Nuclear nightmare: the Cuban missile crisis

The Cuban missile crisis was arguably the most dangerous confrontation the world has faced. Fifty years on, Mark White re-examines the conduct of the Kennedys...

This article first appeared in the November 2012 isssue of BBC History Magazine

President Kennedy, surrounded by US officials and senators, prepares to sign the
The reaction of Robert Kennedy, attorney general of the United States, when he learned on Tuesday, 16 October 1962, that Soviet nuclear missiles had been deployed in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, was understandable: “Oh shit! Shit! Shit! Those sons of bitches Russians.”
 
In both public and private, Russian officials had assured their American counterparts that the Soviet military build-up in Cuba that had begun in the summer was no threat to the United States, because it would not include nuclear missiles capable of striking American territory. In fact, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had decided in the spring to dispatch nuclear weapons to Cuba for a variety of reasons. Among them was a desire to defend his ally, Fidel Castro – the communist revolutionary who had taken the reins of power in Cuba three years earlier – from an anticipated US attack, and to close a nuclear gap that was heavily in America’s favour.  
 
Some historians have queried whether Khrushchev would have put missiles in Cuba had President John F Kennedy not attempted to overthrow Castro with the CIA-organised Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Fearful that Kennedy would continue his drive to oust his government, Castro gratefully accepted Khrushchev’s proposal to bolster Cuba with nuclear missiles.
 
What the Kennedy administration faced in October 1962 was the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War era. In fact, given the appalling loss of life inevitable in a nuclear war, the Cuban missile crisis can be regarded as the most dangerous confrontation in human history.
 
This was one occasion when JFK and his advisers had to provide effective leadership; and 2012, the 50th anniversary of the missile crisis, is an appropriate time to reconsider how the Kennedy administration handled this severe challenge. The way the US administration managed the crisis was a collaborative effort between the president and his advisers, of whom the centre of scholarly focus has always been Robert Kennedy. 
 
That focus can be explained by the exceptionally close fraternal relationship between John and Robert. But it also reflects the fact that Robert Kennedy penned one of the key early texts for missile crisis historians, Thirteen Days, his memoir of the confrontation. Written with the assistance of JFK’s great speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, and published after Robert was assassinated in 1968 during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Thirteen Days presented a heroic view of Bobby Kennedy. It claimed he had stood up courageously to the hawks, who had wanted to attack Cuba, by championing the idea of a naval blockade around the island to prevent Khrushchev from sending in additional missiles and to furnish a period of time during which a negotiated settlement could be achieved. 
 
Thirteen Days also saw Robert Kennedy crafting a moralistic argument, based on the idea that a US assault on Cuba would be disturbingly reminiscent of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It also suggested that Robert hatched the plan for how to deal with the two different sets of proposals advanced by Khrushchev on 26–27 October – a plan that in effect defused the missile crisis and so ensured peace.
 
Following JFK’s assassination in November 1963, a view crystallised that John Kennedy, brilliantly assisted by his brother, had provided America with exceptional leadership. This became known as the ‘Camelot’ interpretation, the notion – first articulated by John’s widow, Jackie Kennedy, in a Life magazine interview given only a week after her husband’s death – that JFK’s leadership had been so inspiring that it brought to mind the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Books published in 1965 by Theodore Sorensen, and by historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr, added weight to this rose-tinted view. 
 
Thirteen Days, then, was part of the process by which the Kennedy family and its supporters sought to convince the American people that the Kennedy administration had been one of the greatest in US history.
 
Seeing beyond these powerful ‘Camelot’ myths is essential in developing a balanced assessment of a presidency that included notable successes, but major failures as well. Some scholars have gone too far in fashioning a view of Kennedy as a man with a private life as depraved as Caligula’s, from a family reminiscent of the Borgias, who possessed the same political morals as Shakespeare’s Richard III – a view very different from, but no less caricatured, than that propagated by the Camelot school.
 

The cargo ship Kasimov carries Soviet bomber fuselage crates to Cuba, September 1962. (Corbis)
 

Super-hawks

 
In terms of the missile crisis, John and Robert Kennedy did provide generally adroit leadership – but not, however, as flawless as portrayed in Thirteen Days. For example, what Robert Kennedy did not mention in his memoir was that, at the start of the crisis, he was in fact one of those hawks in the administration who called for an attack on Cuba. Most hawks wanted to carry out some sort of air strike that would destroy the missile sites, but there was a ‘super-hawk’ position in favour of a full-scale invasion of the Caribbean island; and that was the position he initially took. 
 
On 16 October at the first meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), the group of senior officials set up by JFK to advise him during the crisis, Robert Kennedy added to his brother’s list of policy options, saying: “We have the fifth one, really, which is the invasion.” Later that day he argued: “If you’re going to get into it [Cuba] at all, whether we should just get into it, and get it over with, and take our losses.”  
 
Famously, Robert Kennedy handed JFK a note that day, which stated: “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.” That statement used to be interpreted as a sarcastic condemnation of the ExComm officials who wanted to attack Cuba. It is now clear that the statement was meant literally by a man intent at that point on an invasion of the island. 
 
The advisers who first used the Pearl Harbor analogy in ExComm to criticise the idea of a hasty US attack were, in fact, CIA official Marshall Carter and undersecretary of state George Ball. Ball contended that an American attack on Cuba launched without warning would be “like Pearl Harbor. It’s the kind of conduct that one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one expects of the United States.”
 

Tarnished reputation

 
It was not Robert Kennedy, therefore, who in the first few days of the missile crisis led the way in arguing that a blockade of Cuba was a safer and potentially more effective approach than a military strike. That assertion was first made by secretary of defence Robert McNamara, whose reputation has forever been tarnished by the widespread belief that he, more than any other adviser, was the one who persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to go to war in Vietnam in 1965. In the early days of the missile crisis, however, it was McNamara – not Robert Kennedy – who most insistently made the case for a blockade. 
 
McNamara also increased the likelihood that his ExComm colleagues would plump for a blockade over a military-strike option, made dangerous by the risk of a forceful Soviet retaliation, by urging them to consider the ramifications of their proposals: “I don’t believe we have considered the consequences of any of these actions satisfactorily… I don’t know quite what kind of a world we’d live in after we have struck Cuba, and we’ve started it.”
 
Tardily, Robert Kennedy did come to champion the blockade, condemn the ExComm hawks and use the Pearl Harbor comparison in developing a moral dimension to his arguments. But without exposure to the more enlightened views of some of his colleagues he might not have abandoned the hard-line position he initially took.
 
Robert Kennedy’s reliance on the wisdom of colleagues was also evident at the climax of the missile crisis as the ExComm group grappled with the issue of how best to respond to the two different proposals relayed by Khrushchev in late October. In the first – a letter addressed to JFK on the 26th – the Soviet premier promised to remove the missiles from Cuba if Kennedy pledged never to invade the island. In the second – a message dated the 27th –  Khrushchev demanded the additional concession that the United States withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
 
Whether peace could be secured would depend on how effectively the US administration dealt with this dilemma. In Thirteen Days Robert Kennedy claimed the lion’s share of the credit for coming up with the idea of ignoring Khrushchev’s second message and embracing the proposals contained in his first letter. However, declassified documents make clear that the claim that Robert was responsible for the plan that ended the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear era is simply a piece of ‘Camelot’ propaganda. Several US officials, including national security adviser McGeorge Bundy and Theodore Sorensen, recommended this approach before Robert endorsed it.
 

Robert (left) and John Kennedy deep in discussion on the White House portico, 1962. (Rex)
 
As for John Kennedy, he became more impressive as the missile crisis unfolded. On the first day he favoured a strike on the missile sites, but as the crisis went on, he became more determined to end it through diplomacy rather than force. In deciding to blockade rather than attack Cuba, he had to stand up to his bellicose military advisers. On 19 October he told them: “The argument for the blockade was that what we want to do is to avoid, if we can, nuclear war by escalation or imbalance.” 
 
JFK’s eloquent television and radio address on the evening of 22 October, in which he revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba and announced the imposition of the blockade, helped to win support, both in the US and elsewhere, for his administration’s position. His letter to Khrushchev on 27 October in which he agreed not to sanction any invasion of Cuba was manifestly effective in getting Khrushchev to back down by agreeing to remove the nuclear weapons from Cuba. So too was the secret mission he sent Robert Kennedy on that evening to inform the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, that in due course the US Jupiter missiles in Turkey would be secretly withdrawn. Khrushchev’s decision was probably influenced, too, by an alarming letter he received from Castro, urging the Soviet leader to launch a nuclear war against the United States if Kennedy decided to invade Cuba.
 
The Cuban missile crisis profoundly affected Kennedy and Khrushchev. It left them with a heightened fear of the dangers of the Cold War, and a greater understanding of the need to reduce the chances that the superpower arms race could lead to nuclear conflict. 
 
The following year JFK delivered his American University speech in which he called upon Americans to adopt a less hostile view of the Russian people. Shortly after that, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the Test Ban Treaty, which limited nuclear testing. But later that same year JFK was assassinated in Dallas; and in 1964 Khrushchev was ousted in a coup by Kremlin rivals. The Kennedy-Khrushchev era, with all its dangers and opportunities, was over.  

 

The Kennedys and the Cold War

 
John Kennedy’s early views on foreign policy were influenced by the time he spent in Britain in the late 1930s when his father, Joseph Kennedy, was the American ambassador in London. He studied the British appeasement of Hitler for his Harvard undergraduate dissertation, which was published in 1940 as his first book, Why England Slept. 
 
The basic lesson that JFK derived from his analysis of appeasement was that democracies must always be tough and militarily prepared in dealing with totalitarian enemies. Elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1946, this belief shaped his attitude towards the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Once in the White House, Kennedy’s pre-presidential convictions led him to adopt what was initially a hard-line foreign policy. He tried to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro with the Bay of Pigs invasion. He authorised a huge military build-up. He escalated US involvement in Vietnam. Although he remained determined to meet the communist challenge, the Cuban missile crisis changed his thinking and he became more interested in identifying approaches that could reduce Cold War tensions.
 
Like his brother, Robert Kennedy’s initial views on the Cold War were hard-line. Early in his career he had worked for Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, who had launched a witch-hunt for communists in America; and one of the lesser-known facts about the Kennedys is that Robert actually voted for Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican presidential candidate, in 1956. 
 
When JFK appointed Robert attorney general, Robert’s initial focus was on various domestic issues. Once the Bay of Pigs catastrophe took place, John turned to family by deciding to involve Robert in all key foreign policy matters. Thus, the attorney general played a major role in the secret programme Operation Mongoose, launched in November 1961, with the aim of toppling Castro. But the missile crisis also altered Robert Kennedy’s thinking on foreign affairs, making it less belligerent. After his brother’s death, he moved further to the left on both foreign and domestic policy. Before his own assassination in 1968, he had become an impassioned critic of the American war in Vietnam.
 
Mark White is a professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London. His books include Missiles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Ivan R Dee, 1997).
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