And after we’ve struck Cuba?

Thomas Powers

  • The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow
    Harvard, 728 pp, £23.50, October 1997, ISBN 0 674 17926 9
  • ‘One Hell of a Gamble’: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali
    Murray, 420 pp, £25.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 7195 5518 3

October 1962 was not August 1914 because John Kennedy had learned the lessons of Munich, which may be summarised as follows: get angry in private, think before you speak, say what you want, make clear what you’re prepared to do, ignore bluster, repeat yourself as often as necessary and keep the pressure on. Where Kennedy learned the mixture of forbearance and resolution which lies at the heart of international peace and good marriages is a mystery; his mother and father were no better at solving problems than Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. But two new books about the Cuban missile crisis show how, in a pinch, Kennedy managed to keep a serious argument from slipping out of control.

In retrospect it seems clear that the moment of maximum danger probably came in the first two or three days of the crisis, which began with the American discovery on Monday, 15 October 1962 of unmistakable evidence that the Soviet Union was building launch facilities in western Cuba for ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads. But in the course of a week of intense discussions in the White House, Kennedy and his advisers gradually turned away from proposals for an out-of-the-blue bombing raid on the missile sites and settled instead for a blockade of the island (soothingly called a ‘quarantine’) by the American Navy with an unspecified promise of further action at some future but not distant moment to ensure that the offending missiles would be ‘removed’ – either crated up and shipped back home or, if necessary, destroyed.

It was during this week, and especially during the first few days, that the fundamental question – war or peace? – was resolved. What tilted the balance was the passage of time and the nature of the discussion among Kennedy and his advisers – not the arguments themselves, but the manner in which they were conducted. Yet this emerges only tangentially and incidentally in these two books, both of which aspire to, and achieve, a breathtaking completeness in recounting what happened. It is between the lines that we can detect the peace being preserved. But what happened comes first.

The world at large learned simultaneously about the missiles and the American response from Kennedy’s speech on the evening of Monday 22 October and immediately feared the worst. Contemporary memoirs are filled with the desperate thoughts and plans of panic-stricken citizens who felt the end was near. The story which sticks in my mind was told to me by Victor Weisskopf, whose friend, the physicist Leo Szilard, carrying his worldly belongings in a single suitcase, appeared on Weisskopf’s doorstep in Switzerland within 24 hours of Kennedy’s speech and solemnly announced: ‘I am the first refugee of World War Three.’ Szilard could be forgiven. Kennedy had issued a harsh demand and was plainly ready to back it up with military force. Would Khrushchev bend the knee and slink away, or call what he had ample reason – the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall – to suppose was only the young President’s bluff?

The crisis in the Cuban missile crisis ended halfway into the second day – Wednesday 24 October – when a meeting between Kennedy and his advisers was interrupted by a report that six Soviet ships had stopped in mid-ocean rather than challenge the American quarantine. It took a few minutes for the news, delivered by John McCone of the CIA, to sink in. A tape-recording of the meeting includes a muffled remark followed by a bark of laughter from the National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy. It was probably at that moment, according to the editors of The Kennedy Tapes, that the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, had leaned over to Bundy and whispered: ‘We’re eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.’

The racing of the public heart did not immediately abate during the following weeks of high-level talk and breathless newspaper headlines, but from that moment, Kennedy and his advisers knew that Khrushchev and his advisers had grasped and accepted the fateful truth of the correlation of forces: while Khrushchev could have chosen global war, he did not have the means to protect his ships at sea or his military forces in Cuba. Once it was absolutely clear that Kennedy meant to do what he said – remove the missiles one way or another – Khrushchev was quick to see he had to give in.

The big secrets of the American half of the Cuban missile crisis have long been known, but what the Russians were thinking and doing had to wait for the collapse of the Soviet state. There are many surprises in ‘One Hell of a Gamble’, especially about the weird reporting of the KGB as Russia’s steadily growing support for Castro’s revolution brought anxiety in Washington slowly to the boil. But two major unknowns remain: why Khrushchev decided to make such a bold gamble in the first place, and with whom, if anyone, he discussed his prompt decision to cut his losses once the quarantine was in place. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali have had access to the minutes of meetings of the Presidium, the collegial body which ran the Soviet Government, but nothing recorded on Thursday 25 October explains Khrushchev’s brisk decision to quit exchanging ‘caustic remarks’ with Kennedy. ‘We must dismantle the missiles to make Cuba into a zone of peace,’ he said, suggesting that maybe the Americans would in return ‘give us a pledge not to invade Cuba’. In any event, it was ‘correct and reasonable’ to back off.

Gromyko, the Foreign Minister, and Malinovsky, the Defence Minister, said little. The very same Presidium which had approved Khrushchev’s proposal in April – ‘Why not throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants?’ Khrushchev had asked – now voted to reverse itself almost without debate. When he came to write his memoirs Khrushchev claimed that Kennedy’s no-invasion pledge, soon given, made the missile gamble a huge success, but his colleagues evidently didn’t take the same view, and when they got rid of him in 1964, they spoke of his dangerous ‘adventurism’.

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