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Cuban Missile Crisis Professor's Passion

McKeown is an expert on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. His extensive research on the conflict has produced scholarly papers and published books.

His background helps him assess foreign policies, especially dealing with the United States' relations with the Middle East after Sept. 11.

"My interest in the Cuban Missile Crisis came mostly from living through it," McKeown said. "I remember as a child thinking there would be a war between the Soviet Union and the U.S., and all the adults were really worried."

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis on Oct. 16 through Oct. 28, McKeown wrote an editorial in The (Raleigh) News & Observer about the planning failures that occurred. "That was my main way of reaching a broader audience."

Widely considered an expert on the Cuban Missile Crisis, McKeown said that he did not plan to study the tense time in history but that his interest piqued after he stumbled upon the Hubert Humphrey papers, which outlined details about the missile crisis.

"What I found was fascinating -- what we thought was the genesis of the missile crisis was wrong, and we had missed important pieces of information," he said.

McKeown wanted to research more about how the U.S. got involved in the missile crisis.

"The government planned appropriate responses, but the planning went nowhere," he said.

The immediate impact of the missile crisis was to shake both Soviet Union and U.S. decision-makers' confidence, McKeown said. "I think the Cuban Missile Crisis should be remembered because it is a monument to our own arrogance to think that international politics could be controlled," he said.

McKeown said other results of the missile crisis included beginning strategic arms control and reducing tensions between the two world powers.

The installation of a secure teletype communication device between Washington, D.C., and Moscow came directly after the missile crisis. McKeown added that Nixon's detente policy -- an effort to find areas where the two powers could cooperate -- led to more scientific research, trade and cultural exchanges.

But McKeown said that it is not enough to merely acknowledge international conflicts but that it is necessary to solve them by taking action.

"Governments don't like to think about difficult events, they like to avoid them," he said. "But we must go beyond intellectual recognition to a conscious political effort."

He said one of the biggest misconceptions in foreign relations is that toughness leads to good results.

"In Cuba, there was a mix of coercion and diplomacy," he said. "We sent signals that the Russians could back down without being disgraced."

After the missile crisis was averted, the United States' prestige increased in the short run. "America appeared to be acting with vigor and restraint," he said. "The crisis ended with the West getting what it wanted without firing a shot."

But the missile crisis also made it harder for the U.S. and Cuba to ever reconcile, McKeown said. "The Cubans felt very much under the American gun, and we didn't end Castro's reign," he said. "There was continued hostility for another 40 years -- it still exists. Our relationship with Castro was frozen in time."

And even though he is an expert on an event that took place 40 years ago, McKeown said he still can see similarities in the way the U.S. government deals with foreign conflicts.

He draws parallels from the tensions with the Soviet Union to the current situations with Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We continue to have international crises -- we're in one now," he said. "(The administration) should try to portray America as less warlike and more interested in the opinions of others."

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