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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
By Peter Kornbluh | From Ernie Els, November/December 2012
The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50

In October of 2002, as President George W. Bush openly prepared for the invasion of Iraq, an elite group of former Kennedy White House aides gathered in Havana to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. “There are lessons to be learned,’’ observed Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a top Kennedy advisor and renowned historian, at the international conference hosted by Fidel Castro. “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.’’

For Bush, the key lesson of the missile crisis was that a preemptive strike was warranted to take out Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction. “We cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” he declared in an October 7 speech, citing John F. Kennedy’s words during the missile crisis—“we no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril”—to justify the forthcoming attack on Iraq.

From Cuba, Kennedy’s aides quickly challenged the President’s misappropriation of the past.  Theodore Sorensen, JFK’s speechwriter who had drafted the very words Bush cited, clarified that they were “not intended to justify a preemptive strike, because JFK had specifically ruled out a preemptive strike.” Kennedy’s strategy in 1962 “was not preemption. It was the reverse of preemption,” stated former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. If President Bush was his student, Schlesinger told the Washington Post, “I would flunk him in history.”

Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war its dramatic history continues to hold lessons for the present. A decade ago the sabers of war were rattling over Iraq; today the United States and Israel are openly debating a preemptive strike against Iran. Sadly, Schlesinger, Sorensen and McNamara are no longer here to point out the implications of the crisis for current day conflicts. The search for a full appreciation of the lessons of the crisis, nevertheless, continues.

Incredibly, despite the current global importance for a complete accounting of the missile crisis, significant parts of the historical record remain secret and sealed. Even so, in the decade since the conference in Havana, which brought together surviving officials from Cuba, the former USSR and the U.S. along with newly declassified documentation from all three nations, the narrative of the conflict has evolved, allowing analysts and historians to revisit and revise the events of October 1962. A recent book by the intrepid investigative reporter Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, for example, has revealed that besides the ballistic missiles, the Soviets secretly brought dozens of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to Cuba, and, at the height of the crisis, positioned those weapons near the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in anticipation of a U.S. invasion.

Another book published this fall, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Missiles of November, by Sergo Mikoyan and edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, draws on never-before-seen Soviet documents that record the struggle between Moscow and Havana over withdrawing those cruise missiles, and other  battlefield nuclear weapon systems that the CIA never detected in Cuba.

These new revelations remind us of how terrifyingly close the world came to atomic Armageddon. But the declassified record has also revealed major new details on how committed both Kennedy and Khrushchev were to using creative diplomacy to stop the forces of a final Cold War confrontation that they themselves had inadvertently unleashed.


The genesis of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s offer of a nuclear deterrent to Cuba, and Castro’s decision to deploy the missiles on Cuban soil, dates back to the April 1961 CIA-led paramilitary assault at the Bay of Pigs, and the subsequent covert program known as “Operation Mongoose” which was intended to lead to another U.S. invasion of Cuba. But the official starting point of the missile crisis came on October 14, 1962, when a U-2 spy plane snapped hundreds of reconnaissance photos of a series of newly constructed installations and camps in the Cuban countryside. The next day, analysts at the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center spotted hard evidence—images of launchers, missiles, trailers and special transport trucks—that proved the existence of medium­-range ballistic missile [MRBM] sites on the island. Additional photo intelligence soon revealed bases for intermediate-range missiles capable of striking targets over 2,800 miles away in the United States. The CIA estimated the missiles would become “fully operational within two weeks.”

On October 16, Kennedy gathered a select group of advisors—an executive committee officially known as the “ExComm”—to discuss a strategic response. His Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, presented him with three basic options: l) a political option of “approaching Castro,” and “approaching Khrushchev”; 2) a naval blockade to stop Soviet ships carrying weapons to Cuba; and 3) “military action directed against Cuba, starting with an air attack against the missiles.” The ExComm’s initial discussions focused on a massive U.S. military assault on the nuclear installations and other bases in Cuba, and whether the Soviets would counterattack in Berlin or elsewhere.

Would a U.S. attack on Cuba killing thousands of Soviet personnel —the CIA estimated 8,000 Soviet troops and technicians on the island when the actual number was 42,000—and many more thousands of Cubans, set off a spiral of superpower aggression leading to the ultimate doomsday scenario? “I don’t believe we have considered the consequences,” as Kennedy’s secret Oval Office taping system captured the concerns expressed by Secretary McNamara. “I don’t know quite what kind of a world we live in after we’ve struck Cuba, and we, we’ve started it… After we’ve launched fifty to a hundred sorties, what kind of world do we live in? How, how do we stop at that point?”

That question plagued the president as he resisted pressure from top aides and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to authorize a week of carpet bombing of Cuba—more than 1,000 sorties were planned for the first two days of airstrikes—followed by a massive invasion. As Kennedy leaned toward the blockade option to buy time to negotiate the withdrawal of the missiles, Air Force General Curtis LeMay accused him of a Munich-style appeasement. The cigar-chomping General—LeMay served as the role model for the unhinged military officer Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie, Dr. Strangelove—who had 3,000 missiles under his command, seemed to believe a nuclear war was winnable. If the missiles flew, some 70 million Americans could be killed, President Kennedy pointed out. “You are talking about the destruction of a country.”

At 7pm on October 22, Kennedy went on television to give one of the most dramatic 18-minute speeches in modern times. The U.S. now had “unmistakable evidence” of offensive missile bases on the island of Cuba, he told the nation and the world. “[T]his sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil is a deliberatively provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country,” the President stated. He announced a “strict quarantine” against ships carrying weapons to Cuba, and demanded that Khrushchev “halt and eliminate” this threat to world peace.

Khrushchev’s first reaction was to issue threats of his own. Yes, he had sent missiles to Cuba, he privately told William Knox, the president of Westinghouse Electric International who happened to be visiting Moscow on October 24. But they were meant to defend the revolution against the threat of future U.S. invasions. If the Americans now attacked Cuba, the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base would “disappear the first day,” he warned, according to Dobbs’ book.

“I’m not interested in the destruction of the world,” he informed Knox, who became the first emissary in the missile crisis. “But if you want us to all meet in Hell, it’s up to you."

During the ensuing six days of the increasingly dangerous superpower showdown, President Kennedy pursued a strategy combining the naval blockade and massive build-up of an invasion force with diplomacy for a political settlement. On October 24, just as Kennedy and his aides awaited the first potentially perilous interception by U.S. destroyers of two Soviet freighters  believed to be carrying weapons approaching the quarantine line, the CIA reported that the ships had stopped or turned around. “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” Secretary Rusk told the ExComm—a statement that became the most iconic, if erroneous, representation of the missile crisis. (In fact, as Dobbs proves in One Minute to Midnight, the two ships were hundreds of miles away and, on Khrushchev’s orders, already returning to Russia; this “eyeball” confrontation on the high seas never took place.)

On October 26, a glimmer of hope for a resolution emerged when a Soviet KGB agent meeting with ABC News correspondent John Scali suggested that the Kremlin might consider a non-invasion of Cuba guarantee by Washington as a basis to withdraw the missiles. A private message from Khrushchev to Kennedy arrived the same day stating that it was the constant “threat of armed attack and aggression” against Cuba that had prompted the Soviets to position the missiles there; if the U.S. would give “assurances” of no future invasions of Cuba, “then too, the question of armaments would disappear.”

The next day, however, Khrushchev broadcast a public message on Radio Moscow to Kennedy upping the ante: in return for withdrawing the Cuban missiles, he demanded the U.S. dismantle its battery of 15 medium- range “Jupiter” missiles, each with a nuclear warhead 100 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb, based along Turkey’s frontier with the USSR. Installed during the Eisenhower administration, the Jupiters had become operational in March 1962, perhaps not by coincidence around the same time as Khrushchev had decided to offer Soviet missiles to Cuba.

This demand was one of a series of unexpected events on October 27, known as “Black Saturday,” that dramatically escalated the danger of war. Later that day, without orders from Khrushchev, a Russian anti-aircraft unit shot down a U-2 spy plane that had taken surveillance photos of Soviet and Cuban defensive positions as Cuba prepared for an expected U.S. attack; the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, became the one military casualty of the conflict. Unbeknownst to Kennedy, another U-2 set out on a mission to gather air samples of Soviet nuclear tests from the North Pole and strayed deep into Soviet territory over the Chukot Peninsula, a “provocation,” as the Kremlin interpreted it, that set off alarms that the U.S. was preparing for an attack there; Khrushchev’s anxieties were further increased by a message he received from Fidel Castro arguing that a U.S. invasion of Cuba was eminent, that Russia would be attacked next, and that Khrushchev should consider launching his missiles before Moscow was struck. Finally, in a direct and dramatic military confrontation on the high seas, U.S. naval warships dropped depth charges on a Soviet Foxtrot submarine, unaware that it carried a nuclear tipped torpedo.

Unable to communicate with Moscow, the sub’s captain believed that war had broken out and considered arming and launching the nuclear weapon, rather than surface and surrender.

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.


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.


“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.