The Fourteenth Day, David Coleman [Review]

Originally published 3 November 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Freedom, Donald Rumsfeld memorably pronounced, is messy. So too is history, although not the way political scientists do it. For political scientists and international-relations folks, especially in their more traditional security and policy-analytic guises, history is a source of data, a repository of cases, and, fundamentally, a storehouse of facts, neatly waiting to be trundled into a book or paper or rectangular dataset as needed. This is the only mindset under which the common conflation of “case” and “history” makes sense: cases can only be histories if histories themselves are simple and unproblematic once the relevant actors and factors are identified.

Among the most important cases in the study of security and policymaking in IR and foreign policy analysis are such well-worn topics as the outbreak of the First World War, the negotiations at the Conference of Versailles, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Recent scholarship has upended many of the conventional understandings of these events, with the rather salutary effect that scholars know more but “know” less about these traditional cases than they used to. In general, the more political scientists and IR types have adopted historical methodologies, the less they have found themselves trying to prove that a given theory was right. Instead, engaging in conversations with evidence, scholars have found that the evidence should inform the theory, even as the theory tells them where to look for evidence.

Yet with all the progress that has come in recent scholarship, there yet remains a sense that there is a canonical set of cases that not just students but scholars should respect. The trouble does not come from the investiture of a canon; without a shared vocabulary, how could we ever converse? Instead, it comes from the fact that these are canons of cases, and our understanding of cases remains mired in the idea that a case has an outcome and an initiation. If instead we decided to treat cases as investigations of histories–as artificial schemata imposed upon a complex, chaotic bundle–then we would recognize immediately the dangers, and the absurdities, of finding — indeed, requiring — an “end of history”.

In his The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2012, Norton), David Coleman does an excellent job of exploding just such an absurdity forced upon us by generations of scholarship, hagiography, and propaganda.

Few anymore buy the mid-1960s line that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a “test” the Kennedy Administration “passed”. Our understanding of the October crisis has grown much more nuanced thanks to the opening of Soviet records, a famous Cuban-American-Soviet conference, and, most important, the passage of time that has allowed the issue to be seen outside of the narrow us-versus-them frame the Cold War subtly imposed on everyone.

The textbook version of the Cuban Missile Crisis concludes–literally–with the Soviet pledge to remove the missiles after a tense standoff and (since the 1990s) the secret American pledge to remove US missiles from Turkey. (For one such textbook account, which I have used in class and may use again, see p. 122 of David Patrick Houghton’s The Decision Point.) Here we have a classic “outcome” of a case–a dependent variable that allows us to code a crisis as concluded with a victor and a loser and with a date on which the crisis “ended.”

Coleman’s signal contribution is to show that the case never really ended, nor was there ever an outcome that defined the entire crisis. Khrushchev had pledged to remove offensive weapons–but did that include aging bombers as well as the new MRBMs? Would Soviet troops be allowed to remain? How could verification protocols be agreed? Who was really in charge of anti-aircraft missile sites? Would the Soviets and Cubans collude to bluff their way through a sham dearmament phase but then suddenly reveal they had never removed the weapons at all? These questions had to be addressed–either resolved or consciously ignored–after the crisis had “ended”. And, as is so often the case, the participants on all sides of this trilateral arrangement often only found their negotiating positions once they were in the thick of the talks.

Coleman uses a variety of sources–principally Kennedy’s then-secret, now well-known tapes–to investigate how the White House handled these issues. (He also delves into some significant digressions in the course of this relatively slim book.) Not only does he show that the “tidy” resolution of the crisis was anything but, he productively relates the post-crisis resolution to the sudden disappearance of Berlin as an issue (Berlin was a hostage to the Soviets, but Cuba now became a hostage to the Americans, defusing both). Political scientists should make much more systematic use of the various administrations’ taped conversations, not least because they show presidential horse-trading and issue-exploring in the most unvarnished terms we will ever again have access to.

Yet Coleman’s impressive work is not only limited to such sexy sources. He has also done the hard work of cross referencing what people said and what they did–as well as what they knew and, moreover, what they could(n’t) have known–to show how public statements exactly misled or how US policymakers’ information was dangerously incomplete. This is less glamorous than hearing JFK say provocative or revealing things, but it is equally valuable in helping to make sense of messy histories in which every participant is acting strategically on the basis of incomplete information.

The downside of this intense engagement with the messiness of facts is that the book itself hangs together less well than one might hope. Since all of this is an epilogue to a well-known story, Coleman must try to bring along those who don’t know every facet of the burgeoning sub-literature on the crisis as well as those who do. At the same time, because this is history and not a “case”, there are a plenitude of potential outcomes and themes to pursue, from the political ramifications of the crisis to the crisis’s effect on Kennedy’s view of international relations to the very real questions about the proper relationship of democracy and truth in a time of crisis. I wouldn’t say the book is muddled, but its short chapters and quasi-thematic, quasi-chronological organization did leave me adrift at points.