Sorenson talk focuses on JFK’s leadership

Theodore Sorenson, Special Counsel to the President during the Kennedy Administration, spoke to students and members of the College community on the fortieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis occurred over a two-week period in 1962 when Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war, and Sorenson used the incident as an example to outline a series of seven choices that confront people in positions of leadership, “no matter what role.” He also analyzed how then-President John F. Kennedy successfully handled the decision-making process and how his choices were still relevant to current affairs.

Throughout the tenure of the Kennedy Administration, Sorenson served as JFK’s speechwriter and advisor, as his “intellectual blood bank” and “top aide,” according to George Goethals, Chair and Webster Atwell Class of 1921 Professor of Psychology and chair of the Williams Leadership Studies program, which coordinated his visit. He was also a “leading advocate of restraint in responding to Cuba,” and was directly involved in the decision-making during the situation.

Sorenson was brought to the College as a part of the Program in Leadership Studies’ two-part series on Leadership in Crisis, made possible by the Class of 1971 Public Affairs Forum. According to a pamphlet distributed at the event, the program “has chosen the Cuban Missile Crisis as a lens through which to view the actions and words of the Commander in Chief. This is particularly appropriate given the possibility of war with Iraq.”

Although Sorenson clearly stated that he did not intend his lecture to be partisan in any way, he did admit that one “might be able to discern differences” between Kennedy’s leadership and that of the current administration. He described how during the Kennedy administration “leadership made all the difference,” and how once again we seem on the brink of a serious situation, giving the topic of leadership particular relevance. Sorenson broke this leadership down into seven different elements and in the process demonstrated Kennedy’s skill as a leader and highlighted parallels between the Crisis and the debate currently raging on how to deal with Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

According to Sorenson, the first of these elements, was “whom do you consult? Who’s going to be on your team?” He explained how Kennedy could have acted traditionally and consulted with the National Security Council, but instead created an ad hoc advisory group based upon his trust in the individual advisors rather than their rank. According to Sorenson, this group included an active Republican; Kennedy was not reluctant to reach across party lines.

The next element to defusing the situation was answering the question of “who was the target? Who was the enemy or the adversary?” Sorenson related this to George W. Bush’s situation today, where he must decide if the country is most threatened by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, or Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction he supposedly possesses. Similarly, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was forced to concentrate on the Soviets behind the situation, and not Cuba itself. This involved allowing Fidel Castro to gain power while recognizing that while he was an “irritant, an anomaly, the missiles are the real threat.”

Sorenson’s rhetorical question dealt with the seriousness of measures required to deal with the situation. “Kennedy believed in knowing and preserving all possible options, not just bombing,” said Sorenson. Some non-military options included acting through diplomatic channels, using the United Nations and appealing to world opinion. He explained how “a preemptive strike would have eliminated all other options, and preempts the president’s own options.” Again, there were obvious similarities between this situation and the current one in Iraq.

Fourth, Sorenson addressed the question of timing, asking “when should response come forth?” He described how sometimes the best decision is no decision at all until it is timely.

This was followed by the fifth question, which dealt with the nature and effectiveness of the weapons used. Sorenson described how at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis the U.S. had “enormous nuclear superiority,” but Kennedy sought to avoid using it, believing that a nuclear war would be a “failure of all he stood for and wanted for the country.” Instead, Sorenson himself was responsible for drafting the notice to Cuba about creating a defensive quarantine to prevent further shipment of nuclear arms to Cuba. He emphasized how the notice was “not an ultimatum,” and “didn’t threaten war.”

The sixth choice involved whether or not to use international organizations and respect international law. According to Sorenson, Kennedy was extremely conscious of world opinion, “which is usually scoffed at today.” In the end, Kennedy’s decision to quarantine Cuba received “unanimous endorsement from the association of American States, and was consistent with the UN charter and international law.” Sorenson also emphasized the importance of allies, saying they aren’t just “backseat drivers.”

Finally, Sorenson addressed the question, “do you communicate with the enemy in times of crisis? Do you negotiate?” Sorenson illustrated how in the situation in Iraq, George W. Bush has laid down demands and forbidden negotiation with the enemy, while Kennedy “kept open channels of communication,” believing that “if you don’t negotiate with the adversary at the time of crisis, there is no one else to negotiate with to get a solution.”

Sorenson concluded his speech by emphasizing that “ingredients of leadership demonstrated by President Kennedy 40 years ago” are still relevant today. He also encouraged the audience to reflect upon them as “none of us would be here had he not acted as he acted in preventing other people’s recommendations from coming through.”

The Leadership in Crisis lecture series continues on Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 8 p.m., when Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense and James Blight, Professor of International Relations at Brown’s Watson Institute, give a talk on “Back to the Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis 40 Years On.”