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).