It was on this day back in 1962 that President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech telling the world that U.S. spy planes had discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba armed and pointed towards the United States, with capabilities of striking a number of major cities in the United States, including Washington, D.C. 

What is now referred to as the “Cuban Missile Crisis” actually began on October 15, 1962—the day that U.S. intelligence personnel discovered that the Soviets had built medium-range missile sites in Cuba. The next day, President Kennedy secretly convened an emergency meeting of his senior military, political, and diplomatic advisers to discuss the ominous development and how he would handle it. On the night of October 22, Kennedy went on national television to announce his decision. During the next six days, the crisis escalated to a breaking point as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war between the two superpowers.

I have been reading an interesting book called “Stillness is the Key ” by Ryan Holliday. The book explains how all great leaders, thinkers, athletes, and visionaries share one indelible quality: the capacity for “stillness”. Sometimes cynically confused for idleness or ambivalence, stillness is actually the doorway to discipline, focus, and mastery. Stillness is what allows the highest achievers the ability to conquer their tempers, avoid distractions, calm their nerves, and discover great insight and multiple perspectives. It’s this stillness of the mind that also allows the greatest baseball players to hit +100 mile per hour pitches and allows the greatest golfers to visualize the winning shot. 

Stillness is what aims the archer’s arrow. It inspires and allows new ideas. It slows the ball down so that we might hit it. It generates and enhances visualization while making space for gratitude and wonder. It’s often considered the key to unlocking the insights of genius and allows regular folks to achieve greatness. 

Abraham Lincoln was said to have great “stillness”. Most people at the time, including most generals and politicians surrounding Lincoln, believed the Civil War could only be won by decisive bloody battles in the country’s largest cities. They had advised Lincoln heavily that the major cities had to be secured and taken over. Lincoln spent days studying and studying a large map and trying to slow down his mind and his thinking. In the end, he instead pointed to towns like Vicksburg, Mississippi, a much smaller town deep in Southern territory. It was a fortified town high on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, held by the toughest rebel troops. Not only did it ultimately control navigation of the important waterway, but it was a key juncture for a number of important tributaries, as well as rail lines that supplied Confederate armies and enormous slave plantations across the South. Lincoln pointed and told his leaders that the small town of “Vicksburg” would be the key to victory, not the large cities. 

As it happened, Lincoln turned out to be exactly right. It would take years and extreme commitment to carry out his plan, but that strategy laid out in the room that afternoon by Lincoln is what ultimately ended the war and ended slavery in America forever. Every other important victory in the Civil War… from Gettysburg to Sherman’s March to the Sea to Lee’s Surrender can be attributed to Lincoln instructing Ulysses S. Grant to lay siege to Vicksburg with all they had to offer, and in turn, taking the town and splitting the South in two, gaining control of the important waterway.     

The once powerful leader Napoleon actually made it a habit to delay responding to his mail and his messengers. He actually instructed his staff to wait three weeks before opening any correspondence. When he did finally open the correspondence, he loved to note how many so called “urgent” issues actually had taken care of themselves. Napoleon was extremely selective about what type of information he let get to his brain. He also believed there was a huge difference in things people deemed urgent and things that are actually vitally important. Most urgent things simply take care of themselves whereas most really important things will still be important as time passes. He believed one of the keys to life and happiness was in figuring out how to filter what was inconsequential from the essential. The important stuff will still be important by the time you get to it. The unimportant, or that which you will have little control, will have made it self obvious or simply have disappeared over time. Then with stillness rather than needless urgency and exhaustion, you will be able to sit down and give what deserves consideration your fullest attention and thought.  

President Kennedy, much like Lincoln and Napoleon, was not born with stillness. He developed the trait over time by overcoming many obstacles and mistakes. Just like the greatest athletes, who cultivate and develope mental stillness as they overcome failed attempt after failed attempt. Tolstoy once said, one of the most difficult things to do in life, which seems like it would be the easiest, is to simply be present in the moment. 

Kennedy knew on that October afternoon in 1962  how he reacted in the moment would dictate the future of our great nation and millions of American lives were dependent on these next few moves. He had recently read Barbra Tuchman’s “The Guns of August “, a book about the beginning of WWI, which imprinted on his mind the image of overconfident world leaders that rushed their way into a conflict that, once started, they couldn’t stop. With this in mind, Kennedy wanted everyone to simply slow the game down and buy time. In his notes that were taken on a yellow notepad during the crisis with his team of leaders that was later obtained, Kennedy had actually doodled two sailboats, trying to calm himself with thoughts of the ocean he loved so much. He also doodled a passage from another book he had recently read by strategist BH Lindell Hart, which read… “Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes, so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil, nothing can be so blinding.”

In what became Kennedy’s motto during the Missile Crisis, he told his advisors, “I have to think of why the Russians did this.” He asked himself over and over, “What is the advantage they are trying to get?” As Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s advisor and biographer wrote, “It was his capacity to understand the problem of others that allowed him to make the best decisions”. It became clear to Kennedy that Krushchev put the missiles in Cuba because he believed Kennedy was weak. But that didn’t mean the Russians believed their own position was particularly strong. Only a desperate nation would take such a risk, Kennedy realized. Armed with this insight that came through many discussions with his team and long walks and periods of stillness in the rose garden, he began to formulate an action plan.

Clearly a military strike was the most irrevocable of all options, especially with what had happened just a year earlier with the “Bay of Pigs” invasion. 

Kennedy instead decided to move forward with a blockade of Cuba. Many political insiders attacked Kennedy for his less aggressive choice of action. Kennedy saw it as a way to “buy time” and preserve his other moves. Kennedy wanted to use “time” as his tool, as he believed it would give Krushchev a chance to fully grasp the stakes of the game and perhaps reevaluate. Kennedy then delivered an address to the American people on this day, October 22, 1962, explaining to the public it wasn’t possible to simply back down. He was also using this time to send a more clear message to the Russians. Kennedy said in this great speech “… We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the cost of world wide nuclear war, in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.” 

The two biggest and most powerful nations in the world were “eyeball to eyeball”. If you read the reports and intel that has since been released it was much scarier than many might realize. Russian submarines surfaced off the U.S. coast, an American U2 spy plane was shot down, a Russian tanker ship threatened the quarantine line, Soviet missiles that were thought to be only partially assembled were actually fully armed and ready to fire. At the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. military forces went to “DEFCON 2”, the highest military alert ever reached in the postwar era, as military commanders prepared for full-scale war with the Soviet Union.

Russian leaders wanted to know if they could pressure this young and apparently weak President Kennedy? Would his emotions get the best of him? Would he be able to filter the noise, chaos, and confusion they had created in the moment?  

On October 26, 1962, eleven days into the crisis, the Soviet leader Krushchev wrote Kennedy a letter saying that he now saw the two sides were pulling on a rope with a knot in the middle, a knot of war. The harder each pulled, the less likely it would be that they could ever untie it, and eventually, there would be no choice but to cut the rope with a sword. Suddenly the crisis was over as quickly as it began. Many psychologists and historians say that for a brief period of time during the crisis, Kennedy was able to achieve that stage of clarity and stillness that allowed him to navigate the troubled waters. 

Kennedy worried that the history books and people would get it all wrong, reporting that we stood up to the Soviets threatening them with superior weapons and mass destruction until they backed down. He insisted the lesson was not at all about force but rather the power of patience, restraint, discipline, conviction, humility, empathy, and that calm and rational leadership prevailed on both sides.   

This lesson of “stillness” in the mind is a great lesson for us all to remember on this day! It’s a great lesson to pass along to our children and grandchildren.  (Source: History; Wiki; Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday; Arthur Schlesinger) 

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