John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev
John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev; drawing by David Levine

The essential, the terrifying, question about the missile crisis is what would have happened if Khrushchev had not backed down. It is extraordinary, in the welter of magazine articles and books dealing with the missile crisis, how rarely this question is raised. The story is told and retold as a test and triumph of the Kennedy brothers. But the deeper reaches of the story are avoided, as if we feared to look too closely into the larger implications of this successful first foray into nuclear brinkmanship. We may not be so lucky next time.

The public impression created by the government when the presence of the missiles in Cuba was verified is that they represented a direct threat to America’s cities. For those a little more sophisticated it was said that they threatened the balance of power. But Elie Abel’s new book on The Missile Crisis, like the earlier accounts by Sorensen and Schlesinger, shows that this was not the dominant view in the inner councils of the White House. Abel quotes McNamara as saying, “A missile is a missile. It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba.” But in the week of argument, Abel relates, McNamara came to concede that even if the effect on the strategic balance was relatively small, “the political effect in Latin America and elsewhere would be large.” As Sorensen wrote in his Kennedy. “To be sure, 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.” The real stake was prestige.

The question was whether, with the whole world looking on, Kennedy would let Khrushchev get away with it. The world’s first thermonuclear confrontation turned out to be a kind of ordeal by combat between two men to see which one would back down first. Schlesinger relates that in the earlier Berlin crisis, he wrote a memorandum to Kennedy protesting the tendency to define the issue as “Are you chicken or not?” But inescapably that’s what the issue came around to. Schlesinger recounts an interview Kennedy gave James Wechsler of the New York Post in the Berlin crisis in which the President recognized that no one could win a nuclear war, that “the only alternatives were authentic negotiation or mutual annihilation,” but

What worried him [Kennedy] was that Khrushchev might interpret his reluctance to wage nuclear war as a symptom of an American loss of nerve…”If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt,” he told Wechsler, “it’s all over.”

AT A BOOK AND AUTHOR LUNCH on March 14 (see the account in the New York Herald-Tribune next day) Abel recounted a story which should have been in his book. He told of a visit to the President in September, 1961, after the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin wall. Abel told Kennedy he wanted to write a book about the Administration’s first year. “Who,” the President asked despondently, “would want to read a book about disasters?” He felt that Khrushchev, after these two debacles, might think him a pushover. James Reston of The New York Times, who saw Kennedy emerge “shaken and angry” from his meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, speculates that Khrushchev had studied the Bay of Pigs. “He would have understood if Kennedy had left Castro alone or destroyed him; but when Kennedy was rash enough to strike at Cuba but not bold enough to finish the job, Khrushchev decided he was dealing with an inexperienced young leader who could be intimidated and blackmailed.” There was an intensely personal not in the Kennedy broadcast which announced the quarantine of Cuba. “This secret, swift and extraordinary buildup of Communist missiles…is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country, if our courage [my italics] and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe.” It was the courage of John F. Kennedy which was in question, the credibility of his readiness to go the whole way if the missiles were not removed. In the eyeball to eyeball confrontation, it was Khrushchev who was forced to blink first.

This was magnificent as drama. It was the best of therapies for Kennedy’s nagging inferiority complex. Like any other showdown between the leaders of two contending hordes or tribes, it was also not without wider political significance. Certainly the fright it gave Khrushchev and the new sense of confidence it gave Kennedy were factors in the détente which followed. The look into the abyss made both men really feel in their bones the need for co-existence. But one may wonder how many Americans, consulted in a swift electronic plebiscite, would have cared to risk destruction to let John F. Kennedy prove himself.


A curious aspect of all three accounts, Sorensen’s, Schlesinger’s, and Abel’s, is how they slide over Kennedy’s immediate political situation. There might have been dispute as to whether those missiles in Cuba really represented any change in the balance of terror, any substantial new threat to the United States. There cold have been no dispute that to face the November elections with these missiles intact would have been disastrous for Kennedy and the Democrats. The first alarms about missiles in Cuba, whether justified or not at the time, had been raised by the Republican Senator Keating. President Kennedy had assured the country on September 4 that the only missiles in Cuba were anti-aircraft with a 25-mile range and on September 13 that new Soviet shipments to Cuba were not a “serious threat.” The election was only three weeks off when the presence of nuclear missiles on the island were confirmed on October 15 by aerial photographs. There was no time for prolonged negotiations, summit conferences, or U.N. debates if the damage was to be undone before the election. Kennedy could not afford to wait. This gamble paid off when he was able on October 28 to “welcome” Khrushchev’s “statesmanlike decision” to dismantle the missiles, and on November 2, four days before the election, to announce that they were being crated for removal. But what if the gamble had failed? What if Khrushchev, instead of backing down when he did, had engaged in a delaying action, offering to abide by the outcome of a United Nations debate? The Republicans would have accused Kennedy of gullibility and weakness; the nuclear menace from Cuba would certainly have cost the Democrats control of the House of Representatives. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the damage to Kennedy’s reputation might have been irreparable even if ultimately some peaceful deal to get the missiles out of Cuba were achieved. Kennedy could not wait. But the country and the world could. Negotiations, however prolonged, would have been better than the risk of World War III. This is how the survivors would have felt. Here Kennedy’s political interests and the country’s safety diverged.

COULD THESE POLITICAL considerations have been absent from the discussions and the minds of the Kennedy inner circle as the accounts of the two in-house historians, Sorensen and Schlesinger, and that of Abel would lead us to believe? Sorensen touches on the subject ever so tactfully at only one point. He relates that during the White House debates on what to do about the missiles, a Republican participant passed him a note saying:

Ted—have you considered the very real possibility that if we allow Cuba to complete installation and operational readiness of missile bases, the next House of Representatives is likely to have a Republican majority? This would completely paralyze our ability to react sensibly and coherently to further Soviet advances.

Given the choice between the danger of a Republican majority in the House and the danger of a thermonuclear war, voters might conceivably have thought the former somewhat less frightening and irreversible.

Sorensen paints a sentimental, touching picture of Kennedy on the eve of the confrontation. “He spoke on the back porch on that Saturday before his speech not of his possible death but of all the innocent children of the world who had never had a chance or a voice.” If Kennedy was so concerned he might have sacrificed his chances in the election to try and negotiate. It is difficult to reconcile this concern with the “consternation” Schlesinger reports when Radio Moscow broadcast a Khrushchev letter offering removal of its missiles from Cuba and a non-aggression pledge to Turkey if the U.S. would remove its missiles from Turkey and offer a non-aggression pledge to Cuba. This had been widely suggested at home and abroad, by Lippmann and may others, as a mutual face-saver. “But Kennedy,” Schlesinger writes, “regarded the idea as unacceptable, and the swap was promptly rejected.”

Abel recalls that early in 1961 the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy had recommended removal of these missiles from both Italy and Turkey as “unreliable, inaccurate, obsolete, and too easily sabotaged.” He reveals that Kennedy in the late summer of 1961 gave orders for their removal. “It was therefore with a doubled sense of shock,” Abel writes, “that Kennedy heard the news that Saturday morning. Not only were the missiles still in Turkey but they had just become pawns in a deadly chess game.” Would it have been so unthinkable a sacrifice to have swapped those obsolete missiles, which Kennedy removed so soon afterward anyway?


ABEL’S ACCOUNT INDICATES that the Kennedy brothers were unwilling to be put in the position of paying any but the most minimal price for peace. Khrushchev’s surrender had to be all but unconditional. Abel tells us that Adlai Stevenson at the White House conference on October 20 “forecast grave difficulties” at the UN “concerning the Jupiter bases in Turkey. People would certainly ask why it was right for the United States to have bases in Turkey but wrong for the Russians to have bases in Cuba.” He also urged the President to consider offering to withdraw from Guantanamo as part of a plan to demilitarize, neutralize, and guarantee the territorial integrity of Cuba. Both ideas were rejected. “The bitter aftertaste of that Saturday afternoon in the Oval Room,” Abel writes, “stayed with him until his death. It was after this encounter that Robert Kennedy decided Stevenson lacked the toughness to deal effectively with the Russians at the UN” and suggested to the President “that John McCloy or Herman Phleger, the California Republican who had served as chief legal advisor to John Foster Dulles, be asked to help in the UN negotiations. McCloy got the job.”

All these accounts are appallingly ethnocentric. Cuba’s fate and interests are simply ignored. Neither Abel nor Schlesinger nor Sorensen mentions that two weeks earlier President Dorticos of Cuba in a speech to the General Assembly on October 8—before the presence of the missiles in Cuba had been verified—said his country was ready for demilitarization if the U.S. gave assurances “by word and by deed, that it would not commit acts of aggression against our country.” This speech contained a cryptic reference to “our unavoidable weapons—weapons that we wish we did not need and that we do not want to use.” This was ignored by the American press. Though Stevenson, we now learn from Abel, was soon to favor demilitarization of Cuba, his public reply on October 8 was the State Department line, “The maintenance of Communism in the Americas is not negotiable.”

All these possibilities for negotiating a way out indicate that the Cuban missile crisis was not one of those thermonuclear crises requiring instant response and leaving no time for negotiation and no time for consultation. The situation fits that described by George Kennan when he came back from Belgrade in August 1961 and said, “There is no presumption more terrifying than that of those who would blow up the world on the basis of their personal judgment of a transient situation. I do not propose to let the future of the world be settled, or ended, by a group of men operating on the basis of limited perspectives and short-run calculations.” Schlesinger quotes Kennan’s words to show the atmosphere of those “strange, moody days.” He does not of course apply them to the missile crisis. Kennan’s anguish may seem that of an outsider, without access to what the insiders alone know. But Sorensen says that at one time in the inner debate Kennedy and his circle “seriously considered” either doing nothing about the missiles or limiting our response to diplomatic action only. “As some (but not all) Pentagon advisors pointed out to the President,” Sorensen reveals, “we had long lived within range of Soviet missiles, we expected Khrushchev to live with our missiles nearby, and by taking this addition calmly we would prevent him from inflating its importance.”

THERE WAS FEAR in the inner circle that our Western allies might share this cool estimate. Perhaps this was one reason we did not consult them before deciding on a showdown. As Sorensen writes, “Most West Europeans cared nothing about Cuba and thought we were over-anxious about it. Would they support our risking a world war, or an attack on NATO member Turkey, or a move on West Berlin, because we now had a few dozen hostile missiles nearby?” Similarly Schlesinger reveals that Macmillan, when informed of Kennedy’s plans, was troubled “because Europeans had grown so accustomed to living under the nuclear gun that they might wonder what all the fuss was about.”

To consult was to invite advice we did not wish to hear. Abel reveals that when Acheson arrived as the President’s special emissary to let De Gaulle know what was afoot, “De Gaulle raised his hand in a delaying gesture that the long departed kings of France might have envied,” and asked, “Are you consulting or informing me?” When Acheson confessed that he was there to inform not consult, De Gaulle said dryly, “I am in favor of independent decisions.” But three years later De Gaulle was to make an independent decision of his own and ask NATO to remove its bases in France. One reason for this was the Cuban missile crisis. As De Gaulle said at his last press conference February 21:

…while the prospects of a world war breaking out on account of Europe are dissipating, conflicts in which America engages in other parts of the world—as the day before yesterday in Korea, yesterday in Cuba, today in Vietnam—risk, by virtue of that famous escalation, being extended so that the result would be a general conflagration. In that case Europe—whose strategy is, within NATO, that of America—would be automatically involved in the struggle, even when it would not have so desired…France’s determination to dispose of herself…is incompatible with a defense organization in which she finds herself subordinate.

Had the Cuban missile crisis erupted into a thermonuclear exchange, NATO bases in France would automatically have been involved: They would have joined in the attack and been targets for the Russians. France, like the other NATO countries, might have been destroyed without ever being consulted. It is not difficult to understand De Gaulle’s distrust of an alliance in which the strongest member can plunge all the others into war without consulting them.

KENNEDY NO MORE consulted NATO before deciding to risk World War over Cuba than Khrushchev consulted his Warsaw Pact satellites before taking the risky step of placing missiles on the island. The objection to Khrushchev’s course, as to Kennedy’s, was primarily political rather than military. There is general agreement now that the Russians may have been tempted to put missiles in Cuba to redress in some small part the enormous missile gap against them which McNamara disclosed after Kennedy took office; for this view we can cite, among other studies, a Rand Corporation memorandum written for the Air Force by Arnold L. Horelick.* In retrospect the Air Force turned out to be the victim of its own ingenuity in developing the U-2. So long as the U.S. had to depend on surmise and normal intelligence, it was possible to inflate the estimates of Russian missile strength to support the demand for larger Air Force appropriations; hence first a bomber gap and then a missile gap, both of which turned out to be non-existent. But when the U-2s began to bring back precise information, the nightmarish missile computations hawked by such Air Force mouthpieces as Stuart Symington and Joseph Alsop began to be deflated. Despite the sober warnings of Eisenhower and Allen Dulles that there was no missile gap, the Democrats used it in the 1960 campaign only to find on taking office that the gap was the other way. Militarily the missiles on Cuba didn’t make too much difference. Even the Horelick study for the Air Force admits that these missiles “would presumably have been highly vulnerable to a U.S. first strike, even with conventional bombs,” and their number was too small for a Soviet first strike. “Moreover,” Horelick writes, “there would have been a problem, though perhaps not an insurmountable one, of coordinating salvoes from close-in and distant bases so as to avoid a ragged attack.” (If missiles were fired at the same time from Cuba and Russia, the ones from nearby Cuba would have landed so far in advance as to give additional warning time.) Their deployment in Cuba bears all the earmarks of one of those febrile improvisations to which the impulsive Khrushchev was given, as in his proposals for a “troika” control of the United Nations.

Khrushchev was guilty of a foolish duplicity. Gromyko gave Kennedy a message from Khrushchev that he would suspend any action about Berlin until after the November election so as not to embarrass Kennedy. This and a Tass communique of September 11 made Kennedy and his advisers feel certain that the Russians would not upset the situation by secretly placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Tass said the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons were so powerful and its rockets so wide-ranging “that there is no need to search for sites for them beyond the boundaries of the Soviet Union.” How could Khrushchev hope to negotiate with Kennedy when the President discovered that he had been so grossly gulled? By first installing the missiles and then telling an easily detected lie about so serious a matter, Khrushchev shares responsibility with Kennedy for bringing the world to its first thermonuclear brink.

BECAUSE KENNEDY SUCCEEDED and Khrushchev surrendered, the missile crisis is being held up as a model of how to run a confrontation in the thermonuclear age. In his February 17 statement advocating negotiations with the Vietcong, and offering them a place in a future government, Senator Robert F. Kennedy said Hanoi “must be given to understand as well that their present public demands are in fact for us to surrender a vital national interest—but that, as a far larger and more powerful nation learned in October of 1962, surrender of a vital interest of the United States is an objective which cannot be achieved.” In the missile crisis the Kennedys played their dangerous game skillfully. They kept their means and aims sharply limited, resisting pressures to bomb the island and to demand the removal of Castro as well as the missiles. For this restraint we are indebted to the Kennedys. But all their skill would have been to no avail if in the end he had preferred his prestige, as they preferred theirs, to the danger of a world war. In this respect we are all indebted to Khrushchev.

The missile crisis is a model of what to avoid. This is the lesson John F. Kennedy learned. “His feelings,” Schlesinger writes in the finest passage of his A Thousand Days, “underwent a qualitative change after Cuba: A world in which nations threatened each other with nuclear weapons now seemed to him not just an irrational but an intolerable and impossible world. Cuba thus made vivid the sense that all humanity had a common interest in the prevention of nuclear war—an interest far above those national and ideological interests which had once seemed ultimate.” This, and not the saga of a lucky hairbreadth balancing act on an abyss, is what most needs to be remembered about the missile crisis, if we are to avoid another.

This Issue

April 14, 1966