I alluded, in a piece published in this week's newspaper, to the 50th anniversary of the Cuba Crisis.The anniversary prompted me to re-visit "The Kennedy Papers", an account of how the crisis was played out over 13 days in October 1962, constructed largely from transcripts of the taped conversations in John F. Kennedy's White House.
One of the striking features of such time travel is how different the United Kingdom's position in the world was. The contrast with today's European Council could hardly be starker. The UK is seen here as almost an irrelevance, barely more than an irritant (today's meeting between David Cameron and Bart de Wever, leader of the Flemish separatist party N-VA, has ruffled a few feathers in Belgium).
Back in 1962, the UK was much closer to the heart of the action. The much-vaunted special relationship between the US and the UK did actually count for something. President Kennedy had a particularly close relationship with the British ambassador in Washington, David Ormsby-Gore. And Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, an actor who in his time played many parts, in this case played the part of a benevolent uncle.
On 22 October, after discussing the feasibility of an air strike on Cuba with his military advisers, Kennedy had a private meeting with Ormsby-Gore. The president was mulling over the likely consequences of confrontation in Cuba for Berlin and he asked Orsmby-Gore's opinion.
According to Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, the editors of the Kennedy Papers: “The ambassador spoke in favour of the blockade [of Cuba], making almost exactly the arguments that Kennedy himself had made when meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the morning of October 19.”
Kennedy, they say, was “worried that the West Germans were refusing to face up to the realities of the situation surrounding Berlin”. “President Kennedy arranged for a message to be delivered in London a few hours later for Macmillan, giving him early warning of the breaking crisis and the impending US moves.”
Macmillan had a telephone conversation with Kennedy on 22 October, in which he stressed the importance that “we are actually working together all the time”. They spoke again on the telephone on 24 October and Macmillan advised: “And then we must consider...how we handle the Europeans who will begin to get a bit excited – de Gaulle and Adenauer and company – and how we take the next steps.” When they spoke the next day, Macmillan described Kennedy's message to the United Nations Secretary-General U Thant as “extremely ingenious and very firm”. And so on, throughout the crisis.
The proximity of this relationship – part personal, part practical (the UK was a nuclear power, albeit an impoverished nuclear power) – has arguably done lasting damage to the UK's relationship with Europe. Successive UK governments kidded themselves that they were more important on their own than they really were. And they posited what was ultimately a false choice - alliance with the US or with Europe.
De Standaard reports that Cameron's meeting with De Wever included a discussion of how to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War – the 100th anniversary of 1914 is looming.
Such commemorations will probably not help Britain escape its own myth-making - the image of the UK as the saviour of Europe is particularly and perpetually beguiling. Flanders has reinvented itself. The UK struggles to do so.
Tim has been editor of European Voice since 2009, having joined the staff as deputy editor in 2004. He has been reporting on EU issues since he came to Brussels in 1998. His greatest claim to fame in the eyes of some of his colleagues is that, growing up in north London, he used to have violin lessons with the artist now known as George Michael.
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