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Historical Analogies: Handle With Care

by Michael D. Richards on Feb 5, 2001

Michael D. Richards

Historical analogies, comparing something in the present with what appears to be its counterpart in the past, are not created equal. Some are better — or at least more useful when it comes to seeking guidance from history — than others.

A case in point is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. As “Thirteen Days,” the new Kevin Costner movie on that tense Cold War episode, makes clear, the inappropriate use of historical analogies can point toward foreign policy disaster.

“Thirteen Days” recounts that when President John F. Kennedy and his advisers learned that the Soviet Union was installing medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, putting most areas of the eastern United States at risk, they immediately thought of the lessons of Munich. It was at the 1938 Munich conference that Britain and France failed to stand up to Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Nazi Germany. Their attempt to buy him off with a strategic chunk of Czechoslovakia failed. Their appeasement, as it came to be called, failed to prevent World War II.

The “lessons of Munich” taught American Cold War policy makers that any sign of weakness in relation to an enemy ran the risk of leading to World War III. Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader responsible for introducing nuclear missiles into Cuba, was no different from Hitler, according to this view. Seen from this perspective, the situation demanded a resolute action from the United States.

The film, accurately depicting Kennedy’s response to the crisis, helps us see that not every historical analogy is a useful analogy. Every American, President George W. Bush in particular, needs to understand this basic concept.

Kennedy used his advisers in the crisis to get options on the table, reserving for himself the final decision. We can see for ourselves in “Thirteen Days” the dilemma presented by a proposed military response to the crisis, seemingly called for by the “lessons of Munich.” Yet the proposed surgical air strikes, military advisers agreed, would probably not destroy all the missiles and would require a follow-up invasion of Cuba. This raised the possibility of Soviet retaliation elsewhere, most likely in Berlin, and even the chance of a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Something of an amateur historian, Kennedy, while still a senator, had written “Profiles in Courage,” a book composed of studies of Americans who had stood fast under pressure. In “Thirteen Days,” he mentions having recently read Barbara Tuchman’s book on the opening days of World War I, “The Guns of August.”

In fact, the Tuchman book actually did influence Kennedy’s thinking in the missile crisis. He was struck by the way European leaders were boxed in by their military plans and by what they assumed the other side intended. The result was a war that cost millions of lives. It seemed to him that the United States now stood at just such a moment and that the appropriate analogy was not Munich but the origins of World War I.

Moving with great caution, both Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, came to understand how easily the crisis could slide into a nuclear Armageddon. The military and many civilian advisers, however, were unable to see past the Munich analogy.

In the early days of the presidency of George W. Bush, we should keep in mind that it will probably be necessary for the chief executive to make one or more difficult, even crucial foreign-policy decisions. Whenever he faces such a decision, President Bush should not assume that a particular historical analogy will automatically provide guidance. To echo his father, former president George Bush, he should be “prudent.”

It may seem odd for a historian to warn against relying on historical analogies. But there are good analogies and not-so-good analogies. Every historical analogy must be carefully examined to see if it really sheds light on the situation at hand. Even if it sheds some light, it will not provide a ready-made solution. When it comes down to it, there is simply no substitute for actually thinking through all the options in a given situation.

It is worth noting that the last great invocation of Munich, appeasement and Hitler came from the senior Bush during the Gulf War of 1991. His son, surrounded by many of the same people who served his father, will profit from studying “Thirteen Days” closely and absorbing Kennedy’s mixture of caution and determination. Let’s hope that President Bush will look beyond those times when his father and President Ronald Reagan relied on false historical analogies and will follow the better example of Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Michael Richards teaches modern European and world history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and is a writer for the History News Service.