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.