magnifying glasses, finding, shockingly, in early October that the Soviets were installing nuclear launch pads in Cuba. The news was brought to the President, for whom it was stunning: You have to understand how close Cuba is the US, and the threat posed by a surprise missile launch from this proximity.
The President convened a small group of his top advisers: Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, the Head of the CIA, etc. One among them was the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Edwin Martin. Together they met in what was called the Executive Committee, or Excom, for the famous 13 days of the crisis, huddling and managing it together very closely.
I am going to argue to you today that the crisis had two critical junctures, two key forks in the road, two moments when especially major decisions had to be made and where a different decision could or would have led to a very different outcome. In each, my grandfather played an especially significant role.
The first key moment occurred right away, in the very first days of the crisis. The question was immediate: what do we do first? What is our immediate response? At the start, a highly influential and assertive group of the ExCom members argued for a prompt airstrike against the installations; it seemed that this was the majority viewpoint and had all the momentum behind it. “Most of the group was moving along the bombing track.” (Reeves, p, 378). But in what I think was an outstanding display of character, my grandfather resisted, and favored an alternative, blockading Soviet ships from entering Cuban waters and delivering supplied, a blockade referred to as the “quarantine.” Quoting my grandfather in his book, Kennedy and Latin America, “I disagreed with the view of several by supporting [instead] the quarantine.” (Martin, p,. 409).
After several days of discussion, remarkably, the quarantine option rose from a distant second to the chosen path, and an immediate airstrike was ruled out. We should recognize that the historical records emphasizes that Bobby Kennedy, the President’s brother, Attorney General, and a key player in the ExCom, prevailed in this, pushing hard for the blockade/quarantine alternative, but it was important that he had had, from the beginning, my grandfather’s support in these intense meetings, and to overcome the opposition of the initial pro-airstrike majority, every bit of support for quarantine made a big difference.
Jumping ahead 30 years, in 1993 Russian and American officials from the Cuban Missile Crisis gathered and reviewed it carefully. At that time, to the shock of all participating, the Russians revealed both that there were already armed nuclear weapons in place in Cuba at that time, but that the local commander had every authority to fire them, and most likely would have had there been an airstrike against Cuba. (Martin, p. 4o8). Thus we can say that because the quarantine alternative prevailed, we avoided what very probably would have been nuclear war.
A few things about my grandfather’s character, and remember this story is intended for Character Day, are illuminated here. First, he knew to take time in his decision-making, to not immediately follow his gut, to seriously, thoughtfully, and thoroughly consider the implications and possibly unexpected outcomes of his choices. When the pressure was on, in those first hours after discovery of the launch pads, many or most urged we strike right away, but he instead pushed to slow down the decision-making and make a better decision. Students, I know when I have a tough decision to make,
Second, he had the independence of thought and courage of his convictions to go against the majority opinion and hold his own, ultimately to prevail for his point of view. It was no easy thing to oppose the majority, and many are cowed into changing their opinion to suit the majority or into keeping silent. But my grandfather spoke up, and so should you.
Third, one of his main reasons for opposing the airstrike (or invasion) was his deep concern about how such an action would be viewed among American allies in Latin America, the Presidents of Mexico, Argentine, Brazil, etc. As Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, these were his constituents, in a sense; they were whom he was responsible for maintaining good relations, and he took the time to empathize with their point of view, to see it from their perspective, to feel what they would feel, and he knew they would be deeply offended by an American attack, and he brought this perspective to the ExCom. It was in part by his having this empathy, and making this argument, that he was able to help the group toward an alternative choice– for quarantine, not airstrike. Students, try yourself to take the perspective of others, to walk in their shoes or see through their eyes, before making decisions or taking actions.
Onto the second critical juncture, which occurred toward the end of the 13 day crisis. The blockade, or quarantine, was working to stop Soviet ships, but not to remove the nuclear launchpads. It had been a terrifying moment, as they had had no idea at first what would happen when the first Russian ship approached the first US Navy ship and was told to turn back, but turn back it did. But ships did not return all the way back to Russia, just back out to the Atlantic. There was enormous suspense: the blockade was in place, but what would the USSR do next? How would it be resolved? The nuclear launchpads were still being built in Cuba, and the threat still rising. The Soviets at first issued strong denunciations; the American public was increasingly frightened and obsessed with the crisis, and the anxiety was unbearable. “Most ExCom members thought that the President would have to decide very soon– not between blockade and bombing, but between bombing and invasion,” (Reeves, 408), and we know now, in retrospect, that would have meant a near-certain nuclear war.
Then, in the midst of this terrible tensio, a letter came to the White House from the Soviet leader, Khrushchev. In the letter, he effectively stood down, and agreed to end the quarrel: if the US would promise to not invade Cuba, then the USSR would take out the nuclear launchpads and the crisis would end.
Students, how do you think the Kennedy team responded at first? “Party!” Yes, indeed, it seemed a successful end to the crisis, until, only hours later, a second letter arrived from Khrushchev: this one was entirely different in tone and demanding that the weapons would be withdrawn only if the US took retreat and pull-back actions in Europe and Turkey which President Kennedy’s team deemed to dangerous to take.
This was the second fork in the road: what to do now as they confronted these two contradictory letters?
Many in the Kennedy administration took the second letter as a heightening of tensions, and some very influential figures at first saw it as all the more reason to prepare for war. The President “was beginning to feel cornered. The quarantine had failed.” (Reeves, 416). “The Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to begin the invasion within thirty six hours.” (Reeves, 417) The Excom met again, trying to figure out how to resolve the confusion and crisis of the two contrary letters, and what to do next which would not mean a complete defeat for the US nor would lead to nuclear war.
At this second critical juncture of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this second terrible fork in the road, at this moment, something critically important happened: “Edwin Martin tried out an idea. “Suppose that we give him [Khrushchev] a letter which is addressed to his letter of yesterday [the first letter] … [in which] we write “thank you.”” (Reeves, 415).
I love that phrasing: he tried out an idea: an idea nobody else had though of, and one he was creative enough to develop and bold enough to put forward. Instead of obsessing over the the challenge, demands, threats, and crisis created by the second letter, as everyone else was doing, my grandfather Ed Martin’s suggestion was to ignore the second letter, and respond to the first letter publicly, sharing it with the world and saying to Khrushchev yes, let’s do it, let’s make peace on your proposed terms.
The idea seemed, at first, to be crazy. “The President said that if he were Khrushchev he would just say he wasn’t interested.” (Reeves, 415).
But gradually, my grandfather’s crazy idea gained ground, (417), and, after a few more hours of highly stressful discussion, it was the option President Kennedy took. “At 8:05 pm, the President released his answer to Khrushchev’s first letter, with no mention of” any of the demands of the second letter. (Reeves, 421). The next day, Khrushchev sent a letter accepting President Kennedy’s acceptance of the first letter and promise not to invade Cuba, and agreed to remove the nuclear launch pads and materials from Cuba. “[The crisis] was over as quickly as that.” (Reeves, p. 424). Nuclear war was averted.
Students, what qualities of character and habits of mind were demonstrated by my grandfather’s actions in this second juncture of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Well, some of the same things we saw above, but I’d add two others. First, creativity of thought, or as we say sometime, “thinking out of the box.” It wasn’t an easy idea to come up with: let’s ignore the second letter, the one which everyone was thinking about obsessively, and just respond to the first. But he had the kind of mind that could see an option others couldn’t easily recognize.
Second, he displayed a temperament and a judiciousness to decide not only what must be addressed and responded to, but also what could be set aside. We say sometimes that discretion is the better part of a valor; we should remember that critical thinking and evaluation is often about determining what information should be dismissed, ignored, or dropped so we can keep our focus on the important things. The second letter was a great, terrible, threat and challenge, and most of the ExCom were so upset or offended by the threat that they saw only red, only danger, only competition. Edwin Martin was able to look past that, and focus on what was most important: Khrushchev did want peace, he did want a settlement, and let’s grab the good and work on the positive opportunity, not obsess over the bad news.
Students, sometimes when you hear or see a friend, peer, or classmate say or something really nice or great, and then do or say something really mean or nasty, you have a choice too. You can decide to fixate on the negative: you can react and respond just to the mean or nasty thing. Indeed, most of the time that is what most people do, and that is what most of the members of the ExCom for President Kennedy were doing: responding to his second, mean letter. Or you can make another choice: you can choose to respond to the nice thing, and provide positive reinforcement for that nice action or comment: tell that peer or friend you really like it when they do nice things, and it makes you more want to be their friends, just as my grandfather suggested we do with Khrushchev.
You understand better now, students, I hope, why I believe my grandfather saved the world. Thank you for being such good listeners.
Reeves, Richard. President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Martin, Edwin M. Kennedy & Latin America. Maryland: University Press of America, 1994.