Ernest R May is Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard University.
The ‘gravest issues’
Early on Tuesday 16 October 1962, John F Kennedy’s national security assistant, McGeorge Bundy, brought to the President’s bedroom some high-altitude photographs taken from U-2 planes flying over Cuba. They showed Soviet soldiers hurriedly and secretly setting up nuclear-armed missiles.
For some time previously the Soviets had openly been sending weaponry to Cuba, including surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles (SAMs). To deflect any criticism about this from the Republicans, who were busy campaigning for the November congressional elections, Kennedy had said he would not protest about such defensive weaponry being installed in Cuba, but warned that if the Soviets ever introduced offensive weapons, ‘the gravest issues would arise.’
The ‘gravest issues’ were at hand.
Since Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had promised repeatedly not to send offensive weapons to Cuba, and America’s top intelligence analysts had predicted that he would keep his word, Kennedy felt safe in voicing this warning. The U-2 photographs, however, showed that Khrushchev had been lying. The ‘gravest issues’ were at hand.
The United States at the time had more than 25,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenal. The Soviet Union had not quite half as many. Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had calculated in 1960 that, if a crisis led either side to fire nuclear weapons, all humans in the northern hemisphere could perish. ‘Gravest issues’ indeed.
The ExComm and the secret tapes
To help him decide what to do about the Cuban situation, and how much risk to run of a nuclear exchange, Kennedy assembled a small group that came to be called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council – or ExComm for short. Early in his presidency, Kennedy had had to make a decision about a CIA plan to land Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, in Cuba, with the hope that these exiles would overthrow Cuba’s Communist government, headed by Fidel Castro. Kennedy had asked for advice about this from only a handful of people – those he knew he was officially obliged to consult. The operation proved to be a fiasco, and afterwards Kennedy had resolved in future to consult more widely.
Included in the ExComm were the regular participants in National Security Council meetings, plus Kennedy’s brother, the attorney general Robert Kennedy, and the President’s chief speechwriter, the White House counsel Theodore Sorensen. Both of these men could help Kennedy to think about the domestic political aspects of the crisis. The President also invited several other key advisors to join the group: C Douglas Dillon, who had held high posts under Eisenhower and who gave Kennedy a link to the Republican leadership; Dean Acheson and Robert Lovett, who had served under President Harry Truman and could help Kennedy see the current crisis in longer historical perspective; and a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn (Tommy) Thompson, probably the person in the President’s circle who was best acquainted with Khrushchev.
We know today exactly what was said in the meetings of the ExComm, because Kennedy had a tape recorder installed in an unused part of the White House basement …
We know today exactly what was said in the meetings of the ExComm, because Kennedy had a tape recorder installed in an unused part of the White House basement, with wires running to concealed microphones in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room. He had told no one about this other than his private secretary, the two guards who maintained the machines, and perhaps his brother, Robert. Since he kept it on through almost all ExComm meetings, anyone today can listen in on the proceedings.
In the first day’s debates, everyone favoured bombing Cuba. The only differences concerned the scale of attack. Kennedy, Bundy, and some others spoke of a ‘surgical strike’ solely against the missile sites. ‘It corresponds to “the punishment fits the crime” in political terms’, said Bundy. Others joined the chiefs of staff in insisting that an attack should also take out air defence sites and bombers, so as to limit losses of US aircraft and prevent an immediate air reprisal against US bases in Florida.
The under secretary of state, George Ball, had commented that a US surprise attack on Cuba would be ‘… like Pearl Harbor …’
By the third day, 18 October, another option had come to the fore. The under secretary of state, George Ball, had commented that a US surprise attack on Cuba 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.’ Robert Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk concurred, Rusk observing that the decision-makers could carry ‘the mark of Cain’ on their brows for the rest of their lives. To meet this concern and to obtain time for gaining support from other nations, there developed the idea of the President’s publicly announcing the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, ordering a blockade to prevent the introduction of further missiles, and demanding that the Soviets withdraw the missiles already there. (Both for legal reasons and for resonance with Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Quarantine Address’ of 1937, the term ‘quarantine’ was substituted for ‘blockade’.)
To those of Kennedy’s advisers who still favoured quick use of military force (the ‘hawks’ in later classification), this quarantine constituted an ultimatum. If Khrushchev did not capitulate within a day or two, a US air attack on Cuba would follow, followed before long by an invasion. For those in the ExComm who would later be classed as ‘doves,’ the quarantine bought time for possibly developing some diplomatic solution.
A Berlin crisis, not a Cuba crisis
In the early phase of ExComm debate, Kennedy blamed himself for the crisis – ‘Last month I should have said that we don’t care’ – implying that if he had not given such a strong public warning, he could possibly have let Khrushchev get away with placing missiles in Cuba; ‘It doesn’t make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union, or one from 90 miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much’, he said. But Kennedy explained over and over to members of the ExComm and others why, since he had issued the warning and Khrushchev had chosen to challenge him, the crisis involved much more than just a personal affront. The reason was that, for Kennedy, the crisis was not centrally about missiles in Cuba; it was about Berlin.
The Soviets had tried to take over West Berlin in 1948-9. Their blockade had been frustrated by an Anglo-American airlift and by the astonishing resolution of the West Berliners, but in 1958 Khrushchev had once more revived the threat, and he continued to do so. In 1961, he and the East Germans built a wall around West Berlin as a stopgap measure to halt the exodus of East Germans from Soviet-controlled areas. Earlier in 1962 he had told Kennedy that he intended to act on West Berlin as soon as the US congressional elections were over.
… Kennedy interpreted the installation of missiles in Cuba as a move preparatory to a showdown on Berlin.
Counselled by Thompson, Kennedy interpreted the installation of missiles in Cuba as a move preparatory to a showdown on Berlin. For him, such a showdown would create a horrible dilemma. The United States had promised to protect the million and a half West Berliners from Soviet take-over, but had no means whatever for physically preventing the thousands of East German and Soviet troops that surrounded Berlin from taking control of the city if they chose to do so. The only protection for West Berlin was the US threat to respond to an attack by using nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union.
If Kennedy demanded uncompromisingly that the Soviets remove their nuclear weapons from Cuba, Khrushchev would have to decide whether to comply or to take the risk of actual war, which might become a nuclear war. The onus would be on him. If Kennedy showed weakness in face of Khrushchev’s challenge, the effect might be to embolden Khrushchev to ignore American warnings about Berlin. It would then be Kennedy, not Khrushchev, who would bear the onus. ‘A Soviet move on Berlin,’ Kennedy said to the joint chiefs of staff, ‘leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons – which is a hell of an alternative.’
On Monday 22 October, Kennedy went on radio and television, describing the secret Soviet build-up in Cuba, proclaiming the quarantine, and demanding that the Soviets remove the missiles. In the next few days, one harrowing moment followed another.
Kennedy and his advisers mulled over the question of how actually to stop a Soviet ship that crossed the quarantine line. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara described the Navy’s plan for dealing with a Soviet submarine that was escorting a merchantman. A destroyer would use small depth charges to signal that the submarine should surface. McNamara acknowledged that the submarine commander might think he was being attacked rather than being sent a signal and might fire at the destroyer. Kennedy said, ‘I think we ought to wait on that today. We don’t want to have the first thing we attack as a Soviet submarine. I’d much rather have a merchant ship.’
… one harrowing moment followed another.
When McNamara protested, Kennedy gave way, but, as his brother Robert recalled later: ‘His hand went up to his face and covered his mouth, and he closed his fist. His eyes were tense, almost grey, and we just stared at each other across the table.’ Fortunately, before there was an encounter at sea, Khrushchev ordered all Soviet merchantmen bound for Cuba to turn back.
Meanwhile, Kennedy and his advisers faced the question of how to keep track of continuing missile construction in Cuba. At the urging of McNamara and the chiefs of staff, Kennedy authorised low-level daytime surveillance flights in addition to continuing U-2 flights. He also agreed provisionally to night-time coverage involving the use of flares. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson worried aloud about these. ‘Imagine some crazy Russian captain,’ he said. ‘The damn thing goes “blooey” and lights up the skies. He might just pull a trigger. Looks like we’re playing Fourth of July over there or something.’ Also fortunately, the crisis ended before flares were actually used.
Finessing the Turkish missiles issue
On 26-27 October, the crisis came to a head. Khrushchev cabled Kennedy that he was prepared to remove missiles from Cuba in return for a US promise not to invade Cuba – a promise that had already been given more than once. But, just as Kennedy and his ExComm began to discuss a response, Khrushchev broadcast from Moscow a second message saying the missiles would be removed if, in addition, the United States withdrew nuclear missiles and other ‘offensive means’ from Turkey.
The second Khrushchev message provoked furious debate. With Ball in the lead, Kennedy’s advisers said almost unanimously that Khrushchev’s new condition was unacceptable. America’s NATO allies would think the United States was sacrificing their security for the sake of its own. Kennedy alone seemed unconvinced. When Ball said, ‘If we talked to the Turks… this would be an extremely unsettling business’, Kennedy replied with asperity, ‘Well, this is unsettling now, George, because … most people would regard this as not an unreasonable proposal … I think you’re going to have it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba … when he’s saying, “If you’ll get yours out of Turkey, we’ll get ours out of Cuba.”‘.
What Kennedy wanted was to mollify Khrushchev without seeming to make a concession, and above all to avoid any prolonged negotiations.
In the end, Kennedy found a way to finesse the situation. He sent Robert Kennedy to see the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, to tell him that the missiles in Turkey were obsolete, and that the US planned to pull them out within about six months. All this was true. He said further, however, that, if the Soviet Union used this knowledge to claim that the US had struck the deal proposed in Khrushchev’s radio message, Kennedy would deny the claim and would not remove the missiles from Turkey. What Kennedy wanted was to mollify Khrushchev without seeming to make a concession, and above all to avoid any prolonged negotiations. He had to insist that Soviet missiles come out of Cuba unconditionally, or he would compromise the display of firmness that he judged necessary to protect against a Berlin crisis.
In fact, the exchange between Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin had no effect. Khrushchev had already decided to retreat to a simple request for a no invasion pledge. And the crisis ended on that basis. US reconnaissance aircraft kept watch while the Soviets dismantled their missiles and loaded the parts on ships for return to the Soviet Union.
The world escaped nuclear war in October 1962 largely because of the prudence of Kennedy and the belated prudence of Khrushchev. Though Kennedy had felt it necessary to be uncompromising in his demand for removal of the missiles from Cuba, he had been careful to put off to the last possible moment any action that could result in killing a Russian. Khrushchev had probably decided to drop his demand for quid pro quo removals from Turkey as a result of learning that a Soviet anti-aircraft missile in Cuba had shot down a US U-2 plane, killing the pilot. Kennedy and Khrushchev both recognised that, once blood had been spilled, it would be very hard to keep any crisis under control.
Kennedy and Khrushchev both recognised that, once blood had been spilled, it would be very hard to keep any crisis under control.
Because Khrushchev had been faced down, he did not force a new Berlin crisis. The Soviet bloc lived for the next 27 years with a wall around West Berlin that marked East Germany as a huge penitentiary, and it eventually became possible for west and east to turn towards the stabilising compromises of the later period of détente.
Find out more
The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May, Philip Zelikow, Ernest R. May (Editor), Philip D. Zelikow (Editor) (W.W. Norton, 2002)
Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam by Lawrence Freedman , (Oxford University Press, 2002)
One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy J Naftali, (W.W. Norton & Company, 1998)
The Cuban Missile Crisis (The Cold War) by Peter Chrisp (Hodder Wayland, 2001)
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek (Little, Brown, to be published in 2003)
Kennedy by Hugh Brogan (Longman, 1996)
The Presidency of John F. Kennedy by James N Giglio (University Press of Kansas, 1991)
President Kennedy: Profile of Power by Richard Reeves (Simon & Schuster, 1993)
The Modern American Presidency by Lewis L Gould (University Press of Kansas, 2003)
About the author
Ernest R May is Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard University. He is co-editor (with Philip Zelikow) of The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (originally issued in 1997 and updated since) and of The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: the Great Crises (3 volumes, issued in 2002). His other recent book is Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France (2000). Earlier books have dealt with the making of the Monroe Doctrine, American expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America’s intervention in World War I, American Cold War strategy, and uses of historical reasoning in decision-making.