Thirteen Days and 50 Years Later, a Chance to Apply a Lesson Learned

Fifty years ago this month, humanity was on the brink of self-destruction. The Soviet Union had covertly constructed a chain of nuclear bases inside of Cuba, 90 miles from the United States. President Kennedy's "ExComm," which included my father, debated whether to address the crisis with a surgical airstrike or a military blockade.

One wrong move, and the world would be plunged into a nuclear winter. And yet we lived to tell the tale. The Soviets agreed to dismantle the missile sites on October 28, and Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty the following summer.

Scholars have scrutinized those 13 days and their myriad implications for geopolitics, but the most important lesson from the Missile Crisis is simple: peace is fragile. Therefore, President Kennedy concluded after the Missile Crisis, it was his obligation to pursue it. He voiced that obligation in a speech at American University in June 1963:

[W]hat kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.

Consistent with his pragmatism, Kennedy made clear that the peace he pursued was grounded in reality:

I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream ... Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions -- on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.

Fifty years later, it is the responsibility of the United States to recognize the most important lesson from the Missile Crisis and make a renewed commitment to practical, attainable peace. The United States and the international community have the opportunity to fulfill that commitment in the enactment of the Arms Trade Treaty under discussion this month by the Disarmament and International Security Committee at the United Nations. Attempts to finalize the treaty last summer failed in the face of opposition by several members of the Security Council, but the Obama administration has promised to support a consensus-driven treaty.

A prime purpose of the Arms Trade Treaty, according to the draft, is to "prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and their diversion to illegal and unauthorized end use." The treaty would establish common standards for international arms transfers, and would prohibit the international trafficking of weapons that violate arms embargoes or enable war crimes.

In applying the lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, we should seize the opportunity to negotiate a treaty that aims to protect the civilian casualties of conflict and armed violence around the world, and to crack down on people who would profit from illegal weapons trafficking, lining their own pockets at the expense of innocent victims. Like America's actions in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States would concede nothing respecting its own sovereignty and constitutional protections in entering into such a treaty: the draft expressly recognizes legitimate interests in international trade and the sovereign right of nations to regulate arms within their territories.

The installation of missiles in Cuba and their subsequent withdrawal by the Soviets teaches us not only that peace is fragile, but also that it is something to which we all aspire. JFK said it best at American University:

"For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."

Trafficking in conventional weapons threatens our collective mortality no less than nuclear arms. Having survived those 13 days 50 years ago, it is now America's duty to remember its lessons.

Juliet S. Sorensen is a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern Law School, where she teaches international criminal law. She is the daughter of Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's speechwriter and special counsel.