The Kennedy Tapes

In a June note ‘Summer Surprises’ we spoke of tail risks to the war in Ukraine, noting the risk of a missile strike on Poland. In that respect we were not surprised by Wednesday’s missile hit on Poland, though relieved that it was not graver, and perhaps, more deliberate.

Oddly, the incident in Poland made me think of the evening of June 30, 1998 when Argentina beat England on penalties in the World Cup. I had rushed back from London to watch the match, having been to a more interesting event – the European launch of a book called ‘The Kennedy Tapes’. Memorably the book was launched by Caspar Weinberg, one of the longest serving secretaries of defense (his efforts to become secretary of state were stymied by the likes of Jimmy Baker and George H Bush). His introduction to the book that evening was passionate and telling, even for a Republican.

To give you more detail, ‘The Kennedy Tapes – Inside the White house during the Cuban Missile Crisis’ edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, is a compilation of the conversations that John Kennedy, his brother Bobby and advisers held during the Cuban Missile Crisis – JFK had had recording devices fitted in the Oval Office to record his meetings and deliberations. Apparently, JFK was incensed that some advisers had backed the Bay of Pigs invasion privately but later publicly gave opposing views (there is more detail at the JFK Library).

When I read the book, I recall being struck by how thoughtful and strategic JFK and Bobby were (by the way there is a very good book about his murder ‘Who Killed Bobby?’ by Shane O’Sullivan, not to mention the film ‘RFK Must Die’). The book does not dwell on what produced the Cuban crisis but gives a superb and dramatic insight into the reaction of the Kennedy administration to it. JFK and his brother are generally calmer and more considered than their public reputations allow, and it is largely owing to this ‘calm’, and the advice of capable advisers, that an escalation did not occur.

Historians, politicians and public policy practitioners should read the ‘Kennedy Tapes’, even today, where the dilemma that the Kennedys faced is now ever present. Consider that the US/Japan/South Korea ponder the ever more powerful missile tests of North Korea, the now near public shadow war between Iran and Israel over the former’s nuclear program, the potential threat to China’s southern flank of a Japanese nuclear missile program or even the acquisition by Taiwan of long range missile technologies, the many risks from Russia’s arsenal to Ukraine and Europe, and to depress readers even more, the risks that terror groups acquire high level missile technology and deploy it into Latin America or Europe.

With respect to the immediate risk of a Russian strike into Poland and the threat of an attack on a NATO or western country, leaders will do well to follow the deliberate strategy evident in the Kennedy Tapes.

Whilst I have read a few books on war, I am not a military strategist, though I have enough experience with econometrics to know that tail risks are rising. This can encapsulate the possibility of some form of truce or settlement (perhaps Turkey or India or even China will be the initial matchmaker) but also of more sinister action by Russia given Ukraine’s progress in the south-east of the country. I suspect that the more Ukraine forces the Russian army back and the closer they approach Crimea, the heavier that attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure will grow, and as some hold, the prospect of an aggressive attack on the Ukrainian president will also rise. The recent meeting in Ankara of Bill Burns (CIA Director) with his Russian counterpart is a demonstration of the very serious undertones to the tail risks present.

There is a common thread in the ‘Kennedy Tapes’ and Bill Burns own recent book ‘The Back Channel’, that of the value of diplomacy. Worryingly in the cases of Iran and North Korea, the limits of diplomacy appear to be exhausted – by North Korea’s increasingly belligerent and attention seeking missile tests, and by Iran’s decision to supply weapons to Russia. In 2023 we may well see ‘Cuban crisis’ style deliberations around these two countries, both of which present dilemmas for Western policymakers.

In the case of Iran, any outside aggression or perceived interference could derail what is a surprisingly robust (though bloody) protest movement. In North Korea, the calculation is one of geography (namely the proximity of Seoul to North Korea) and of the viability of Kim Jong Il’s regime. And that’s before we have even considered Taiwan.

Have a great week ahead


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