Parable of the Sower: 5. Empathize with Your Enemies


Tonight is Christmas night, and one of my favorite Christmas carols is “Do You Hear What I Hear?”   I learned at a Unitarian Christmas Eve service that the carol has a surprising history:   it was written as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis which took place in October 1962.   There were two weeks in October 1962 when the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union was in danger of becoming a very hot war indeed.    You see, we almost had a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  At that time, John F. Kennedy was the president of the United States and Nikita Khrushchev was the Premier of the Soviet Union.

The United States had deployed nuclear missiles in Turkey that were capable of reaching Moscow, and so in a sort of global chess game, Khrushchev conceived of a plan to counter this by deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba that could be pointed towards the U.S.

On October 14th, 1962, their plans were found out.   A US spy plane on a reconnaissance mission over Cuba took pictures of seemed to be a missile base construction site.

The CIA analyzed the photographs identified the objects as being medium-range ballistic missiles.   These were the rockets that would carry nuclear warheads to their targets in the U.S., but they did not see any warheads themselves.    So they assumed that the warheads had not yet been delivered, and that the Soviet Union would soon be sending ships to deliver them to Cuba.

The President was informed of the existence of the missiles in Cuba and he held a meeting with members of the National Security Council, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military.    There were three options discussed, diplomacy, a limited blockade to prevent the warheads from reaching Cuba, and a full-scale invasion.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that the only option to remove the threat was a full-scale attack and invasion.   They figured that since the nuclear warheads were not yet in Cuba, the Soviets would not be able to stop the U.S.

The National Security Council preferred the blockade option, which Kennedy accepted,  but the military was directed to prepared for the full invasion just in case.

Meanwhile, on a beach in Miami, Florida there was a little boy who was playing with his grandfather.    He and his mother had flown from Chicago to spend a vacation there.    That night they saw President Kennedy on the television who announced that Cuba had missiles aimed at the U.S. and that the U.S. would launch a blockade around Cuba.

The Soviet Union now gave its response, saying that it would view a blockade as an act of aggression and that their ships would defy the blockade.   The situation was now at a stalemate; the U.S. raised its defense level to condition red.   There is only condition beyond this, condition white, which just happens to be the color of the center of a nuclear explosion.

That night, the boy who staying with his grandfather heard the voice of his father on the telephone calling to tell him that he loved him very much.    You see, the father was a reporter who knew the seriousness of the situation, and knew that his son was in a place that would very likely be a target of a nuclear attack in the case that war broke out.   He wanted to memorize the sound of his son’s voice in case he never heard it again.

At 6:00 PM on the night of October 26th, the State Department received by teletype a very long and emotional letter written by Khrushchev .

“Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of a rope in which you have tied the knot of war.   Let us take measures to untie that knot.  We are ready for this.”

Tommy Thompson from the State Department,  a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, was sitting at the elbow of the President reading what he referred to as the soft, diplomatic message which he said had come directly from Khrushchev.    Just then, another message that came in that was more threatening and it was the message that had written by the hardliners in the Kremlin.

The crucial question now was:   which message should the U.S. respond to, the soft message or the hard message?

Tommy Thompson had knowledge of the Russian language, but even more importantly, because of his time as ambassador to the Soviet Union, he knew the Premier personally.   He could empathize with him, and knew exactly what the Premier was thinking.   He said that the Premier was being pushed by his hardliners into a military confrontation and he wanted desperately to find a diplomatic solution that would allow him to save not only the Cuban people from invasion, but to help him save face politically.   President Kennedy finally understood exactly how the Premier felt.

President Kennedy listened to Tommy Thompson, and made a deal with the Soviet Union.   You pull out the missiles from Cuba, and we will remove ours from Turkey.    Khrushchev agreed, and the crisis was now over.

In 1992, it was discovered that the CIA had made a mistake.    Remember how they had assumed there were no warheads in Cuba?   There were over 160 nuclear warheads already in Cuba.   So the blockade accomplished nothing.    But more importantly, if Kennedy had listened to the military, who based their strategic plans on what the CIA had told them, the invasion would have failed and nuclear war would have resulted.

And I would not be standing here today.    Why?   Because that boy I mentioned in the story–was me.

I urge you to see the documentary The Fog of War, the former Secretary of State Robert McNamara listed several lessons to be learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, among them 1) be prepared to re-examine your reasoning, which you can see by the fact that the CIA made a mistake regarding the warheads, and 2) empathize with your enemy, which was the key to Tommy Thompson’s diplomatic breakthrough.

And to that, I would like to add a lesson of my own.  We can learn from Tommy Thompson and use the power of language to engage the language of power.   And it is the power of language, and its ability to be an window of understanding, and through that window, to be an instrument of peace, that has motivated me throughout my life.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for your post. This is the second time I read this post on your blog. Is this your favorite one? Thanks Habeeb

  2. Thanks, Habeeb. It turned out that a previous post I did on the Cuban Missile Crisis was relevant to my theme, so I “repurposed” the post. It’s one of my favorite posts because it recalls a time when diplomacy won out over a military solution to an international crisis!

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