The mythologization of the Cuban missile crisis got under way almost immediately. Kennedy loyalists seized on the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba to burnish JFK's image as a peacemaker and a man of action. As usual on such occasions, they accentuated the positive and played down the negative, emphasizing the president's resolve and skill in managing the test of wills with Nikita Khrushchev. The relentlessly upbeat tone was established by the court historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who wrote that Kennedy had "dazzled the world" through a "combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated." Bobby Kennedy, Theodore Sorensen, and many lesser acolytes reached similar starry-eyed conclusions.
Kennedy himself contributed to the mythmaking. Soon after the crisis, he gave a long off-the-record interview to one of his closest journalist friends, Charles Bartlett. A subsequent article by Bartlett and Stewart Alsop in the Saturday Evening Post described how the president had resisted pressure from Adlai Stevenson to trade away Turkish, Italian, and British bases for the Soviet missile sites on Cuba. It quoted a rival Kennedy aide as saying that "Adlai wanted a Munich." By contrast, JFK was depicted as a tough-minded leader who "never lost his nerve" despite going "eyeball to eyeball" with Khrushchev. Bobby Kennedy was the "leading dove" on the ExComm who argued passionately that an unannounced air strike against Cuba would be "a Pearl Harbor in reverse and contrary to all American traditions."
The official version of history omitted some inconvenient facts. The tapes of the ExComm meetings make clear that RFK's position was more ambiguous and contradictory than the early accounts suggest. He was hardly "a dove from the start," as Schlesinger claimed in his biography, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978). On the first day of the crisis, he was one of the leading advocates for invading Cuba and even ruminated aloud about staging a "Sink the Maine"-type incident as a pretext for getting rid of Castro. He veered from one camp to another depending on the signals he was getting from his brother and from Moscow. As for JFK, the historical record shows that he was willing to go to great lengths on Black Saturday to avoid a showdown with Khrushchev. The main difference between Kennedy and Stevenson was that the president wanted to keep the missile swap idea in reserve in case there was no other way out, while the ambassador was willing to put it onto the negotiating table from the very beginning.
The Kennedy-inspired accounts of the crisis also skipped over much of the historical background that explained why Khrushchev decided to take his great missile gamble in the first place. It was as if the Soviet missiles suddenly appeared on Cuba with no provocation on the part of the United States. Little was known about Operation Mongoose until the U.S. Senate began investigating CIA misdeeds in the 1970s in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Subsequent archival revelations demonstrated that Castro and his Soviet patrons had real reasons to fear American attempts at regime change including, as a last resort, a U.S. invasion of Cuba. Sabotage efforts were under way even during the missile crisis itself. Khrushchev's motives in sending Soviet missiles to Cuba were complex and multifaceted. He undoubtedly saw the move as a way of offsetting American nuclear superiority, but he was also sincere in his desire to defend the Cuban revolution from the mighty neighbor to the north. Cuban and Soviet fears of American intervention were not simply the result of Communist paranoia.
Nor was the day-to-day diplomacy as "brilliantly controlled" as the Kennedy camp would have us believe. In their desire to claim credit for Khrushchev's sudden about-face on the morning of Sunday, October 28, Kennedy aides came up with the notion of the "Trollope ploy" to describe the American diplomatic strategy on Black Saturday. The gambit was named after a recurring scene in novels by Anthony Trollope, in which a lovesick Victorian maiden chooses to interpret an innocent squeeze on the hand as an offer of marriage. By this account, accepted for many years by missile crisis scholars, it was Bobby who came up with the idea of the ploy. He suggested that his brother simply ignore Khrushchev's call on Saturday morning for a Turkey-Cuba missile swap and instead accept his ambiguously worded offer of Friday night to dismantle the missile sites in return for a U.S. guarantee not to invade Cuba. It was, wrote Schlesinger, "a thought of breathtaking ingenuity and simplicity."
The "Trollope ploy" contains a kernel of truth. With Sorensen's help, RFK did rewrite the reply to Khrushchev to focus more on the conciliatory-sounding parts of his first letter. On the other hand, the reply was the work of many authors. Far from ignoring the second Khrushchev letter, JFK ordered Bobby to tell Dobrynin that the United States would withdraw its missiles from Turkey "within four to five months." He also began laying the diplomatic groundwork for a public Turkey-Cuba swap should one become necessary. In general, the "Trollope ploy" version of history ascribes greater coherence and logic to the tense ExComm debate of Saturday afternoon than anybody felt at the time. The meeting was a case study of government by exhaustion, in which frazzled policy-makers weighed down by heavy responsibility argued and stumbled toward an acceptable compromise.
Looking back at the crisis decades later, participants would single out two particular moments when the world seemed to teeter on the edge of a nuclear precipice. The first occurred on the morning of Wednesday, October 24, when Kennedy and his aides braced themselves for a confrontation on the quarantine line with Soviet ships. Bartlett and Alsop depict this as the "eyeball to eyeball" moment of the crisis, the decisive "turning point" when Kennedy held firm and Khrushchev "blinked." The anxious mood was felt half a dozen blocks away at the Soviet Embassy on Sixteenth Street. Ambassador Dobrynin would later recall "the enormous tension that gripped us at the embassy as we all watched the sequences on American television showing a Soviet tanker as it drew closer and closer to the imaginary line...Four, three, two, finally one mile was left--would the ship stop?"
The second moment of high drama occurred on Black Saturday with a rapid succession of bizarre incidents, any one of which might have led to nuclear war. The real danger no longer arose from a clash of wills between Kennedy and Khrushchev but over whether the two of them jointly could gain control of the war machine that they themselves had unleashed. To adapt Ralph Waldo Emerson's remark, events were in the saddle and were riding mankind. The crisis had gained a momentum of its own. An American U-2 was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet air defense unit without Khrushchev's authorization within a few moments of another U-2 blundering over the Soviet Union without Kennedy knowing anything about it. This was when JFK vented his frustration--"There's always some sonofabitch that doesn't get the word."
American and Soviet archival records demonstrate that the "eyeball to eyeball" moment never actually happened, at least not in the way imagined by Kennedy and his aides and depicted in numerous books and movies. Khrushchev had already decided, more than twenty-four hours before, not to risk a confrontation with the U.S. Navy on the high seas. But the imagery was easily understandable by journalists, historians, and political scientists, and lent itself naturally to dramatic re-creation. It became a staple part of the popular understanding of the missile crisis. By contrast, the much more dangerous "sonofabitch moment" has received relatively little scholarly attention. Most books on the missile crisis fail to even mention the name of Chuck Maultsby; others summarize his overflight of the Chukot Peninsula in one or two paragraphs.
This lack of attention is partly due to the dearth of historical data. Despite more than two years of Freedom of Information Act requests, the U.S. Air Force has yet to release a single document shedding any light on one of the most embarrassing incidents in the history of the Strategic Air Command. The official history of Maultsby's unit, the 4080th Strategic Wing, for October 1962, is almost comically evasive. It lists his sortie as one of forty-two U-2 high-altitude air-sampling missions that month that were "100 per cent successful." Only a government records keeper benefiting from the cloak of secrecy would dare use such bureaucratic nonsense to describe a nine-hundred-mile navigational error that caused alarms to go off from Moscow to Washington and might conceivably have provoked World War III.
The focus on the test of wills between Kennedy and Khrushchev at the expense of the chaotic vagaries of history was unfortunate. The missile crisis came to be viewed as an exemplary example of international crisis management. According to Bartlett and Alsop, the peaceful outcome of the Cuban crisis inspired "an inner sense of confidence among the handful of men with the next-to-ultimate responsibility." The president's men began to believe their own version of history. Confidence turned into hubris. JFK had ignored the advice of his own military experts, but had nevertheless won a great victory by sending carefully calibrated signals to the leader of the rival superpower. It did not occur to anybody that many of these messages were misinterpreted in Moscow, or that Khrushchev responded to imaginary signals, such as the mistaken belief that Kennedy would shortly go on television to announce an attack on Cuba. The success of the strategy was justification enough.
The most pernicious consequences of the new foreign policy mind-set--the notion that the United States could force the rest of the world to do its bidding through a finely calibrated combination of "toughness and restraint"--played out in Vietnam. The whiz kids around McNamara came up with a policy of "progressive squeeze-and-talk" to bring the North Vietnamese Communists to their senses. The objective was not to defeat the North but to use American airpower to send signals of intent to Hanoi, much as JFK had used the quarantine of Cuba to send a signal of determination to Khrushchev. The defense intellectuals in the Pentagon gamed out a series of moves and countermoves that demonstrated the futility of Hanoi's continued defiance of the vastly superior might of the United States. A bombing campaign known as Rolling Thunder got under way in March 1965. But the North Vietnamese leaders were unfamiliar with game theory as taught at Harvard and promoted by RAND Corporation. They failed to behave in a "logical" manner and ignored the signals from Washington. Instead of backing down, they matched the United States escalation for escalation.
According to Clark Clifford, McNamara's successor as secretary of defense, the architects of the Vietnam War were "deeply influenced by the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis." They thought that concepts like "flexible response" and "controlled escalation" had helped Kennedy prevail over Khrushchev--and would work equally well in Vietnam. "Their success in handling a nuclear showdown with Moscow had created a feeling that no nation as small and backward as North Vietnam could stand up to the power of the U.S.," Clifford explained. "They possessed a misplaced belief that American power could not be successfully challenged, no matter what the circumstances, anywhere in the world."
A former American ambassador to Saigon, Fritz Nolting, remarked on the overconfidence of McNamara and his colleagues in similar terms. "Very gung-ho fellows," he recalled in an interview for a 1978 book. "Wanting to get things straightened up in a hurry, clean up the mess. We've got the power and we've got the know-how and we can do it. I remember on one occasion cautioning Bob McNamara that it was difficult, if not impossible, to put a Ford engine into a Vietnamese ox-cart."
"What did he say?" the interviewer wanted to know.
"He agreed, but he said 'we can do it.'"
A somewhat different--but equally mistaken--lesson from the Cuban missile crisis was drawn by modern-day neoconservatives. In planning for the war in Iraq, they shared the conceit that the political will of the president of the United States trumps all other considerations. They were fervent believers in the "eyeball to eyeball" version of history. But they took the argument one step further. In a speech in Cincinnati in October 2002 shortly before the Iraq war, President George W. Bush praised JFK for being willing to resort to force to eliminate a new kind of peril (the "mushroom cloud") to the American homeland. He cited with approval Kennedy's statement on October 22, 1962, that "we no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of nuclear weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril." In effect, Bush was crediting JFK as the authority for junking the Cold War strategy of "containment" that had been in effect for more than half a century. What he omitted to say was that his predecessor stubbornly resisted calls from some of his closest advisers for a military solution. The results of the shift in American foreign policy from deterrence to preemption soon became visible in Iraq.
The hubris displayed by Bush administration officials in Iraq is reminiscent of the "best and the brightest" in the aftermath of the missile crisis. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believed that the traditional rules of warfare had been superseded by technological advances and "shock and awe." He used the condescending remark, "Stuff happens," to dismiss early signs of anarchy on the streets of Baghdad. Convinced of America's unchallengeable military superiority, Rumsfeld had little patience with the notion that everything can be screwed up by "some sonofabitch." Like his Vietnam-era predecessor, he was a "gung-ho fellow" with a "can-do" mentality.
Writing about the past, Arthur Schlesinger observed, is a way of writing about the present. We reinterpret history through the prism of present-day events and controversies. When we look back on those thirteen tumultuous days in October 1962, we view them with the knowledge of everything that has happened since: Vietnam, the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Future historians will examine the missile crisis from still different vantage points.
Consider the question of winners and losers. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, most people, certainly most Americans, would probably have singled Kennedy out as the big winner. He achieved his basic objective--the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba--without plunging the world into a catastrophic war. The big loser, at least in his own mind, was Fidel Castro. His views had counted for little. He learned of Khrushchev's decision to withdraw the missiles over the radio, and was so furious that he smashed a mirror. Cuba was merely a pawn in the superpower confrontation. And yet, in a perverse way, the missile crisis guaranteed Castro's hold on power in Cuba for more than four decades. Little over a year after his greatest foreign policy triumph, Kennedy was dead, murdered by a Fair Play for Cuba activist. A year later, Khrushchev was gone too, in part because of his Cuban adventure. Castro was the great survivor.
As the years went by, it became clear that Kennedy's missile crisis victory had produced many unintended consequences. One was an escalation in the Cold War arms race as Soviet leaders sought to erase the memory of the Cuban humiliation. "You got away with it this time, but you will never get away with it again," the Soviet deputy foreign minister, Vasily Kuznetsov, told a senior American official shortly after the removal of the Soviet missiles. The Soviet Union would never again allow itself to be in a position of strategic inferiority. In order to achieve military parity with the United States, Khrushchev's successors embarked on a vast intercontinental ballistic missile program.
In yet another twist to history, this huge military buildup was one of the principal reasons for the Soviet Union's ultimate demise. Even a fabulously rich country, with huge natural resources, could not sustain the burden of ever-increasing military budgets. The free world led by the United States eventually won a victory over the totalitarian world of Soviet communism--but it came about in a different manner than many people expected.
The missile crisis marked a turning point in the debate over whether a nuclear war was winnable. Prior to October 1962, an influential group of generals headed by Curtis LeMay had favored a first strike against the Soviet Union. After the missile crisis, even the generals had to rethink the notion of Cold War victory. Killing all the Communists was obviously impossible without millions of Americans being killed as well. The United States and the Soviet Union would never again become involved in a direct military confrontation of the scale and intensity of the Cuban conflict. There would be many proxy wars--in Vietnam, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere--but no wars or even near wars pitting American troops directly against Soviet troops.
The impossibility of military victory had the salutary effect of shifting the superpower competition to other areas, in most of which America enjoyed a comparative advantage. Countries that successfully resisted the military might of the United States--Vietnam is the most obvious example--ended up adopting free market economic systems and opening up to the outside world. Cuba is a notable exception to this trend. In his own mind, Castro won a great victory over the yanqui enemy merely by remaining in power for so long. In reality, he transformed the most prosperous island in the Caribbean into a defeated, impoverished country stuck in a fifties time warp. You only have to travel to Havana from Miami to understand who are the victors and who are the vanquished.
The most enduring lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is that, in a world with nuclear weapons, a classic military victory is an illusion. Communism was not defeated militarily; it was defeated economically, culturally, and ideologically. Khrushchev's successors were unable to provide their own people with a basic level of material prosperity and spiritual fulfillment. They lost the war of ideas. In the end, as I have argued in Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, communism defeated itself.
From today's perspective, the key moment of the missile crisis is not the largely mythical "eyeball to eyeball" confrontation of October 24. It turns out that the two great adversaries--Kennedy and Khrushchev--were both looking for a way out. They each had the power to blow up the world, but they were both horrified by the thought of nuclear Armageddon. They were rational, intelligent, decent men separated by an ocean of misunderstanding, fear, and ideological suspicion. Despite everything that divided them, they had a sneaking sympathy for each other, an idea expressed most poignantly by Jackie Kennedy in a private, handwritten letter she sent to Khrushchev following her husband's assassination:
You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the need for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride.
The real danger of war in October 1962, we can now see, came not from the "big men" but from the "little men." It was symbolized by the "sonofabitch moment" on Black Saturday when events seemed to be spiraling out of control. To use Rumsfeld's expression, "stuff" was happening all over the place. Nobody could predict where the next incident would occur or where it would all lead. JFK's great virtue, and the essential difference between him and George W. Bush, was that he had an instinctive appreciation for the chaotic forces of history. His experience as a junior Navy officer in World War II had taught him to expect screwups. He knew that the commander in chief cannot possibly control everything on the battlefield, no matter how much information is flowing into the White House.
The fact that the two opposing sides were armed with nuclear weapons served as an additional constraint on Kennedy. The nightmare haunting JFK was that a small incident, such as an exchange of fire between a U.S. warship and a Soviet submarine, would cause the deaths of tens of millions of people. It was sobering to think that a single Soviet nuclear warhead landing on an American city could result in more than half a million casualties, double the number of casualties of the Civil War.
Bismarck defined political intuition as the ability to hear, before anybody else, "the distant hoofbeats of history." Kennedy was surely listening acutely to the hoofbeats as the debate raged around him in the Cabinet Room on Black Saturday over the damage that could be done to NATO by giving up the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. His aides thought in political-military terms; he thought in historical terms. He knew that he had to call Khrushchev's bluff, or the balance of power between Washington and Moscow would be permanently altered. But he also understood, better than anyone else in the room, that future generations would never forgive him if he failed to do everything he could to prevent a nuclear war.
The Cuban missile crisis demonstrates the sometimes pivotal role of personality in politics. Character counts. Had someone else been president in October 1962, the outcome could have been very different. Bobby Kennedy would later note that the dozen senior advisers who took part in the ExComm debates were all "bright and energetic...amongst the most able people in the country." Nevertheless, in RFK's view, "if any of half a dozen of them were president, the world would have been very likely plunged in a catastrophic war." He based that conclusion on the knowledge that nearly half the ExComm had favored bombing the missile sites on Cuba, a step that probably would have led to an American invasion of the island.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is impossible to know what would have happened had JFK followed the advice of the hawks. It is conceivable that Khrushchev would have swallowed the humiliation. It is possible that he would have lashed out in Berlin or elsewhere. It is also conceivable that Soviet commanders on Cuba would have used tactical nuclear weapons to defend themselves, whatever their instructions from Moscow. A breakdown in military communications would have effectively devolved control over such weapons to the captains and majors who commanded each individual battery. We have seen how it would have taken just a few minutes to fire a nuclear-tipped cruise missile into the Guantanamo Naval Base. Had such an attack occurred, Kennedy would have been under enormous pressure to order a nuclear response. It would have been difficult to confine a nuclear war to Cuba.
There was much that Kennedy and his advisers did not know about Soviet military capabilities on Cuba. They exaggerated some threats and underestimated others. There were many intelligence failures, along with some noteworthy successes. After playing down the threat, the CIA discovered the construction of the missile sites in the knick of time, and predicted fairly accurately when each site would become operational. But the presence of tactical nuclear weapons on the island would remain a closely held Kremlin secret for more than three decades. The CIA believed there were between six thousand and eight thousand Soviet "advisers" on the island. In fact, there were more than forty thousand Soviet soldiers on Cuba, including at least ten thousand highly trained combat troops.
Reviewing this record, one is struck, above all, by the corrosive effects of conventional wisdom. The problem was not so much with the collection of intelligence as with its interpretation and analysis. Eyewitness reports of giant tubes being unloaded from Soviet ships were dismissed because they were at variance with the official CIA estimate that the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba was "incompatible with Soviet practice to date." A postmortem later blamed the "near-total intelligence surprise" on "a malfunction of the analytic process." It was a similar story with the principal nuclear warhead storage center at Bejucal. Numerous photographs were taken of the bunker, along with nuclear warhead vans and cranes parked nearby. The analysts dismissed the site from serious consideration because it was protected by a single security fence, in contrast to the multiple fences and guard posts visible at similar installations in the Soviet Union.
Knowing what we now know, it is hard to quarrel with JFK's decision to go with a blockade of Cuba rather than an air strike leading to a possible invasion. He was surely justified in not taking the risk of provoking the Soviets into what McNamara called "a spasm response." We can only be grateful for his restraint. For all his personal flaws and political mistakes, perhaps in part because of them, Jack Kennedy cuts a very human figure. At a time when politicians were routinely demonizing the other side, he reminded Americans what they had in common with Russians. "We all inhabit this same planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal." Kennedy's humanity was his--and our--saving grace.
Of course, Kennedy had his critics. One of the most eloquent was former secretary of state Dean Acheson, who took part in some of the early ExComm debates. The grand old man of the Truman administration was appalled by the unstructured nature of the sessions, more reminiscent of a freewheeling academic seminar than a presidential council of war. He favored targeted air strikes against the missile sites to eliminate the threat and dismissed fears that this would kill thousands of Soviet technicians as "emotional dialectics." Acheson attributed the peaceful outcome of the crisis to "plain dumb luck."
This is unfair. The story of the missile crisis is replete with misunderstandings and miscalculations. But something more than "dumb luck" was involved in sidestepping a nuclear apocalypse. The real good fortune is that men as sane and level-headed as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev occupied the White House and the Kremlin in October 1962.