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The tale of Sailor Billy Summers

Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

The last time American military aircraft flew so provocatively over foreign airspace, and the last time such an action was defended on the basis of the merits of showing military strength, was 50 five years ago, when another militarily inexperienced American president was equally at odds with his Joint Chiefs over how to face down an obstinate enemy.

Last week, Donald Trump ordered air missions to be conducted over the Korean Peninsula in order to show military force. In response, a US senator from Tennessee, Bob Corker, voicing the growing concern of many security experts, said Trump’s actions to date have the ability to start a third world war. So we are faced with the spine-chilling ordeal of watching a militarily inexperienced but bellicose American president attempting to deal with an intransigent North Korea in a sabre-rattling fashion, although with the saving grace that in his impulsiveness he is not joined by his Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The last time American military aircraft flew so provocatively over foreign airspace, and the last time such an action was defended on the basis of the merits of showing military strength, was 50 five years ago, when another militarily inexperienced American president was equally at odds with his Joint Chiefs over how to face down an obstinate enemy.

That President was John F Kennedy, the issue he was faced with was the Cuban Missile Crisis and the year was 1962, a time when the world came closest to nuclear war and the unthinkable – that of mutually assured destruction. That’s of course where the similarities between the two presidents end.

Coming into the presidency at the height of the Cold War, Kennedy’s main preoccupation as leader of the free world was in slowing down the arms race and laying the ground for meaningful disarmament between America and Russia. But in this he was purposefully obstructed by his Army chiefs, who saw his actions as weak. These were men schooled in war, who knew little of peace and of statesmanship for a greater purpose. Strength of force were their watchwords. Returning home from a summit on nuclear disarmament, Kennedy was shocked to learn that in his absence the Strategic Air Command had flown B-52 bomber training missions inside Soviet airspace, an act of provocation in direct violation of his orders.

The trigger-happy General Curtis le May was summoned, whereupon he proceeded to defend his policy shamelessly, on the pretext that such missions prepared his crew for a war which was inevitable, and that it was imperative for America’s interests to show the Soviets who held strategic air superiority.

Kennedy responded that far from establishing air superiority, such acts encouraged brinkmanship, which was the worst possible thing in a world of escalating tensions.

Scornfully, Le May responded with something along the lines of, “I’m sure you’ll agree, Mr President, that my appreciation of the uses of strategic air power probably exceeds that of a Navy junior-grade lieutenant.”

This was an unconscionable slur. Kennedy might have indeed only been a lieutenant in the Navy, but he had been a decorated war hero who had shown genuine courage when his boat had been torpedoed and saved the lives of his fellow officers. A lesser man than Kennedy (why does the current incumbent of the White House immediately spring to mind?) might have let the insult breach his defences, which is what was intended.

Instead, as befits a president, he chose the higher ground. Without missing a beat, and looking straight at Le May, Kennedy quoted the story he loved to tell in such situations, that of the great American Confederate general Lucius Lamar and of junior sailor, Billy Summers, during the American Civil War a hundred years previously. The exchange went something like this:

“Senator Lamar was aboard a Confederate blockade runner sailing for Savannah harbour, the senior officers insistent it was safe to proceed, but the captain ordered Sailor Billy Summers to the crow’s nest, and there Billy reported ten Union gunboats in the harbour. Yet the senior officers claimed they knew exactly where the Yankee fleet was and it couldn’t be in Savannah Harbour, so the ship should sail on. Turned out Billy was right and he saved them from being captured. The question, General le May, is not who holds the highest rank, but who occupies the best vantage point to judge the way forward.”

The training missions stopped that afternoon.

A few days later, however, American intelligence discovered that Russia was close to installing nuclear warheads off the coast of Florida, in Cuba, and Kennedy called upon all his famous coolness to rein in both the Russian Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, as well as his own generals, who unhelpfully echoed Trump’s later call of “totally destroying them”.

One of the tomes which most influenced Kennedy from this period was Barbara Tuchman’s book about the origins of the First World War, called The Guns of August. The book’s thesis was that the greatest danger and risk in periods just like the one Kennedy was going through was of miscalculation – mistakes in judgement. Kennedy knew that the great wars of the 20th century were often preceded by catastrophic miscalculation. Germany failed to anticipate that Britain would fight over Belgium in 1914. Hitler would miscalculate the unfulfilled commitments and guarantees which the British had given to Poland, which paved the way to World War II. America and Japan had misunderstood each other for a generation leading up to Pearl Harbour. In almost all cases, neither side wanted war, but somehow it came to pass that one side took a step which – for reasons of “security” or “pride” or “face” – would require a response by the other side, which would, in turn, for those same reasons of pride, bring about a counter-response and ultimately, an escalation into armed conflict. “They somehow seemed to tumble into war, through stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur,” Kennedy would later be quoted as saying. He was determined not to do a similar thing.

Kennedy would refer often to The Guns of August during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it is still a hugely influential book. Now, in contemporary times under Trump and Kim Jong-un, its significance has become even greater; its warnings even more urgent.

Kim has staged North Korea’s largest-ever nuclear test over American ally Japan, followed by ballistic launches. In turn, Trump has called him a madman, threatening to destroy the country with a pre-emptive strike of “sounds and fury” if need be.

What calculations will all sides take? Kim may calculate that it is best to back down. Or he may believe the American President’s options to be constrained by the very real risk of North Korea retaliating against South Korea. Maybe he calculates that he needs to continue the bluff in order to save face in front of 22-million of his subjugated subjects, who could rebel at the slightest sign of their dictator showing that he is not invincible. Likewise, South Korea may calculate that its incentives during times of deep uncertainty are to align itself more closely with its protector, America. But it could equally conclude that under a foolhardy Trump, America through its actions is actually not its best protector – and that it needs to break with it. Equally, the regional power China may calculate that the best chance to avoid war and lower tensions is to publically break with Trump, a position it may not ordinarily have arrived at. And then, how would Trump read this?

As the political commentator Martin Wolf has recently written,

“These risks would be difficult to manage even with rational, experienced leaders in power. But the key decision-makers are a 71-year-old businessman with a volcanic temper and no relevant experience, and a 33-year-old dictator, surrounded by frightened sycophants.”

Someone send a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s book to the White House, and hope it’s read by the occupant who, unlike Sailor Billy Summers, seems not to occupy the best vantage point for judging the way forward. DM


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