Charles Krauthammer

It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union. -- President John F. Kennedy, Oct. 22, 1962

Now that's deterrence.

Kennedy was pledging that if any nuke was launched from Cuba, the United States would not even bother with Cuba but go directly to the source and bring the apocalypse to Russia with a massive nuclear attack.

The remarkable thing about this kind of threat is that in 1962 it was very credible. Indeed, its credibility kept the peace throughout a half-century of Cold War.

Deterrence is what you do when there is no way to disarm your enemy. You cannot deprive him of his weapons, but you can keep him from using them. We long ago reached that stage with North Korea.

Everyone has tried to figure out how to disarm North Korea. It will not happen. Kim Jong Il is not going to give up his nukes. The only way to disarm the regime is to destroy it. China could do that with sanctions, but will not. The United States could do that with a second Korean War, but will not, either.

So we are back to deterrence. Hence the familiar echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis with North Korea's rude entry into the nuclear club this week. The U.S. had to immediately put down markers for deterrence. President Bush put down two.

One marker, preventing a direct attack on our allies in the region, was straightforward, if bland: ``I reaffirmed to our allies in the region, including South Korea and Japan,'' the president said in a nationally televised statement, ``that the United States will meet the full range of our deterrent and security commitments.'' It is understood by all that the decades-old American nuclear umbrella in the Pacific Rim commits us to attacking North Korea -- presumably with in-kind nuclear retaliation -- were it to attack our allies first.

Gruesome stuff, but run-of-the-mill in the nuclear age. The hard part is the second marker Bush tried to put down: proliferation deterrence.

We are in a new era far more complicated than Kennedy's because his great crisis occurred before the age of terrorism. The world of 1962 was still technologically and ideologically primitive: Miniaturized nuclear weaponry had not yet been invented, nor had modern international terrorism. Yasser Arafat and the PLO gave the world that gift half a decade later with their perfection of the political airline hijacking.


Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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