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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
Oct 12, 2012 | By Peter Kornbluh
The Cuban Missile Crisis At 50
Photo: Abbie Rowe/Photo Quest/Getty Images

This weekend begins the observation of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the November/December issue of Cigar Aficionado, Peter Kornbluh, an expert on history's closest brush with a Third World War, describes the events through recently declassified documents. Here is an excerpt from the article. See the entire article in Cigar Aficionado, available soon on newsstands. 

The Castro 'Approach'

It took almost 30 years after the missile crisis for historians to obtain confirmation of the basic facts of the secret missile swap. And more than 25 years for former members of the ExComm to reveal that Kennedy was so committed to resolving the crisis that he established a back-channel to United Nations Secretary General U Thant, in case Khrushchev did not accept the trade. At a Florida conference of surviving Kennedy administration officials in 1987, Sorensen read a letter from Dean Rusk in which he described a top secret presidential message he had transmitted to U Thant through an emissary in New York late in the evening of October 27. If needed, U Thant was to undertake his own UN initiative to end the crisis, calling on the Soviets to withdraw the missiles in Cuba, and the U.S. to withdraw the missiles in Turkey. A UN proposal, the message inferred, would provide Kennedy with the needed political cover to agree publicly to such a deal.

But in addition to his negotiations with Khrushchev and secret channel to the UN, the most enduring secret of the missile crisis diplomacy was that Kennedy actually made an approach to Castro, reaching out to the fiery Cuban leader through a third-country intermediary in a concerted effort to bring the crisis to an end. This hidden history, recorded in secret communiqués and cables discovered in the foreign ministry archives of Brazil by George Washington University historian James Hershberg, revealed the President's commitment to leave no stone unturned to get the Russian missiles out of Cuba-without them being fired. 

At the very first ExComm meeting on October 16, when most senior officials were focusing on attacking Cuba, Secretary of State Rusk had pushed the President to consider the alternative of "getting some word to Castro." Since Washington had severed diplomatic relations with Havana at the end of the Eisenhower administration, Rusk suggested using Canada's ambassador as an emissary to pass this message to Fidel: "Cuba is being victimized here...the Soviets are preparing Cuba for destruction or betrayal.... The time has now come when he must take the interests of the Cuban people, must now break clearly with the Soviet Union, [and] prevent this missile base from becoming operational."  

Kennedy's initial response was to simply suggest that "[I] don't think the message to Castro has much in it." But after his dramatic October 22 presidential address to the nation, the President ordered the ExComm to look again at "alternative courses of action" to the use of force. In response, the State Department produced a top secret report that revisited the option of "approaching Castro." The idea was to coax Castro to eject the missiles along with the Soviets by opening the door to Cuba's return to the West. The U.S. would point out that "Cuba was merely being exploited in the interests of the Soviet Union and that any of the possible paths by which the Cuban crisis can be expected to develop will result in the overthrow of his regime, if not its physical destruction."

The State Department report added that Washington would "have to give some assurances, regardless of whether we intended to carry them out, that we would not ourselves undertake to overthrow the regime or support others trying to do so." A handwritten note scribbled by an NSC official captured the essence of this approach: "Get word to Castro once ships turn back that if he kicks out Sovs we can live w. him."

Such an approach "would be made to Castro through a Latin American representative in Cuba, probably the Brazilian ambassador," the State Department recommended. Headed by the populist president João Goulart, Brazil had maintained strong ties to Cuba after the revolution, and a longstanding interest in being a mediator to improve U.S.--Cuban relations.

At the ExComm meeting on October 26, President Kennedy approved the clandestine back-channel communication. He overruled the objections of CIA director John McCone who insisted on safeguarding the agency's right to covertly continue its efforts to overthrow Castro. "We ought to concentrate on the missiles now," Kennedy determined. "It probably won't get any place," but "time is running out for us." 

In a top secret/eyes only cable from the Secretary of State to U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon in Rio, Rusk stated that it was time to "discuss with Castro alone RPT alone" a way out of the missile crisis.  He instructed Gordon to meet with Brazil's foreign minister and ask him to have this message transmitted to Castro as if it was a Brazilian initiative:

The action of the Soviet Union in using Cuban soil as sites for offensive nuclear missiles capable of striking most of the Western Hemisphere has placed the future of the Castro regime and the well-being of the Cuban people in great jeopardy.

The Brazilian intermediary would then offer the carrot of better relations with the U.S. and the rest of Latin America:

Castro might recall that President Kennedy has said publicly that only two issues were nonnegotiable between Castro and the U.S.-the military-political ties to the USSR and the aggressive attitude toward the internal affairs of other Latin American countries. This view will be shared by other members of the Inter-American system. Of course this now means giving up the offensive nuclear capability being established in Cuba and sending home Soviet military personnel, on which help can certainly be given if needed. From such actions many changes in the relations between Cuba and the OAS countries, including the U.S., could flow. 

To disguise the origins of this message, according to Hershberg's research, U.S. embassy officers translated it into Portuguese and typed it onto plain paper; Ambassador Gordon then passed it to Brazil's foreign minister at a midnight meeting on October 27. Gordon described the message as an "extremely important and sensitive diplomatic initiative...requiring utmost secrecy, with perhaps vital bearing on peace."

By the time Brazil's emissary General Albino Silva arrived in Havana on October 29, however, the Soviets had already announced they were withdrawing the missiles; Castro had heard the news on the radio and was furious at Nikita Khrushchev for negotiating a deal to end the crisis without even consulting him. The urgency and relevance of Kennedy's Brazilian back-channel message had been eclipsed by events. 

The Meaning of the Missile Crisis

"I now conclude that however astutely the crisis may have been managed,'' former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara observed at the 40th anniversary conference in Havana, "luck also played a significant role in the avoidance of nuclear war by a hair's breadth.'' For McNamara, the main lesson of the Cuba conflict was that there could be no such thing as successful crisis management in the nuclear age-therefore a global project was needed to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. "The record of the missile crisis is replete with examples of misinformation, misjudgment, miscalculation," he noted. "Such errors are costly in conventional warfare. When they affect decisions relating to nuclear forces, they can result in the destruction of nations."

To be sure, 50 years ago the world came closer than ever before to atomic annihilation. But more commitment than luck was involved in the extensive efforts to search for, and find, a diplomatic solution in which both sides got something their leaders needed to save face and evade the horror of nuclear war. As the historical record has expanded, the image of the resolute president has given way to the resolution president, committed to extricating the U.S., the USSR, and Cuba from the danger of war in the dark shadow of the bomb.

Of all the international crises in modern times, the Cuban missile crisis deserves a full understanding, by policy makers and citizens alike. But only when all archives have been opened, and every last page of documentation declassified, in the United States and in Moscow and Havana, will the historical record be complete and that appreciation possible. Maintaining secrecy around the missile crisis is, quite simply, a threat to global security. "Having come so close to the edge," as Kennedy's national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy observed years later, "we must make it our business not to pass this way again."

Peter Kornbluh is co-author of The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 and the director of the National Security Archive's Cuba Documentation Project.

For the complete story, see the December Cigar Aficionado, on newsstands November 6.


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