You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ tag.
The Missiles of October
Or: Thirteen Days of Fear and Loathing
By Jose Rodriguez
John McCone suddenly stood and read a message that had been passed to him. At 10:25 a.m., some of the ships headed towards the quarantine line stopped dead in the water just before the line, while other simply turned around and headed back to Russia. Dean Rusk, not usually known for his wit, quipped, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other guy just blinked.” (Sorensen, 332)
Though the ships had turned and gone back, the threat still existed. Many ships were still headed for the quarantine line, just five hundred miles from the shores of Cuba. One of these ships was the Bucharest, which was a tanker so it technically was allowed to cross the quarantine line, but many of the President’s advisers suggested he demonstrate his will by boarding the tanker anyway. The President considered the advice, but determined that the demonstration of will was not worth the potential risk of retaliation from the Soviet Union. It was about this time that the President received a message from Bertrand Russell, a noted British pacifist, who condemned the President for his warlike stance towards Cuba. The President quickly sent back a message that read: “I think your attention might well be directed to the burglar rather than to those who caught the burglar.” (Kennedy, 57) The President’s refusal to commit to an action that might force Khrushchev to retaliate with force made Russell’s accusation seem all the more absurd.
The first ship to be boarded was the Marucla. Interestingly, one of the two destroyers to stop the Marucla was the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., named after the brothers’ deceased older brother. The next ship to be inspected was an East German passenger ship. Several more ships, none deemed to be particularly dangerous, were also forced to stop. In conducting these stops and searches, the President was sending a message to Khrushchev: We’re serious. After two days of enforcing the quarantine line, the President decided that it was time to apply more pressure on the Russians, but not to much pressure so as to force Khrushchev’s hand. Part of that pressure included low-level flights over Cuba by U-2 spy planes. Meanwhile, the President ordered that preparations be made for a post-invasion Cuba, including preparations for establishing a new government.
That Friday evening, around six o’clock the President received a letter from Khrushchev. The long rambling letter seemed to have been written by either a drunk person, or someone under extreme stress. “Bobby Kennedy picked it up,” George Ball said. “We were all sitting around… we had been quite exhilarated getting the first message, which was a very earthy message.” (Strober, 399) Though the letter provided some measure of hope, there was still concern because they, according to Dean Rusk, “thought the old man was losing his cool. But nevertheless, there was in the letter a sentence or two that seemed to offer a possibility of a peaceful settlement.” (Strober, 398) The letter itself indicated that Khrushchev was not writing an official correspondence; this was a direct and personal appeal to the President. At one point in the letter, he expressed regret for actions that may have provoked a confrontation that could end in war. In the letter, he offered to withdraw the offending missiles in Cuba if the U.S. would promise not to invade the island. He even suggested that the U.N. be responsible for overseeing the removal of the missiles. “If indeed war should break out,” he wrote, “then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and I know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.” (Kennedy, 67) Despite the fears, Khrushchev still placed the blame on the U.S. for its aggressive policies towards Cuba. He ended the letter by saying that the Soviet Union was ready to untie the knot of war if the U.S. was equally willing.
The offer in the letter to remove the missiles in exchange for assurances that the U.S. would not invade came directly from a previous back-channel meeting. On Friday October 26, ABC correspondent John Scali approached the State Department with an offer from the counselor at the Soviet Embassy, Aleksander Fomin. Dean Rusk read the message and passed it on to the President. The message proposed that the Soviets would be willing to “remove our missiles under United Nations inspections, where Mr. Khrushchev would promise never to introduce such offensive weapons into Cuba,” if the “President of the United States be willing to promise publicly not to invade Cuba.” (Schlesinger, “Thousand Days” 826) Dean Rusk saw this as “unexpected, but it was, in effect, reassuring because what we were getting from that back channel helped us to figure out which communications from Khrushchev were real.” (Strober, 398) The President sent word that they would be willing to negotiate, but that their window of opportunity was narrowing with time. They had 48 hours to respond. The President also asked that his name not be used, only that he had talked with “the highest authority in the government.” (O’Donnell, 335)
Bobby Kennedy recalled going home that evening, for the first time, with a real sense of optimism, though by the next morning that sense would vanish. Not only did J. Edgar Hoover report that the Soviets were planning to destroy all their documents in New York that were related to the missile build-up, but on that Saturday morning, October 27, a second letter had come from the Kremlin over the teletype. This second letter was far more demanding and hostile than the previous letter, which had been written in haste. This dramatic shift in tone lead them to think that Khrushchev might have been overthrown by the “hawkish militants” in Khrushchev’s government (O’Donnell, 336). The second letter demanded a quid pro quo: the Soviets would remove the missiles from Cuba if the President would remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The President was privately furious over the fact that these missile were being used as leverage against him. He had ordered Rusk to get those missiles out of Turkey on several occasions, but Rusk demurred, saying that the Turks would not be happy with such a move. Bobby recalled that his brother “believed that he was President and that, his wishes having been made clear, they would be followed and the missiles removed. He had therefore dismissed the matter from his mind.” (Kennedy, 72) The President went for a walk in the Rose Garden and was joined by Kenneth O’Donnell. The President asked that O’Donnell figure out the date of his last request for the removal of those Jupiter missiles, “and not just the first five times!” (O’Donnell, 337) At this juncture, he could not forfeit the missiles and upset his NATO allies, who would undoubtedly feel as though the President were selling out their safety for the safety of the U.S. He could also not remove the missiles under threat from the Soviet Union in a crisis that had been created out of their duplicity.
Events were unfolding in such a way that the military were gaining the courage to press the President for an immediate air strike. The quarantine, they argued, was proving to be ineffective, as they had predicted. The only sure way to remove the missiles was with an air strike on Monday, followed by an invasion. During this Saturday meeting they also learned that a SAM site on the island had shot down a U-2 spy plane, killing pilot Major Rudolf Anderson, who had been the pilot to take the first pictures demonstrating the existence of the missiles in Cuba. This, combined with the letter, proved to the military that the Soviets were preparing for all out war. The President stopped the group discussion to remind them that he was not “concerned with the first step,” but was concerned with the “fourth or fifth” step that would end in nuclear war (Kennedy, 74). The President was not going to be railroaded into making a hasty decision. He was still afraid of stumbling into war because of mistakes in judgment.
That night, the ExComm struggled with their next move. They had two conflicting messages from Khrushchev and they were not sure what to do about it. Llewellyn Thompson, who had just returned from the Soviet Union as the U.S. Ambassador, advised the President to respond to the first letter only. He argued that it was the best way to allow Khrushchev a way to back out without humiliation, while giving him the ability to claim that he had saved Cuba from the U.S. The President agreed with him. He immediately sent Bobby and Ted Sorensen into another room to write the response. They came back with a draft, which the President reworded and reworked to get the final draft. The letter acknowledged only Khrushchev’s first letter, ignoring the second, and agreed to the proposals: “We, on our part, would agree… to remove promptly the quarantine… to give assurances against invasion.” (Sorensen, 715) This was based, of course, on the Soviet’s “cessation of work on the missile sites in Cuba and measures to render such weapons inoperable. The continuation of this threat… would surely lead to an intensification of the Cuban crisis and a grave risk to the peace of the world.” (Sorensen, 715)
With the completed letter, Bobby met with Ambassador Dobrynin to personally hand him the letter. The President also instructed Bobby to warn Dobrynin that they would commence air strikes on Monday if they did not receive a reply in 24 hours. The military was chomping at the bit to invade and were ready to do so at any given moment. The President was concerned, too, about the Soviets using this as a ruse to buy more time to complete the sites. When Bobby returned, the President was in the pool having his afternoon swim. The President was thinking of Major Anderson and his family. He had learned that Major Anderson had a child the same age as John, jr. He also cursed the fact that the young and brave always die in war, while the politicians sit in the comfort of their homes and plan war. Bobby remembered that the President was also very concerned about the children, “who had no say, who knew nothing of the confrontation, but whose lives would be snuffed out like everyone else’s.” (Kennedy, 81) With this in mind, he sent Jackie and the kids out of town for their safety in the event that Washington was attacked. With a heavy heart, the President went to bed late that Saturday night.
On the morning of October 28, a sunny Sunday morning, Bobby took his children to a horse show, while the President readied himself for 10 o’clock mass. However, all across Soviet radio and across the teletype, the Soviet response had come in—Khrushchev was withdrawing the missiles from Cuba. He seemed to congratulate the President’s understanding of the grave nature of the crisis. He continued: “I regard with great understanding your concern and the concern of the United States people in connection with the fact that the weapons you describe as offensive are formidable weapons indeed. Both you and we understand what kind of weapons these are.” (Kennedy, 164) Regardless of this admission, he still pressed the case that the weapons were defensive in nature. He also referenced a U-2 spy plane that had violated Soviet air space, an occurrence that may have influenced his decision. The spy plane had gotten lost and flew over the Soviet Union by accident, but the Soviets feared that it was a bomber ready to drop nuclear warheads. In closing, Khrushchev referenced World War 2 in arguing that the Soviet Union desired only peace, not war. “We are confident,” he wrote, “that reason will triumph, that war will not be unleashed, and peace and security of the peoples will be ensured.” (Kennedy, 168)
On the night of the Soviet agreement to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, the President gathered the ExComm in his office. He reminded them that they had succeeded. They had won, but he did not want them to say so publicly. He did not want them to gloat or claim victory in public and humiliate the Soviets. In the documentary The Fog of War, McNamara recalls that Curtis Le May, upon hearing this was outraged. “Won? Hell! We lost! We should go in and wipe ‘em out today!” The President was so shocked by this reaction that he could not speak. As he later remarked to Bobby, “They were trained to fight and wage war. That was their life.” (Kennedy, 91) In his office, he joked to his brother: “This is the night that I should go to the theater,” to which Bobby replied, “If you go, I want to go with you.” (Kennedy, 84)
The President was surrounded by people who were intelligent and loyal, but they often made mistakes in judgment. The two people he trusted the most were his brother Bobby and Robert McNamara, who both advocated for the blockade. Though the ExComm was originally in favor of air strikes, Bobby and McNamara were able to convince the group that initial limited pressure was necessary before a major strike could be carried out. The JCS were very insistent that the President follow their course of action, but the President had learned the painful lessons of the Bay of Pigs crisis. He would not allow himself to be taken for a fool again. In the end, it was the President’s careful analysis and judgment that averted all out war.
President Kennedy throughout the crisis was dedicated to thinking about the decisions and reactions of Khrushchev. Empathy was a quality that the President had, but he also demanded it of those individuals around him. The JCS did not have this sense of empathy, which the President was all too aware of. He knew that if he were to make decisions without thinking of the Soviet reaction, then he might unwittingly force them to respond in ways that would force them to escalate the tensions. In Robert McNamara’s book In Retrospect, he explains how the Cuban Missile crisis is a model for how to empathize with one’s enemy in order to avert war. After this crisis, the Soviet Union and the U.S. established a hotline so that the two sides would not have to second guess one-another.
Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August had a huge impact on the President’s decision making. He was a lover of history and he was very concerned, as most President’s are, of how they will be remembered by posterity. He was frightened by the thought that individuals could make mistakes in judgment that could result in war, such as had been the case in World War 1. The President was absolutely not going to allow similar mistakes to be made while he was President.
In understanding the military pressures the President had to resist, it is not reasonable to conclude that the President was overly hostile or prideful, as the revisionists have asserted. Had he really wanted to demonstrate military might or vanity, he would have proceeded with an invasion. The existence of missiles in Cuba would have been the perfect pretext for invasion. However, he exercised restraint and wisdom in pursuing a path of peace. In the final analysis, President Kennedy possessed the right amount of judgment, empathy, and historical perspective to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war. To further illustrate the Cold War mentality to invade, we must remember that Richard Nixon, former Vice President and Kennedy’s opponent in the 1960 Presidential election, criticized the President as being to soft during the crisis, and added that if he were President he would have approved the use of surgical air-strikes to remove the missile sites. Having the benefit of decades of research and conferences involving top officials from both sides of the confrontation, we now know that if the United States had invaded Cuba the Soviet commanders on the ground in Cuba would have retaliated with tactical nuclear warheads, which would have resulted in a mutual nuclear destruction. Had it not been for President Kennedy, that surely would have been the outcome of the crisis.
Beschloss, Michael. The Crisis Years. New York: Edward Burlingame Books, 1991.
Blight, James G. Cuba On the Brink. New York: Pantheon, 1993.
— On the Brink. New York: The Noonday Press, 1989.
Cuban Missile Crisis and the Aftermath. 20 January 2001. State Department of the United States. 3 March 2008 <http://www.state.gov/www/about_state /history/ frusXI/26_50.html>.
Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 2003.
Hagan, Roger. “Cuba: Triumph or Tragedy?” Dissent 10 (Winter 1963): 13-26.
Historic Documents: ExComm Meetings. CNN.Com. 3 March 2008 <http:// http://www.Cnn. com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/10/documents/excomm/1018.html>.
Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1969.
McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Medland, William J. “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Evolving Historical Perspectives.” The History Teacher, Vol. 23, No. 4. (Aug., 1990), pp. 433-447.
National Security Archive. 1997. The George Washington University. 3 March 2008 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/audio.htm>.
Paterson, Thomas G. “Bearing the Burden: A Critical Look at JFK’s Foreign Policy.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 54 (Spring 1978): 193-212.
Schlesinger, Arthur M. A Thousand Days. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
— Robert Kennedy and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
Statement By President John F. Kennedy On Cuba. U.S., Department of State. 3 March 2008 < http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/jfkstate.htm>.
Strober, Gerald S. and Deborah H. “Let Us Begin Anew”. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.
Talbot, David. Brothers. New York: Free Press, 2007.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine Books, 1962.
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).
The Missiles of October
Or: Thirteen Days of Fear and Loathing
By Jose Rodriguez
It was only through John F. Kennedy’s leadership that the world narrowly avoided nuclear oblivion. The temperature of the Cold War was turned way up when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had begun construction on several new nuclear sites on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles south of Florida. By the end of the thirteen day stand-off in the Caribbean waters around Cuba, the U.S.S.R. promised to remove the missile sites if the U.S. promised not to invade the island. President Kennedy’s careful judgment was predicated on his ability to empathize and respect his adversary, his ability to weigh all the advice given to him, and his hesitation to use violence as a means to an end. One can only speculate about the holocaust that would have been wreaked on civilization had President Kennedy not been elected in 1960.
This thesis, however, is not shared by many revisionist historians who reject any claims that the crisis represented President Kennedy’s finest hour. The reassessments by these historians place full blame for the crisis on President Kennedy’s shoulders, and virtually give the Communist cohorts, Cuba and the Soviet Union, a pass. President Kennedy, they charge, unnecessarily brought the crisis to the brink of nuclear war in order to appear tough on communism during mid-term elections. They are also quick to point out that the memoirs of those involved in the crisis (Robert Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Walt Rostow, etc.) are all biased accounts that tend to view the President more positively than objectively, and are thus not suitable for any constructive discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis. These individuals, by implication, have done an injustice to the historical record by creating a false image of the President during those thirteen days. In the final analysis, these revisionists are guilty of ascribing motives to individuals where there is no evidence for such assertions.
Thomas G. Paterson, a revisionist historian, has been very critical of President Kennedy’s handling of the missile crisis. According to Paterson, Professor Emeritus at University of Connecticut, President Kennedy recklessly took the route of confrontation when the route of diplomacy was readily available to him. Why would President Kennedy take this route? In Paterson’s essay Bearing the Burden: A Critical Look at JFK’s Foreign Policy, he states: “The president’s desire to score a victory, to recapture previous losses, to flex his muscle, accentuated the crisis and obstructed diplomacy… Kennedy gave Khrushchev no chance to withdraw his mistake or to save face… He left little room for bargaining but instead issued a public ultimatum and seemed willing to destroy, in Strangelovian fashion, millions in the process.” The appearance of being weak or hesitant to act during an election season was unacceptable, so, according to his assertions, Kennedy built up the threat to be more dangerous than it actually was. Following the disastrous Bay of Pigs debacle, the Kennedy administration was eager for a confrontation that would demonstrate their power and superiority over the Soviets. Paterson concludes that President Kennedy was not the cool and collected decision maker that his adherents have maintained; Instead, President Kennedy was vain, reckless, and impatient, all of which generated the tensions that could very well have resulted in nuclear war.
Another proponent of this theory is Roger Hagan, who has asserted that it was Kennedy’s arrogant and hostile Cuban policies that forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to put missiles on the Cuban island. Like Paterson, Hagan states that “Politics, toughness, a sense of nakedness and military peril, a sense of being tested, silly rage, all were probably mingled into an unanalyzed conviction of the necessity of our action.” Cowboy diplomacy, in other words, was exercised by the President so that he would not appear soft on communism, a position that would have left him weak politically.
In the book The Crisis years, Michael Beschloss asserts that the President’s legacy enjoyed, for some time, an immunity from criticism. The Kennedy White House is described as being at fault for creating an official version of events and then cementing that version into the minds of several generations of Americans who were “relieved by the peaceful end to the crisis, [and] were eager to accept” the White House story (Beschloss, 564). Had the President lived in more modern times, Beschloss writes, he “would not have been so lucky.” (Beschloss, 564) The American people, he argues, ate up the “drama” over the missiles because it was more “comprehensible” than the “abstractions of Berlin.” (Beschloss, 568) By implication, if the public were not so ignorant they would have seen that their President was “(responsible) for provoking the crisis” to begin with (Beschloss, 568). The fact that the public bought the “official version” emboldened President Kennedy’s political status and his appearance of being tough on communism (Beschloss, 568).
Arthur Schlesinger jr criticized the revisionist historians in his memoir of Robert Kennedy. He points out that the left-wing revisionists portray him as a President “driven by psychic and political compulsions to demand unconditional surrender at whatever risk to mankind,” while the hard-liners, such as Dean Acheson, during the crisis thought “him fatally soft.” (Schlesinger, “Robert Kennedy” 554) This appears to be a paradox. Schlesinger, one of the people Paterson accuses of being a perpetuator of the Kennedy legacy, argues that the very individuals that faced off against the President during the crisis thought that he was striving for peace. Khrushchev, for example, wrote that Kennedy “was a man who understood the situation correctly and who genuinely did not want war… Kennedy was also someone we could trust… He showed great flexibility and, together, we avoided disaster… He didn’t let himself become frightened, nor did he become reckless… He showed real wisdom and statesmanship.” (Schlesinger, “Robert Kennedy” 554). He also quotes Cuban President Fidel Castro, who was speaking to Herbert Matthews: “[Kennedy] acted as he did partly to save Khrushchev, out of fear that any successor would be tougher.” (Schlesinger, “Robert Kennedy” 554) The point Schlesinger is trying to make is that the people who were closest to the President and those who went toe-to-toe with him better understood his motivations than those historians who would attempt to ascribe motives to a person they did not know in a situation they did not participate in. Having the benefit of hindsight, these revisionist historians overcompensate for the Kennedy legacy following his assassination by trying to destroy his legacy altogether.
The legacy began when Senator John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the Presidential election of 1960, much to his consternation. However, over the next seventy days, Senator Kennedy transitioned into President Kennedy, earning him a 75% approval rating in the days following the inauguration. Following the election, President-elect Kennedy reached out to President Eisenhower, seeking his advice on two separate occasions about a range of issues. Though the President-elect came away from the meeting unimpressed with the elder statesman’s grasp of the issues, the President gained a new appreciation for Kennedy’s talent and intelligence. He wrote to Clark Clifford in a memo: I had been “misinformed and mistaken about this young man. He’s one of the ablest, brightest minds I’ve ever come across.” (Dallek, 303) President-elect Kennedy also made a show of political unity by meeting privately with Nixon, though, he admitted to Kenneth O’Donnell, “I haven’t the slightest idea” about what to discuss with him, which turned out fine because Nixon did most of the talking during their meeting. The inaugural balls, however, introduced the country to the Kennedy clan and their attractive beauty and youthful vigor. The country, as well as the world, fell in love with the grace and style of the Kennedys.
Keep following my blog. Part 2 of the Cuban Missile Crisis series will be posted soon!