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’.

One Hell of a Gamble’ tells the whole story of the Soviet-American conflict over Cuba from the moment Castro’s revolution triumphed in Havana on New Year’s Day 1959, through his courtship dance with the Communists, the embrace of Moscow, the repeated invasion scares culminating in the CIA-mounted failure at the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev’s decision to put missiles on the island, the American discovery of the missiles and the crisis which prompted their removal. During all this time Cuba was consistently overshadowed by the still more volatile conflict summed up in the word ‘Berlin’ – the crisis of Communist authority (and of Russian prestige) represented by the tide of East German refugees escaping to the West through the jointly-occupied capital.

On the one hand, Western powers were committed to maintaining their presence in the divided city, as had been agreed during the war. On the other, Khrushchev threatened measures which carried a real danger of aggression if the city was not handed over to the Russians, who could then pinch off the humiliating spectacle of East Germans voting with their feet. Failure to staunch the flow in Berlin meant all the East Germans would leave, the state would collapse, and the Russian presence in Central Europe would stand revealed for the military occupation that it was. Almost everything Khrushchev did during the years 1959-62 was intended to help resolve his Berlin problem. Kennedy’s timidity at the Bay of Pigs, when he permitted an invasion but denied it the air support required for success, was widely believed to have encouraged Khrushchev’s bullying treatment at the Vienna summit later that spring, and his gamble in August when the Russians divided Berlin, first with barbed wire and then with a wall, guard towers, landmines and orders to shoot to kill. Throughout the Cuban missile crisis Kennedy and his advisers kept looking for the Berlin angle, the sudden move, perhaps even a Russian seizure of the city, which would confront Kennedy with the truly agonising choice of sticking to the stated Allied policy of defending Berlin with nuclear weapons, which meant global nuclear war; or letting Berlin go, which would serve notice on America’s partners that her promises were sometime things, thereby encouraging further Russian provocations, much as Munich had encouraged Hitler, with similar consequences down the road. The biggest surprise of the Cuban missile crisis for Kennedy and his advisers was not Khrushchev’s willingness to take the risk, but the fact that the entire drama played out without Berlin ever coming up.

All of this, and much more, is explained in both The Kennedy Tapes and ‘One Hell of a Gamble’. A good deal of new material about Russian intelligence during the Cold War has been published in the last few years but the authors of ‘One Hell of a Gamble’ were apparently given access to the archives on an altogether grander scale. The result is an unusually comprehensive and rich account of the inner workings of the Soviet Government during a moment of crisis. The principal Soviet intelligence organisations – the civilian KGB and the military GRU – are everywhere apparent, but their role is sometimes troubling in unexpected ways. Khrushchev may have read but certainly did not register a July 1960 KGB warning that only two things could really be counted on to prompt a full-scale US intervention in Cuba: an attack on the American naval base at Guantánamo, or the siting of Soviet missiles on the island. Two years later, when Khrushchev decided on the second, he seems never to have asked for a KGB opinion on how the Americans might respond. The KGB, for its part, was sometimes guilty of having a tin ear when it came to separating the intelligence wheat from the chaff. For example, a June 1960 report from the head of the KGB, Aleksandr Shelepin, addressed to Khrushchev personally, baldly claimed: ‘In the CIA it is known that the leadership of the Pentagon is convinced of the need to initiate a war with the Soviet Union “as soon as possible”.’ Not to be outdone, the GRU reported in March 1962 that an American plan for an out-of-the-blue nuclear attack on the Soviet Union the previous September had been foiled by the Soviet resumption of nuclear testing.

Both claims are completely without foundation but Fursenko and Naftali uncover no scepticism (nor any surprise or alarm, for that matter) on the part of the Soviet leaders privy to these extraordinary reports. The Americans, too, had unruly fears. In June 1962 Robert Kennedy asked a Russian confidant whom he rightly thought to be an officer in the KGB: ‘Tell me Georgi, is there anyone in the Soviet leadership who advocates a decisive clash with the United States?’ The meeting and the question were reported to Moscow by the Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. A true answer would have been that Khrushchev certainly wanted a little more give, but no clash, decisive or otherwise.

As the Cuban missile sites were readied in October Khrushchev must have felt he was going to get away with it. Kenneth Keating, a Republican senator, delivered garbled warnings about Soviet offensive weapons in his speeches but the Administration seemed unconcerned. In a cable to the Kremlin, Gromyko reported a certain tension during a meeting with Kennedy on 18 October but he told his boss, ‘the situation in general is wholly satisfactory.’ That weekend the GRU picked up signals of American military activity but sounded no alarm. Khrushchev was unprepared for the news that Kennedy would give an unscheduled talk on prime-time television a few hours later. He called a meeting of the Presidium to consider what the US might be planning and how Russia should respond. Fear and panic were apparent in the room. ‘This may end in a big war,’ Khrushchev gloomily observed. Malinovsky urged calm and argued against giving Russian commanders in Cuba the authority to use nuclear weapons at will, saying he thought Kennedy’s talk might only be ‘a pre-election trick’.

An American air attack at that moment – something which virtually all of Kennedy’s advisers had vigorously urged only a week earlier – would almost certainly have triggered a Russian military response and things might well have progressed rapidly to the only war ever named in advance: World War Three. What saved us emerges gradually in the course of the gruelling seven hundred pages of verbatim transcripts of the meetings of Kennedy and his advisers, published for the first time in The Kennedy Tapes.

Ernest May and Philip Zelikow have convincingly placed the White House deliberations within the political and military context of the missile crisis itself. To this they have added a brilliant account of the shared assumptions which Kennedy and his advisers brought to their discussions: what they took to be the lessons of Munich; their reading of what worked or failed during the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War; their sense of what was at stake in Khrushchev’s challenge over Berlin. Above all, May and Zelikow have vividly captured the individual styles and mannerisms of the leading players and the way they reacted to each other. Rusk, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Bobby Kennedy and the President himself have never been better described.

That John Kennedy had installed a taping system in the White House had long been known and the missile crisis transcripts were naturally expected to unveil a whole new family of secrets about American thinking and decision-making when the world teetered on the brink. But as it turns out, there are precious few secrets in these pages and pages of material – perhaps, in the end, only one: that Presidents and their advisers when they are not under public scrutiny, communicate as much with subtle emotional signals as they do with words. How else shall we interpret the murky exchanges that go on for pages, the obsessive tongue-tied repetitions, the sentences that occasionally parse but often convey no recoverable meaning? The alleged brilliance of these men David Halberstam once called ‘the best and the brightest’ is rarely in evidence. The discussions in the week before and the week after Kennedy’s quarantine speech had none of the intellectual rigour of proper debate, nor even the rough-and-tumble but structured exchanges of the kind you hear in a courtroom. What we have is a bunch of men talking, occasionally interrupting when a colleague seems to have run aground, or interjecting a sudden insight, but otherwise calm, receptive, patient, anxious to be understood and always alert to the subtle shifts in the mood and the wishes of the President. On the whole, the men around Kennedy treated each other with respect, never resorting to sarcasm, made no effort to score points, let everyone have his say. A family counsellor sitting in on these deliberations would have beamed with approval. There were exceptions, however. General Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command, snorted contempt for anyone with second thoughts about an all-out air assault And there is a sharp exchange between the Director of the CIA, John McCone, and Bundy, as a meeting was breaking up; had the President been there both men would probably have continued to be on their best behaviour.

But the words themselves – these are the puzzle. They don’t make sense the way sermons and book reviews make sense. The protagonists seem to have no difficulty following the drift, but the reader of the transcripts 35 years later is frequently baffled. Consider the following exchange from the transcript of a meeting on Thursday 18 October, before the discovery of the missiles has been made public. McNamara and Bobby Kennedy are discussing the relative merits of a blockade and a military attack:

MCNAMARA: At the moment I lean to the blockade because I think it reduces the very serious risk of large-scale military action from which this country cannot benefit under what I call Programme Two [rapid introduction of military action], Russian roulette and a broken alliance.

[Someone echoes: Russian Roulette.]

ROBERT KENNEDY: What are the chances that you’ve got to say to him: ‘They can’t continue to build these missiles. You’re going to have to keep them flying all the time?’ Well, at night it looks a little different than it did the next morning.

MCNAMARA: Oh, he’s not going to stop building. He’s going to continue to build.

ROBERT KENNEDY: [Unclear] though, Bob?

MCNAMARA: This goes back to what you said – this type of blockade. I’m not sure you can say that.

ROBERT KENNEDY: Are you going to let him continue to build the missiles?

MCNAMARA: This goes back to what you begin to negotiate. He says: ‘I’m not going to stop building. You have them in Turkey. You’ve acted by putting the blockade on. That’s done.’

ROBERT KENNEDY: Then you let them build the missiles?

MCNAMARA: Then you talk.

AMBASSADOR LLEWELLYN THOMPSON: Is this on the assumption that he would run the blockade?

MCNAMARA: No, no. They have enough inside that they can continue the construction.

ROBERT KENNEDY: We tell them they can build as many missiles as they want?

MCNAMARA: Oh, no. What we say is: ‘We’re going to blockade you. This is a danger to us. We insist that we talk this out and the danger is removed.’

ROBERT KENNEDY: Right. But now they just go ahead and build the missiles.

MCNAMARA: [responding to an interjection] Overflights, definitely.

ROBERT KENNEDY: They put the missiles in place, and then they announce that they’ve got atomic weapons.

MCNAMARA: Sure. And we say we have them in Turkey. And we’re not going to tolerate this.

ROBERT KENNEDY: What is the relationship then between the blockade and the danger?

MCNAMARA: Well, all this time Castro is being strangled.

THOMPSON: Why wouldn’t you say that, if construction goes on, that you would …

MCNAMARA: Well, I might, I might. But that is a more dangerous form of the blockade.

GENERAL MAXWELL TAYLOR: What is your objection to taking out the missiles and the aircraft?

MCNAMARA: My real objection to it is that it kills several hundred Russians, and I [unclear]

After a few more exchanges Dean Rusk finally suggests: ‘I’ll think we’ve got to pursue this further, and, Bob, I think that perhaps we could detail Alex [Alexis Johnson] and Paul [Nitze] and Tommy [Thompson] to sketch in the body of these [unclear] – and get together as a group and …’

This exchange is elusive; its exact meaning seems to hover just out of reach. Other passages are simply incomprehensible as Kennedy’s advisers converse with each other in a semi-coherent shorthand of sentence fragments, truncated questions, vague allusions, swallowed words, repetitions, deferential nods and shrugs and miscellaneous noises of objection, assent, qualification, emphasis. There are pages so opaque and unrecoverable that it seems one could evolve a whole new perspective on spoken language as depending less on grammar and syntax than on a kind of emotional semaphore.

What becomes clear in the course of these often tedious discussions is that men in groups don’t so much try to figure things out – an intellectual process depending heavily on articulation – as feel things out: to weigh what they are planning to do, and their reasons for doing it, by consulting their gut. What Kennedy and his advisers felt in the first shock of discovery at their initial meeting on the morning of Tuesday 16 October was anger and resolution and an untroubled readiness to send the US Air Force to destroy the missiles and the launch sites, details to follow. But as the details came in, it became apparent that the hundred or so sorties at first contemplated would more likely be many hundreds or even thousands, that thousands of Russians would inevitably be killed, that at least some of the missiles were virtually certain to survive intact and that about Russia’s response and the ultimate consequences there was no telling. By the time of their second meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Kennedy’s advisers and the President himself had begun to cool.

MCNAMARA: The second thing we ought to do, it seems to me, as a government, is to consider the consequences … I don’t know quite what kind of world we live in after we’ve struck Cuba …

That idea is left hanging. There follows much back and forth of we-do-this, they-do-that. Then George Ball introduces a new phrase: ‘This coming in there, a Pearl Harbor, just frightens the hell out of me as to what goes beyond …’

BUNDY: What goes beyond what?

BALL: What happens beyond that. You go in there with a surprise attack. You put out all the missiles. This isn’t the end. This is the beginning, I think.

Pearl Harbor was invoked from time to time over the following days, as the archetype of a sneak attack which would betray America’s highest ideals and traditions, an invitation to international criticism, a bad move in the propaganda war. What was never explicitly mentioned, but seems to have been fermenting just below the level of consciousness, was the widespread American reaction to Pearl Harbor itself – the implacable fury at the killing of so many Americans and the impulse to strike back. By the afternoon of Saturday 20 October, McNamara had absorbed the point clearly and ticked it off last on his list of four advantages of a blockade over an air assault delivered without warning. This meeting was not taped; the note-taker recorded: ‘It avoids a sudden military move which might provoke a response from the USSR which could result in escalating action leading to general war.’

Another point which nagged at the group, and especially bothered Kennedy, was the difficulty they all found in explaining why Soviet missiles in Cuba justified a confrontation, but American missiles in Turkey did not. In the end the Turkish missiles were quietly added to the price America paid for Khrushchev’s removal of his own missiles in Cuba, but throughout the Kennedy group’s deliberations, the question of Turkey kept resurfacing. They knew it was different but could not immediately identify why. The reason was not pinned down until Kennedy finally delivered his speech (written by Ted Sorensen) on Monday evening, 22 October. Khrushchev’s move did not create a danger where none had existed, Kennedy conceded; Americans were already vulnerable to Soviet ICBMs, but

this secret, swift and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles – in an area well-known to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the western hemisphere, in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy – this sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil – is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe.

Khrushchev’s response to Kennedy’s speech, as reconstructed by Fursenko and Naftali, pretty much mirrored that of Kennedy and his advisers to the arrival of the missiles in Cuba: an initial bristling of anger and resolution, followed by second thoughts and cooling tempers as Khrushchev sorted out what mattered from what did not. He might have chosen war, but why? He could not win locally, in the seas around Cuba or on the island itself, and war where he was strong, in Europe, could not be contained or limited. The sensible course was to extract such concessions as he could get, and then go home.

There was a great deal of talk in the White House during the first week of the missile crisis but in the end the President made only two decisions which mattered: that he would not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba, and that he would say so in public before he did anything about it. If Kennedy had blustered but done nothing, or if he had blown the missiles and their Soviet crews sky-high in a sneak attack, all sorts of horrors might have followed. What The Kennedy Tapes offer is not more secrets – of which enough already – but the salutary example of intelligent statesmanship.

Such crises, routine at home, are rare among nations. Kennedy did not live to write his account of the lessons learned from the Cuban missile crisis, but it would probably have sounded very much like the sort of thing marriage counsellors say every day to marriage partners at the breaking point: leave your anger in the office, decide what you want, if you want to make up, say so; if it’s over, say that; draw the line and make it clear, set your limits, stick to your guns – all those common-sense things which Kennedy’s parents, like Neville Chamberlain, got completely wrong.