Norman Birnbaum: JFK’s Presidential Courage—June 10, 1963Roundup: Talking About History tags: nuclear weapons, The Nation, JFK, American University, Norman Birnbaum
Norman Birnbaum is professor emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the founding editorial board of New Left Review and is a member of the editorial board of The Nation. His most recent book is After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century (Oxford).
The Cold War did not end with the opening of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. By the time of these events, it had already lost much of its earlier intensity. A skein of international agreements, some formal and explicit, others tacit and even denied, averted the dangers of unintended confrontations. More importantly, the populations on both sides of the Iron Curtain were disinclined to think that the risk of nuclear obliteration was worth incurring.
There was conflict between the blocs, conducted by proxy or through covert operations. Still, in 1973 the US and the Soviet Union did not allow their client states, Israel and Egypt, to drag them into war. Where the superpowers openly intervened, each suffered not only military defeat but immense loss of moral standing—the US in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union before that undermined its ritualized criticisms of American imperialism by invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 to terminate an experiment in democratic socialism. The US in 1973 paid a similar price by using the Chilean armed forces to destroy Chilean democracy.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the superpowers recklessly stationed new nuclear missiles in Europe. Unrest in both parts of Europe led to the stabilization of the situation. Amidst this turmoil, the Iron Curtain in fact became more porous. Cultural and political elites on each side developed the familiarity that made crisis management possible. The Helsinki agreements of 1971 provided its signatories with a lesson in unintended consequences. Its provisions on human rights were casually accepted by the Soviet bloc governments as harmless rhetorical conceits. Few in the west thought these significant either (recall the photo of Kissinger dozing off at the ratification ceremony), yet they provided the moral legitimation for the movements that eventually ended one party rule in Soviet Europe....