The Cuban Missile Crisis and Liberal Foreign Policy

Stephen Rosskamm Shalom

From Z magazine, June 1988, pp. 69 80, with footnotes added.


Several Central America peace groups recently asked Michael Dukakis if he would pledge that as President he would not invade or attack Nicaragua. Dukakis declined, stating that force would in fact be justified if, for example, Nicaragua introduced "Soviet offensive weapons."[1]

     Since anyone genuinely worried about a Soviet base in Nicaragua need only ask Washington to accept what the Sandinistas have already accepted namely, the Contadora proposal barring all foreign military forces from Central America Dukakis's professed concern about Soviet offensive weapons is obvious hypocrisy. But what is less often noted about the position taken by Dukakis and many others is the unstated assumption that if there were Soviet weapons in Nicaragua, then a resort to force would be appropriate and legitimate. This assumption remains virtually unchallenged in mainstream U.S. politics, no less among liberals than among conservatives, even though it is hard to see what possible principle would allow the U.S. to object to Soviet weapons near the United States while U.S. weapons ring the Soviet Union. The origins of this assumption can be traced back to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, during the administration of liberal President John F. Kennedy.

     The Cuban missile crisis the nearest brush in history with all out nuclear war is considered by many liberals as JFK's finest hour, a "combination of toughness and restraint, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that dazzled the world" (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.[2]). "Neo liberals" define themselves as those who "deplore" the Kennedy who sponsored the Bay of Pigs, but "applaud" his handling of the Cuban missile crisis (Charles Peters[3]). The missile crisis has served as the source of countless lessons by academics and policymakers on how foreign policy ought to be conducted. Today, particularly as more of the relevant documentation becomes available, interest in the Cuban missile crisis continues, as do the efforts to portray Kennedy's finest hour as finer still. The missile crisis and the subsequent analyses illustrate as do few events in recent U.S. foreign policy the assumptions of the liberal worldview.

     To understand this seminal crisis of the nuclear age, it is necessary to start with a look at U.S. Cuban policy before 1962.

"The Good Neighbor Policy"

     When Cuba's democratically elected government was overturned by military strongman Fulgencio Batista in 1952, Washington provided him with diplomatic support, military advisers, and military aid. In December 1956, Fidel Castro and a small group of followers began organizing a rebel army to overthrow Batista. Batista's corruption and brutality alienated many Cubans and his regime started disintegrating, whereupon the Eisenhower administration slowly pulled back from the discredited dictator. In March 1958, Washington suspended military aid, though Britain picked up the slack; the U.S. military advisers remained until the end. But this partial disengagement from Batista did not mean neglecting "U.S. interests," and the Eisenhower administration sought various methods of blocking Castro's accession to power. In 1957, the U.S. Ambassador in Havana suggested to Batista that Castro be assassinated. Batista was a brutal thug, but evidently not so brutal as the thugs to the north, for he rejected the proposal, saying "No, we're Cubans."[4]

     The United States attempted to get Batista to turn over power to a military junta and tried, by bribery, to get a pro U.S. general released from prison to head a new government but these efforts also failed.[5] In January 1959, Castro took over and Washington extended his government formal recognition. But it didn't take long for the U.S. to decide that Castro had to go, as the new Cuban leader embarked on a program of agrarian reform and nationalization of key industries. By the end of the year, the head of the CIA's Western Hemisphere Division was calling for Castro's removal, since his continuation in power "would encourage similar actions against U.S. holdings in other Latin American countries."[6] This was six months before Cuba had even established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and at a time when Moscow's purchases of Cuban sugar were lower than under Batista. Even after the Cuban Soviet trade agreement of February 1960 (a predictable consequence, noted the WALL STREET JOURNAL, of a crackdown by European and U.S. credit sources[7]), Moscow agreed to import only one third as much sugar as the United States was buying.

     In March 1960, at a White House meeting, there was, according to the minutes, "a general discussion of what would be the effect on the Cuban scene if Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevera should disappear simultaneously." (Participants at the meeting later insisted that they were not talking about assassination; presumably, they often speculated about human teleportation.) Admiral Burke warned that the Communists were the best organized group in Cuba and might take control. CIA director Allen Dulles replied that "this might not be so disadvantageous" because it would facilitate action against Cuba.[8] In other words, the communist threat was less a concern to U.S. policymakers than a manipulable pretext for intervention.

     Later that month, Eisenhower gave approval to a CIA plan to begin training an army of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba. In addition, the CIA began supporting sabotage against Cuba, landed small groups of exile forces on the island, and dropped arms to supply them. This was about the same time that a public opinion poll conducted in Cuba by Princeton based academics showed 86% of respondents supporting Castro, 43% fervently so.[9] Castro moved ahead with diversifying Cuba's political and economic relations (recognizing China, for example) and the State Department ordered U.S. oil companies in Cuba to refuse to refine Soviet oil. Castro responded by nationalizing the oil companies, and Eisenhower then cancelled Cuba's sugar quota for the year. Moscow agreed to purchase this sugar and vaguely warned that its rockets would protect Cuba from attack.[10] "I am convinced," the last U.S. Ambassador to Cuba later wrote, "that Castro's scenario at this time did not contemplate the massive help in the form of economic aid and weapons that he later received from the Soviet Union. His thrust in 1959 was radical and exclusively nationalistic; it became oriented toward dependence on the Soviet Union only when the United States, by its actions in the spring and summer of 1960, gave the Russians no choice than to come to Castro's rescue."[11]

     In the 1960 U.S. presidential election campaign, Democrat John Kennedy was running against Republican Vice President Richard Nixon. JFK adviser and liberal stalwart Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., warned his candidate that it would be politically hazardous to rule out intervention in Cuba.[12] Kennedy attacked the Eisenhower administration for allowing a communist outpost 90 miles from Florida, and he urged that "the forces fighting for freedom in exile and in the mountains of Cuba should be sustained and assisted."[13] Nixon, who had privately urged the overthrow of Castro as far back as April 1959 and who was one of the most enthusiastic backers of the CIA invasion plan, denounced Kennedy for suggesting that the U.S. violate international law and its traditions of non intervention. JFK then backed off, claiming he advocated nothing inconsistent with U.S. treaty obligations. It was an impressive demonstration of democracy at work: both candidates declaring their commitment to law and both fully prepared to support an invasion.

     Castro warned of an impending U.S. invasion; the State Department dismissed the charge as "nonsense" and the NEW YORK TIMES explained that "Dr. Castro and his friends cannot for a moment think that the United States would be wicked enough or foolish enough to attempt an armed conquest of Cuba."[14] Kennedy, of course, won the election, and he proceeded to prove the TIMES wrong on both counts, ordering the CIA to move forward with its invasion plans.

Kennedy's Contras

     The Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 was totally organized, financed, equipped, and managed by the United States. Even the invasion day manifesto explaining to the Cuban people why they should rise up was phoned in by the CIA. The Cuban "leaders" of the invasion forces were not told in advance the day "their" invasion was to take place.[15] The only thing Cuban about the invasion was the nationality of the invaders, though even in this regard the first person ashore was an American and the first shots fired were fired by an American.[16] Kennedy wanted to keep the U.S. role in the invasion hidden, so he rejected calls by some of his advisers for more overt U.S. intervention. He drew the line at authorizing U.S. warplanes to fly cover for bombers that were to be flown by members of the exile brigade; the U.S. aircraft were not to engage in combat, but if shots were fired in their direction (that is, at the brigade bombers that would be raining explosives from the air) they were permitted to return the fire.[17] The Cuban people rallied around Castro and the invasion was an utter failure.

     In an April 20 speech, Kennedy stated that unilateral intervention in Cuba would have violated U.S. traditions and international obligations. Now it is hard to imagine any U.S. action in Latin America that would have violated our traditions, and its international obligations clearly prohibited Bay of Pigs type operations, but, in any event, Kennedy went on: "let the record show that our restraint is not inexhaustible. Should it ever appear that the inter American doctrine of non interference merely conceals or excuses a policy of non action," then the U.S. would not hesitate to act.[18]

     This was not just rhetoric. A policy review by General Maxwell Taylor and Attorney General Robert Kennedy in June 1961 reported the consensus that there could be "no long term living with Castro as a neighbor." In July, top policymakers agreed that the "basic objective toward Cuba" was to "help bring about a regime acceptable to the U.S." And in November, the President authorized Operation Mongoose, a project to "use our available help Cuba overthrow the Communist regime."[19] The largest CIA station in the world was set up in Miami, with a budget of at least $50 million a year, and a staff of 300 American and a few thousand Cuban agents.[20] Sabotage operations were unleashed on Cuba, including contaminating the island's sugar exports; attacking sugar mills, warehouses, and oil refineries; disabling buses being sent to Cuba from Britain; and blowing up bridges.[21]

     In addition, CIA assassination attempts on Castro, begun before the Bay of Pigs, were stepped up. Supporters of the Kennedys have tried to argue that these activities were carried out without higher authority. A 1975 Congressional report on this matter seemed designed to protect a Democratic party administration, ignoring numerous assassination plots and much relevant evidence. Even this report, however, confirms that Robert Kennedy was informed, in writing, of previous CIA efforts to recruit mobsters to rub out Castro, and that he expressed concern not that there had been assassination attempts but that such unsavory characters were involved. The Attorney General issued no orders against assassinations, and certainly did not carry out the obligations of his office to report and prosecute wrong doing of which he was aware.[22] Needless to say, if this were Ed Meese, no liberal would fail to see the clear line of responsibility.

     The war against Castro also had an overt component: the effort to cut off Cuba's trade. This involved not only a total prohibition of U.S. commerce with the island but a boycott of all foreign ships and companies that dealt with Cuba. A "secondary boycott" of this sort is generally regarded in the U.S. as unjustifiable and illegitimate,[23] particularly when applied by Arab states to Israel, but this one against Cuba occasioned little liberal opposition. Moreover, foreign vessels trading with Havana were often the targets for attacks by Cuban exiles, sometimes U.S. government organized, sometimes not. On October 12, 1962, the Department of State declared that the U.S. did not sanction such raids, but that it would not prevent them and that foreign ships traded with Cuba at their own risk.[24]

     The consequences of the trade war and the sabotage were, of course, entirely predictable. Years later, the former CIA deputy director of intelligence recalled "Looking back on it, you might think all it accomplished was to make Castro beholden to the USSR, but the CIA actively pursued" this war against Cuba.[25]

"Never fear to negotiate..."

     Castro tried to repair relations with Washington. In October 1961, Che Guevera approached Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin and proposed that Cuba would end its support for Latin American revolutions, pay compensation for nationalized U.S. assets, and guarantee not to join an alliance with the Eastern bloc if in return the U.S. would cease its efforts to overthrow the Cuban government and lift the trade embargo. The Kennedy administration rejected the overture, according to Goodwin, because an accommodation with Castro might have enhanced his appeal elsewhere[26] which was, of course, the real threat all along. In subsequent months, whenever the Cuban government called for negotiations with the United States to resolve differences, Washington invariably responded that the existence of communism in the hemisphere was non negotiable.[27]

     Given pressure of U.S. attacks, sabotage, trade war, and assassination plots, and the blocking of all opportunity for negotiation, it is not surprising that Castro turned further to the Soviet Union for protection.

     For Moscow, it was important for its credibility then under bitter challenge from China to be able to defend Cuba. The hedged Soviet warnings in 1960 that it would protect Cuba with its rockets had clearly not deterred the Bay of Pigs invasion. A leading Cuban Communist had pointed out that if Cuba were attacked and the Soviet Union failed to act, the latter would "lose everything, not only in Latin America but in Asia and Africa." On April 18, 1961, while the Bay of Pigs invasion was still going on, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter warning that the Soviet Union would give Cuba "every assistance necessary to repulse the armed attack." Few, however, believed that the Soviet Union was responsible for the defeat of the invasion. Castro, in a five hour speech some days later, barely referred to the Soviet Union and did not mention at all Khrushchev's letter to Kennedy; Cuba's victory, he asserted, was due primarily to Cuban heroism and U.S. stupidity.[28]

     Moscow did not decide to place missiles in Cuba simply to defend Cuba. If this were the only Soviet goal, there were probably easier ways to accomplish it (for example, deploying Soviet troops in Cuba as a tripwire). Putting missiles in Cuba served the further and, for the Soviet Union, more pressing purpose of partially remedying the rather serious deterioration in the strategic balance.

     Since the launching of Sputnik in 1957, Khrushchev had been able to threaten his adversaries with long range missiles, even though he never actually went ahead and built them. This bluff allowed him to obtain the deterrent and imperial benefits of possessing a powerful nuclear arsenal without having to incur the substantial economic costs. Kennedy had won election in 1960 in part by denouncing Eisenhower for allowing a "missile gap" to develop. Photographs from U.S. spy planes and satellites, however, revealed that the only missile gap was in favor of the U.S., and massively so. In terms of strategic weapons that is, nuclear warheads that could be delivered from the home territory of one superpower to the other the U.S. advantage was on the order of ten to one; in addition, the U.S. also had tactical aircraft based in Europe and on carriers as well as medium range missiles based in Europe, while the USSR had none of these capable of reaching the U.S. Moreover, the spy photography allowed the U.S. to pinpoint the location of unhardened Soviet missiles and bombers, thus permitting a U.S. first strike.[29]

     In October 1961, a Defense Department official delivered a speech letting Moscow and the world know that the United States had vastly more nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union and that the U.S. could deliver more warheads on Soviet targets than vice versa, even if the latter struck first. In May 1961 Kennedy called on the country to embark on a program of building bomb shelters, and in March 1962 he told a reporter that under some circumstances the U.S. would resort to a first strike.[30]

     That Kennedy might use his nuclear superiority to push for some advantage in Laos or other world trouble spot was a frightening prospect for Khrushchev. Placing missiles in Cuba offered the Soviet leader a relatively inexpensive means of counteracting the nuclear imbalance, while also protecting Cuba.

The Most Dangerous of Times

     In the late summer of 1962, the Soviet Union started secretly sending to Cuba the components for constructing launch sites for medium and intermediate range missiles. Kennedy, under pressure from the Republicans for not responding ferociously enough to the existence of Castro, issued warnings to Moscow that he would not tolerate offensive weapons in Cuba, to which Khrushchev replied that all weapons being given to Cuba were for defensive purposes only and that the Soviet Union, given its ICBMs, had no need to move missiles to Cuba.

     The distinction between offensive and defensive weapons is, of course, somewhat arbitrary; in terms of capability, the Soviet missiles in Cuba were comparable to the U.S. missiles in Turkey. The claims by administration officials that U.S. missiles were defensive and those of the USSR offensive because the "history of Soviet intentions toward smaller nations was very different from our own"[31] or because "no impartial observer could consider that Cuba is a major object of the military program of the United States"[32] were less than compelling. The fact that the Soviet missiles were secretly installed reflected Moscow's military weakness and was irrelevant from the point of view of international law. Soviet lying was reprehensible, but U.S. officials were hardly innocent in this regard; the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. who so cleverly caught his Soviet counterpart in a lie during the missile crisis had himself been so caught during the Bay of Pigs. Some U.S. nuclear arms have been moved openly, but not all: for example, despite explicit denials, the U.S. Japan Defense Treaty of 1960 had a secret annex allowing the transit of nuclear weapons.[33]

     On October 15, 1962, U 2 overflights of Cuba brought back photographs confirming the existence of the missile sites, under construction though not yet operational. The next day, Kennedy called together a group of officials to meet as an Executive Committee (ExCom) to advise him how to respond. For the next two weeks, this group of upper class white males met in secret to determine the fate of the earth.

     In an ExCom meeting on that first day, October 16, JFK asked why Khrushchev was putting medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in Cuba: "But what is the advantage of that? It's just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that'd be goddam dangerous, I would think." To which National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy replied, "Well, we did, Mr. President."[34] Kennedy responded that the U.S. deployment was five years earlier, which was true in terms of when the initial decision was made, but false in terms of when the Jupiters had become operational (1962), and irrelevant in terms of whether it was "goddam dangerous" or whether the deployer lacked sufficient long range missiles at the time of deployment.

     Bundy inquired about how the Soviet missiles in Cuba affected the strategic balance. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara replied: "I asked the [Joint] Chiefs [of Staff] that this afternoon, in effect. And they said, substantially. My own personal view is not at all." The CIA reported that they had not expected the Soviet Union to place missiles in Cuba because it "doesn't prove anything" in the strategic balance.[35]

     The completed launch sites would give the USSR 48 missiles capable of hitting the southern U.S. and 24 that could hit most of the country. Given that the United States could bombard the Soviet Union with thousands of warheads, 72 additional Soviet warheads were hardly going to be decisive. Even if all these missiles were targeted at U.S. strategic forces (ignoring problems of coordinating a simultaneous attack from the USSR and Cuba, and the fact that half the missiles in Cuba could only be launched four to six hours after the other half), a Soviet first strike would still leave the U.S. with 15% of its strategic arsenal intact. This would be larger than the Soviet first strike force, and doesn't even count U.S. tactical aircraft and missiles in Europe.[36] So while the Cuban missiles might have complicated a first strike on the Soviet Union, they constituted no danger to the United States.

     A particularly bizarre argument regarding the military threat represented by the Soviet missiles was advanced by ExCom member George Ball (a leading "dove") and others. Perhaps, Ball argued, the U.S. overestimated Moscow's ICBM force, in which case the Cuban missiles increased the Soviet threat even more; that is, instead of increasing the Soviet first strike potential by 40% they may have increased it by 80%.[37] By this logic, of course, the weaker the Soviet Union the more dangerous it was, a convenient doctrine for those seeking a Soviet threat.

     If the missiles did not represent a military threat, then what was the problem? "I'll be quite frank," said McNamara on October 16. "I don't think there is a military problem here....this is a domestic, political problem." Even before October, Robert Kennedy had privately noted that "Cuba obtaining missiles would create a major political problem here." And a top State Department official later wrote, "the United States might not be in mortal danger but the administration most certainly was."[38]

The Choices

     The members of ExCom then considered the options. One was to invade Cuba; a second was to order an air strike that would take out the missile sites; a third was to impose a blockade around Cuba to keep out the as yet undelivered missiles with the possibility of tightening the blockade or moving to air strike or invasion; a fourth was to deliver some sort of private ultimatum to Khrushchev and, if the missiles were not removed, take military action; a fifth was to offer some sort of trade: the missiles in Cuba for missiles in Turkey, or the Soviet military base in Cuba for Guantanamo, the U.S. military base in Cuba.

     The fifth option was proposed by U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and had much to recommend it. The trade for the Turkish missiles, though one sided (since, given the U.S. strategic arsenal, the Jupiters in Turkey were obsolete while the Soviet missiles in Cuba were still of some military value), would nevertheless have been an arms control agreement, limiting, albeit in a minor way, the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers. In addition, the trade was legal and carried no risk of war. These considerations, however, were deemed irrelevant because the trade would not humiliate Khrushchev, would not give Kennedy a victory, and would not seem like a tough action. The members of ExCom were disgusted with Stevenson for his proposal, and they rejected it out of hand.[39]

     The fourth option, a private approach to Khrushchev with military action to follow (referred to in some accounts as the "diplomatic plan"[40]), was also rejected as insufficiently tough; diplomacy had the further drawback, as McNamara noted, that "once you start this political approach, I don't think you're gonna have any opportunity for a military operation."[41] This left three options, every one of which, in the view of most ExCom members, involved substantial risks of war. Not that the Soviet Union would necessarily fight in Cuba where the U.S. had overwhelming conventional superiority but at other spots in the world, where they held the conventional advantage.

     The dangers of options one and two (invasion and air strike) were fairly obvious. Theodore Sorensen, an ExCom member and presidential speech writer, records the following exchange regarding the air strike: "`What will the Soviets do in response?' one consultant favoring this course was asked. `I think I know the Soviets pretty well,' he replied. `I think they'll knock out our missile bases in Turkey.' `What do we do then?' `Under our NATO treaty we'd be obligated to knock out a base inside the Soviet Union.' `What will they do then?' `Why, then we hope everyone will cool down and want to talk.'"[42]

     As for invasion, the first problem was that at least some U.S. officials apparently thought incorrectly, as it turned out that the Soviet troops in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons.[43] But in any case, invasion "more than any other course" was feared as risking world war. "If we had invaded Cuba," Kennedy said later, "I am sure the Soviets would have acted. They would have to, just as we would have to. I think there are certain compulsions on any major power."[44] "It seems to me almost certain," said McNamara on October 16, "that military action will lead to a Soviet military response of some type some place in the world."[45]

     Rejecting the air strike and invasion options thus seems like a minimal definition of sanity. What is amazing, however, is that the blockade option was nearly as reckless: that is, most of its adherents believed it carried substantial risk of war. Advocates of the blockade predicted that the Soviet Union would probably not try to run the blockade but would retaliate elsewhere.[46] The most forceful argument against the blockade, recalled Robert Kennedy, was that it almost invited Khrushchev to reply with a blockade of West Berlin,[47] an action that the Kennedy administration had previously determined would be resisted by force. (Indeed, some ExCom members feared that Khrushchev had put the missiles in Cuba precisely to provoke some U.S. move that would then allow him to move on Berlin.[48]) When RFK had first heard the idea of a blockade proposed, his reaction was that a blockade meant sinking Russian ships and then Russian submarines, so there was going to be war in any event, so why not "just get into it and get it over with" and "take our losses."[49] The President chose the blockade option despite his belief that the odds were "somewhere between one out of three and even" that the Soviet Union would go all the way to war. The day after the blockade was announced, Secretary of State Dean Rusk said to George Ball: "We have won a considerable victory. You and I are still alive." An intelligence report the next day judged it "probable" that Moscow would risk a confrontation at sea. And that night, as John and Robert Kennedy waited to see if Khrushchev would try to run the blockade, the "danger and concern that we all felt hung like a cloud over us all....I felt we were on the edge of a precipice and it was as if there were no way off."[50]

     Thus, Kennedy and his advisers followed a course that they believed involved a serious danger of war rather than pursue the trade off of obsolete missiles in Turkey. Ideally they might have used the opportunity to suggest some truly significant arms control agreement. At a minimum they might have done nothing, an option that would not have carried severe risks of war. "A missile is a missile," McNamara acknowledged. "It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba."[51] No one should have to live under the shadow of nuclear weapons, but, if the people of the Soviet Union and Europe had to do so, there was no reason U.S. citizens couldn't do the same.

     Arthur Schlesinger has argued that "Had the missiles remained, the sixties would have been the most dangerous of decades."[52] But it is hard to imagine anything more dangerous than those two weeks in October. Some worried that the Cuban missiles might allow Khrushchev to try something in Berlin. But if he hadn't pushed in 1958 59, when the USSR had the advantage of the (fictitious) missile gap, why would he push in 1962 and why would the U.S. back down, when U.S. strategic superiority was clear, even with missiles in Cuba? And nothing was more likely to lead to a blockade of Berlin than a blockade of Cuba, as the supporters of a Cuba blockade acknowledged.[53]

Feeling Like Tojo

     Both doing nothing and diplomatic approaches were rejected by Kennedy from the outset, according to Sorensen.[54] Sorensen's account may have been impressive proof in 1965 of JFK's toughness, but in later years, after toughness led us to the rice paddies of Vietnam, the rejection of diplomacy was something of an embarrassment. It took Arthur Schlesinger to come to the rescue. In fact, claimed Schlesinger in 1978, Kennedy took the diplomatic path, only he did so "after arranging the military setting that would make diplomacy effective" that is, he first instituted a blockade.[55] By similar logic, one supposes, Brezhnev followed the diplomatic path in Czechoslovakia after his tanks had arranged the military setting that made diplomacy effective. But Brezhnev's arrangement of the military setting, of course, did not risk world war as did Kennedy's.

     Kennedy chose the blockade option, and a story has developed that moral considerations were crucial in the choice of blockade over air strike. In particular, Robert Kennedy is said to have expressed his eloquent objections to the U.S. carrying out a Pearl Harbor; he would not have his brother go down in history as the Tojo of the sixties.[56] Talk of moral objections to the air strike would be more compelling, of course, if there had not been decisive practical objections to this option: it could not be "surgical," could not guarantee that all the missile sites would be destroyed, and would kill thousands of Soviet personnel, thus virtually assuring a Soviet military response somewhere else.[57] In any event, however, it is instructive to examine what Robert Kennedy and others understood by the Pearl Harbor analogy.

     First, the Attorney General was not opposed on principle to deceit and treachery. He had supported the Bay of Pigs invasion, which had begun with surprise air attacks. As the invasion drew to an ignominious conclusion, he wrote a memorandum proposing the future possibility of falsely reporting an attack on Guantanamo as a way to induce the Organization of American States to take action on Cuba.[58] A month and a half later, he was baffled by the Castro problem: "Not many are really prepared to send American troops in there at the present time but maybe that is the answer." When Operation Mongoose was set up a few months later, the Attorney General was its "moving spirit," urging that it become a top priority, that the U.S. spare no time, money, or effort, and always pushing the CIA to do more. After one session where RFK browbeat the CIA for not doing enough, General Maxwell Taylor told him "You could sack a town and enjoy it!"[59]

     On the first day of ExCom deliberations during the missile crisis, Robert Kennedy wrote a note saying "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor." Schlesinger reports that the Attorney General wrote these words as he was "listening to the war cries of the hawks." But, in fact, it is clear from the declassified transcripts that at this point both Kennedys supported military action. So they may in fact have known how Tojo felt.[60] On that same day, Robert Kennedy suggested that the U.S. manufacture some incident at Guantanamo or "sink the Maine again or something,"[61] an approach Tojo probably never considered.

     In his account of the missile crisis, Elie Abel wrote: "[General] Maxwell Taylor, seemingly impressed by the [Pearl Harbor] speech of Robert Kennedy, agreed that a surprise attack was out of the question. `Max is a moral man,' one participant recalls. `He showed what a moral man he is by recommending that we give the Cubans twenty four hours' advance notice and then strike the missile bases.'"[62] As often happens when reading accounts of liberal foreign policy, it is hard to tell whether Abel or his source were being sarcastic here. At least one liberal administration official (Abram Chayes), however, has cited this passage as proof of the underdeveloped moral sensibilities of the military.[63] But Taylor's Neanderthal view was precisely the view shared by Robert Kennedy and all those who accepted his Pearl Harbor analogy. That is, they did not object to a massive air strike killing thousands, but only to the fact that there would be no warning. ExCom spent long hours trying to figure out how to carry out an air strike with a warning, but every scenario allowed the Soviet Union to get off the hook (by such duplicitous means as going to the United Nations, for example).[64] So the air strike route was rejected at least for the time being. Later in the crisis all were prepared to go ahead with an air strike if Khrushchev did not capitulate.[65]

Talking Turkey

     Khrushchev denounced the blockade as illegal, but he nevertheless decided not to challenge it, ordering his ships to stop or alter course. "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked," declared Dean Rusk.[66] But the crisis wasn't over, because work was still proceeding apace on the missile launchers that were already in Cuba. The United States readied a massive invasion armada in Florida and warned Moscow publicly and privately that it wasn't enough to discontinue missile shipments to Cuba, the missiles in Cuba had to be removed.

     At this point, on October 26, Alexander Fomin, a presumed KGB official, suggested to a U.S. reporter, John Scali, the possibility of a settlement based on the Soviet Union's withdrawing its missiles and the U.S. lifting the blockade and pledging not to invade Cuba. Scali relayed the offer to Rusk and Kennedy, who authorized him to indicate to Fomin that his proposal might serve as the basis for an agreement. That evening, Kennedy received a long personal letter from Khrushchev which offered, though vaguely, these same terms. The next morning, before the Khrushchev letter had even been fully translated, another message arrived from Moscow suggesting a trade of U.S. missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba.

     The White House responded by sending Khrushchev a public letter stating that if the "offensive" weapons were removed from Cuba, the United States would lift the blockade and give assurances against an invasion of Cuba. The letter added that any other issues (such as missiles in Turkey) could only be discussed later; the first step had to be stopping work on the Cuban missiles and rendering them inoperative. Any delay in this regard "would surely lead to an intensification of the Cuban crisis and a grave risk to the peace of the world." U.S. military preparations for attack on Cuba were ostentatiously accelerated.[67]

     The Turkey Cuba missile swap, as noted above, was not a fair trade. It would have required the Soviet Union to give up missiles that filled an important gap in its strategic arsenal in return for obsolete U.S. missiles that the administration had been eager to remove months before. Khrushchev knew the Jupiters in Turkey were obsolete;[68] nevertheless, his motive for offering the trade was obvious: he was seeking some sort of face saving way to pull his weapons out of Cuba without making it apparent that he was succumbing to U.S. threats.

     Kennedy told his ExCom advisers that the trade would appear to rational people as a reasonable way to end the crisis. He was not happy that the Soviet proposal was so reasonable, and he kept complaining how shrewd Moscow was in putting forward such a patently sensible offer.[69] Nevertheless, in Robert Kennedy's words, the President "obviously did not wish to order the withdrawal of the missiles from Turkey under threat from the Soviet Union."[70] Thus, the U.S. rejected the opportunity to end the crisis with a face saving trade, insisting that Moscow accept a public humiliation, and the world remained at the brink of nuclear war. The next day, however, Khrushchev backed down again, announcing that he would remove the missiles.

     During the ExCom deliberations, McNamara argued that the missiles in Turkey ought to be temporarily defused because when the U.S. attacked Cuba it would be better if Turkey weren't such an inviting counter target. This led Vice President Lyndon Johnson to ask why, if we were defusing the Turkish missiles anyway, didn't we just trade them and avoid an invasion of Cuba and save all those lives[71] a question betraying his lack of an Ivy League education.

     Over the years many have criticized Kennedy for turning down the missile swap proposal. Kennedy supporters have tried to defend the President by claiming that in fact he accepted the Soviet offer. JFK sent his brother to see the Soviet Ambassador on the night of October 27. Robert Kennedy told Dobrynin that the U.S. would be compelled to attack Cuba within the next few days (this was not an ultimatum, he asserted, just a statement of fact). Dobrynin asked about the Jupiters in Turkey. The Attorney General replied that there could be no quid pro quo or any arrangement made under threat or pressure; however, he told the Ambassador, his brother had been anxious to remove the missiles from Turkey for some time, and it was "our judgment that, within a short time after this crisis was over, those missiles would be gone." Dobrynin was warned, however, that the understanding would be cancelled at once if Moscow made it public.[72]

     Thus Kennedy, says Graham Allison, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, offered in private to accept Khrushchev's deal even though he rejected it in public.[73] But the RFK Dobrynin conversation in no way alters the criticism that Khrushchev was being made to suffer a public humiliation. Khrushchev was not concerned with the reality of the missiles in Turkey, for he knew they were of no military value. His concern was solely with avoiding the appearance of capitulation. A public deal would serve this end, for though Khrushchev knew he was giving up weapons of military utility for those with none, a trade would strike world opinion as an even handed resolution of the crisis. A private commitment, on the other hand, could neither affect strategic realities (since the missiles were worthless) nor mitigate Khrushchev's humiliation, since humiliation is by its nature public.

So What's New?

     Recently some new information has become available that bears on the matter of the Turkish missiles. Kennedy had had some White House meetings secretly tape recorded, and the transcript of the ExCom meeting of October 27 shows the President (more than any of his advisers) acknowledging that a trade might be necessary to get the missiles out of Cuba short of war. And Dean Rusk has recently claimed that Kennedy directed him to have Andrew Cordier of Columbia University be prepared, upon receiving further instructions, to ask the U.N. Secretary General to propose a Turkey Cuba missile trade.[74] Some commentators have declared that this new evidence forces critics of Kennedy's handling of the missile crisis to reconsider their criticisms.[75] In fact, however, while the evidence might change our assessment of the relative recklessness of some members of the Kennedy administration, it does not weaken the fundamental critique.

     Let us assume first that the new information showed JFK to be unambiguously conciliatory. It does not do so, as will be discussed below, but it is instructive to see what follows from this assumption. As a point of simple logic, in no way can new information justify support for Kennedy's behavior expressed before the information became available. If, for example, new research showed Attila the Hun to have avoide civilian casualties, we would still condemn those who prior to the new findings had expressed their admiration for Attila. Moreover, the admirers of Kennedy's handling of the missile crisis did not praise him despite his failure to swap missiles, but in part because of it; they have supported his rejection of the trade.

     According to Sorensen, "if Khrushchev continued insisting on concessions with a gun at our head, then we all believed the Soviets must want war and war would be unavoidable." But "the President had no intention of destroying the Alliance by backing down."[76] The Turkey offer, said Kennedy confidant Ken O'Donnell was "blackmail."[77] The U.S. would and should have gone on to invasion if the Soviet missiles were not removed, wrote the head of the State Department's intelligence bureau, though the results would be "awesome to contemplate."[78] If Khrushchev hadn't backed down when he did, Schlesinger observed, the U.S. "would have had no real choice but to take action against Cuba the next week."[79]

     It should be noted as well, that even if we conclude that Kennedy was in fact more reasonable than previously believed, the same cannot be said for many of his liberal advisers. The evidence shows that on October 27, Rusk, Bundy, and RFK were all strongly opposed to any deal.[80] McNamara on this date considered an invasion "almost inevitable," despite the fact that on October 16 he had warned ExCom that an attack would be crazy once any of the Cuban missiles were operational, which he assumed to be the case by the 27th.[81]

     Thus, even if Kennedy had not brought the world to the nuclear brink by stubbornly refusing the Turkish missile trade, his liberal admirers can take little consolation from this fact. But the evidence that Kennedy would have countenanced a trade is by no means conclusive, and, in any event, it does not contradict the view that Kennedy recklessly risked war.

     During the crisis, Kennedy ordered preparations for many different contingencies: air strike, invasion, tightening the blockade. We now have the claim by Dean Rusk that some minimal preparation was made for a Turkey Cuba deal and from this we are invited to conclude that JFK had decided on the trade route. Yet, as McGeorge Bundy has noted, Kennedy's instructions to Rusk do not mean that he would have followed this course.[82] And it seems scarcely credible that Kennedy would have already made a final decision on this option and confided only in Rusk, a man the Kennedys did not feel very close to or respect. (Robert Kennedy, in his account of the missile crisis, wrote that Rusk wasn't always available during the crucial deliberations because he "had other duties during this period of time," a rather damning characterization; in private RFK was less charitable.[83])

     On October 27, Robert Kennedy and Ken O'Donnell were disturbed that McNamara had been asked to sound out NATO governments on a missile trade; they went to see the President to express their opposition to a trade. "Relax," JFK told them, "you fellows ought to know me better than that. I have no intention of taking these missiles out of Turkey."[84] Perhaps the President was just trying to placate the fellas, but they were the advisers who had known him longest.

     Be that as it may, one must realize the limited significance of the Rusk Cordier instructions. Kennedy had rejected a missile trade on October 22, when he chose instead to declare a blockade that he believed entailed a significant possibility of war. And then on October 27, Kennedy turned down Khrushchev's trade off proposal, again knowing that by his rejection he was increasing the chance of all out war. "Now it can go either way," he told ExCom as their meeting broke up on October 27.[85] Robert Kennedy recalled that after his meeting with Dobrynin that night, the expectation was a military confrontation. Llewellyn Thompson, the State Department's expert on the Soviet Union, who had urged Kennedy to refuse the trade, told his wife the family might have to be evacuated the next day.[86]

     Everyone has their own pet theory of what Kennedy would have done next if Khrushchev had not conceded on October 28. All these theories, however, are based on the assumption that Khrushchev would simply do nothing: not give up, but not take any other action either. But it is certainly not implausible that the Soviet leader, having found his face saving offer rebuffed, might have made some move on Berlin or Turkey (and indeed Kennedy on October 27 ordered the State and Defense Departments to prepare for the worst in these areas[87]). Kennedy's ace up his sleeve (if such it was) could not prevent Khrushchev from concluding that the time for trading was over.

     If Khrushchev had done nothing, JFK's next step, as suggested by the transcript,[88] would most likely have been to tighten the blockade to keep out oil and oil products, thus crippling the Cuban economy in a matter of weeks. It is hardly likely that Kennedy, so eager to cover his ass,[89] would have tried to trade without at least preparing his advisers. Sorensen has written that he believes Kennedy would not have moved immediately to an air strike or invasion, but that the pressures for such a move were building rapidly and irresistibly; and George Ball too has said he feared that the hawks would wear the President down.[90] Some accounts have referred to Soviet specialist Llewellyn Thompson as the unsung hero of the crisis[91] because he convinced Kennedy that he could ignore Moscow's October 27 proposal on Turkey. What would this apparently influential adviser have urged Kennedy to do next? Late on the 27th, Thompson said, "These boys are beginning to give way. Let's push harder. I think they'll change their minds when we take continued forceful action...that kills some Russians."[92]

     If Kennedy could have withstood this pressure and have chosen to simply tighten the blockade, he would still have had to decide whether to cancel all air surveillance. To do so would have made an attack on Cuba extremely difficult and would have relieved the pressure on Moscow. But not to do so would have meant more U.S. planes might be shot down, and though Kennedy resisted his advisers' call for a retaliatory air strike once, it would have been hard to resist again. Moreover, what if Castro, in desperation, had decided to respond to an expanded blockade by attacking Guantanamo, or U.S. ships, or Florida, or by executing a few of the Bay of Pigs prisoners each day?

     Of course, these are all hypothetical "what ifs," but it is clear that even though Kennedy may not have wanted to go to war over some worthless Turkish missiles,[93] his refusal to trade the missiles on October 27 carried a substantial risk of doing just that. And this does not even include the possibility of war starting accidentally.

     The longer the crisis continued, the greater were the chances of accidental war. It is actually quite astounding how many things happened during the missile crisis that were apparently not authorized by the White House or the Kremlin, any one of which might have led to catastrophe: a U.S. spy plane wandered over Siberia, causing Soviet and U.S. planes to scramble; a U 2 was shot down over Cuba; a U.S. spy in Moscow reported, just before his capture, that the Soviet Union had decided on all out war; the order to the U.S. Strategic Air Command to go on full alert was sent uncoded; and eight days after Washington suspended Mongoose, a sabotage operation in Cuba was carried out.[94]

     If Kennedy slept soundly on October 27, as Harvard's James Blight has suggested,[95] then we were in even more danger than we thought.

It ain't over `til it's over

     "The tactic of raising the price after your opponent has agreed to your first proposition," Stanford's Alexander George has written, "is a familiar aspect of Soviet and other negotiating styles."[96] U.S. policymakers during the missile crisis showed that they were no slouches in this regard.

     Khrushchev agreed to remove his missiles from Cuba, but nothing specific had been said about the IL 28 bombers that Moscow had given to Castro. These old warplanes had the potential to carry a nuclear payload (as do civilian airliners), but had not been provided with any nuclear weapons. The same planes had been given to Egypt and Indonesia with no U.S. protest. On October 14, 1962 before the missile crisis when U.S. intelligence knew that IL 28s were in Cuba, McGeorge Bundy had stated on television that none of the weapons then in Cuba posed a threat to the United States. Nevertheless, the United States now demanded that the planes be removed before the blockade could be lifted.[97]

     Khrushchev had a problem. The missiles had always been Soviet missiles under Soviet control. The IL 28s, however, had been given to Castro; they were no longer Khrushchev's to remove. One of the key lessons of the missile crisis, Robert Kennedy later wrote, was the "importance of placing ourselves in the other country's shoes."[98] One of the reasons the U.S. had been reluctant to trade the Turkish missiles was the concern that taking something back from an ally would undermine U.S. alliances. This was a concern even though the warheads remained under U.S. control; the U.S. had forced the missiles on Turkey; the Turks, in Kennedy's view, cared most about the payroll from the U.S. bases; and many of the European allies would have backed a trade.[99] Khrushchev was now being told, just after having agreed to remove the missiles without consulting Castro, to take away as well what were non nuclear and fully Cuba's.

     Khrushchev suggested a face saving way out. If the U.S. would lift the blockade, he would quietly remove the bombers shortly thereafter. But Washington, having placed itself in Khrushchev's shoes, decided the shoes needed tightening. They rejected his proposal. Khrushchev would have to be humiliated again and publicly antagonize his Cuban ally.[100]

     To raise the ante, low level U.S. reconnaissance flights over Cuba were resumed, carrying the risk of provoking an attack on the U.S. planes and a U.S. retaliation. On November 19, Washington informed its allies that the crisis was about to heat up again, and a news conference was set for the next day at which the President would announce future steps. With just a few hours to spare, the Soviet Union informed Kennedy that it would remove the IL 28s, and JFK announced the lifting of the blockade.[101]

     Still unresolved, however, were the questions of inspection and the U.S. no invasion pledge. Much mythology has developed on these matters over the years. The standard account is that Castro was thoroughly stubborn, prohibited U.N. inspection, and therefore the U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba never went into formal effect, even though the U.S. acted as if it had.[102]

     Few now recall that at the height of the crisis, Castro agreed to suspend construction on the missile sites if the blockade were lifted, a rather significant concession.[103] And while Castro's first terms for U.N. inspection were tough (the U.S. would have to end the trade embargo, etc.[104]), at the end of November he offered to permit U.N. inspection of Cuba on the sole condition that the U.S. also accept U.N. inspection to make sure that no aggression against Cuba was being planned. Washington rejected this offer.[105] It might be noted that during the ExCom deliberations, it was taken for granted that a U.S. no invasion pledge would entail inspection of the United States.[106]

     At another ExCom meeting, Dean Rusk remarked that a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba was not a big deal, it would simply be a reaffirmation of existing commitments. "We are committed not to invade Cuba [because we] signed the U.N. Charter and the Rio treaty," said the Secretary of State who had approved the Bay of Pigs invasion.[107] Kennedy, however, thought there were "disadvantages" in "a guarantee of Cuba."[108] So at his November 20 press conference, Kennedy used the excuse of the inspection issue to avoid a specific pledge. If offensive weapons are removed from Cuba and kept out in the future, under adequate verification, he declared, and "if Cuba is not used for the export of aggressive Communist purposes, there will be peace in the Caribbean."[109]

     Interestingly, while hedging the no invasion issue, Kennedy's statement at the same time promised more: peace in the Caribbean, which implies an avoidance of aggression short of outright invasion. But this was never Kennedy's intention. He assured doubters that we have not "weakened our efforts to isolate Castro politically and economically and end Communism in this hemisphere by every act short of war."[110]

     A new Standing Group on Cuba of the National Security Council regularly reviewed steps that could be taken to "harass, disrupt, and weaken Castro politically and economically." The possibility of enticing Castro into becoming a Latin American Tito with economic aid was rejected on the grounds of the unlikelihood of getting money from Congress, the Cuban leader's unreliability, and "because his success might encourage other Latin Americans to try the same course" (Sorensen).[111] In the weeks before Kennedy's death in November 1963, some secret talks were begun between Washington and Havana. We cannot know what would have resulted had Kennedy lived, but one of the go betweens later campaigned for Kenneth Keating against Robert Kennedy because, according to her friends, she learned from Cuban sources that while she was on a peace mission to Castro for the Kennedys, they were plotting assassination and invasion.[112]

     The secret war against Castro was indeed continuing. Operation Mongoose had been allowed to lapse in the spring of 1963, but on June 19, 1963 a new program of sabotage against Cuba was authorized. In October, thirteen major sabotage operations were planned for the next three months.[113] The CIA prepared an elite Cuban commando unit and began establishing a secret navy; a thousand guerrillas were being supported in the mountains of Cuba.[114] The CIA made numerous attempts to assassinate Castro. One plan involved using a bacteriological agent to contaminate a gift being given to Castro by the U.S. emissary negotiating with the Cuban leader for the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners.[115] If there was peace in the Caribbean, it wasn't obvious.


     The missile crisis did have its positive consequences. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were somewhat chastened by having been so close to the brink, and they signed agreements establishing a hot line and banning atmospheric nuclear tests. But this was not the dawn of a new age. The two leaders stubbornly refused to compromise on a comprehensive test ban, and though Khrushchev was prepared to sign a treaty barring nuclear weapons from outer space, Kennedy was unwilling to conclude another treaty so soon after the controversial limited test ban.[116]

     The negative consequences were more substantial.

     First was the impetus given to the arms race. Soviet negotiator V. V. Kuznetsov told his U.S. counterparts after the crisis, "you Americans will never be able to do this to us again."[117] We don't know whether this was the reason for the Soviet decision to seek nuclear parity by the end of the decade, but surely their humiliation in 1962 did not dissuade them from this course. And it is certainly ironic that nuclear war was risked to prevent Moscow from increasing by seventy the number of warheads that could hit the United States, when eight years later the Soviet arsenal had grown by many thousands of warheads.

     A second negative consequence was that the crisis both made clear the swollen U.S. military advantage over the Soviet Union and contributed to the swollen heads of U.S. policymakers. Schlesinger claims that Kennedy told him on October 29, 1962 that he worried people might conclude that one just had to be tough with Moscow and they'd back down. But that very day the National Security Council summed up the lessons of the crisis: "firmness in the last analysis will force the Soviets to back away from rash initiatives."[118]

     It was not just the Soviet Union that was to be met with "firmness"; the same was to be true for Third World revolutionaries, as the liberal policymakers from the missile crisis demonstrated most viciously on the people of Indochina.[119] One might have concluded from the U.S. record with Cuba that future crises could best be avoided by accommodating left wing nationalist regimes, rather than pushing them into the Soviet embrace. But, instead, liberals determined that future Castros had to be stopped in utero. Accordingly, U.S. aid to the police and military forces of Latin America burgeoned; death squads were organized, military coups sponsored, and marines landed: all under the liberal Kennedy Johnson administrations.[120]

     A final negative consequence of the missile crisis was the precedent it reinforced. The crisis taught that, to liberal applause, one could insist that the United States was entitled to do things that other countries could not. In 1970, Henry Kissinger told the Soviet Union that they could not base strategic submarines in Cuba though the U.S. had such bases in Europe. Did the USSR violate the understanding of 1962, asked the Soviet Ambassador? That is a quibble, replied Kissinger. Was the USSR doing anything illegal? This was not a legal issue, said Kissinger, but a security issue. The Soviet Union, however, was to be permitted no comparable security concerns.[121] In 1974, Barry Blechman of the liberal Brookings Institution recommended that the U.S. threaten to scuttle SALT if Moscow persisted in submarine visits to Cuba.[122]

     Carter did scuttle SALT II in part by provoking a tempest over a Soviet brigade in Cuba that, it turned out, had been there for at least a decade.[123] Carter was widely held to have over reacted, but few asked why the brigade's arrival date really mattered; Washington has never sought Soviet approval for U.S. troop deployments overseas. In 1983, when the Reagan administration was placing nuclear weapons in Europe capable of hitting Soviet territory, it threatened a blockade like that used in 1962 if Moscow tried to put missiles in Cuba or anywhere else in the region. Liberals got Nicaragua's guarantee that it would not allow nuclear weapons on its soil,[124] but again no one asked why the U.S. could do what the Soviet Union could not.

     The precedent of the missile crisis, however, went well beyond Cuba. When Nixon invaded Cambodia in 1970, he invoked Kennedy's actions in 1962 as justification for neglecting diplomacy.[125] In that same year, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir told a news magazine that NATO and the United States should force the Soviet Union out of the Middle East in a confrontation similar to that over Cuba.[126] And when Israel attacked Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, liberal Senator Alan Cranston justified the action, drawing an analogy to the missile crisis.[127] There was an analogy here, though not the one Cranston intended: in both cases a country sought to maintain a one sided military balance and establish the principle that what was acceptable for themselves was unacceptable for their adversaries.

Looking Back

     A recent book on the missile crisis by Raymond Garthoff, a former liberal career State Department official, has photographs of Kennedy and Khrushchev on the cover. The U.S. President is shown looking calm and the Soviet leader like a wild man, despite the fact that the author reports that Khrushchev, unlike Kennedy, did not alert his nuclear forces during the crisis, for fear it might provoke his adversary.[128] In addition, the author refers to an unconfirmed intelligence report indicating that the Soviet government secretly made a firm commitment not to go to war over Cuba;[129] there is no evidence of any such commitment being made in the U.S. government.

     Khrushchev was reckless no one should be fooling around with nuclear weapons but he only did what the U.S. had done before. It was Kennedy's actions that actually brought us to the brink, but commentators have been loathe to recognize this. Richard Smoke of Brown has concluded that the U.S. had to act as it did because "if the USSR could strengthen its hand by aggression, other aggression would follow."[130] To left liberals like Dennis Wrong, the Soviet missiles were "too obvious a challenge to the United States to lend itself to the familiar apologetics of those left wing circles that see American policy as eternally provocative while remaining primly `objective' about Soviet actions."[131] In dove George Ball's words, the missiles quite simply constituted "an unacceptable Soviet encroachment on the United States' sphere of influence"[132] a formulation that could have come from Ronald Reagan.

     "It is important to remember," liberal scholar Richard Ned Lebow has remarked, "that Kennedy made every effort to allow Khrushchev to save what face he could."[133] But, in fact, the exact opposite was true. Kennedy rejected the face saving formulas Khrushchev proposed: to trade the missiles in Turkey and to remove the IL 28s quietly. The New York Times's liberal columnist Anthony Lewis recently suggested the missile crisis as a model for how to allow one's adversary a face saving way out. But to Lewis, the Soviet Union's Turkey trade proposal "truculently challenged the American position" and so Kennedy was right to reject it,[134] a rather strange approach to face saving, but a characteristic liberal analysis.

     Right wingers, unsurprisingly, thought that Kennedy hadn't gone far enough in obtaining Soviet concessions. But they were not alone. In the midst of the crisis, Zbigniew Brzezinski telegraphed his friend Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: "Any further delay in bombing missile sites fails to exploit Soviet uncertainty."[135] Daniel Patrick Moynihan later called the missile crisis a defeat for the United States.[136] A. A. Berle asserted that the U.S. had been out maneuvered into agreeing to permit a Soviet armed presence in Cuba.[137] And Theodore Draper predicted that in the future historians (he apparently among them) would not view the crisis as an unmitigated U.S. triumph because of the assurances against an invasion of Cuba.[138]

     The key lesson of the missile crisis, according to an article in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, is to avoid crises, although sometimes one is forced to defend important values.[139] The obvious and crucial questions go unasked, however. What are important values? In particular, is it an important value that the United States should be permitted to place nuclear missiles wherever it chooses, while the Soviet Union may not? Is this principle worth risking nuclear war over? Can any sort of peaceful and just world emerge from such principles?

     Dukakis and other liberals are skeptical of Reagan's adventures and oppose aid to the contras. This is to their credit. But it is an indication of the limits of their skepticism, and of the dangerous times in which we continue to live, that they still consider the Cuban missile crisis the finest hour of our finest President.


  1. D.D. Guttenplan, "Al Gore's Fake Right," Village Voice, 22 Mar. 88, p. 21.
  2. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1965), p. 769.
  3. Charles Peters, "Where Neoliberals Stand," New York Times, 4 Jan. 1984, p. A19.
  4. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), p. 454n.
  5. Ramon L. Bonachea and Marta San Martin, The Cuban Insurrection: 1952 1959 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1974), pp. 303 04, 407n17.
  6. U.S. Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence Activities, Alleged Assassination Plots Against Foreign Leaders, Interim Report, Senate Report No. 94 465, 94th Cong., 1st sess., Nov. 1975, p. 92.
  7. Maurice Zeitlin and Robert Scheer, Cuba: Tragedy In Our Hemisphere (New York: Grove Press, 1963), p. 136.
  8. Senate Report 94 465,, p. 93.
  9. Lloyd S. Etheredge, Can Governments Learn? (New York: Pergamon Press, 1985), p. 138n22.
  10. Herbert S. Dinerstein, The Making Of A Missile Crisis: October 1962 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 80 82.
  11. Philip W. Bonsal, Cuba, Castro, and the United States (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971), p. 67.
  12. Kent M. Beck, "Necessary Lies, Hidden Truths: Cuba in the 1960 Campaign," Diplomatic History, vol. 8, Winter 1984, p. 47.
  13. Beck, p. 46.
  14. Beck, p. 56.
  15. Etheredge, p. 39.
  16. Etheredge, p.20.
  17. Peter Wyden, The Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 271; Schlesinger, 1965, p. 260. The bombers and jet fighters never rendezvoused; the bombers turned out to be piloted by Americans contracted by the CIA.
  18. Quoted in Schlesinger, 1965, p. 269.
  19. Senate Report 94 465, pp. 135 36, 139.
  20. Taylor Branch and George Crile III, "The Kennedy Vendetta," Harpers Magazine, August 1975, p. 51.
  21. Branch & Crile, pp. 52, 58.
  22. Senate Report 94 465,, pp. 132 34.
  23. See letter, Kenneth W. Abbott, New York Times, 15 April 1988, p. A34.
  24. Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1987), p. 18.
  25. Branch & Crile, p. 52.
  26. Dinerstein, pp. 138 39; Schlesinger, 1978, p. 542n.
  27. E.g., Stevenson quoted in David Larson, The Cuban Crisis Of 1962: Selected Documents And Chronology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), p. 139.
  28. Dinerstein, pp. 109, 130, 133.
  29. See Garthoff, 1987, p. 142, for the strategic balance.
  30. Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Bantam, 1965), p. 692; David Detzer, The Brink: Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979), p. 49.
  31. Schlesinger, 1965, p. 464.
  32. Sorensen, p. 770; Schlei in Abram Chayes, The Cuban Missile Crisis: International Crises and the Role of Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 115.
  33. Richard Halloran, "Sign of Secret U.S. Japan Pact Found," New York Times, 7 April 1987, p.A3.
  34. Transcripts of Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, October 16, 1962, 6:30 7:55 P.M., p. 26, Papers of John F. Kennedy, Presidential Papers, President's Office Files, John F. Kennedy Library. (Transcripts of two meetings on October 16 and one on October 27 are currently available; these are hereafter cited as JFK Transcripts, with date and, for Oct. 16, a roman numeral to indicate whether it's the morning or the evening meeting.) On the Turkish missiles, see Barton J. Bernstein, "The Cuban Missile Crisis: Trading the Jupiters in Turkey?" Political Science Quarterly, vol. 95, no. 1, Spring 1980, and Garthoff, 1987, p. 37.
  35. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 16, II, p. 12 13.
  36. See Garthoff's contemporary memo (Garthoff, 1987, pp. 138 39) for the 15% estimate, though he considered this a serious weakening of the U.S. position. He acknowledges, however, that when he says the Cuban missiles "would have altered the balance" he means "diluted the American preponderance." (1987, p. 98). The ranges mentioned represent the official U.S. claim. There was some reason to believe that the ranges were exaggerated. Garthoff criticizes "revisionist" accounts for being suspicious: "By noon on October 16 it was clearly established that the MRBMs were SS 4 missiles of 1,020 nautical miles range and not SS 3 missiles of 700 nautical miles range. There was no uncertainty or debate within the administration" (1987, p. 20n29). But on the evening of October 16, McNamara told ExCom "whether they're 1100 miles, 600 mile, 900 mile is still a guess in MY opinion." (JFK Transcripts, Oct. 16, II, p. 5.)
  37. George W. Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern: Memoirs (New York: Norton, 1982), p. 289. For similar comments, see Elie Abel, The Missile Crisis (New York: Bantam Books, 1966), pp. 38 39; Garthoff, 1987, p. 143.
  38. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 16, II, pp. 45 46; Schlesinger, 1978, p. 505; Hilsman, p. 197.
  39. Sorensen, pp. 784 85; Detzer, pp. 155 56.
  40. Schlesinger, 1978, p. 513. This option was proposed by Charles Bohlen; see Abel, p. 44; Barton J. Bernstein, "Courage and Commitment: The Missiles of October," Foreign Service Journal, Dec. 1975, p. 10.
  41. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 16, II, p. 44. Mention of this option seemed to evoke the only laughter recorded in the transcript.
  42. Sorensen, p. 773. The consultant was Dean Acheson. Curtis LeMay also tried to convince a skeptical Kennedy that the USSR wouldn't respond to an airstrike. "If they don't take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin," concluded the president. Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 14.
  43. Hilsman, p. 215; Sorensen, p. 806. See comments by Garthoff, 1987, pp. 21 22n.
  44. Sorensen, pp. 770 71; Schlesinger, 1965, p. 759.
  45. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 16, II, 9 10. See also p. 49.
  46. Sorensen, p. 777.
  47. R. Kennedy, p. 13.
  48. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 16, I, p. 15; Sorensen, p. 752.
  49. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 16, II, p. 25.
  50. Sorensen, p. 795; Abel, p. 110; Detzer, pp. 206 07; Schlesinger, 1978, p. 514.
  51. Abel, p. 38.
  52. Schlesinger, 1978, p. 512.
  53. Sorensen, p. 777. I leave aside here the substance of the U.S. and Soviet positions on Berlin and Germany, noting only the U.S. fear of German neutralization (e.g., Ball, p. 271).
  54. Sorensen, 769 70.
  55. Schlesinger, 1978, p. 530.
  56. Abel, p. 51.
  57. Abel, p. 51n; see also above.
  58. Schlesinger, 1978, pp. 443 44, 471.
  59. Schlesinger, 1978, p. 473; Senate Report 94 465, pp. 160, 141; Etheredge, p. 77.
  60. Marc Trachtenberg, "White House Tapes and Minutes of the Cuban Missile Crisis: Introduction to Documents," International Security, vol. 10, no. 1, Summer 1975, pp. 166 67. Cf. Schlesinger, 1978, p. 507.
  61. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 16, II, p. 27.
  62. Abel, p. 74.
  63. Chayes, p. 90n13.
  64. Hilsman, pp. 203 04; Sorensen, p. 772; R. Kennedy, p. 17.
  65. Abel, p. 75; Sorensen, pp. 781-82.
  66. Abel, p. 134.
  67. Abel, pp. 176 79.
  68. Graham T. Allison, Essence Of Decision: Explaining The Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971), pp. 290 91n26; Schlesinger, 1978, p. 519.
  69. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 27, pp. 10, 11, 13,27, 67.
  70. R. Kennedy, pp. 72 73.
  71. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 27, pp. 52, 54 55.
  72. R. Kennedy, pp. 86 87; Schlesinger, 1978, p. 522.
  73. Allison, p. 249. See similar views in Schlesinger, 1978, pp. 522 23; Chayes, p. 98.
  74. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 27; James G. Blight, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and David A. Welch, "The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited," Foreign Affairs, vol. 66, Fall 1987, p. 179; David A. Welch and James G. Blight, "The Eleventh Hour of the Cuban Missile Crisis: An Introduction to the ExComm Transcripts," International Security, vol. 12, no. 3, Winter 1987/88 (page proofs), p. 15.
  75. E.g., Welch & Blight, p. 16.
  76. Sorensen, p. 805.
  77. Kenneth P. O'Donnell and David F. Powers with Joe McCarthy, "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye" (New York: Pocket Books, 1972), p. 389.
  78. Hilsman, p. 227.
  79. Schlesinger, 1965, p. 758 59.
  80. Marc Trachtenberg, "The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis," International Security, vol. 10, no. 1, Summer 1985, p. 145. Cf. minutes published in International Security, vol. 10, no. 1, Summer 1985, pp 196 203.
  81. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 16, I, pp. 11, 13; Oct. 27, p. 52. (See Trachtenberg, "Introduction," p. 168.) In fact, Soviet nuclear warheads probably never arrived in Cuba; but ExComm members agreed that prudence required the assumption that they had. (Garthoff, 1987, p. 21.)
  82. Blight et al, p. 179.
  83. R. Kennedy, p. 24; Schlesinger, 1978, p. 507.
  84. O'Donnell & Powers, p. 392.
  85. Abel, p. 179; Hilsman, p. 224.
  86. R. Kennedy, p. 87; Abel, p. 168.
  87. Sorensen, p. 804.
  88. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 27, p. 73.
  89. For example, on October 21, Kennedy was still asking the military whether a surgical strike could work (R. Kennedy, pp. 26 27; Abel, pp. 84 85). JFK thus either was not as swayed by the Pearl Harbor analogy and other arguments as his supporters suppose, or else he was just trying to convince the military that he rejected the air strike only after the most careful consideration.
  90. Sorensen, p. 807; Welch & Blight, p. 21.
  91. Welch and Blight, p. 19.
  92. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 27, p. 63.
  93. As McNamara recalls Kennedy saying. Trachtenberg, "Influence," p. 146.
  94. Garthoff, 1987, 40 41, 38, 78 79; James A. Nathan, "The Missile Crisis: His Finest Hour Now," World Politics, vol. 27, Jan. 1976, p. 271.
  95. James G. Blight, commentary in Welch & Blight, p. 85.
  96. Alexander L. George, "The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962," in Alexander L. George et al., The Limits Of Coercive Diplomacy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971), p. 123.
  97. Garthoff, 1987, p. 65n99; Garthoff, "American Reaction to Soviet Aircraft in Cuba, 1962 and 1978," Political Science Quarterly, vol. 95, no. 3, Fall 1980, pp. 429, 433.
  98. R. Kennedy, p. 102ff.
  99. Trachtenberg, "Influence," p. 144; Abel, 169 70; Bernstein, 1980, 113ff.
  100. Barton J. Bernstein, "Bombers, Inspection, and the No Invasion Pledge," Foreign Service Journal, July 1979, p. 11; Garthoff, 1980, pp. 434 35.
  101. Bernstein, 1979, p. 9; Garthoff, 1987, pp. 62 63, 71 73; Sorensen, 811 812. Schlesinger, 1978, p. 526, suggests that low level flights were first threatened on November 19; Bernstein says they began November 1.
  102. See, for example, Schlesinger, 1965, p. 762; Schlesinger, 1978, 527 28n.
  103. Henry Pachter, Collision Course: The Cuban Missile Crisis And Coexistence (New York: Praeger, 1963), p. 216.
  104. Pachter, p. 230.
  105. Garthoff, 1987, p. 80.
  106. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 27, pp. 6, 9.
  107. Bernstein, 1980, p. 112, quoting ExCom minutes, Oct. 26.
  108. JFK Transcripts, Oct. 27, p. 4.
  109. Schlesinger, 1978, 527 28n.
  110. Sorensen, p. 813.
  111. Sorensen, p. 814.
  112. Warren Hinckle and William Turner, The Fish Is Red: The Story Of The Secret War Against Castro (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 196 97.
  113. Senate Report 94 465, p. 173.
  114. Hinckle & Turner, p. 144; Donald Schultz, "Kennedy and the Cuban Connection," Foreign Policy, #26, Spring 1977, p. 126n11.
  115. Garthoff, 1987, p. 89.
  116. Garthoff, 1987, p. 88n141.
  117. Garthoff, 1987, p. 87.
  118. J. Anthony Lukas, "Class Reunion: Kennedy's Men Relive the Cuban Missile Crisis," New York Times Magazine, 30 Aug. 1987, p. 27; Detzer, p. 260.
  119. See e.g., Nathan, p. 272; William E. Simon, "The Vietnam Intervention, 1964 65," in Limits Of Coercive Diplomacy, p. 148.
  120. See Noam Chomsky, Turning The Tide (Boston: South End Press, 1985).
  121. Henry Kissinger, White House Years, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), pp. 647, 639 40.
  122. Gloria Duffy, "Crisis Prevention in Cuba," in Alexander L. George, ed., Managing U.S. Soviet Rivalry: Problems of Crisis Prevention (Boulder: Westview, 1983), p. 292.
  123. Cyrus Vance, Hard Choices (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), pp. 362 63.
  124. Hendrick Smith, "U.S. Warns Soviet on Missile Threat," New York Times, 19 April 1983, p.A5.
  125. Garry Wills, "The Kennedy Imprisonment," The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1982, p. 60.
  126. Seymour Hersh, The Price Of Power (New York: Summit, 1983), p. 229.
  127. New York Times, 10 June 1981.
  128. Garthoff, 1987, cover and p. 41. On the Soviet fear of provoking the U.S., see Trachtenberg, "Influence," pp. 157 60.
  129. Garthoff, 1987, p. 51.
  130. Richard Smoke, National Security And The Nuclear Dilemma (New York: Random House, 1987, 2nd ed.), p. 120.
  131. Dennis Wrong, "After the Cuban Crisis," Commentary, Jan. 1963, p. 28.
  132. Ball, p. 289.
  133. Richard Ned Lebow, "The Cuban Missile Crisis: Reading the Lessons Correctly," Political Science Quarterly, vol. 98, no. 3, Fall 1983, p. 438.
  134. New York Times, 23 June, 1980.
  135. Quoted in Detzer, p. 234.
  136. Detzer, p. 257.
  137. Simon G. Hanson, "Footnotes to the Castro Story: From the Papers of Adolf A. Berle," Inter American Economic Affairs, vol. 30, no. 1, Summer 1976, p. 39.
  138. Theodore Draper, Castroism: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1965), p. 245.
  139. Blight et al., p. 185.