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by Peggy Noonan
"It is not unusual for a new president to be faced with an international crisis early on. LBJ had the rolling crisis of Vietnam from day one, as did Richard Nixon. Gerry Ford got Mayaguez, John F. Kennedy the Bay of Pigs.
Kennedy, like George W. Bush, faced his first hard time three months into his presidency. On April 16, 1961, 40 years ago this Monday, U.S.-trained Cuban anti-Castro troops attempted to invade Cuba and overthrow the regime.
Like President Bush, like any new leader but perhaps more than most, Kennedy was preoccupied with showing that he was a man of strength and resolve. He was new in the job, had won the votes of only half the country, and feared being called fearful. And so he went ahead with the invasion, allowing 1,500 men to go up against Castro's army of more than 100,000, landing the forces far from dense population centers thought to be home to the thousands who would rise up in support of freedom, allowing little air cover, and no direct U.S. military participation.
It was, of course, a disaster, and was over in five hours. The invasion troops were outnumbered and outgunned, hit hard .......and Castro, who knew the invasion was coming, had already arrested any Cubans who would have joined an uprising against him. More than a hundred men died and the rest surrendered.
"He chose a minimum of political risk" in planning the invasion, said his biographer, Richard Reeves, "which meant a maximum of military risk." Kennedy was urged to send in American troops when there was still a chance, but told Nixon in a telephone call that "There is a good chance that if we move on Cuba, Khrushchev will move on Berlin." A few days later when Kennedy met with Dwight Eisenhower at Camp David, Ike stood by him in public but castigated him in private, saying his thinking was exactly wrong. According to Reeves, Ike said: "The Soviets follow their own plans, and if they see us show any weakness that is when they press the hardest."
Kennedy accepted responsibility, Castro triumphed, the crisis went away. But of course it never fully went away, because all such disasters have implications. A calculating world was watching, and taking Kennedy's measure. Eisenhower was right: Three months later, in the dead of night, Khrushchev, emboldened by Kennedy's failure, put up the Berlin Wall. He gambled that Kennedy would do nothing. He was right.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
April 14, 2001
That's the thing about crises; sometimes their biggest impact is on the future. The world watches, takes a leader's measure and moves, based on its calculations.