The Importance of Failing Hard and Learning.
Is it possible that the greatest failure of JFK’s presidency saved the world from nuclear apocalypse?
In recent months I’ve been binge-listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast (check it out here), and in his most recent offering, he delves (for six hours!) into the background of the Cuban missile crisis.
The episode is breezily entitled “Destroyer of Worlds,” and it gives a frightening look at how close we actually came to an atomic Armageddon.
One suggestion for why this didn’t happen, however, has to do with what was undoubtedly the biggest and most public embarrassment of JFK’s young presidency: the Bay of Pigs.
As Carlin points out, Kennedy largely inherited the proxy invasion of Cuba from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet the previous administration had run out of time to carry out the attack. So while JFK reportedly had misgivings (hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it…), he chose to go along with the Generals and CIA officials who assured him that the Bay of Pigs would be a huge success.
The invaders were slaughtered and the ensuing controversy mired the president in a flaming pile of “covfefe” from the early days of his administration.
Even so, Kennedy reportedly learned a lesson from his epic failure: Don’t simply go along with what the experts are telling you. Sometimes the “experts” are wrong.
THIRTEEN DAYS IN OCTOBER
According to some historians, this painful lesson proved invaluable in October 1962.
With word that the Soviets were installing nuclear warheads just 90 miles from the U.S. coast, the president and his advisers began a thirteen-day game of atomic poker.
What we now know from these marathon meetings (because of Kennedy’s secret taping system) is that several generals were urging the president to push the big red button, just as they had previously advised Truman to do the same (even after WW2 was over).
“If you wait, we’re dead” was the logic employed. Thus the “only option” was to launch hundreds of nuclear warheads toward dozens of Russian cities.
While I can’t imagine the pressure of that decision, some historians trace Kennedy’s pursuit of a more diplomatic solution to his early error at the Bay of Pigs.
His prior decision to “shoot first, and ask questions later” had blown up in his face. And that same advice was now coming again, but with greater consequences.
It’s possible then that the memory of Bay of Pigs kept the Cuban crisis from becoming Armageddon.
WHAT’S YOUR BAY OF PIGS?
Of course, not everyone reads the story quite like this (See Garry Wills’ scathing critique of Kennedy’s Cuban policy [here]).
Still, the principle holds true even if the history is complicated.
Early failures can be invaluable if we learn from them.
And in one way or another we all have our “Bay of Pigs.”
Each of us can look back at past decisions that were embarrassing and painful.
There was the choice to flunk out of college freshman year, because beer was more interesting than biology.
There was the decision to turn an ill-advised relationship into an ill-advised marriage.
Or the early and repeated conflation of “cash” with “credit.”
While none of this is quite on par with nuclear holocaust, even smaller embarrassments can serve as sacrifices on the altar of wisdom.
If we recognize them.
So what’s your bay of pigs?
And what did you learn from it?