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A familiar story

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Earlier this month, I marked seven decades on this planet. Had it not been for the steely resolve and diplomatic skill of John F. Kennedy, I might not have survived much beyond my first decade.

Sixty years ago this week, the world stood inches from nuclear armageddon as JFK went mano a mano with Nikita Khrushchev to force the USSR to remove nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba. New Times' readers are mostly much younger than me, but you probably know how the crisis was resolved if you've read anything about the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if you haven't, check out the movie Thirteen Days.

I've shown key scenes from that movie to my U.S. history classes at Allan Hancock College many times, and its message resonates more clearly now than when it first aired in 2000: Diplomacy is the only way to avoid war and the best way to end a war.

In his first weeks in office, JFK was humiliated by the Bay of Pigs debacle. A few weeks later, this youngest president ever to be elected turned in a weak performance at the Vienna Summit with Khrushchev. Moscow was convinced that they could roll this new administration with impunity and threaten us by placing medium-range nuclear missiles on the soil of their new ally, Cuba, only 90 miles from our shores.

They were mistaken. JFK rallied the "free world" against the nuclear threat through a skillful display of international diplomacy. His brother, Attorney General Robert "Bobby" Kennedy, opened a diplomatic back channel that enabled Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles based on a promise from Kennedy that we would quietly remove obsolete tactical missiles that we had installed in eastern Turkey.

Today, the Western world was rocked into action to meet a new challenge as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion against neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 27 with the intent to absorb it into his grand design for a new "Imperial Russia." President Biden committed $16 billion in military aid to Ukraine and, with our NATO allies, Ukraine has stopped the Russian advance and even regained significant territory that the Russians had occupied in the early months of the war. We are using the "soft power" of our economic strength to impose sanctions that have isolated Russia and shriveled its energy exports—a great success, with a few troublesome exceptions (China).

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has countered Russian propaganda at every step. Just this week, Russian appeals to the UN Security Council that claimed Ukraine was developing a nuclear "dirty bomb" were met with the full measure of scorn and derision that they deserved.

Also this week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) further demonstrated American support for Ukraine: She traveled to Croatia to meet with the Crimea Platform, a group of nations organized by Ukraine to affirm the case for Ukrainian sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula. Crimea is the strategic fulcrum of Black Sea navigation that Russians invaded and occupied in 2014.

Meanwhile, right-wing Republicans led by GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) are undermining the bipartisan alliance in Congress that has, so far, backed every request for military aid to Ukraine. Last week, McCarthy whined that if Republicans win the majority in November, he won't write a "blank check" for Ukraine.

It looks like McCarthy and his GOP allies in Congress are more interested in whether they can force Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, the president's wayward son who joined the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Are we really going to have to listen to that same tired, tortured refrain from congressional Republicans for the next two years, while Ukrainians suffer repeated Russian drone attacks on their cities?

Last week, my wife and I were also in Croatia. We visited two military museums where the Croatians proudly display their heroic story of victory against overwhelming odds in the "Homeland War" with their former Yugoslav Federation partners, Bosnia and Serbia. In the four years of hostilities that ended in 1995, Croatia showed the same determination to win their freedom and secure their national sovereignty that we see today in Ukraine.

Will we someday be able to visit Ukraine and find a similar museum where they can tell the compelling story of their suffering and ultimate victory against the Russians?

I certainly hope so. But God help us all if the Republican Party nominates Donald Trump for the presidency in 2024. The MAGA Republicans should be fully prepared to defend Trump's insufferable puppy love for Putin and the Russian oligarchs who have financed this war. We now know, of course, that Russian rubles bailed out the failing Trump Organization when no legitimate banks would offer him credit.

Our nation must be ready and willing to defend Western civilization against the most serious diplomatic and military challenge that we have faced since 1962—emanating from Moscow once again. More military aid is necessary, yes, but it is not sufficient to end this scourge of war. Only skilled diplomacy, an intimate knowledge of our allies and our adversaries, and little luck will enable a lasting and legitimate peace. Δ

John Ashbaugh has been engaged in local politics since arriving in SLO County in 1977. Write a response for publication by emailing [email protected].

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