Kennedy’s Cuba Crisis Is Risky as a Precedent


The United States’ attack on two Iranian offshore oil platforms in retaliation for a missile attack on a U.S.-flagged tanker vividly renews our attention to the hotly contested debate over whether the War Powers Resolution applies to current military operations in the Persian Gulf. To clarify the issues at hand, we need more historical perspective. Too many advocates of the resolution seek to apply “lessons” of one searing recent experience: Vietnam. Like Mark Twain’s cat, having sat once on a hot stove, they are determined never again to sit on any stove at all.

Twenty-five years ago this week President John F. Kennedy announced to Congress and the world the discovery of a Soviet attempt to secretly place nuclear missiles in Cuba. In that dramatic speech on Oct. 22, 1962, he also announced his chosen course of action: a naval blockade of Cuba. In his judgment this confrontation posed a one-in-three chance of war, even nuclear war. What direct role did Congress play in these decisions? Zero--none at all.

Today the Reagan Administration’s activity in the gulf frustrates a divided Senate. The reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers, the quadrupling of American naval forces to protect them and the sparring with Iranian mines and missiles fuels a campaign in the Senate to invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Were the law applied, the President would be required within 48 hours to explain to Congress the causes for this military action and to terminate U.S. involvement unless Congress approved the action within 90 days. Furthermore, this law would compel the President to report to Congress on the progress of an undeclared war at least every six months thereafter, and would require Congress to vote within 60 days either to continue or to terminate that war.

Since 1973 no President has submitted any military activity or impending hostility to Congress under the terms of this resolution. The contest, however, is not over till it’s over. Not if, but when a major incident occurs with a substantial loss of American lives, this issue will lead to a showdown between the President and Congress. Successful congressional legislation invoking the resolution promises a real constitutional challenge. The greatest vulnerability of the Reagan Administration’s policy in the Persian Gulf remains its putative illegality.


In its own interests and in those of the country, the Administration should seek congressional authorization for its current policy. A special authorization (analogous to the 18-month mandate for the Lebanon peacekeeping force) should extend not 60 days or six months but until the end of the Administration.

Congress’ quid for this quo should be an Administration commitment to regular, weekly, full-scope consultation with a congressional leadership group about the Persian Gulf operation.

Both the case and the times were much different in 1962. The missile crisis posed risks of the most destructive war in American history. One man alone decided. He consulted with a dozen associates of his own choosing--none of whom came from Congress. Only two hours before broadcasting his decision to the world, he summoned the leaders of both houses, advised them of the discovery of the Soviet missiles and informed them of his chosen response. If the crisis had ended in failure, Congress would undoubtedly have conducted an investigation that identified lack of consultation as the principal problem.

The Constitution prescribed an enforced collaboration between the President and fellow politicians on Capitol Hill in the decision to make war. As the missile crisis vividly demonstrates, a meaningful role for Congress is by no means assured. Congress alone has the power to declare war, to raise troops and to fund activity including military operations. But the President alone is the commander-in-chief. From Jefferson’s dispatch of U.S. Navy ships to protect American shipping from the Barbary pirates to the Persian Gulf today, Presidents have employed U.S. military forces abroad without declarations of war. Of the conflicts known to us as “wars,” three of the most costly in both lives and money--the Civil War, Korea and Vietnam--have been undeclared and waged largely on presidential authority, with Congress at best an after-the-fact ratifier of presidential initiatives.

The realities of war-making are inescapably complex. No one disputes the President’s authority to defend the United States against sudden attack. No one denies the need for secrecy on select occasions. Everyone recognizes that the line between defense and offense has grown increasingly hazy as the nation’s interactions with the outside world have become more intense. But can anyone feel comfortable with a government that permits one man alone to commit American blood and treasure to sustained military action?

Whatever the War Powers Resolution says, in fact today the President alone decides to make war. However worthy the objectives of that legislation may have been, the time has come to say it plainly. This law is not working, and is not workable. In light of its uncertain effects, constitutional questionability and political unenforceability, the War Powers Resolution should be repealed in favor of a more operational, viable alternative.

The right starting point for reconstructing a more satisfactory replacement is the constitutional presumption that collaborative judgments of the President and Congress will, on the average, produce better assessments of the costs and benefits of war than any alternative. Not necessarily good judgments--but better than any alternative. To be specific: If Congress cannot be persuaded that the United States should engage in military operations in the Persian Gulf, constitutional principles force one to the presumption that this action is not in the country’s best interests.

Twenty-five years ago, in the Cuban missile crisis, the President bypassed Congress almost altogether; 14 years ago Congress’ incapacity to address this issue forced it to settle for a resolution that was only a gesture. Today the President, as well as the members of Congress, should confront this hole in constitutional intent and work together creatively to fill it.