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The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50

Five Decades later, Lessons are Still Being Learned from the Most Dangerous Days in History
Peter Kornbluh
From the Print Edition:
Ernie Els, November/December 2012

(continued from page 2)

As events seemed to spin out of control, both Kennedy and Khrushchev redoubled their efforts to find a solution. In Moscow, Khrushchev convened the Politburo and made it clear he was looking for a politically acceptable way to dismantle the missile sites in Cuba. In Washington, Kennedy convened the ExComm to work out language for a deal on the non-invasion pledge and discuss the merits of swapping the U.S. missiles in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba. When his aides argued against such a deal—the U.S. would be seen as capitulating to nuclear blackmail; the NATO alliance would be weakened; and Turkey would be insulted as an ally—Kennedy revealed that he was thinking ahead to a crisis that could be avoided:

I’m just thinking about what we’re going to have to do in a day or so, which is 500 sorties, and seven days, and possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take missiles out of Turkey. We all know how quickly everybody’s courage goes when the blood starts to flow, and that’s what is going to happen to NATO. When they start these things and [the Soviets] grab Berlin,
everybody’s going to say: ‘Well, that was a pretty good proposition.’ . . . That’s the difficulty. Today it sounds great to reject it, but it’s not going to after we do something.

On the evening of October 27 Kennedy sent his brother, Robert, to personally deliver a carefully worded proposal to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin: if the Soviets removed the missiles under UN supervision and guaranteed offensive weapons would never again be introduced into Cuba, the U.S. would lift the naval blockade and pledge not to invade Cuba. “The effect of such a settlement on easing world tensions,” the communiqué stated, “would enable us to work toward a more general arrangement regarding ‘other armaments…’ ” an oblique reference to the Jupiter missiles.

Privately, Robert Kennedy informed Dobrynin that the U.S. would secretly swap the Turkish missiles for the Cuban missiles but that this would be done later, “within four to five months.” Washington would never publicly acknowledge that such a quid pro quo had been made, Kennedy said.  He made it clear to the Russian diplomat that time was of the essence for a positive Soviet response.

The next day at 5pm Moscow time/9am Washington time, Radio Moscow broadcast Khrushchev’s reply: “The Soviet government,” the announcer read, “has given a new order to dismantle the weapons you describe as offensive, and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union.” The news reached President Kennedy in his bedroom at the White House as he was dressing to attend Church.


Publicly the crisis appeared to be resolved and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief; behind the scenes, weeks of tensions between Washington and Moscow and between Moscow and Havana, as new Russian documents reveal, continued over the removal of other nuclear weapons systems the Soviets had secretly brought to Cuba. Even before the crisis fully abated, the Kennedy administration set about creating a mystique and mythology around the facts and handling of the conflict.

On December 8, 1962, the Saturday Evening Post published a long article, “In Time of Crisis,” which established the official narrative on the Cuban missile crisis. Based on an off-the-record interview with the President, and access to his top aides, the authors, Charles Bartlett and Stewart Alsop, described how the Soviets had backed down in the face of U.S. resolve. Kennedy had gone “eyeball to eyeball” with Khrushchev in a game of nuclear brinkmanship, and the Soviets had blinked. Dispelling any rumors of a quid pro quo, anonymous aides painted the most liberal member of Kennedy’s crisis management team, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, as an appeaser for recommending that Kennedy consider trading the Soviet missile bases in Cuba for the U.S. missile bases in Turkey or elsewhere—a recommendation that Kennedy had then secretly implemented unbeknownst to many of his top advisors and the public.

At the time, the Kennedy White House went to considerable lengths to keep this agreement secret. In November, when Khrushchev sent a private letter through Dobrynin to Kennedy attempting to concretize a formal understanding of the missile swap, the White House returned the letter seemingly unopened—making clear there would be no diplomatic discussion about the most covert part of resolving the crisis. When Robert Kennedy’s memoir of the missile crisis, Thirteen Days, was published posthumously in 1969, it omitted the critical details about his discussion on the Turkish missiles with Dobrynin. Almost 30 years after the crisis, Theodore Sorensen, who completed the manuscript after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, conceded that the missile trade had been “portrayed as an explicit deal in RFK’s diaries” on which the book had been based. But Sorensen admitted that he had “seen fit to revise that account in view of the fact that the trade was still a secret at the time, known to only six members of the ExComm.”

Such secrecy enabled the early depiction of Kennedy’s successful brinkmanship and forceful resolve to become missile crisis folklore. The president had “dazzled the world” in handling the crisis, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in his 1966 hagiographic biography, A Thousand Days. Kennedy asserted a “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated...” His crisis management skills had forced the Russians to “blink” and retreat. 
But as the facts have emerged over the years, it is clear that the crisis was not a model of brinkmanship, nor was U.S. strategy so controlled and calibrated, nor was it a lesson in the use of force and resolve. Kennedy did exercise nerve and wisdom, but it was devoted to his commitment to deploy diplomats instead of soldiers, to avoid a final war rather than risk one. That commitment has been overshadowed by the “balls of steel” legend that has built up around the crisis.

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