Andrew Cohen is a journalist, a professor at Carleton University and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
It is Oct. 19, 1962, the fourth day of the cascading Cuban Missile Crisis. Few beyond the White House know it is a crisis, let alone the anteroom to Armageddon. Since the United States learned that the Soviet Union is installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, a tight circle of advisers has been secretly debating a suite of options ranging from doing nothing to declaring war.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, less than two years into his uneven presidency, favours imposing a naval blockade of the island. It’s to buy time for diplomacy. The generals and admirals barely hide their contempt. They want to bomb and invade. It will be the end of Fidel Castro and his defiant communist revolution; inconveniently, it will also be the end of just about everything else.
Curtis LeMay, the swaggering chief of staff of the Air Force, claims the proposed blockade is “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.” JFK is livid. He says nothing. “Ken,” he later tells John Kenneth Galbraith, the eminent economist, “you have no idea how much bad advice I received in those days.”
We had no idea, either. For decades the narrative was shaped by self-serving memoirs and selective histories written by the principals. The most heralded was Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy’s intimate account published posthumously in 1969. It inspired The Missiles of October, a docudrama, and Thirteen Days, a feature film, both flawed.
The mythology of the crisis: The United States stood up, the Soviets stood down, the Americans won. The heroes were the Kennedys. The villain was Nikita Khrushchev. The intelligence was reliable, motives were honourable, militaries were disciplined.
But that isn’t the whole story. Revisiting the Cuban Missile Crisis today as a cautionary tale, its lessons are more relevant than at any time over the past 60 years. Amid Vladimir Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling and Joe Biden’s musings, it is critical to understand what unfolded over the most frightening fortnight in history.
With the opening of the Soviet archives and the declassification of hours of audio recordings made in the White House, both in the 1990s, the tale has become less tidy. We know now that American intelligence grossly underestimated the Soviet military presence in Cuba and didn’t know Soviet field commanders had tactical nuclear weapons with permission to fire on an invading army. A rogue captain at sea nearly launched missiles. We know that advisers around JFK – not just the men in uniform – were misguided, too confident, including Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Dean Acheson. The voices of restraint were JFK, Khrushchev and Adlai Stevenson, U.S. ambassador to the UN.
So, this is the story of misinformation, miscalculation, misperception and machismo. As a seven-year-old in Montreal listening to the large black table radio with “a good tone” in my parents’ bedroom – the announcer urging all to go to bomb shelters or basements – this was something unfathomable to child and adult alike.
Kennedy knew the stakes. The cold warrior who had run for the presidency on the “missile gap,” the commander-in-chief who had driven the largest military buildup in American peacetime history, the anti-Communist who had warned, in his inaugural address, of “the long, twilight struggle,” became conciliator that October.
But should this have been a crisis at all? If the Americans had nuclear missiles in Turkey, near the Soviet Union, why couldn’t the Soviets put them in Cuba? Khrushchev thought he was maintaining the balance of fear, and was persuaded that a callow and timid Kennedy would allow it.
After all, Kennedy had approved the covert invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles in April, 1961. When they were trapped on the beach at the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy refused pleas to rescue them by sending in the Marines, which Khrushchev mistook for weakness. That impression hardened when he met Kennedy in Vienna in June, 1961, and threatened to occupy West Berlin. It rattled Kennedy. And if both weren’t enough to embolden Khrushchev in Cuba, there was Kennedy’s refusal to respond militarily when the Soviets built the wall in Berlin in August, 1961. Kennedy sighed: “Better a wall than a war.”
Khrushchev believed the missiles would deter the Americans, who were running a hare-brained campaign of espionage and murder (“Operation Mongoose”) to unseat Castro, overseen by Robert Kennedy. Khrushchev considered the missiles defensive.
The Americans, in stark contrast, saw an existential threat to their security. In disclosing the missiles to the world on Oct. 21, JFK condemned “this secret, swift and extraordinary buildup … this sudden, clandestine decision … a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo.” Kennedy needed to respond forcefully. Had he not, he worried, he would have been impeached.
Sheldon M. Stern, historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library from 1977 to 1999, who listened to every word of the recordings – weighing every gasp, pause and nuance – makes this arresting assertion in his book, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: “John F. Kennedy was the only person … who genuinely understood that nuclear war could never be a viable or rational choice.”
How to get out of this “fix,” as Mr. LeMay put it? President Kennedy was in trouble, partly of his own making – as Lieutenant Kennedy had been when his patrol boat was sunk by the Japanese in the South Pacific in 1943. JFK would find a way out, with the courage and agility with which he’d saved his crew.
It began by ignoring the hawks. “These brass hats have one thing in their favour,” JFK lamented. “If we listen to them and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.” He also dismissed the belligerent senators William Fulbright and Richard Russell. He insisted on open debate. He shrewdly absented himself from the deliberations, knowing that his advisers, like sunflowers in the field, would tilt all day long to follow the sun.
In the end, Dr. Stern and historian Martin J. Sherwin conclude that it was Kennedy’s resolve, equilibrium and steely calm that prevailed amid sustained pressure to go to war. In several heartfelt letters exchanged with Khrushchev, Kennedy tried to understand his reality. He sought backchannels through his brother (who would become, later in the 1960s, a heroic tribune of the underclass). Ultimately, to break the impasse, JFK made a trade: the American missiles in Turkey (which, ironically, were obsolete) for the Soviet ones in Cuba. That was a secret for years.
Lessons, lessons. Details matter, like insisting on placing Russian-speaking servicemen on U.S. ships enforcing the blockade. Let your opponent save face; resist escalation; honour diplomacy; correct mistakes; avoid triumphalism. And understand – always, always – that no one wins with nuclear weapons.
Cuba scarred Kennedy. He was a student of history who knew how things can unravel. A favourite book was Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, about Europe stumbling into war in 1914. It’s why, unlike Lyndon Johnson, he would have eventually withdrawn from Vietnam.
In the year after the crisis, he tried to lower the temperature. So did Khrushchev. In June, 1963, Kennedy gave the “Peace Speech,” his signal foreign-policy address, in which he humanized the Russians and proposed ending nuclear testing, which was running amok in the early 1960s.
His subversive appeal led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Afterward, Kennedy sought more ways to reconcile with the Soviets (though, curiously, not the Cubans), from installing a “hotline” between Moscow and Washington to collaborating in space.
By the time of his death, Kennedy no longer wanted to win the Cold War; he wanted to end it. In defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, he ensured it would indeed end – in applause, not ashes.