It was a time, in Khrushchev’s memorable phrase, “when the smell of burning hung in the air.” Robert Kennedy’s account of those thirteen days in 1962 from October 16, when he and his brother were presented with proof that the Russians were secretly building long-range missile bases in Cuba, until October 28, when the Kremlin agreed to dismantle them—shows the view from the inside by one of the key participants. Written with economy and directness, Thirteen Days is a valuable historical document with all the elements of a thriller.
This short, terse memoir—bloated by the publisher with superfluous introductions, photographs, and documents—does not, of course, tell the whole story of the missile crisis. There is a good deal about the events leading up to the crisis that is gone over too lightly or deliberately clouded over. The clash of personalities and ambivalent motives is muted and the tone rather detached. But behind the measured prose we see the spectacle of rational minds swayed by passions and the euphoria of power, governmental machinery breaking down into the struggle of individual wills, and decisions affecting the future of humanity made by a handful of men—the best of whom were not always sure they were right. A disturbing description of decision-making in the nuclear age, this posthumous work also offers a revealing glimpse of an enigmatic man who might have bridged the gap between the old politics and the new.
We have come to take the balance of terror so much for granted that it is hard to imagine any situation in which the two super-powers would actually use their terrible weapons. Yet more than once during those thirteen days it seemed as though the unthinkable might actually occur. SAC bombers were dispersed to airfields throughout the country and roamed the skies with their nuclear cargoes. At one point President Kennedy, fearful that some trigger-happy colonel might set off the spark, ordered all atomic missiles defused so that the order to fire would have to come directly from the White House.
The first showdown came on the morning of October 24, as Soviet ships approached the 500-mile quarantine line drawn around Cuba. “I felt,” Robert Kennedy wrote of those terrible moments, “we were on the edge of a precipice with no way off…. President Kennedy had initiated the course of events, but he no longer had control over them.” Faced with this blockade, the Russian ships turned back, and the first crisis was surmounted. No more missiles could get into Cuba. But what of the ones already there that Russian technicians were installing with feverish haste? President Kennedy was determined that they had to be removed immediately, and on Saturday, October 27, sent his brother to tell Soviet ambassador Dobrynin “that if they did not remove those bases, we would remove them.” The Pentagon prepared for an air strike against the bases and an invasion of Cuba. “The expectation,” Robert Kennedy wrote of that fateful Saturday, “was a military confrontation by Tuesday.”
We know, of course, how it turned out. On Sunday morning the message came through that Khrushchev would withdraw the missiles in return for a US pledge not to invade Cuba. Kennedy had pulled off the greatest coup of his career—the first, and one hopes the last, military victory of the nuclear era. Not a shot was fired, although we came a good deal closer to war than most people realized at the time, or have cared to think about since.
It was a victory not only over the Soviets, but over many of Kennedy’s own advisers who favored a more militant course from the start. The drama was played out among a hastily assembled group, which later took on the formal title of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, that met several times a day in the White House. The sessions were frequently stormy, although the lines were loosely drawn at first. Several of the participants, according to Robert Kennedy, shifted their opinion “from one extreme to the other—supporting an air attack at the beginning of the meeting and, by the time we left the White House, supporting no action at all.” A few, such as Dean Acheson and Douglas Dillon, were hawks from the start, and argued for what they euphemistically called a “surgical strike” against the air bases. They were eventually joined by John McCone, General Maxwell Taylor, Paul Nitze, and McGeorge Bundy. Favoring a more moderate course, which settled around a naval blockade to be “escalated” to an attack on the bases only if absolutely necessary, were the doves, led by Robert Kennedy and Robert McNamara, and including George Ball, Roswell Gilpatric, Llewellyn Thompson, and Robert Lovett.
Dean Rusk, for the most part, avoided taking a stand, or even attending the sessions. The Secretary of State, in Robert Kennedy’s caustic words, “had other duties during this period and frequently could not attend our meetings.” It would be interesting to know what these duties were. Robert Kennedy does not elaborate, although he does offer the further intriguing aside that “Secretary Rusk missed President Kennedy’s extremely important meeting with Prime Minister Macmillan in Nassau because of a diplomatic dinner he felt he should attend.” That was the meeting, one will remember, where President Kennedy agreed to help out Harold Macmillan (author of one of the two Introductions to this volume) on the eve of the British elections by turning over Polaris missiles to Britain after the Skybolt fiasco that had embarrassed the Tories. De Gaulle, predictably, was furious, declared that Britain still valued her trans-Atlantic ties above her European ones, and vetoed her entry into the Common Market. The Nassau accord was a colossal error of judgment that an astute Secretary of State should have been able to prevent—had he not been too busy attending diplomatic dinners.
Some of the hawks were, of course, predictable. It is not surprising that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were eager to use their expensive hardware. “They seemed always ready to assume,” Robert Kennedy wrote, “that a war was in our national interest. One of the Joint Chiefs of Staff once said to me he believed in a preventive attack against the Soviet Union.” Nor is it surprising that Dean Acheson, among the most recalcitrant of the cold warriors, should have come down on the side of the military. “I felt we were too eager to liquidate this thing,” Elie Abel reports him as saying in The Missile Crisis. “So long as we had the thumb-screw on Khrushchev, we should have given it another turn every day. We were too eager to make an agreement with the Russians. They had no business there in the first place.” Ever since his crucifixion by Congress during the Alger Hiss affair, Acheson has become increasingly reactionary and eager to prove his toughness toward the Communists. His bomb-first-and-talk-later argument found receptive ears in such pillars of the Eastern Republican Establishment as Douglas Dillon, John J. McCloy, and McGeorge Bundy.
Many who were not aware of the drama being played out in the White House during those thirteen days, however, will be surprised to find Robert Kennedy as the leader of the doves and the moral conscience of his brother’s Administration. Although he does not dramatize his own role, we learn from his account and those of others that he argued against a first strike as contrary to American traditions. “My brother,” Abel quotes him as saying, “is not going to be the Tojo of the 1960s.” This impassioned plea against a Pearl Harbor in reverse moved even Maxwell Taylor. The general, Abel quotes one of the participants as commenting, “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.”
The other outstanding dove of the deliberations was the man in charge of the military establishment, Robert McNamara. The Secretary of Defense, in Kennedy’s words, “became the blockade’s strongest advocate” and argued that “a surgical air strike…was militarily impractical.” McNamara was not only a consistent dove, fighting off the belligerent advice of his service chiefs, but disputed the prevailing view that the Russians were trying to upset the strategic balance between East and West. “A missile is a missile,” Abel and others have quoted him as saying. “It makes no difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba.” Observing that the Russians had ICBMs and that the only effect of the Cuban-based intermediate-range missiles would be to reduce by a few minutes our warning time in case of attack, McNamara’s advice, in effect, was to sit tight.
However valid such advice might have been from a military point of view, it was quite unacceptable politically. John F. Kennedy was especially vulnerable on Cuba, having used it as an issue against Nixon during the 1960 campaign, and then having suffered the ignominy of the Bay of Pigs. The Republicans were pressing him hard on his “do-nothing” policy toward Castro, and former Senator Keating of New York was leading a wolf pack in charging that the Russians were turning Cuba into a base for offensive weapons. Kennedy as Democratic Party leader could not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba, even if the civilian head of the Pentagon could.
“If the missiles,” Roger Hilsman, head of intelligence in the State Department and then Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, comments in his book, To Move a Nation, “were not important enough to justify a confrontation with the Soviet Union, as McNamara initially thought, yet were ‘offensive,’ then the United States might not be in mortal danger, but the administration most certainly was.” And, according to John Kenneth Galbraith, then ambassador to India, “once they [the missiles] were there, the political needs of the Kennedy administration urged it to take almost any risk to get them out.”
Did we, then, nearly go up in radioactive dust to shore up the Kennedy Administration’s fading image before the November, 1962, elections? Not necessarily, for if the missiles did not upset the strategic balance, even a President less image-conscious than John F. Kennedy could not easily accept such an abrupt change in the status quo—least of all in the Caribbean. “To be sure,” Theodore Sorenson observed in his Kennedy, “these Cuban missiles alone, in view of all the other megatonnage the Soviets were capable of unleashing upon us, did not substantially alter the strategic balance in fact…. But that balance would have been substantially altered in appearance [italics in original]; and in matters of national will and world leadership, as the President said later, such appearances contribute to reality.” In fact, Kennedy himself leaned heavily on the prestige argument when he announced the blockade to the nation on October 22.
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.