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

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 Written with economy and directness, Thirteen Days is a valuable historical document with all the elements of a thriller.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.

Elevating his rhetoric, as usual, above the needs of the occasion, Kennedy set the stage for a direct military confrontation.

He was acutely conscious of any questioning of his courage, and with the ashes of the Vienna encounter with Khrushchev still in his mouth and another Berlin crisis brewing, he had to get the missiles out of Cuba. But did he have to get them out before the end of October? What would have happened had he negotiated with Khrushchev instead of issuing the ultimatum—delivered to Ambassador Dobrynin on Saturday evening, October 27, by Robert Kennedy—that “we had to have a commitment by tomorrow that those bases would be removed.” What would have happened had the negotiations dragged on for a few weeks and some kind of quid pro quo were arranged?

The Russians, of course, would have had the already delivered missiles in place by then. But their withdrawal could still be negotiated and, in any case, the continuation of the blockade would have brought Castro to his knees within a few months. Assuming that the missiles had to be removed, was it necessary, in Robert Kennedy’s words, “to have a commitment by tomorrow?” At the time a good many people believed Kennedy had politics in mind during the missile crisis. General Eisenhower, when informed by McCone about the discovery of the missiles, “took a skeptical view,” according to Abel, “suspecting perhaps that Kennedy might be playing politics with Cuba on the eve of Congressional elections.” The thought also crossed the mind of Kennedy’s old chum, David Ormsby-Gore, then British ambassador to Washington, who felt that “British opinion must somehow be persuaded that the missile crisis was the real thing, not something trumped up by the President for vote-getting purposes.” Nor did the elections go unnoticed by the participants in the Executive Committee. I. F. Stone has pointed out Sorenson’s comment that during one of the meetings a Republican member 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.

It is not to denigrate John F. Kennedy’s patriotism to assume that he was aware of such possibilities. Nor is it to question the motives of those who took part in those exhausting, often stormy, meetings during the thirteen days. It would have been political folly for Kennedy to have broached the subject of the elections before the Executive Committee, where it would have fallen on a good many unsympathetic ears, and it is exceedingly unlikely that the question was ever formally raised. Nor did the participants believe they were behaving by the rules of partisan politics when they decided that the missiles had to be removed immediately. But of the fourteen-odd people who participated in most of the meetings, only a few—Sorenson, Robert Kennedy, and, of course, the President—could be considered politicians. As politicians who had to fight elections, as leaders of the party which was about to be tested at the polls, they could not have been oblivious to what was going to happen in early November—even if they never mentioned it in the meetings, or to one another.

To do nothing about the missiles, as McNamara’s position would imply, or to take the issue to the United Nations, or to compromise by trading the Soviet missiles in Cuba for the obsolete American missiles in Turkey, would have been bad politics at that particular time. Obsessed by his image, Kennedy feared that Khrushchev would not take him seriously if he again backed down in Cuba. This questioning of “our courage,” he believed, could tempt the Russians to a policy of adventurism, perhaps in Central Europe. Indeed, the first reading of the missile crisis was that Khrushchev was preparing to force a Berlin settlement on his own terms. Thus did considerations of high strategy and party politics reinforce one another and convince Kennedy that the Russian withdrawal had to be complete, unilateral, and secured by the end of October.

The question of a quid pro quo revolved around the American missiles in Turkey and Italy. These had been placed there five years earlier during the Eisenhower Administration’s panic over the Sputnik. Designed to redress the strategic balance during a time when the US had no reliable ICBMs, these relatively primitive liquid-fuel missiles had become, in Hilsman’s words, “obsolete, unreliable, inaccurate, and very vulnerable.” Shortly after his inauguration Kennedy asked that they be removed and was discouraged by the State Department. He raised the question again in early 1962, and despite objections that the Turks disapproved, instructed Dean Rusk to negotiate the removal of the missiles. “The President,” Robert Kennedy has written, barely concealing his contempt for Dean Rusk, “believed he was President and that, his wishes having been made clear, they would be followed and the missiles removed.”

But his instructions were not carried out, and Kennedy discovered that the obsolete Turkish missiles had become a bargaining foil for Khrushchev. “We will remove our missiles from Cuba, you will remove yours from Turkey,” read the note received from the Kremlin on the morning of Saturday, October 27. “…The Soviet Union will pledge not to invade or interfere with the internal affairs of Turkey; the US to make the same pledge regarding Cuba.” This note, with its quid pro quo, added a new condition to the emotional message received the night before, in which the Soviet premier indicated he would pull out the missiles in return for a US promise not to invade Cuba.

Adding Turkey to the bargain filled the White House advisers with consternation—not least of all because it appeared perfectly fair. “The proposal the Russians made,” in Robert Kennedy’s words, “was not unreasonable and did not amount to a loss to the US or to our NATO allies.” Categorically to reject such a trade would make the US seem vindictive and threaten the support of its allies—none of whom had any wish to be dragged into nuclear war over the issue of Cuba. But to accept the trade would be to invite accusations of weakness and dishonor by the Republicans. Kennedy, needless to say, was furious at the State Department for putting him in such a vulnerable position.

The Kremlin was not the first to raise the issue of trading the Cuban bases for the Turkish ones. In his column of Thursday, October 25, Walter Lippmann suggested a diplomatic solution to get the missiles out of Cuba:

There are three ways to get rid of the missiles already in Cuba. One is to invade and occupy Cuba. The second way is to institute a total blockade, particularly of oil shipments, which would in a few months ruin the Cuban economy. The third way is to try, I repeat, to negotiate a face-saving settlement…. I am not talking about and do not believe in a “Cuba-Berlin” horse trade…. The only place that is truly comparable with Cuba is Turkey. This is the only place where there are strategic weapons right on the frontier of the Soviet Union…. The Soviet military base in Cuba is defenseless, and the base in Turkey is all but obsolete. The two bases could be dismantled without altering the world balance of power.

This position had already been argued by Adlai Stevenson who, according to Robert Kennedy, on October 20 “strongly advocated what he had only tentatively suggested to me a few days before—namely, that we make it clear to the Soviet Union that if it withdrew its missiles from Cuba, we would be willing to withdraw our missiles from Turkey and Italy and give up our naval base at Guantanamo Bay.” With this suggestion Stevenson went a good deal further than Lippmann, who never included Guantanamo in the trade. This won Stevenson the wrath of several of the participants, including Robert Kennedy, who prevailed upon his brother to send John J. McCloy to the UN to handle the Russians during the missile crisis. But time healed some of Robert Kennedy’s wrath, and in Thirteen Days he wrote:

Stevenson has since been criticized publicly for the position he took at this meeting. I think it should be emphasized that he was presenting a point of view from a different perspective than the others, one which was therefore important for the President to consider. Although I disagreed strongly with his recommendations, I thought he was courageous to make them, and I might add they made as much sense as some others considered during that period.

Stevenson’s proposal was not so heretical as it was treated at the time, or in the inside stories that appeared shortly after the missile crisis. Kennedy was prepared to give up the Turkish bases, but for political reasons could not make it a quid pro quo—although there is some reason to think that he might have done so in extremis. On Saturday—when the Russians sent their second note calling for the Turkey-Cuba base trade—Kennedy, according to Abel, told Roswell Gilpatric to prepare a scenario for removing the missiles from Turkey and Italy, and have it ready for the meeting that night. That evening he sent his brother to Ambassador Dobrynin with the demand that the Russians had to promise to withdraw the missiles from Cuba by the following day. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were preparing to bomb the missile sites on Tuesday. Dobrynin, according to Abel, “gave it as his personal opinion that the Soviet leaders were so deeply committed they would have to reject the President’s terms.”

But while he ruled out an explicit deal, Robert Kennedy told the Soviet ambassador that there need be no problem about the Turkish missiles. “President Kennedy,” he said to Dobrynin, “had been anxious to remove those missiles from Turkey and Italy for a long period of time…and it was our judgment that, within a short time after this crisis was over, those missiles would be gone.” Dobrynin sent on the message to Moscow; President Kennedy, at his brother’s suggestion, accepted the more moderate first message from Khrushchev and ignored the second Kremlin note: and an apprehensive Washington awaited the Kremlin’s response as plans proceeded for an air strike against the Cuban bases. On Sunday morning the word came through that the missiles would be withdrawn in return for a simple US pledge not to invade Cuba. The worst crisis of the Cold War was over. But even at this moment of triumph, some were not satisfied. “On that fateful Sunday morning when the Russians answered they were withdrawing their missiles,” Robert Kennedy revealed, “it was suggested by one high military adviser that we attack Monday in any case.”

The resolution of the Cuban missile crisis ironically set the stage for a more cooperative policy from Moscow, culminating in the test-ban treaty of 1963. It also contributed to the euphoria of power that led Kennedy’s successor, urged on by Kennedy’s advisers, to have his little war in Southeast Asia. Had the US been forced to back down in Cuba, or to work out a Cuba-Turkey trade with the Russians, perhaps Washington might have awakened from the dream of American omnipotence before Lyndon Johnson launched his crusade in Vietnam.

Cuba, in Hilsman’s words, was “a foreign policy victory of historical proportions,” but in the long run the Russians did not come out of it too badly. They lost a certain amount of face, particularly among the Communist parties of Latin America, and they revealed once again that the interests of the Soviet state take precedence over the world revolution. Peking, for its part, lost no time in gloating that it was “sheer adventurism to put missiles into Cuba in the first place, but capitulationism to take them out under American pressure.” Perhaps the Cuban setback contributed to Khrushchev’s demise, although it is dubious whether that was a net gain for the West. But the blow to Soviet prestige was washed away with passing time, and the Russians, perhaps because they had their fingers burned in Cuba, refrained from exercises in global management of the kind that obsessed President Johnson and ultimately drove him from office.

What was the lesson of the Cuban missile crisis? There were several: first, that diplomacy gave way to military ultimatums; second, that there was a failure of intelligence interpretation; third, that the Kremlin’s motives were never adequately understood; and fourth, that there is something basically wrong with the whole process of decision-making.

  1. The suspension of diplomacy. Kennedy’s mistake was not, as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson would have it, in failing to brandish the big stick more quickly. Rather it was in deliberately rejecting diplomatic contact when it might have made unnecessary precisely the kind of confrontation that occurred. Instead of using traditional diplomatic channels to warn the Russians that he knew what they were up to, and thus give them a chance quietly to pull back, Kennedy chose to inform the Kremlin of his discovery by a nation-wide radio-TV hookup. He put them, in other words, in the position where a sub-rosa withdrawal was impossible, and public dismantlement of the bases meant humiliation. In doing so, Kennedy violated the first rule of diplomacy in the nuclear age, a rule he himself expounded in his famous speech at American University the following June:

Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.

To be sure, he did not gloat over the Russian withdrawal, and insisted on treating it as a statesmanlike move. But the Kremlin’s withdrawal under a public American ultimatum was a humiliation nonetheless.

President Kennedy certainly had ample opportunity to play it otherwise. There were available not only the Soviet ambassador and the famous “hot-line” direct to the Kremlin, recently installed with such fanfare, but also the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, who came to visit the President on Thursday afternoon, October 18—three days after Kennedy learned of the secret missile sites, but four days before he announced the blockade. Gromyko’s visit had been scheduled some time before the discovery of the missiles, and the wily Soviet diplomat did not, of course, mention them. Instead he insisted that the Russians were furnishing purely “defensive” arms to the Cubans and wanted to relieve tensions with the US over Cuba.

Robert Kennedy reports that his brother “listened, astonished, but also with some admiration for the boldness of Gromyko’s position.” Why should he have been astonished? Did he expect the Soviet foreign minister to confess that his government was secretly setting up long-range missile bases in Cuba? Mastering his astonishment, the President read aloud his statement of September 4 which warned the Russians against putting missiles or offensive weapons in Cuba. Gromyko assured him this would never be done and departed, returning to the Soviet Union a few days later.

The unavoidable question is why didn’t President Kennedy tell Gromyko that he knew the truth, and give the Russians a chance to pull back? Robert Kennedy says it was because he hadn’t yet decided what course of action to follow and was afraid of giving the Russians a tactical advantage—a judgment, Abel reports, supported by Rusk and Thompson. But Robert Kennedy reports that the President decided on the blockade on Saturday, October 20, two days before his speech to the nation. Why didn’t he tell Gromyko on Saturday? The question was raised at the time by Walter Lippmann who, in his column of October 25, warned Kennedy against repeating the mistake of suspending diplomacy that plagued both world wars:

I see danger of this mistake in the fact that when the President saw Mr. Gromyko on Thursday, and had the evidence of the missile build-up in Cuba, he refrained from confronting Mr. Gromyko with this evidence. This was to suspend diplomacy. If it had not been suspended, the President would have shown Mr. Gromyko the pictures, and told him privately about the policy which in a few days he intended to announce publicly. This would have made it more likely that Moscow would order the ships not to push on to Cuba. But if such diplomatic action did not change the orders, if Mr. Khrushchev persisted in spite of it, the President’s public speech would have been stronger. It would not have been subject to the criticism that a great power had issued an ultimatum to another great power without first attempting to negotiate the issue. By confronting Mr. Gromyko privately, the President would have given Mr. Khrushchev what all wise statesmen give their adversaries—the chance to save face.

Roger Hilsman argues that Gromyko somehow erroneously assumed that the President really knew about the missiles all the time. He gleans this from various warnings given to the Russians about putting offensive weapons into Cuba—warnings by Chester Bowles, US ambassador to Moscow Foy Kohler, and the President himself. With all these lectures the Russians might, perhaps, have assumed that Kennedy knew what they were up to, but was keeping it under his hat until after the elections. “The best explanation for Gromyko’s behavior,” he writes, “seemed to be that the Soviets were hedging, trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States in the hope of leaving their hand free for negotiations or, if faced with extreme danger of war, for withdrawing the missiles with the least loss of face.” Yet if the Russians assumed that Kennedy knew, presumably they were not plotting a surprise attack. In any case, Hilsman’s argument, while it might excuse Gromyko of duplicity, does not justify Kennedy’s behavior, and is not offered as a hypothesis by Robert Kennedy.

  1. The failure of intelligence. Why were the missile sites not discovered sooner? Discovery of the missiles was a total surprise to the President, Robert Kennedy affirms. “No official within the government had ever suggested to President Kennedy that the Russian buildup within Cuba would include missiles.” The United States Intelligence Board, in its most recent estimate, dated September 19, advised the President “without reservation…that the Soviet Union would not make Cuba a strategic base.” It based this on the fact that the Russians had never taken such a step in any of their satellites, and that the risk of US retaliation was too great. Although a number of unconfirmed reports had been filtering through the intelligence network, Robert Kennedy maintains “they were not considered substantial enough to pass on to the President or to other high officials within the government.”

But the fact is that Washington had been buzzing for weeks with unconfirmed reports that the Russians were secretly introducing long-range missiles into Cuba. According to Abel, as early as August 22 CIA chief John McCone told President Kennedy that the Russians were putting SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) into Cuba to protect offensive missile sites, and urged reconsideration of the September 19 intelligence estimate. Meanwhile reports kept flowing in from agents inside Cuba that missiles much longer than SAMs were being delivered, and Castro’s pilot had reportedly boasted “we have everything, including atomic weapons.” According to Arthur Krock’s recent book, the French intelligence agent, Thiraud de Vosjoly (the celebrated Topaz) came back with eyewitness evidence for McCone.

Robert Kennedy says “there was no action the US could have taken before the time we actually did act,” since no films were available to offer proof to the rest of the world. But why were photographs not made earlier? When McCone returned from his honeymoon in early October, he discovered that the eastern part of Cuba had not been photographed for more than a month. He immediately ordered the entire island photographed, and the U-2s returned from the flight of October 14 with the proof we now know.

What happened was nothing less than a failure of intelligence, “a failure,” in Hilsman’s words, “not of rationalization, but of imagination—a failure to probe and speculate, to ask perceptive questions of the data, rather than of explaining away the obvious.” Suspicious signs were ignored, Republican charges were dismissed as election year propaganda, and there was a disinclination to probe the evidence.

What induced this state of mind? First, the conviction of the analysts that the Russians would never dare do anything so risky. Second, skepticism about charges made by Republican politicians. Third, reluctance to face a new Cuban crisis on the eve of the Congressional elections. Fourth, a personal message from Khrushchev, delivered by Ambassador Dobrynin to Robert Kennedy on September 4, assuring the President that the Soviets would create no trouble for him during the election campaign and would place no offensive weapons in Cuba. Kennedy had every reason to want to believe Khrushchev, and none of his trusted advisers presented him with any proof to the contrary. There was, of course, McCone. But Kennedy had been burned once over Cuba by the CIA and no doubt was doubly skeptical of its surmises. This skepticism, reinforced by his own desire to accept Khrushchev’s assurances, at least until after the elections, and the failure of the intelligence community (and his own advisers) to argue differently, led to the failure to draw the proper inferences from the evidence.

  1. The misreading of the Kremlin’s motives. Why did Khrushchev do it? There is little speculation about this in Robert Kennedy’s memoir, for he is concerned with what happened in Washington rather than with Russian motivations. To this day we do not know why the Soviets took such a colossal gamble. The rewards, one must assume, could only have been commensurate with the risks. The first reaction—that the Russians would try to force the Western allies out of Berlin in return for their withdrawal from Cuba—was unconvincing at the time, and is even more so in retrospect. It showed the New Frontier’s vulnerability on the Berlin issue, particularly after the disastrous Vienna meeting. But it offers no reason why Khrushchev could rationally have believed that the Western allies would give up their rights in the former German capital. Perhaps the main reason why the Kennedy Administration was caught so flat-footed was that it could never figure out why the Russians might find it advantageous to put missiles in Cuba.

An intriguing explanation has recently been put forth by Adam Ulam in his study of Soviet foreign policy, Expansion and Coexistence. The Russian leaders, he suggests, installed the missiles in Cuba in order to negotiate a package deal to be announced at the UN in November. The deal would include a German peace treaty, with an absolute prohibition on nuclear weapons for Bonn; plus a similar arrangement in the Far East, with a nuclear-free zone in the Pacific and a promise from China not to manufacture atomic weapons. The Chinese, of course, could be expected to balk at such a proposal, but their support might be won by demanding the removal of American protection from Formosa as the final price of withdrawing the Soviet missiles from Cuba. This, Ulam argues, “would add an almost irresistible incentive for the Chinese at least to postpone their atomic ambitions.”

This is highly imaginative, and almost certainly an explanation that never occurred to Kennedy and his advisers. It may never have occurred to Khrushchev either, although anything is possible. But without using quite so much imagination, one might speculate that the Russians installed their missiles in Cuba for the purpose of having them there, not in order to withdraw them as part of some future bargain. The placing of the missiles, in short, can be explained as a desperate attempt to compensate for a “missile gap” that put the Soviet Union dangerously far behind the United States.

The so-called “missile gap,” it will be recalled, was one of the issues used by John F. Kennedy to club the Eisenhower-Nixon Administration in the 1960 campaign. Uncritically accepting the propaganda of the Air Force and the aerospace industry, he charged that the Republicans had allowed the nation to fall hostage to Soviet missiles. Shortly after assuming the Presidency, however, Kennedy discovered that the “missile gap” did not exist. U-2 flights over the Soviet Union and the revelations of Colonel Oleg Penkovsky confirmed that the gap was quite the other way around, with the US possessing a crushing superiority over the Soviet Union.

After returning from Vienna, where Khrushchev reportedly badgered him about the Bay of Pigs and led him to fear a new Berlin crisis was brewing, Kennedy decided to let the Russians know that the missile gap was actually in our favor. About the same time he engineered the bomb-shelter scare to show that he was willing to face nuclear war if necessary. Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric was chosen to unveil the news to the Russians. In a speech on October 21, 1961, he deliberately revealed that we had penetrated Soviet security and knew where their missile sites were located. “Their Iron Curtain,” he declared, “is not so impenetrable as to force us to accept at face value the Kremlin’s boasts.” For the Russians, the implications were, in Hilsman’s words, “horrendous.” What frightened them was not that we had military superiority, for they knew that all along—but that we knew it.

The U-2s had pin-pointed the Soviet missile sites and Colonel Penkovsky had revealed that they lagged far behind in missile production. Since the Russians at that time had mostly a vulnerable “soft” ICBM system that could be used for retaliation only if the sites were kept secret, the American discovery meant that their entire missile defense system was suddenly obsolete. Had the United States launched a pre-emptive attack, they would have been largely incapable of retaliating. The balance of terror had broken down and the Russians found themselves, for all practical purposes, disarmed.

Naturally this was intolerable to the Soviet leaders (we can imagine the reaction in Washington if the situation were reversed), and perhaps a cheap answer to the problem was installing some of the older missiles in Cuba. This would help redress the strategic imbalance by confronting the US with additional targets to be knocked out. It would also allow the Russians to stretch out the production of the new “hard” ICBMs without putting a further drain on their resources, help satisfy Castro’s demands for protection, and strengthen the Soviet position in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Khrushchev made a serious mistake, the folly of “adventurism,” as Peking would say. But could he reasonably have assumed that the Kennedy who had been so ineffectual at the Bay of Pigs and unimpressive at Vienna would suddenly become so intransigent? Nothing fails like failure. But in the context of the times, the effort to redress the missile gap seemed like a gamble worth taking. The worst that could have happened, the Russians probably assumed, was that their deception would be discovered and that they would quietly be told to take the missiles out. By immediately escalating the issue to a public confrontation, Kennedy had created a situation that was getting out of hand. In this respect, Khrushchev’s message of October 26, when he offered to withdraw the missiles in return for a US pledge not to invade Cuba, is instructive. “If you have not lost your self-control,” he wrote,

and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose. Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot, and thereby doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.

Whatever his motives, Khrushchev certainly did not intend a nuclear confrontation, nor in retrospect did the situation demand it. It seems clear that Russian policy was basically defensive and, as John Kenneth Galbraith has recently commented, “in the full light of time, it [national safety] doubtless called for a more cautious policy than the one that Kennedy pursued.” One of the hallmarks of the New Frontier was a nagging sense of insecurity that manifested itself in inflated rhetoric (the classic being Kennedy’s inaugural address) and self-assumed tests of will, such as Cuba and Vietnam. While Kennedy won his victory, he also had Khrushchev to thank, and as Hilsman has observed, “although putting the missiles into Cuba was threatening and irresponsible, the Soviets handled the ensuing crisis with wisdom and restraint.” Kennedy showed his skill in throwing down the gauntlet, but it required greater courage for Khrushchev to refuse to pick it up.

  1. The vagaries of decision-making. The basic decisions of the missile crisis, as we have seen, were reached in the informal group known as the Executive Committee. Most of the members of the Cabinet were excluded from this group, and, indeed, did not even learn about the crisis until a few hours before Kennedy announced it to the nation. Nor were America’s NATO allies, who would have been blown up along with us, consulted at any point along the way about plans or strategy. When Dean Acheson arrived in Paris to tell De Gaulle of the blockade, the General asked, “Are you consulting or informing me?” Informing, Acheson confessed. “I am in favor of independent decisions,” De Gaulle replied, and has remained consistent to that policy ever since.

Some of Kennedy’s independent decisions were made in the most curious way. For example, on October 20 it was decided that the US Navy would intercept all ships within an 800-mile radius of the Cuban coast. Three days later David Ormsby-Gore happened to be dining at the White House and observed that 800 miles seemed to be a bit far out. Perhaps, he suggested, the quarantine line could be drawn at 500 miles, thus giving the Russians a bit more time to think. A good idea, replied the President, and on the spot redrew the line—no doubt wisely—over the protests of the Navy. One wonders if any other ambassadors, had they been on as close terms with the President as Ormsby-Gore, might also have had some good suggestions.

We have already learned that the Secretary of State was too busy with other matters to act as chairman of the Executive Committee, or even to attend many of his meetings. It is also instructive to learn how Kennedy, while excluding most of his Cabinet from knowledge of the affair, reached outside the government to tap such venerables as Robert Lovett, John J. McCloy, and the redoubtable Dean Acheson. Recently Acheson, having been bested by Robert Kennedy over the issue of the blockade, has reached into the grave to take a swipe at his old adversary by declaring that the successful outcome of the missile crisis was “plain dumb luck.”

In a sense he is right, but for the wrong reasons. He means that President Kennedy was lucky that the Russians didn’t make the bases operational before they were discovered. Acheson wouldn’t have fiddled around with a blockade or negotiations, but would have joined LeMay in bombing them from the start. As it turns out, there was more time than the participants thought, or accepted, at the time, or that Acheson is willing to admit even today. According to Hilsman, who, as former intelligence chief for the State Department, ought to know, “the two-thousand mile IRBM sites, which were not scheduled for completion until mid-November, never did reach a stage where they were ready to receive the missiles themselves.” Kennedy, in other words, had at least two more weeks and could have postponed his ultimatum. Also, it appears that Khrushchev was planning to be true to his word and not make trouble for Kennedy until after the election, when he would unveil the missiles for whatever political purposes he had in mind.

Kennedy was lucky, however, in the sense that Khrushchev chose to withdraw rather than make Cuba a test of national or personal virility. Had Acheson and the other hawks had their way probably none of us would be here to conduct these post-mortems. Robert Kennedy had something quite interesting to say about this. In an interview given just two days before his death, he commented on the advice given in the Executive Committee during the crisis:

The fourteen people involved were very significant—bright, able, dedicated people, all of whom had the greatest affection for the US—probably the brightest kind of group that you could get together under those circumstances. If six of them had been President of the US, I think that the world might have been blown up.

None of these six is particularly malicious or fanatical, and none is in the government today. Yet if a similar crisis were to occur, would the response of the President’s advisers be very different from that given by these six in 1962? The lesson of the Thirteen Days is to show us just how slender is the thread of our survival, how the fate of mankind rests in the hands of a few individuals driven by perfectly ordinary fears, anxieties, and rivalries. The Cuban missile crisis was a very close call, and it could have gone the other way.

Were the stakes worth it? Even Robert Kennedy was no longer sure. He intended to complete this memoir by adding a discussion of the ethical question involved: what, if any, circumstances or justification gives this government or any government the moral right to bring its people and possibly all people under the shadow of nuclear destruction? It is our common loss that this complex man, who in the last years of his life learned to doubt much of what he had taken for granted, was murdered before he could deal with this question.

This Issue

March 13, 1969