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Why the North Korean nuclear threat is no Cuban missile crisis

A man watches a TV screen showing Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un during a news program in Seoul.

Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

The growing nuclear anxiety felt by a majority of Americans – borne out in recent opinion polls, and in parallels made to the Cuban missile crisis – points to just how much the recent standoff with North Korea has seeped into the public consciousness.

But the Cuban missile crisis and the Korean missile crisis have nothing in common, except for the chilling presence of nuclear weapons that defined each deadly confrontation.

Separated by 55 years – and by more than a half-century of technology, changed geopolitical factors and political norms – the two episodes stand as measures of how far the world has come in a relatively short historical period and, frightfully, how close it can come to calamity and catastrophe.

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The principal similarity between these crises – the missiles of October and the missiles of August – is of course the nuclear factor, though, in truth, speaking of nuclear warheads and nuclear warfare in August, 2017 is not at all like speaking of them in October, 1962. The difference is roughly equivalent to the difference in potency between the marijuana of 1962, when the drug was relatively rare and relatively weak, and the marijuana of today, when it is far more prevalent and far stronger.

In 1962, the world quaked as the two superpowers, substantially balanced in power, squared off over the presence of missiles in Cuba, placed 90 miles from the United States by the Soviet Union, the two principals in a Cold War that dated from 1945. The crisis ended when the United States imposed a quarantine around Cuba and Soviet ships bearing missile components turned away.

The remark from Dean Rusk, the former U.S. secretary of state, summed up the denouement and eventually entered the popular idiom: "We're eyeball to eyeball," he whispered to national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, "and I think the other fellow just blinked."

This situation is different in almost every aspect.

The two leaders in 1962 were John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev, two veteran and mature politicians who had, only a year and half earlier, actually met each other, in a fraught summit in Vienna that Mr. Kennedy, rattled by his rival's bellicosity, described as "the worst thing in my life." Nonetheless, the two men knew each other and had taken each other's measure.

This is not the case with two relatively novice leaders, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Donald J. Trump of the United States.

Mr. Kennedy, the son of an ambassador, was steeped in history and diplomacy. He had read about Marlborough and Castlereagh, had travelled widely abroad on congressional fact-finding missions and even had his senior Harvard thesis, about Britain on the run-up to the Second World War, published as a book. He knew and respected diplomatic norms. He had a set of veteran foreign policy advisors, derided later as the "best and the brightest" but who were, in fact, the best and the brightest.

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Mr. Trump is no student of history, has travelled abroad solely on business, and has shown little respect for diplomacy's striped-pants conventions. He has not read widely. Nor has he shown much interest in the work of America's intelligence establishment, which he has repeatedly derided.

Then take Mr. Khrushchev. He was a veteran of revolutionary communism, knew and worked with Joseph Stalin and, though earthy, even crude, knew his way around the Soviet bureaucracy and had given speeches before the United Nations, albeit threatening ones – once, in 1960, involving the banging of a shoe. He may have seemed threatening to the West but he was basically a conventional world politician.

Not so with Mr. Kim, who has lived in isolation, surrounded by sycophants, partial to the sort of fantasies that never intruded on Mr. Khrushchev. He has no known diplomatic experience nor ties. He has never appeared in a world forum, nor has he been exposed to the give and take of diplomacy. He even defies Lord Palmerston's principal, which said that Great Britain in the 19th century had no allies, only interests. He has neither.

The global situation could not be more different. China was a peripheral power in 1962, totally uninvolved in the Cuban missile crisis. It is now a vital power, armed with nuclear weapons itself and with a potentially vital role to play. The world then was bipolar, with the United States and the Soviet Union each with its own weapons, geopolitical strategies and alliances. That no longer is the case. There is but one superpower today.

The two leaders in 1962 headed rival ideologies and economic systems. There is no such rivalry between the United States and North Korea. The two leaders in 1962 were cautious and conservative in their rhetoric. This could not be farther from the truth today.

In 1962, the crisis was resolved in part by Mr. Kennedy's use of a ruse from a novel by Anthony Trollope. We can assume neither leader has read Trollope, nor is familiar with the ploy, which involved a suitor ignoring a hostile note from his lover and instead answering a promising one. That might work today, if only there were notes being exchanged.

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But nothing is imminent, the head of the CIA told FOX News on Sunday. "I've heard folks talking about being on the cusp of a nuclear war. I've seen no intelligence that would indicate that we're in that place today," said CIA director Mike Pompeo.

One last comparison. The crisis of 1962 was solved in part by back-channel negotiations, one of which was conducted in an unremarkable Chinese restaurant in northwest Washington. One can only hope this is the case today, either in a Chinese restaurant or in a Chinese diplomatic mission. There were faint signs Friday that such talks may be underway.

If nothing else, the current crisis proves that history does not repeat itself, and surely not, as Karl Marx suggested, as farce. Sometimes, to corrupt a phrase sometimes attributed to the America author Mark Twain, it doesn't even rhyme.

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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