Who was the hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis?
a. President Kennedy
b. Che Guevara
c. Nikita Khrushchev
d. Gen. Curtis LeMay
If you answered "c," you see eye to eye with Garry Wills, the iconoclastic historian/theologian whose nearly 30 provocative books challenge the conventional wisdom of history.
Kennedy's handling of the 1962 dispute with the Soviet Union over installation of nuclear warheads in its Caribbean client state is traditionally called masterful and a victory over Moscow.
Mr. Wills, however, explains that it was JFK's support of CIA's military -- and illegal -- projects to invade the island that set the stage for the Cold War's most dangerous moment.
Cuban dictator Fidel Castro "wanted the missiles only as a deterrent against invasion of his land," claims the author, who concludes that Kennedy was forced to lie about Cuba's rationale to hide his illegal efforts to attack the island.
The Penguin Press ($27.95)
In fact, Kennedy "risked nuclear war to keep his secrets." He also publicly denied making compromises with Khrushchev when in fact, JFK both removed missiles near the Soviet Union border in Turkey and abandoned invasion projects as his part of the deal to remove the warheads.
The Soviet leader agreed to stay mum on those concessions to maintain a relationship with Washington. Khrushchev was "restrained and responsible," not the American president, Mr. Wills believes.
The missile crisis is one piece of Mr. Wills' thesis that since the development of nuclear weapons, the chief executive has bent, if not broken the constitutional limits on his authority.
With the power to use the bomb resting solely with the president, the Constitution's system of checks and balances among the three branches was compromised.
"In the atomic era, the President as Commander in Chief has taken on a mystique that makes him a power apart," argues Mr. Wills. That new "power" has given the White House carte blanche to act with impunity in other areas as well.
From Harry Truman's unilateral "police action" in Korea to George W. Bush's employment of torture and detention camps, presidential authority has outstripped its constitutional limits, including the spending of federal funds, a prerogative of Congress. Starting with the Manhattan Project, presidents have illegally tapped the U.S. Treasury to pay for clandestine projects including the overthrow of governments with devastating consequences. Case in point: Iran.
Mr. Wills doesn't spare the latest White House occupant, charging him with maintaining the unconstitutional practices of his predecessor. What rankles him is that President Barack Obama has shown no interest in investigating the previous president's actions.
As an overview of the "imperial presidency," Mr. Wills' account leaves no room for objections or other interpretations of what he calls the "covert activities and overt authority of the government we now experience." He offers a one-sided, at times strident denunciation of modern presidents, none more harsh than his assessment of the Bush-Cheney years.
While Mr. Wills fumes, not without good reason, the electorate and Congress appear either satisfied or ignorant of this wielding of power. As for the Constitution, it seems a custom more honored in the breach than the observance.
Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 21, 2010 5:00 AM