In the vast and growing body of literature on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the installation of Soviet warheads on the island elicited fears of nuclear war, there is barely a mention of the influence that US domestic politics may have had on the course of events. Theodore Voorhees’s study is different. He highlights the all-important fact that in October 1962 John F. Kennedy was about to face congressional midterm elections. The results would determine the fate of his presidency, as well as his prospects for re-election in 1964. Kennedy’s New Frontier domestic agenda – which promised a huge house-building programme, an increase in the minimum wage, affirmative action for federal jobs and equal employment rights for women – was hopelessly stalled in Congress. His poll numbers were sinking. It didn’t help that in 1960 he had run on a militantly hawkish platform, and since taking office had lavished money on the military on the spurious premise that Eisenhower had allowed the Soviets to gain superiority, the infamous ‘missile gap’. So he was especially vulnerable to Republican charges of weakness over the supposed danger of Cuba, a Soviet ally just ninety miles from Florida.
Kennedy was perfectly aware that nuclear missiles in Cuba posed no real threat to national security, even if they slightly narrowed America’s enormous lead in weapons capable of reaching the other’s homeland. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had told him that a US nuclear attack would obliterate Soviet society but the inevitable retaliation might still kill as many as fifteen million Americans. War with the USSR was therefore out of the question. ‘What difference does it make?’ Kennedy said on 16 October 1962, the day he was presented with photographic evidence of the Cuban rockets. ‘They’ve got enough to blow us up anyway.’ But the presence of an enemy nuclear base in America’s backyard nonetheless threatened him with political disaster. He dealt with the problem by making a deal with Khrushchev, behind the backs of most of his senior advisers, to withdraw US missiles from Turkey in return for a similar Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. The deal remained buried in secrecy long after Kennedy was dead.
For years, the accepted history of the crisis held that the young president faced down the Soviets’ reckless gamble with calm and unyielding resolve. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who knew better, summarised it: ‘The other guy blinked.’ This version stood unchallenged not least because it was sanctioned by Kennedy himself in mendacious leaks to favoured journalists and then set in stone in his younger brother’s dramatic narrative, Thirteen Days. Bobby Kennedy’s posthumously published account, which made much of his own role as a voice of reason, was buttressed by hagiographers of the Kennedy court, notably Arthur Schlesinger, the president’s special aide, and Ted Sorensen, his main speechwriter. Graham Allison’s 1972 study of the affair, Essence of Decision, largely sourced from those accounts, attained the status of holy writ in international relations courses, raising a generation of political scientists on the ‘bureaucratic model’ of foreign policy decision-making.
Unfortunately for these confident narratives, Kennedy had secretly installed a taping system in various White House offices and covertly recorded the meetings of the National Security Council’s executive committee throughout the crisis. With the probable exception of Bobby Kennedy, then attorney general, none of the members, including the secretaries of state and defence, knew they were being recorded. Fully declassified, accurately transcribed and finally released in the late 1990s, this indisputable record revealed that all previous insider accounts were both wrong and self-serving. Far from being the voice of reason, Bobby Kennedy had been belligerent to an almost hysterical degree, urging not only attacks on the offending missile sites but a full-scale invasion of Cuba – even though, as his own diaries show, he knew that the crisis was already on the way to being resolved through accommodation with the Soviets. Sorensen chose to suppress the story of the missile swap, as he later confessed, when he edited Thirteen Days following Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, lest it expose the lies of so many of the participants, including Sorensen himself.
In reality, Kennedy was making the key decisions well away from the recorded meetings and communicating directly with Moscow outside the official US diplomatic apparatus. Had he been less ignorant of history, Donald Trump, harassed for much of his term by Democratic accusations of collusion with Vladimir Putin, might have made hay with the fact that Kennedy had been on close enough terms with a Soviet intelligence agent to employ him as a secret go-between. Georgi Bolshakov was a colonel in Soviet military intelligence working in Washington under cover as a journalist. Friendly enough with Bobby Kennedy to spend time at his home outside Washington playing with his children, Bolshakov was an emissary in discussions between the leaders on the ways in which Khrushchev might adjust Soviet policy to help Kennedy in the November elections. At the end of July 1962, with his poll numbers worsening, Kennedy met Bolshakov in the Oval Office and agreed to Khrushchev’s offer to relax tensions over the Cold War flashpoint of West Berlin. In exchange, Kennedy pledged to end aerial reconnaissance of Soviet ships en route to Cuba, ships which were almost certainly carrying military supplies.
The proposed deal shows how understanding the leaders of opposing superpowers can be when it comes to each other’s political priorities. Voorhees cites an instructive precedent from World War Two. At a meeting in Tehran in 1943, Roosevelt openly appealed to Stalin to allow the people of Poland, soon to fall under Soviet control, to decide their own future. At first, this cut no ice with Stalin. But then Roosevelt came clean, explaining in private that in his campaign for re-election the following year he ‘did not want to lose the vote’ of the millions of Americans of Polish extraction. Stalin sympathised, and agreed to keep his plans for Poland under wraps for the time being. Historians have tended to mention this exchange only in passing, despite the confirmation it provides that issues of foreign policy when divorced from domestic power had little relevance for such supremely professional politicians.
This kind of realpolitik requires a high level of trust. Here again, the relationship with Bolshakov is telling. According to Aleksei Adzhubei, Khrushchev’s son-in-law and adviser, Kennedy ejected his press secretary and the official state department interpreter from a meeting in the Oval Office in January 1962, relying on Bolshakov to translate. While the Americans were still in the room the president was speaking ‘with a completely different tongue’ and was ‘visibly more tense’. Kennedy was conscious that everyone in Washington, inside and outside his administration, had their own agendas, including officials he had personally selected. As US reconnaissance detected signs of the accelerating Soviet military build-up in Cuba, Kennedy ordered that the intelligence be ever more tightly restricted, blaming ‘those CIA bastards’ for leaks to his Republican enemies: ‘I’m going to get them if it’s the last thing I ever do.’
Kennedy believed that the Soviet presence in Cuba was a manageable political problem, because Khrushchev’s emissaries had assured him that the armament was purely ‘defensive’. ‘Defensive’ is of course a subjective term: when Khrushchev had earlier complained about American nuclear bases close to the USSR’s borders, he too was told they were ‘defensive, not aggressive’. The ominous political implications of the reconnaissance photographs of Cuba appear to have caused Kennedy briefly to consider a direct attack on the missile sites. But the mood soon passed. Within a few days he settled on the more pacific course of a naval blockade to stop further Soviet military supplies reaching Cuba – the minimum action he could get away with politically. The following day Bobby, via Bolshakov, suggested the idea of the missile exchange to the Soviet government.
Kennedy didn’t lose sight of his own political priorities, as demonstrated by campaign trips to support his party’s candidates in the mid-terms even as the situation grew more intense. Orthodox historians of the crisis tend to describe such excursions as the president ‘keeping up appearances’ in order not to excite public alarm. But this misses the point: for Kennedy, the crisis was entirely about politics. His targeted states included Indiana, where a Republican senator, Homer Capehart, had based his re-election campaign on the demand to ‘crack down on Cuba’. Kennedy denounced Capehart and his allies as ‘self-appointed generals and admirals who want to send someone else’s sons to war’. He must have been encouraged by polls indicating that, by a slim margin, Americans believed that an attack on Cuba would lead to World War Three.
Like Kennedy, Khrushchev sought to exit the crisis as quickly and peacefully as possible. He had apparently assumed that Kennedy would accept the presence of the ‘defensive’ missiles, which he planned to unveil after the US elections, as a fait accompli, just as he himself had accepted the American missiles on the borders of the USSR. But when the president went public about his discovery of the missiles and his retaliatory blockade, Khrushchev knew he had badly miscalculated. He moved to cut his losses with an offer, conveyed through yet another unofficial go-between, to withdraw his missiles in return for a US pledge not to invade Cuba. Both leaders were equally anxious to make the crisis go away and each mooted more generous concessions than the other side was demanding.
Kennedy had prior experience in privately negotiating his way out of a crisis with Khrushchev. In October 1961 Khrushchev had threatened to upset the postwar agreements on Berlin, which was divided between Western and Soviet control. Pentagon officials responded with plans for military confrontation, up to and including a ‘limited’ nuclear strike, but started by deploying tanks at the east-west crossing point in the city. They were quickly matched by Soviet tanks a short distance away on the other side. Kennedy issued the requisite trenchant public statements and authorised the Pentagon to publicise America’s enormous numerical superiority in nuclear armaments. Meanwhile he deployed his brother to send a message to Khrushchev via the dependable Bolshakov offering to satisfy the Soviets’ most basic demand – that US civilian officials not travel into East Berlin – so long as the Russian tanks retreated first. Events proceeded as suggested and the tanks moved away, a denouement still usually characterised as ‘Khrushchev backed down.’ As Voorhees puts it, ‘the president needed to come out looking like the winner,’ whatever the reality.
A year on, Kennedy sought a similar outcome, but this time faced more formidable political obstacles. Left to himself, as he admits in a private conversation with his brother recorded on the secret tapes, he would have preferred to take no action over the missiles beyond diplomatic protests. But that was politically impossible – ‘they would have moved to impeach me’ – so he ordered the blockade. In the same conversation the brothers made elliptical reference to the covert communication launched that day with Bolshakov about the proposed missile swap. Security officials had refused to take the idea seriously and were instead formulating increasingly aggressive plans. On 19 October the military service chiefs confronted Kennedy with demands for an immediate attack on Cuba by land, sea and air.
The most hawkish among them, the air force chief of staff, Curtis LeMay, who had made his name incinerating hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians during the war, openly taunted Kennedy with a reference to his father’s record of appeasement at the time of the Munich Agreement. The Pentagon’s eagerness for war was echoed by Democratic congressional leaders, including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and leader of the Southern segregationist bloc, Richard Russell, to whom Vice President Lyndon Johnson was leaking news from National Security Council meetings. The defence secretary, Robert McNamara, who had initially advocated a moderate course, soon swung in line behind his uniformed colleagues, and gave the moronic authorisation for a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine to be bombarded with ‘practice’ depth charges.
But Kennedy stayed the course. While continuing publicly to endorse a massive military build-up he was secretly finalising the missile swap agreement. Khrushchev accepted his promise of US missile withdrawal from Turkey. Kennedy went further, too, withdrawing missiles from Italy, even though this was something the Soviets had never asked for. Khrushchev agreed to abide by Kennedy’s demand, vitally important to him politically, that the missile exchange would remain secret and never committed to writing. He was duly rewarded in the elections the following month, the Democrats adding four seats to their Senate majority, including the one formerly held by Homer Capehart.
Voorhees argues convincingly that there was never any real danger of war, since Kennedy and Khrushchev were equally determined to avoid one, and both were so dominant domestically that they could ensure it didn’t happen. This conclusion is unlikely to disturb the consensus among historians that the world was on the brink of nuclear war. Serhii Plokhy certainly subscribes to the view that Armageddon was avoided by the narrowest of flukes. In Nuclear Folly, he describes the dangerous delegation of launch authority for tactical nuclear weapons to Soviet commanders in the field. In hair-raising fashion he also embellishes the familiar story of how a Soviet submarine came close to launching a ten kiloton nuclear torpedo at an American destroyer, desisting only because an officer happened to notice a placatory signal from the US ship. More seriously, he seems to believe that Kennedy was set on military action for much of the time, a conclusion clearly belied by the record. He also suggests that McNamara was a voice of sage and moderate counsel throughout. But a more accurate account is provided by Sheldon Stern, a former historian at the Kennedy Library who knows the tapes better than anyone. His wicked little book from 2012, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory, pitilessly tracks the defence secretary’s emotional lurches between moderation and belligerence.
Plokhy does recount many novel and arresting details of what it was actually like for the unfortunate Soviet soldiers and sailors charged with getting themselves and their deadly armoury into position in Cuba. Their success in manoeuvring sixty-foot missiles down farm tracks and village lanes was a triumph in itself, not to mention the surreptitious transport into Cuba of more than forty thousand troops, sweltering below decks in overcrowded ships, without detection by the CIA, who believed that only a fraction of the number were in place. But Plokhy has little to say about the underlying politics of the affair. Indifference to domestic context among foreign affairs commentators is especially common when authoritarian regimes are concerned. Yet diligent inquiry suggests that foreign policy is just as much an instrument of domestic politics when the whims of an electorate aren’t a leader’s concern. As Richard Anderson, a former CIA officer who works on Soviet and post-Soviet politics at UCLA, once said to me: ‘To exercise power, you have to have supporters, whether they vote or not. Foreign policy is a way of buying support.’
There are some clues as to why Khrushchev felt his huge and expensive Cuban military initiative was necessary for his own survival. He had sought to assuage the disquiet of the Soviet military over cuts in army numbers by promising to develop a new intercontinental nuclear missile force, production of which was entrusted to his favoured supporter, Leonid Brezhnev. But Brezhnev failed to deliver. Only a very few of the huge new rockets – rife with technical problems – were built and deployed. Brezhnev was duly removed from his position as head of the Soviet defence apparatus in May 1960, and assigned a ceremonial post. Khrushchev’s Cuban gambit to adjust the nuclear balance, however marginally, with a few medium-range missiles capable of striking the American homeland therefore made sense in terms of reasserting control over the powerful defence sector. ‘Politics stops at the water’s edge,’ Senator Arthur Vandenberg said when urging bipartisan support for the creation of Nato, as if when it came to foreign policy domestic concerns were beside the point. But often they’re exactly the point, and the politics never stop.