The unprecedented events of late 1962 through mid-1963 are well known. Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev gambled by trying to position offensive surface-to-ground nuclear missiles in Cuba, cheating on promises to limit their Cuban arsenal to defensive weapons. The U.S. caught the Soviets in mid-course of installing the missiles and imposed a naval quarantine. The Soviets agreed to withdraw the offensive missiles in return for a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba and a secret pledge to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey at a later date. After coming within hours of war, the U.S. and Soviet Union went on a few months later to sign a test ban agreement.
Even in retrospect the outcome seems a bit of legerdemain. How does one go from the brink of war to a breakthrough peace treaty in under a year? Kennedy's methodological starting point was to avoid vilifying the Soviet Union, or declaring the adversary to be evil or beyond rationality. At every step, Kennedy assumed that Soviet counterparts were rational, though not necessarily beyond mistakes in their chosen actions. He assumed that the Soviet Union would seek tactical advantages where it could get them but would pull back from self-annihilation.
Today's game theorists would describe Kennedy's strategy as "Generous Tit-for-Tat" (GTFT). A player adopts a position of cooperation as long as the other side cooperates. If the second player begins to cheat, the first player stops cooperating as well, to show the cheater that there are adverse consequences to the collapse of this arrangement. The door remains open to future cooperation, however, if the cheater reverts to form. And generously, the first player might initiate renewed cooperation, with a view to enticing the former cheater to reciprocate.
The GTFT strategy has several powerful features. In game theory jargon, it is "nice" in that it favors cooperation; it is retaliatory, in that it responds to threats with counter-threats; it is "forgiving" in that it keeps the door open for renewed cooperation after a breakdown, and it is "generous" in that it searches for cooperation even after an adversary has over-reached. It is so successful and robust that many evolutionary biologists suppose that the basic strategy is somewhat hard-wired in human attitudes.
In 1962, Kennedy favored cooperation with the Soviet Union unless provoked. Yet when the Soviets cheated on their promises by installing offensive weapons in Cuba, Kennedy reverted to non-cooperation by establishing a naval blockade and the threat of attack against Cuba. The world reached the cliff, but the Soviets stood down and war was avoided. A few months later, Kennedy went further by "generously" initiating the concept of a Test Ban Treaty. The gambit succeeded, and proved to be a pivotal turning point in Cold War de-escalation.
He believed that the potential for cooperation was grounded in our common humanity.
Kennedy explained his thinking in his historic commencement address at American University in June 1963. Kennedy made clear that the Soviet Union, like the United States, acted rationally: "Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war." Moreover, common interests, said Kennedy, would lay the basis for common agreements. "In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours. And even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest."
Kennedy stressed the need to adopt approaches that encourage a non-cooperative adversary to revert to cooperation once again, by avoiding humiliation of one's adversary. "And above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy -- or of a collective death-wish for the world."
Kennedy's sentiments were radical at the time. Many of Kennedy's military advisors argued for preemptive attacks on Cuba. Much of the American public rejected the idea that the Soviet Union wanted peace and would abide by peace agreements, and believed that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable. Hate and fear of the Soviet Union then was akin to the widespread distrust of many today for Iran and North Korea. Even vis--vis countries of opprobrium, Kennedy stressed the need to respect rather than humiliate the adversary.
He believed that the potential for cooperation was grounded in our common humanity. "So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal." As we face today's challenges and threats, we will do well to grasp the insight that our counterparts and adversaries, like us, are searching for survival and for a future for their children. Just as occurred 45 years ago, that critical insight might prove to be the key to keeping us alive and secure.