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How a bipartisan foreign policy approach helped stave off a nuclear crisis six decades ago

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White House photographer Cecil W. Stoughton
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Courtesy Dirksen Congressional Center
President John F. Kennedy signs the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the Oval Office on Oct. 7, 1963, as lawmakers look on, including Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), over Kennedy's shoulder. Negotiations on the treaty were jump-started after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it was signed by Kennedy just less than one year after the crisis.

Tensions between two nuclear powers have worldwide repercussions.

That's as true today as it was in 1962.

President Joe Biden recently warned Russia's threats to use nuclear weapons amid its foundering Ukrainian invasion poses the biggest threat of nuclear Armageddon the world has faced since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sixty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy faced down that threat from a bellicose Soviet Union.

Both Biden's remark and Kennedy's crisis happened just weeks ahead of a heated midterm election. Kennedy ultimately found the off-ramp from a nuclear conflict with bipartisan support. That may offer lessons for the present moment.

In October 1962, Kennedy made two campaign stops in Springfield and Chicago in support of U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen's Democratic opponent, Rep. Sid Yates.

"After he's done with the Chicago speech, (Kennedy's) press secretary Pierre Salinger announces that the President is suffering from a mild cold, and he's going to go home to the White House to recuperate," said Chris Kaergard, the communications director and an associate historian at the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin. "That quote, unquote, mild cold is actually the military having confirmed that the Soviet weapons in Cuba are offensively oriented nuclear missiles in Cuba."

Kennedy hightails it back to the White House, where he convenes with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and EXCOMM to plot out a course of action.

"There's a risk that less than 20 years after the U.S. is the only nation to use atomic weapons in the middle of the arms race in the middle of the Cold War, that the two major nuclear powers are standing eyeball to eyeball. And there's really no way that anybody can see to scale things back," Kaergard said.

Some advisors advocate for bombings, or even a full-scale invasion of Cuba, just a year after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion attempt.

Kennedy ultimately opts for a less aggressive naval blockade of Cuba while attempting to deescalate the situation with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in the background.

Kennedy calls back congressional leadership to Washington to inform them of his plan before going public with the gravity of the situation.

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Dirksen Congressional Center
U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, (R-Ill.), and President John F. Kennedy are seen here deep in discussion. The two frequently met during Kennedy's time in office to discuss legislative topics, and Dirksen was one of the legislative leaders Kennedy met with to brief on the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The leadership includes Dirksen, the Republican senator from Pekin whom Kennedy was just campaigning against days before.

"Dirksen has a little bit of fun with that. When he walks into the meeting, he says, 'you know, that was quite a speech you gave, Mr. President, to come down with a cold this serious,'" Kaergard said.

The plan gets some pushback from the Congressional leadership, but the meeting ultimately ends with Republican leadership releasing a statement backing the President's national security approach.

"Imagine that, 14 days out from a national election, you have the folks from the other side of the aisle who are saying, 'we're standing with the President on this, we trust the president,'" Kaergard said. "We've seen some of that unanimity in the current Ukraine crisis over the last eight months. But parts of that are beginning to fray a little bit. And we're beginning to see more of that concern today over whether post midterm, the sides will stay together on supporting Ukraine."

Bipartisanship again ruled the day when the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was ratified by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Dirksen initially had concerns with the terms, but backed the treaty when he walked away from conversations with Kennedy with a letter stating the U.S. can still test weapons underground, and retaliate if attacked.

"He is willing to rethink his own gut reaction, which was some of those same concerns. He stands up in favor of the treaty, says on the floor of the Senate in a speech that people credited as helping turn the tide in favor of the treaty. It says quote, I want to take a first step. I should not like to have written on my tombstone. He knew what happened at Hiroshima, but he did not take the first step," Kaergard said.

Back in the 1960's, Kaergard said an approach of foreign policy disagreements ending at the water's edge was standard. But that approach has faded over time, starting with the Vietnam War.

Kaergard said politicians like Dirksen were willing to hear out all the information and seek reassurances before coming to a final conclusion. That's something he said is harder to do in a world with 24/7 cable news and social media.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.