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The Missiles of October
Or: Thirteen Days of Fear and Loathing
By Jose Rodriguez
The President had outlined their next diplomatic moves: alert the American public about the crisis in a televised address; receive legal approval for the quarantine from the Organization of American States (OAS); and, finally, make their case to the world at the United Nations (UN). It was crucial that they secure approval for their actions from their allies. From a legal standpoint, unilateral action against Cuba would have seriously damaged their reputation, not to mention undermine their legitimacy as the moral leader of the world. As preparations got underway, the New York Times and Washington Post sensed that something was wrong and they began to investigate. When UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson discovered that the papers were going to print the stories he alerted the President. Both papers agreed to withhold the story after receiving calls from the President, who asked that he first be allowed to present his course of action to the American public.
On Monday October 22, the President remained faithful to his appointments. He even met with Prime Minister Milton Obote of Uganda, who was thoroughly “impressed” and taken by surprise when he watched the President’s speech to the nation and the world (Schlesinger, “A Thousand” 812). According to Wayne Fredericks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, the Prime Minister said: “I got one of the most impressive experiences of my life: For thirty minutes this afternoon I had the full and undivided attention of the President of the United States of America, and I had not the slightest inkling of the problems he was facing.” (Strober, 387) Though the President had the weight of the world on his shoulders, he still maintained his famous calm and cool composure. By giving time to Obote during this crisis, he signaled to the Prime Minister that he was dedicated to the issues confronting Africa.
The President scheduled a meeting for five o’clock that same evening to explain their situation to Congressional leaders. Congressmen from all over the country were in their districts for re-election, but they did not mind being called back to Washington by the President. O’Donnell recalled one such congressman, “Hale Boggs [who] was fishing on the Gulf of Mexico. An Air Force helicopter picked him up from his boat and carried him to New Orleans, where an Air Force jet took him to Washington.” (O’Donnell, 327) Once everyone was assembled, the meeting began. John McCone kicked off the meeting by presenting the group with aerial photography and explaining their significance. McNamara and Rusk outlined their rationale for the naval quarantine, but it was quickly followed up with denouncements from all of the Congressional leaders. It seemed to those present that the congressmen were trying to outdo one another in their objection to the blockade. Senator Russell, the most vocal critics, attacked the plan as weak and demanded that the President immediately follow a military course of action. “It seems to me,” he said, “that we are at a crossroads. We are either a first-class power or we’re not.” (Dallek, 557) Senator Fulbright also attacked the plan as ineffective and asserted that a military strike against Cuba did not necessarily constitute an act of war against the Soviet Union (Dallek, 557). Unmoved, the President replied, “Last Tuesday, I was for an air strike or invasion myself, but after four more days of deliberations, we decided that was not the wisest first move, and you would, too, if you had more time to think about it.” (O’Donnell, 328) All of them had sided with the JCS on the matter, though a few of them signaled that they would support the President if they could make it part of the public record that they were not consulted before the final decision was made. Bobby, who did not attend the meeting, could see the frustration in his brother afterwards. As the door shut behind him, the President let his anger show: “Oh, sure, we’ll support you, Mister President. But it’s your decision not ours, and if it goes wrong we’ll knock your block off.” (O’Donnell, 328) As the President changed his clothes for the televised address, he muttered half to himself: “If they want this job, they can have it—it’s no great joy to me!” (Sorensen, 703) It seemed clearer and clearer each day that he was one of the few people who were fighting for peace. As the time approached, the President readied himself to make the most important speech of his life.
At 7:00 p.m., the President appeared on over one hundred million television screens across America. Looking grim and speaking in somber tones, he began: “Good evening, my fellow citizens. This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” (Kennedy, 149) He carefully explained the nature of the crisis and explained the risks posed by the missiles and the sites. Not only were these missiles dangerous, but their existence in Cuba represented the duplicity and the deception of the Soviet Union. They were also put there in violation of the Rio Pact of 1947.
The President then went on to explain their course of action. A naval quarantine would be established, he said, in order to halt the transportation of the offensive weaponry. Should the Soviet Union fail to dismantle the sites, the U.S. would be forced to carry out air strikes in order to ensure their destruction. Any missile fired from the island, he warned, would be regarded “as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” (Kennedy, 153) In order to secure legal grounding for their course of action, the President announced that he wanted to present his case to the OAS and to the UN: “We are a peaceful people who desire to live in peace with all other peoples.” (Kennedy, 154)
The last half of the speech was mainly dedicated to the people of Cuba. He implored them to remember their long history of overthrowing tyrants and dictators “who destroyed their liberty.” (Kennedy, 155) The American people, he assured them, were with them in their struggle for freedom. He hoped that one day Cuba would be “welcomed back to the society of free nations and to the association of this hemisphere.” (Kennedy, 156) The President ended the speech with the following words: “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission. Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved. Thank you and good night.” (Kennedy, 156)
The President’s speech earned him the immediate support from their NATO allies. It had been watched all across the globe in 38 different languages (Sorensen, 704).
The next morning, Secretary of State Dean Rusk awoke Undersecretary of State George Ball, who had fallen asleep on the couch in his State Department office by saying, “We have won a considerable victory. You and I are still alive.” (Dallek, 559) On this day, Rusk was scheduled to make the case for the quarantine before the Organization of American States, while UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was to make their case before the UN. Behind the scenes, the CIA and ExComm members were out trying to rally support among congressional leaders for the President’s plan.
All their efforts were successful. Dean Rusk, “in his finest hour”, was able to obtain a unanimous vote of approval for the President’s quarantine (Dallek, 560). Stevenson, in a dramatic confrontation with Russia’s UN Ambassador Valerian Zorin, was successful in proving to the world that the Soviet Union had indeed placed missile sites on the island of Cuba. He demanded to know if the Soviets had placed the missiles in Cuba, but Zorin refused to answer. Stevenson then gave his historic retort, “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over!” (Dallek, 565) Without waiting for a reply, Stevenson presented the aerial photographs of the Russian missile sites to the Security Council, which earned the United States credibility in its claims. The ExComm and CIA were successful in convincing the skeptics and the public that their efforts were justified.
On the morning of Wednesday October 24, just after 10 a.m., two Russian ships, the Komiles and the Gagarin, sailed straight for the quarantine line. Complicating the situation was the presence of a Soviet submarine between the two ships, escorting them across the quarantine line. The night before, the President had issued a proclamation: “Force shall not be used except in case of failure or refusal to comply with directions… after reasonable efforts have been made to communicate them to the vessel or craft, or in case of self-defense. In any case, force shall be used only to the extent necessary.” (Sorensen, 708) They were now on the brink of nuclear war and the President was concerned about the situation getting out of his control and spiraling into disaster. He recalled a part in the book The Guns of August when a German Chancellor was asked how it all began. He replied, “Ah, if we only knew.” (O’Donnell, 330) The President did not want to repeat their mistakes. The room was silent. Bobby looked over at his brother who was covering his mouth with a clenched fist. Suddenly, memories of pain, death, and despair flooded into the mind of Bobby, who thought about their older brother Joseph, who had been killed in World War 2, and about how John had almost been killed during the war. The President looked over at McNamara and asked, “What do we do now? Does the first ship we stop have to be a submarine?” (Sorensen, 332) McNamara reluctantly explained that the submarine could not be ignores: “Our commanders have been instructed to avoid hostilities if at all possible, but this what we must be prepared for, and this is what we must expect.” (Kennedy, 54)
Minutes crawled by.
The Missiles of October
Or: Thirteen Days of Fear and Loathing
By Jose Rodriguez
Over the next five days, the ExComm routinely met in Under Secretary of State George Ball’s conference room to hammer out a strategy. Part of the President’s strategy was to remain absent from the ExComm deliberations so that the participants would speak more freely and openly about their opinions. In his memoir, Bobby wrote, “Frequently I saw advisers adapt their opinions to what they believed President Kennedy … wished to hear.” (Kennedy, 86) It also provided the group an opportunity to arrive at a consensus. Throughout the deliberations, recalled Gilpatric, “he didn’t, until the very end of our meetings, indicate what he was going to do.” (Strober, 378) In waiting to voice an opinion, he gave the ExComm members more time to discuss their positions. Though President Kennedy did not voice his opinion in the ExComm deliberations that does not mean his influence was not felt. This influence came in the form of the President’s brother– Bobby. The two boys were not close in their youth, due to the difference in their age, but the two formed a close bond when President Kennedy was running for the Senate. For the remainder of the President’s political career, Bobby was his greatest advocate and most trusted advisor. “He was his brother’s spokesperson on most matters,” and his brother’s attack dog when necessary (Dallek, 547). In those ExComm meetings, there is some indication that he was merely reflecting the President’s own views in order to have them vetted by the group, particularly the Pearl Harbor analogy. The reactions and responses would then be reported back to the President in private meetings. According to Arthur Schlesinger jr. however, Bobby came into his own during those thirteen days and seemed to genuinely lead the charge for the quarantine option (Schlesinger, “Robert Kennedy” 532). Either way, the brothers were like-minded on this crisis. Schlesinger recalls in his memoir of Robert Kennedy the last night of the crisis when the President said, almost to himself, “Thank God for Bobby.”
The ExComm was split between “hawks” and “doves,” though these were not terms used during the crisis. It should be noted, however, that the initial majority opinion was in favor of a military strike to remove the missile sites (Kennedy, 25). After subsequent discussions over the course of the first couple of days, a second option surfaced: a naval blockade. A naval blockade is actually an act of war, so, for legal reasons, the group termed the action “quarantine”. This option resulted in the split that divided the group into “hawks” and “doves”. The hawks were led by Dean Acheson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the doves were led by Bobby and Robert McNamara. Somehow, these men were supposed to find common ground.
The doves argued strongly for the naval blockade, or “quarantine”. The quarantine would exert the necessary pressure on Russia, but it was an option that “(allowed) the Soviets some room for maneuver to pull back from their over-extended position in Cuba.” (Dallek, 556) If necessary, they argued, the military option was still on the table. Robert McNamara stressed that there was no guarantee, in the event of a military strike, that all of the missile sites would be known, especially considering that they did not know whether or not more sites existed (Kennedy, 27). For Bobby, the military strike was morally unacceptable as it “would rain bombs on Cuba, killing thousands and thousands of civilians in a surprise attack,” a course of action that was not in the American tradition (Kennedy, 29). The American public, nor the rest of the world, would tolerate a “very big nation” blasting a “very small” nation back to the stone age in an act that was reminiscent of Pearl Harbor. Bobby’s position is greatly different from his views just before the crisis broke out, according to Gaylord Nelson who said that Bobby remarked, “What we really should do is make a strike—a huge strike and knock ‘em right out of business.” (Strober, 377) The implication, therefore, is that Bobby’s contradictory position during the ExComm meetings reflected President Kennedy’s behind the scenes opinion.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, by contrast, were unanimous in their support for a surgical air strike. The hawks argued that the blockade would be “closing the door after the horse has left the barn,” not to mention the fact that there existed the very real possibility that the Russians might “do the same to Berlin.” (Kennedy, 27-28) One of the most vocal hawks was former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who argued that the President had a moral obligation to take out the missile site that threatened the lives of 90 million Americans (Kennedy, 28-30). They even had plans drawn up to execute 500 sorties over the island, all of which would require ammunition and troop deployments (Kennedy, 29). The missiles provided, in their view, a perfect opportunity “to solve the Cuban problem.” (Talbot, 168)
The ExComm was scheduled to make their proposals to the President on the night of Thursday October 18, but first he had to attend a previously scheduled meeting with Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister. In a shining example of his cool and calm demeanor, the President gave Gromyko no indication that anything was wrong or amiss. In fact, it was Gromyko who insisted that the U.S. “stop threatening Cuba” and allow them to exist in peace (Kennedy, 31). Again, Gromyko reiterated the Soviet’s position that their support to Cuba was of a defensive nature: “As to assistance to Cuba, I have been instructed to make it clear… that such assistance pursued solely the purpose of contributing to the defense capabilities of Cuba and to the development of its peaceful economy.” (Sorensen, 690) This blatant deception infuriated the President, though he made no outward indication of his feelings. The President, instead, read his statement from September 4th: “All Americans, as well as all of our friends in this Hemisphere, have been concerned over the recent moves of the Soviet Union to bolster the military power of the Castro regime in Cuba… There is no evidence of any organized combat force in Cuba from any Soviet bloc country; of military bases provided to Russia; of a violation of the 1934 treaty relating to Guantanamo; of the presence of offensive ground-to-ground missiles; or of other significant offensive capability either in Cuban hands or under Soviet direction and guidance. Were it to be otherwise, the gravest issues would arise. The Cuban question must be considered as a part of the worldwide challenge posed by Communist threats to the peace. It must be dealt with as a part of that larger issue as well as in the context of the special relationships which have long characterized the inter-American System. It continues to be the policy of the United States that the Castro regime will not be allowed to export its aggressive purposes by force or the threat of force. It will be prevented by whatever means may be necessary from taking action against any part of the Western Hemisphere. The United States, in conjunction with other Hemisphere countries, will make sure that while increased Cuban armaments will be a heavy burden to the unhappy people of Cuba themselves, they will be nothing more.” (Statement) Afterwards, in a meeting with Robert Lovett, the President expressed his frustration: “[Gromyko] who, in this very room not over ten minutes ago, told more barefaced lies than I have ever heard in so short a time. All during his denial that the Russians had any missiles or weapons, or anything else, in Cuba, I had… the pictures in the center drawer of my desk and it was an enormous temptation to show them to him.” (Dallek, 553)
Later that night, in order to maintain secrecy, the ExComm piled into Bobby’s car and drove to the White House. They had all agreed to the blockade proposal before they left for the White House, but that did not last. The group was presented with new aerial photographs that showed that the Soviets were constructing sites to launch intermediate medium range ballistic missiles. The group focused their discussion on whether or not they should act immediately to this new information, which lead to discussions about how and where the Soviet Union would retaliate. Dean Rusk also expressed concerns about how our allies might be affected: “The action also has to be thought of in connection with alliance solidarity, there we’re faced with conflicting elements. Unless we’re in a situation where it is clear that the alliance has worked to understand the problem, then unannounced, unconsulted quick action on our part, could well lead to a kind of odd disunitiveness the Soviets could capitalize upon very strongly.” (Historic Documents) The President then engaged the group in a discussion about whether or not they should alert the Soviet Union before they make any decision, but he seemed t answer his own question: “If we gave say this 24-hour notice, get in touch with Khrushchev, taking no action with our allies. I would assume that they would move these mobile missiles into the woods.” (Historic Documents) McNamara responded by saying that he doubted the Soviets, at this point, could dismantle the sites, especially since it had taken them so long to erect them in the first place. When the subject of the blockade finally came up, the President was still concerned about how they planned to remove the missiles from the island. Llewellyn Thompson suggested that they declare war or find some sort of legal basis that would not only force the Soviets to dismantle the sites, but it would also justify any future actions the U.S. might make to punish them for their defiance. Playing the role of devil’s advocate, Bobby states: “the argument against the blockade is that it’s very slow death, and it kills up, and goes over a period of months, and during that period of time you’ve got all these people yelling and screaming, examination of Russian ships and shooting down of Russian planes that try to land there, you have to do all those things.” (Historic Documents) An unidentified voice asserts that any blockade of Cuba would most assuredly prompt the Soviets to retaliate by blockading Berlin. The meeting ends without any final decision and the President sends the ExComm back to their offices to develop their arguments.
The Missiles of October
Or: Thirteen Days of Fear and Loathing
By Jose Rodriguez
The honeymoon did not last however, as President Kennedy suffered his first major foreign policy defeat two months into his term. The April 17th invasion of Cuba by the CIA trained Cuban exiles was a perfect failure. The vastly outnumbered force of roughly fourteen hundred battled for three days against Castro’s armed forces on the beaches of Cuba, suffering 104 deaths (including four CIA “advisers”). The surviving Cuban exiles surrendered and were put into prison. The President was grief stricken when news of the invasion’s failure reached him, but he refused to send in military reinforcements. In Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Power’s book “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye” they described the President’s thinking: “As sorry as he felt for the stranded rebels on the beaches, he preferred the embarrassment of defeat to the use of American military force against a small and independent nation. ‘I’ll take the defeat’ he said that night to the generals and admirals, “and I’ll take all of the blame for it.’” (O’Donnell, 270)
Early in 1962, President Kennedy read Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August, a startling account of the outbreak of World War 1. The President was so shocked by what he read that he required his Cabinet members and the National Security Council to read the book. He even gave a copy to England’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (Tuchman, vii). Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recalled that the President explained how the book “graphically portrayed how Europe’s leaders had bungled into the debacle of World War 1. And he emphasized: ‘I don’t ever want to be in that position… we are not going to bungle into war.’” (McNamara, 96) Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (referred to as Bobby) recalled in his memoir Thirteen Days that the President had criticized Europe’s leaders who “seemed to tumble into war… through stupidity, individual idiosyncrasies, misunderstandings, and personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur.” (Kennedy, 49) Contrary to the assertions made by revisionists Hagan and Paterson, the President was not attempting to flex his military muscle or to provoke a nuclear showdown. According to Bobby, on the night of October 26, 1962, the President spoke to him about the historical implications of their actions: “If anybody is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move. I am not going to push the Russians an inch beyond what is necessary.” (Kennedy, 98) Clearly, Barbara Tuchman’s book, and the lessons it contained, had an enormous influence on the manner in which the President approached each crisis, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The primary documents and oral histories provide clear and ample evidence that he was determined not to go down in history as the President who bungled his way into nuclear war.
The Soviet Union began moving missiles into Cuba in the summer of 1962, which US intelligence detected in August, after having received assurances from President Kennedy that he would halt all U-2 reconnaissance flights “over Soviet ships in the Caribbean.” (Dallek, 537) By September, it was becoming clearer and clearer that the Soviets were not being entirely honest with their claims that they were only providing defensive armaments to Cuba. On September 4, Bobby held a meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin: “I told him that we were deeply concerned within the Administration about the amount of military equipment being sent to Cuba… there was some evidence that, in addition to the surface-to-air-missile (SAM) sites that were being erected, the Russians, under the guise of a fishing village, were constructing a large naval shipyard and a base for submarines.” (Kennedy, 20-21) Ambassador Dobrynin assured the Attorney General that the Soviet Union “would do nothing to disrupt the relationship of our two countries during this period prior to the elections.” (Kennedy, 21) To make the point even clearer, the President issued a statement warning the Soviet Union against the introduction of offensive weapons into Cuba. A week later, on September 11, the Soviet Union issued a statement of their own assuring the US that there would be no such course of action and that they had no intention of exporting nuclear weapons to Cuba: “There is no need for the Soviet Union to shift its weapons for the repulsion of aggression, for a retaliatory blow, to any other country, for instance, Cuba. Our nuclear weapons are so powerful in their explosive force and the Soviet Union has so powerful rockets to carry these nuclear warheads, that there is no need to search for sites for them beyond the boundaries.” (Schlesinger, “A Thousand” 799) They also went on to accuse that the US was “preparing for aggression against Cuba and other peace-loving states.” (Schlesinger, “A Thousand” 799) The web of lies and deceit had been spun, but the US had not yet been caught in it. As a precaution, the President stepped up U-2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, for the U.S., started at 8:45 am on Tuesday, October 16, 1962. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy presented President Kennedy with the news that a U-2 spy plane had photographed evidence of offensive weapons on the island of Cuba. In that first hour, President Kennedy made three crucial decisions: the information was to be shared with only a select few individuals; these individuals would convene for high level meetings to discuss policy and strategy; and, lastly, that everyone should be mindful to keep their appointments, lest they rouse the suspicions of journalists. The President wanted to maintain absolute control over the situation. Pierre Salinger, the White House Press Secretary, explained that President Kennedy wanted to make a decision before he let the “American people… know about the crisis.” (Strober, 379) He was concerned about pressure to act before he had time to consider all of his options.
President Kennedy immediately set-up a meeting and drew up a list of people he wanted at the meeting. At around 9:00 am, he called the person at the top of his list—his brother Bobby. “President Kennedy called and asked me to come to the White House. He said only that we were facing great trouble.” (Kennedy, 19) The rest of the people on his list were instructed to attend the meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House at 11:45 a.m. These few individuals were to form the Executive Committee of the Security Council, otherwise known as the ExComm. Roswell Gilpatric, a member of the ExComm and the Deputy Secretary of Defense, said that “the President must have had in his mind at the beginning how he was going to do something like the missile crisis, because from all accounts and what Mac Bundy told me and others, when Bundy woke him up on Tuesday morning with the news of the discovery of the sites, Kennedy just reeled off the names of ten or twelve of us whom he wanted to come over to the White House that morning.” (Strober, 378) These men were, as Bobby described, “of the highest intelligence, industrious, courageous, and dedicated to their country’s well being.” (Kennedy, 25)
During this meeting, the ExComm was presented with the aerial photography and listened as experts explained the readiness of the sites. The 928 pictures looked like football fields to the President and Bobby, but General Marshall Sylvester Carter (Deputy Director of the CIA) explained that the photographic evidence revealed the existence in Cuba of missile sites that were under construction at San Cristobal and Guanajay, Cuba, not to mention twenty-one crated IL-28 medium range bombers. They also admitted that they had no idea when these sites would become operational. President Kennedy pressed the ExComm advisors to explain Krushev’s motivation for placing the missile sites in Cuba and how they thought these missiles would be removed. Looking back, Dean Rusk said: “We never really knew the answer to that question.” (Strober, 388) During this meeting, however, Rusk proposed that Khrushchev might be trying “to bargain Berlin and Cuba against each other.” (Dallek, 547) Ted Sorensen, the President’s speechwriter and adviser, wrote that there were five theories: (1) That Khrushchev was testing the will of the administration by playing Cold War politics; (2) That Khrushchev was setting a trap that would force the U.S. to respond with violence against “little Cuba and provide the Soviet Union room to move against Berlin; (3) That Khrushchev was trying to protect its ally in the Western Hemisphere against what they thought would be an inevitable invasion; (4) That Khrushchev was using the missile sites as a bargaining tool for future settlements on Berlin; (5) That Khrushchev was trying to compensate for the missile gap by placing the missiles so close to the American mainland that they would “by-pass most of our missile warning systems permitting virtually no time between their launch and their arrival on target.” (Sorensen, 677-678) When the President requested opinions on their response, he received a range of opinions that included doing nothing, responding with massive military force, or blockading the island. Overwhelmingly, the group was in favor of a military strike. This also seemed to be the President’s initial choice, but he was not yet ready to make his decision. As the meeting wore on, Bobby passed a note to the President: “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor” (Kennedy, 25).