The story of the Cuban missiles begins in April 1962, when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to increase very substantially the limited military support hitherto provided by the USSR to the government of Fidel Castro in Cuba. At his urging the Soviet Presidium duly assented to a military build-up on the island which, in its final form, was to include some 50,000 Soviet military personnel, organized in five nuclear missile regiments, four motorized regiments, two tank battalions, one MIG-21 fighter wing, forty-two IL-28 light bombers, two cruise missile regiments, twelve SA-2 anti- aircraft units with 144 launchers, and a squadron of eleven submarines, seven of them equipped with nuclear missiles.

President John F. Kennedy and US intelligence analysts were aware of the growing Soviet military presence in Cuba. But it was only after August 29, 1962, when a U-2 reconnaissance plane spotted the SA-2 missile sites, that Kennedy went public, on September 4, with a warning that whereas such land-to-air defensive missiles were acceptable, the installation of offensive missiles in Cuba would not be. On September 13, during a press conference, he repeated the warning: “If at any time…Cuba were to…become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union, then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.”1

What Kennedy did not then know was that by September the Soviet build-up also included thirty-six SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and twenty-four SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), together with their nuclear warheads. (The first nuclear warheads arrived in Mariel aboard a Soviet freighter on October 4; by October 28, when the crisis ended, all the warheads for both sorts of missiles and all the SS-4 missiles themselves were actually in Cuba—only the SS-5s remained to be delivered.) Indeed, the Kennedy administration had been assured, by Khrushchev and by Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the US, that no such missiles were or would be placed in Cuba. When Dobrynin in early September asked how he might reply to a private question from Robert Kennedy about the Cuban situation, he was instructed by Moscow that “in talking to the Americans you should confirm that there are only defensive Soviet weapons in Cuba.”

Dobrynin reassured Robert Kennedy accordingly, with all the more conviction in that he, too, knew nothing about the ballistic missile emplacements. The US authorities accepted these reassurances, particularly since, as George Ball notes in his memoirs, the Soviet Union had never hitherto placed offensive missile bases outside its own territory, not even in the neighboring countries of the Warsaw Pact.2

The significance of the MRBMs and IRBMs lay in their reach. They were designed not to hit incoming aircraft but to land on targets deep inside the US; the range of an SS-4 was about 1100 nautical miles, that of an SS-5 nearly twice that. A Soviet MRBM of that era, launched from Cuba, could hit Washington, D.C.; an IRBM could hit almost any target in the continental US, sparing only the far Pacific Northwest. They were useless as defensive weapons; their only possible value was offensive—or as a deterrent to the offensives of others. Thus when a U-2 flying over San Cristobal, in western Cuba, on October 14 spotted three missile sites under construction, and when these sites were identified in Washington as identical to known MRBM launch sites in the Soviet Union, President Kennedy and his advisers drew the obvious conclusion. They had been lied to and their warnings had been ignored. The Soviet Union was placing offensive missiles in Cuba, missiles that could only be deployed against targets in the US. The Cuban missile crisis had begun.

The first, confidential phase of the crisis, from early morning on October 16, when McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, woke him up with the bad news, until 7 PM on the evening of October 22, when President Kennedy announced a naval quarantine around Cuba, was confined to a handful of men in Washington, D.C.: the “Executive Committee” (ExComm) that Kennedy gathered around him to decide what to do. The deliberations of this group, secretly taped by Kennedy himself, have now been painstakingly transcribed and impeccably edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow.

Curiously, and like Khrushchev, who had made no contingency plans for the eventuality of his missile build-up being discovered before completion, Kennedy and his advisers had given no thought to what they should do if just such a crisis should occur: “No one, as far as I can remember,” Bundy later wrote, “thought it necessary in September to consider what we would do if our warnings were disregarded…. This was a failure of foresight, and one of the reasons for respecting the quality of the basic decision President Kennedy reached on October 20 is that he had to begin on the sixteenth almost from a standing start.”3 That decision, of course, was to announce a partial quarantine of Cuba, under which ships suspected of carrying military supplies would be stopped from entering Cuban waters. But among the other strategies considered—and according to Kennedy it was not until October 21 that he made his final decision—were a more comprehensive blockade than the selective one eventually imposed, an air strike on the missile sites in Cuba, a blanket air strike on the island’s military bases, and a full-scale military invasion.


The Joint Chiefs of Staff favored the most extreme response, but they had little civilian backing on ExComm. The option of ignoring the build-up and continuing as before had no takers. For five days ExComm debated three unknowns: How many missiles were in place and were they operational? How would the NATO allies react to either an insufficient US response or an excessive one, the dilemma of “credibility” that obsessed Kennedy and his close advisers? And what would Khrushchev do in response to various possible American moves?

An air strike risked missing some of the missile sites—their exact number was unknown—and thus inviting a response from those still in place, or in some part of the world where the balance of forces favored the Soviet Union, notably Berlin. Conversely, if the nuclear warheads were not yet in Cuba—and no one at this stage knew the answer to that—an air strike was excessive; a blockade on all incoming offensive weaponry would suffice. And since an invasion took some advance planning, it could be kept in reserve as an option if all else failed. Meanwhile, a naval blockade or quarantine would buy both sides time to reconsider. Following the advice of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Under Secretary of State George Ball, and his Soviet experts (former ambassadors Charles Bohlen and Llewellyn Thompson), this was the option that Kennedy chose.

On October 22, then, having first informed senior congressmen, leading NATO allies, and the Soviet leadership of his intentions, Kennedy announced to the world the presence of offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba and the US response—a limited naval quarantine (civilian necessities would be allowed through) until the offending weaponry had been removed. To justify his actions, Kennedy emphasized the threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere and the US commitment to defending the West, as well as the danger now faced by Americans living under the shadow of nuclear missiles.

How would Khrushchev respond to the quarantine and the accompanying demands? Thanks to his memoirs and to the Soviet archival material presented by Fursenko and Naftali in ‘One Hell of a Gamble,’ we know that Khrushchev was thoroughly chastened and confused by the course of events. The men sitting in the White House did not know this, however, and even those who suspected it could not be sure. When the quarantine went into effect at 10 AM on October 24, the crisis seemed to be approaching its climax. That day Khrushchev sent Kennedy a cable insisting that Soviet weaponry in Cuba was purely defensive and threatening to ignore the quarantine—“We confirm that armaments now on Cuba, regardless of classification to which they belong, are destined exclusively for defensive purposes, in order to save Cuban Republic from attack of aggressor.” What, then, would happen if a US destroyer hailed a Soviet vessel and it refused to stop? Kennedy himself was not optimistic. Far from expecting Khrushchev to accede to his demands, he feared a speed-up in the missile-site construction, a formal threat of Soviet nuclear retaliation if the US were to attack Cuba—and possibly a move to take advantage of the crisis to squeeze the West out of Berlin.

In fact, the whole matter passed off peacefully. Kennedy and his colleagues took special care to seek out a harmless (Panamanian-owned) freighter to intercept and allow through, thus making their point without running undue risks. On the advice of his friend David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador to the US, Kennedy also reduced the quarantine zone from 800 miles, as initially announced, to 500 miles, giving the Soviets more time to reflect and to call back their ships. Khrushchev in turn did not wish to have the US discover and inspect his most advanced weaponry, and so, as Kennedy had anticipated and hoped, he ordered missile-carrying ships to stop and turn back, which they did on Thursday, October 25. The quarantine had not led to a shooting war. But the US administration still had no solution to its primary concern, Soviet nuclear missiles already in Cuba. Plans for an air strike and even an invasion continued.

Then, on Friday the 26th, Khrushchev sent a long and rather rambling private communication to Kennedy in which he deplored the drift towards war: “If indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and I know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.” Instead, he proposed a solution:


If assurances were given by the President and the government of the United States that the USA itself would not participate in an attack on Cuba and would restrain others from actions of this sort, if you would recall your fleet, this would immediately change everything…. Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear…. Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knots of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter this knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied 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.

Khrushchev’s letter, born of a growing fear in the Kremlin that Kennedy was about to attack Cuba and force a confrontation, might have defused the crisis there and then.4 But the next day, Saturday the 27th, it was followed by a public and more formal letter, which made any settlement contingent on a quid pro quo: withdrawal of the offensive missiles in Cuba in return for the removal of NATO’s nuclear missiles in Turkey. The Soviet proposal put Kennedy in a difficult position—as he commented to George Ball that Saturday morning, “Well, this is unsettling now, George, because he’s got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people would regard this as not an unreasonable proposal.”

The complications of such an exchange (to be discussed below), together with the shooting down of a U-2 reconnaissance plane over Cuba that same day, seemed to leave the crisis unresolved and the clock ticking. Kennedy’s military advisers insisted that delaying an air strike beyond Monday, October 29, was imprudent; but the President himself was more concerned than ever about the acknowledged impossibility of destroying all the missiles in one strike. As he remarked on Friday, “It still comes down to a question of whether they’re going to fire the missiles.” In the end it was decided to reply to Khrushchev’s first letter and, in essence, accept it. Meanwhile Robert Kennedy was dispatched to meet privately with Ambassador Dobrynin that Saturday eve-ning and impress upon him the urgency of an agreement, and the possibility of coming to a confidential understanding on the “missile swap.”

Dobrynin’s report of this meeting—that the Americans were serious and that President Kennedy was under irresistible military pressure to commit the irreversible—may have exaggerated Robert Kennedy’s message, but it had the desired result. On Sunday, October 28, Radio Moscow broadcast Khrushchev’s formal acceptance of the official US terms for an end to the crisis—“The Soviet Government… has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you described as offensive, and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union”—and work on dismantling the missiles began directly.5 Much remained to be worked out—the exact list of matériel to be removed from Cuba, the conditions of observation and on-site supervision, which Castro (furious at the outcome) vehemently rejected, and the secret understanding to remove missiles in Turkey.

The US imprudently pressed its public advantage to insist that the IL-28 light bombers be removed as well, even though Kennedy himself had privately recognized that they posed little threat. But Khrushchev conceded these terms, on November 20 the quarantine was lifted, and on December 6 the last bomber was shipped out.6 The NATO missiles were removed from Turkey by April 1963, as unofficially promised.


Why did Khrushchev do it? It made no sense to install some of the Soviet Union’s most advanced (and vulnerable) military hardware seven thousand miles away on an undefendable island, in the hope that the US would not notice what was happening until it was too late. During the crisis Kennedy and his advisers came up with four possible explanations for this aberrant behavior: (i) Cuba was to be a “lever” for Soviet ambitions in Berlin: “Let go in Berlin or else”; (ii) the move was part of internal Kremlin power struggles; (iii) Khrushchev was trying to compensate for Soviet strategic inferiority; (iv) Khrushchev seriously feared a coming US invasion of Cuba and was seeking ways to avert it.

Of these only (iii) and (iv) were true, in some degree—and it is symptomatic of the near-tragedy of errors in October 1962 that most of the men in the White House were much more disposed to believe and act on the assumption of (i) or (ii). Khrushchev was certainly frustrated with his inability to shift the Western allies from Berlin, despite his threats and bluffs of the past five years; what he calls in his memoirs the “anomalous” outcome of the 1945 Potsdam accords was a source of irritation to the Soviet Union throughout the first decades of the cold war.7 But a change in the Berlin situation would at most have been a side benefit of a Soviet nuclear presence in Cuba; it was not its main purpose.

Khrushchev’s main purpose was to compensate, rather desperately, for Soviet military shortcomings. Until 1961 the USSR had seemed quite well-placed. The outcome of the Suez crisis of 1956 had misled Khrushchev into thinking that his threat at the time to fire off rockets if the Anglo-French expedition didn’t withdraw had played a crucial part in the dénouement (it didn’t). The successful launching of Sputnik in 1957 and Khrushchev’s own exaggerated boasting had aroused American fears of a “missile gap”—fears that Kennedy successfully exploited in his 1960 election campaign. But high-level reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union had convinced the Americans that Soviet intercontinental ballistic capacity had been vastly overstated, and in October 1961 Roswell Gilpatric, the US assistant secretary of defense, had publicly revealed US knowledge of Soviet strategic inferiority. A year later, by the time of the Cuban crisis, the Soviet Union was at a 17-1 disadvantage in intercontinental missiles.8

Khrushchev knew this, and he knew that the Americans knew it. In John Gaddis’s words he “understood more clearly than Kennedy that the West was winning the cold war.”9 The Soviet resumption of atmospheric testing in August 1961—followed by the US decision to follow suit in April 1962—did nothing to allay Khrushchev’s sense of military inferiority (to which should be added his domestic agricultural failures and the chorus of Chinese attacks on Soviet “revisionism”). The temptation to place medium-range missiles (with which the Soviet Union was well supplied) just off the Florida coast seemed irresistible. After all, the US had bases all around the frontiers of the USSR. As Khrushchev complained to US Ambassador Thompson in April 1961, “The USA…believes that it has the right to put military bases along the borders of the USSR”—and a few Soviet missiles up against America’s borders would serve it right. “The Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you.”10

In addition to the psychic reward of jolting the Americans—“throwing a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants” as Khrushchev put it to his colleagues in April 1962—Khrushchev had another motive. American experts had not fully appreciated the depth of Khrushchev’s fears for Cuban security. But these were real, and by no means irrational. With some help from Castro himself the US had made of Cuba a pariah state; it had actively supported one abortive invasion and was known to be devising all manner of schemes to undermine and overthrow the local regime, including the elimination of Castro himself. The Cubans themselves had the Guatemalan coup of 1954 firmly in memory, and they never tired of warning Moscow of impending attacks and possible invasions, not all of them the product of Castro’s overheated imagination.

If the Soviet Union could not protect its new (and only) friend in the Western Hemisphere against US attack, how credible was it as the mainspring of progress and revolution? A year after the Bay of Pigs debacle, Khrushchev was obsessed by the fear that the US might invade Cuba: “While I was on an official visit to Bulgaria [in April 1962]…one thought kept hammering away at my brain: what will happen if we lose Cuba?”11 But the only protection Moscow could realistically offer Castro was a threat sufficiently terrible, immediate, and local to deter the Americans from any future aggression. Hence the decision to introduce the missiles.

Khrushchev was not just whistling in the dark when, in The Glasnost Tapes, he claimed to have gained something from his maneuver: “Our aim was to preserve Cuba. Today, Cuba exists.” In retrospect, even some of the American participants in the missile crisis conceded the reasonable basis of Soviet fears—“After all, there was the Bay of Pigs and afterward a series of pointless ‘dirty tricks’ pulled on Castro by the Central Intelligence Agency and Cuban exiles.”12 But the American leadership at the time had obsessions of its own, which obscured Soviet objectives from view. To begin with, the members of ExComm were old enough to remember, and invoke, the events of the Thirties and Forties. The errors of appeasement, the success of the Berlin airlift of 1948-1949, the lessons of the Korean War, were uppermost in their thinking. After his criticisms of Eisenhower, his failure at the Bay of Pigs, and his poor showing at the 1961 Vienna summit, Kennedy was ultra-sensitive to any hint of indecision or weakness. On October 19, the third day of the crisis, General Curtis LeMay, the head of the Air Force, pressed him to take decisive military action: “I see no other solution. This blockade and political action, I see leading into war…. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.”13

There were more recent analogies, too. American pressure on the British and French to withdraw from Suez in November 1956 had led to fears among the NATO countries that when it came to a war the US might retreat to its hemisphere, abandoning the vulnerable and exposed European allies. Hence the perceived need in Washington to “stand firm.” Conversely, the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs had taught Kennedy and his advisers the wisdom of observing at least the forms of legality. Hence the decision—urged upon Kennedy by Dean Rusk in particular—that there should be no unannounced actions, and that any actions taken should be both prudent and legal so as not to shake further the allies’ confidence.

These foreign policy concerns made Kennedy simultaneously resolute and cautious. Domestic politics, however, all pointed toward a need to appear uncompromising, at least in public. Republican congressmen, notably Senator Kenneth Keating, had for some time been warning of the growing threat from Soviet missiles in Cuba; the administration’s belated public acknowledgement of the extent of the danger gave its opponents a leverage over the handling of the crisis that Kennedy felt had to be offset by an appearance of granite resolve. Most of his nonmilitary advisers, with McNamara in the lead, were convinced that the missile emplacements had no impact on the United States’ overall strategic superiority and thus in no way increased US vulnerability. As McGeorge Bundy later observed, it was not US missile superiority but the mere risk of nuclear war which kept Khrushchev from ever pushing too near the brink.14 But President Kennedy, who was not much liked by his senior officers and who faced a midterm election the following month, could hardly say this in public. Robert Kennedy reported himself as having said to his older brother at the height of the crisis, “If you hadn’t acted you would have been impeached”—a remark to which the President apparently nodded agreement. This is characteristic hyperbole from the excitable younger Kennedy, but it certainly must have been a factor in the President’s decisions at the time.15

These background considerations had a major part in determining the US response to the Cuban missile crisis—indeed, they helped define for the US leadership just what sort of a crisis it actually was. Thus Kennedy and his advisers were reluctant to play down the Soviet threat, or trade missiles in Turkey, or do anything else that might “let down our friends” and make them lose faith in American determination to preserve the free world. In fact the danger of allied disenchantment was vastly exaggerated—as the British ambassador to Washington reported himself saying to Kennedy at the height of the crisis, “Very few people outside the United States would consider the provocation offered by the Cubans serious enough to merit an American air attack.”16

Nevertheless, when ExComm discussed the possibility of a missile swap as proposed in the second Soviet letter of October 27, which would mean depriving the Turks of their recently installed NATO missiles, McGeorge Bundy summed up the common view: “In our own terms it would already be clear that we were trying to sell our allies for our interests. That would be the view in all of NATO. Now, it’s irrational and it’s crazy, but it’s a terribly powerful fact.”

The missiles in question were “the Jupiters” of Philip Nash’s title. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the crisis plot, and their story is told in full for the first time in his book. In December 1957 NATO decided to install these intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Turkey and in Italy. Their presence fulfilled US promises to provide its allies with credible defenses against the Soviet nuclear threat, plugged the apparent “missile gap” in the aftermath of Sputnik, and provided a use for an early generation of vulnerable, ground-based, liquid-fueled American missiles that were obsolete long before the last of them was deployed, after numerous delays, in March 1962. The Turks alone wanted them, and more for domestic political reasons than anything else. About the only military value of the Jupiters lay in increasing the number of targets the USSR would have to attack in the event of war.

Few had any illusions about these weapons, which were provocative to the Soviets and of no help to the West. Even Eisenhower, the president who approved their installation, thought them militarily insignificant, according to Nash. Kennedy’s advisers would later try to outdo one another in dismissing them: “worse than useless” (Bundy), “we joked about which way those missiles would go if they were fired” (Rusk), “a pile of junk” (McNamara—whose first defense review unsuccessfully recommended cancellation of the Jupiters’ deployment).17 When the crisis began some officials, Rusk and McNamara especially, were initially keen to put the Jupiters on the table as a negotiating chip, and were restrained only by the collective belief that the Turks, and other NATO allies, would be disheartened by such cynical lack of attention to their feelings and needs.18 Later, some of the ExComm members calculated that even if an air strike on Cuba brought retaliation against the Jupiters, that would be a reasonable and tolerable risk.

Khrushchev, meanwhile, was equally aware of the Jupiters’ negligible military significance, and he paid them little attention. But when, on October 27, he and his colleagues thought they detected the chance of a negotiated compromise—perhaps overinterpreting as a direct hint some casual remarks in a newspaper article by Walter Lippmann—they decided to invoke the Jupiters as a way of getting something more out of the unpromising situation in which they now found themselves.

The Americans, as we have seen, were embarrassed by a suggestion which in other circumstances would not have been unwelcome, and so it was only as part of a highly secretive deal that the removal of the Jupiters was agreed to, thereby depriving the Soviets of the propaganda advantage they had sought from a public missile “swap.” As Khrushchev would later conclude, “This agreement was primarily of moral significance and had no practical consequences. All those missiles were obsolete and America did not need them. The Americans would have removed them even if there were no conflict between us.” 19

Why the secrecy, then? Why did McNamara, Rusk, Bundy, and others lie to Congress and others for years to come, insisting there was no such deal (and making Kennedy look strikingly unreasonable and uncooperative as a result)? Partly, once again, to protect the sensibilities of their allies, partly to protect JFK’s image and the record of uncompromised victory. And partly, if Anatoly Dobrynin is to be believed, to protect the future presidential ambitions of his brother. “Very privately, Robert Kennedy added that some day—who knows?—he might run for president, and his prospects could be damaged if this secret deal about the missiles in Turkey were to come out.” 20 The secret was kept at least until the early Eighties, when George Ball and others hinted at it in their memoirs. It is noteworthy that the Soviet leadership, who might have had an interest in making it more widely known, chose never to do so.

Two final considerations shaped and inhibited US behavior in the crisis. One, of course, was the unhealthy obsession with Cuba. The Kennedys did much to fan this near-hysteria—it was John Kennedy who had once described Eisenhower’s relatively restrained approach to Cuba as “the most glaring failure of American foreign policy.” Having talked up the Cuban threat in public and (in Robert Kennedy’s case) assiduously encouraged and participated in “Mongoose” and other CIA schemes in 1961-1962 to destroy Castro, they were ill-placed to minimize the danger in October. For the same reason they did not fully grasp how much their preoccupations had made Cuba one of the Kremlin’s own major concerns.21 Once Khrushchev had decided to place offensive missiles there, however, the visceral unacceptability to Americans of Soviet missiles being that close to home (something Europeans had lived with for many years) was itself a political element in the situation that Kennedy could hardly ignore.

Finally, there was Berlin. In retrospect it seems absurd that Kennedy and his advisers should have been so obsessed by the possibility of a Soviet move there. They were convinced that Khrushchev was engaged in a complex, Machiavellian ploy to achieve his longstanding German objectives. Hardly an hour passed during the first ten days of the crisis without ExComm reverting to the subject of West Berlin, to the need to counter Khrushchev’s anticipated countermove in the divided city. As Kennedy said on October 22 to the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (the only foreign leader whom he consulted throughout the crisis), “I need not point out to you the possible relation of this secret and dangerous move on the part of Khrushchev to Berlin.”

The lesson of 1948 had been learned too well—“To the Kennedy administration West Berlin was indeed a vital interest of the West,” Bundy wrote, and of course the most vulnerable. Just as Truman and Acheson had seen the Korean incursion as a possible prelude to a Soviet probe across the divided frontier of Germany, so Kennedy and his colleagues saw in the missile emplacements in Cuba a Soviet device to blackmail a vulnerable America into giving way in Berlin.22

The irony is that the Berlin crisis of the early Sixties was in fact already over. Ever since 1957 Khrushchev had been pressing for a “resolution” to the unfinished business of West Berlin. On more than one occasion he had threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with the East German regime and give the latter full control of access to Berlin’s western half. At the Vienna summit meeting with Kennedy he tried to use Soviet superiority in conventional forces as a threat to push the Americans out of West Berlin. In the summer of 1961, duly impressed, Kennedy even increased the national defense budget specifically to buttress the US military presence there.

Khrushchev was bluffing—he did have a vast superiority of local conventional forces in Europe and could have occupied West Berlin (and most of Western Europe) any time he wished. But the US had sworn to defend the freedom of West Berlin by all means—which in practice meant nuclear weapons—and Khrushchev had no intention of risking nuclear war for Germany. Instead, he resolved the local dilemma of the East German authorities—the thousands of their subjects who were voting with their feet and heading west—by putting up the Wall in August 1961. Two months later he withdrew his earlier “deadline” for a peace treaty and nothing more was said of the matter.23

But the Americans, here as elsewhere, took Soviet bluster and propaganda all too seriously and—mistakenly believing that Berlin mattered as much to the Russians as it did to the West—built their understanding of US-Soviet relations around the Berlin question.24 This dramatically ratcheted up the apparent meaning of the Cuban crisis. Thus Kennedy said on October 19: “I don’t think we’ve got any satisfactory alternatives…. Our problem is not merely Cuba but it is also Berlin. And when we recognize the importance of Berlin to Europe, and recognize the importance of our allies to us, that’s what has made this thing be a dilemma for these days. Otherwise, our answer would be quite easy.” Give him an inch on Cuba, ran the general line, and he’ll take a mile on Berlin. Three days earlier, as the crisis began, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had summarized his own interpretation of the Soviet actions: “I think also that Berlin is very much involved in this. For the first time, I’m beginning really to wonder whether maybe Mr. Khrushchev is entirely rational about Berlin.” Today’s readers of The Kennedy Tapes may be more disposed to ask that question of Khrushchev’s American adversaries.


The books under review, The Kennedy Tapes in particular, provide the opportunity for us to think afresh about men we thought we knew, the more so since they were speaking “off the record”—only the Kennedy brothers knew they were being recorded. Dean Acheson, a diplomat of considerable stature during his years as secretary of state under Truman, is here revealed as a grumpy old statesman who has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. From beginning to end he presses for an immediate air strike and more. When his advice is ignored and the moderate approach is successful he attributes it ungenerously to “just plain dumb luck.” Douglas Dillon, Kennedy’s urbane secretary of the treasury, comes across in the tapes as an unreasoning warmonger, hungry for military action.

Senators Richard Russell and William Fulbright, who were among the senior congressmen brought in on the secret before Kennedy’s October 22 press conference, express views that are quite frightening. Discussing Kennedy’s choices, Russell declares, “A war, our destiny, will hinge on it. But it’s coming someday, Mr. President. Will it ever be under more auspicious circumstances?” Likewise Fulbright—“I’m in favor, on the basis of this information, of an invasion, and an all-out one, and as quickly as possible.” Fortunately, Kennedy was not seeking the advice of these men and their congressional colleagues, merely their support, and this at least they gave him.

The advice Kennedy received from his service chiefs was similarly extreme. From beginning to end they pressed for immediate and large-scale air strikes and an invasion, and even after Khrushchev’s acceptance of Kennedy’s terms they voted for military intervention nonetheless, with only General Maxwell Taylor, their chairman, dissenting. Military contempt for the young president is palpable, with General LeMay’s remarks bordering on insolence. Fortunately Kennedy only met with them once, as a group, on October 19, and their scorn for him was matched by his suspicion of them. His exchange with the head of the Army, General Earle Wheeler, is characteristic:

General Wheeler: “From a military point of view, I feel that the lowest-risk course of action is the full gamut of military action by us. That’s it.”

President Kennedy: “Thank you, General.”25

In striking contrast, Kennedy’s professional diplomats gave him excellent advice. Llewellyn Thompson, the former ambassador to Moscow, is especially impressive. He was always perceptive (and virtually alone) in his estimates of Khrushchev’s likely motives and coming moves, and by October 18 he had accurately described to the President the course that events should and would take:

Thompson: “I think it’s very highly doubtful that the Russians would resist a blockade against military weapons, particularly offensive ones, if that’s the way we pitched it before the world.”

JFK: “What do we do with the weapons already there?”

Thompson: “Demand they’re dismantled, and say that we’re going to maintain constant surveillance.”

Among the inner circle of Kennedy advisers, most of whom we are predisposed to see through the dark glass of Vietnam, George Ball maintained a moderate attitude, always seeking the least provocative and most promising avenue out of the dilemma—hardly surprising to those who recall his later dissent from the Indochina policy of the Johnson years. He was one of the first, on October 18, to articulate clearly the case against a sudden surprise attack on Cuba: “It’s the kind of conduct that one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one expects of the United States. And I have a feeling that this 24 hours to Khrushchev is really indispensable.” This advice was based on the insightful conclusion, which Ball reached on the first day of the crisis, that the Soviets didn’t realize what they had done. McGeorge Bundy was sharp and analytical, asking hard questions about the risks of an attack, though he curiously inclined toward the end of the first week to align himself with the hardliners, whose assumptions he nevertheless clearly questioned.

Robert McNamara’s views, on the other hand, may come as a surprise to those who recall his advocacy of bombing in Indochina. Throughout the crisis he was the voice of moderate common sense. On October 16 he told his colleagues, “I would strongly urge against the air attack, to be quite frank about it, because I think the danger to this country in relation to the gain that would accrue would be excessive.” After describing the naval blockade option in some anticipatory detail on the same day, he acknowledged that “this alternative doesn’t seem to be a very acceptable one. But wait until you work on the others.” And despite having to fulfill his role as secretary of defense and assess the pros and cons of military options, he was always among the most clearheaded of the group in understanding that the crisis, and its resolution, were and must remain above all political.

Dean Rusk, too, comes across in these pages as a force for reason and calm. He spoke most emphatically on October 24 against those (among them Robert Kennedy) who wanted to capture and inspect Soviet vessels carrying arms; the point, he reminded his colleagues more than once, was not to seize Soviet ships but simply to prevent missiles from reaching Cuba with the use of minimum force. In view of his sad performance during the Vietnam War, it is worth recalling for the record that during the Cuban crisis at least he always favored negotiation, a role for the United Nations, and a peaceful resolution if at all possible.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson, too, displayed an unfamiliar side during these days. He spoke little and was not one of the men to whose opinion Kennedy paid very close attention. But when he did speak he was rather impressive. On Saturday, October 27, he had a revealing exchange with McNamara, as the group debated how to respond to Khrushchev’s offer of a missile “swap”:

Johnson: “Bob, if you’re willing to give up your missiles in Turkey, you think you ought to defuse them, why don’t you say that to him and say we’re cutting a trade, make the trade there, [and] save all the invasion, lives, and everything else?”

McNamara: “I said I thought it was the realistic solution to the problem.”

Johnson: “Sure. Right. What we were afraid of was he would never offer this, and what he would want to do is trade Berlin.”

Later the same day, when Dillon and others were suggesting nighttime photographic surveillance of Cuban missile sites with the use of flares, Johnson cut in heatedly:

I’ve been afraid of these damned flares ever since they mentioned them….

Imagine some crazy Russian captain doing it. The damn thing [the flare] goes “blooey” and lights up the skies. He might just pull a trigger. Looks like we’re playing Fourth of July over there or something. I’m scared of that….

And I don’t see what you get with that photograph that’s so much more important than what you…You know they’re working at night, and you can see them working at night. Now, what do you do?

Psychologically, you scare them [the Soviets]. Well, hell, it’s like the fellow telling me in Congress: “Go on and put the monkey on his back.” Every time I tried to put a monkey on somebody else’s back, I got one. If you’re going to try to psychologically scare them with a flare, you’re liable to get your bottom shot at.

The flares proposal was duly abandoned.

In contrast, Robert Kennedy’s political reputation can only suffer from the publication of these records. To be sure, his “back channel” conversations with Ambassador Dobrynin helped draw the crisis to a close, and toward the end he was one of those, with Thompson and Bundy, who saw the advantage of accepting Khrushchev’s first communication and ignoring the more troublesome follow-up letter.26 But in the early days of the crisis Robert Kennedy’s contributions were unhelpful, to say the least. As the administration’s senior figure most intimately committed to the tactic of “dirty tricks,” he was angrily belligerent in response to the Soviet move. On the first day of the crisis he burst out, “…If he [Khrushchev] wants to get into a war over this…. Hell, if it’s war that’s gonna come on this thing, or if he sticks those kinds of missiles after the warning, then he’s gonna get into a war six months from now, or a year from now. So…”

This was consistent with the younger Kennedy’s personal obsession with the Cuban issue. In January 1962 he had informed the CIA/Pentagon group secretly at work undermining Castro that “we are in a combat situation with Cuba.” To the incoming director of the CIA, John McCone, he announced that Cuba was “the top priority in the US government—all else is secondary—no time, no money, effort or manpower is to be spared.” His older brother’s senior advisers clearly did not think much of him. George Ball, who later claimed to be “pleasantly surprised” by RFK’s caution and good sense as the crisis unfolded, conceded that “until then I had not had much respect for his judgment; he had seemed to me—particularly in comparison with his brother—immature, far too emotional, and inclined to see everything in absolute terms with too little sensitivity to nuance and qualification.”

Dean Rusk, who resented the “spin” that Robert Kennedy gave to his role in the crisis in his posthumous account of it, acidly notes in his memoirs that “the emotion that Bobby Kennedy portrayed in his book The Thirteen Days and that was reflected in the television program ‘The Missiles of October’ was unique to Bobby; this was his first major crisis.” Anatoly Dobrynin, who knew Robert Kennedy well and worked closely with him in these weeks, summed him up quite fairly: “He was a complex and contradictory person who often lost his temper; at such moments he behaved badly and was unpleasant to deal with…. He did not know the foreign policy questions in detail, but apparently thought himself to be expert in them. This at times complicated the dialogue, particularly when he spoke on behalf of the president.” Dobrynin, like everyone else, recognized the necessity of getting on with the younger Kennedy. “His clear intimacy with his brother made him a very valuable channel of communication.” But nothing in the recorded evidence or the recollections of the senior staff of either John Kennedy or Nikita Khrushchev suggests that Robert Kennedy’s ascension to the presidency would have been an asset to the US in world affairs.27

How near did the world come to disaster during those two weeks, thirty-five years ago? The most likely cause of a shooting war would clearly have been sheer misadventure—a missile fired, a bomb dropped, a ship sunk by accident or by some unauthorized trigger-happy officer. As it was, the US went to Defense Condition 2 on October 24 (one step short of general war) and the Soviets “unintentionally” brought down a U-2 over Cuba on October 27. Either of these moves, or an attempt to stop a sensitive ship in the quarantine zone, could have been fatal, if only by misleading the other side into supposing that war was imminent. But they weren’t fatal. And if they weren’t, it was because the top leader on each side was determined they shouldn’t be.

We might also ask what would have happened if Khrushchev had not accepted within twenty-four hours Kennedy’s reply/ultimatum of Saturday the 27th. At the time it seemed as if the US had no fallback position and would have had to begin air strikes and an invasion the following week, as ExComm had agreed it must, in view of the fact that construction of the missile sites was apparently continuing apace.28 In fact, as we have only learned in recent years, Kennedy did have a secret reserve position. He would, in extremis, have authorized Dean Rusk to encourage U Thant, the UN Secretary General, to propose a public missile swap which the US would then have accepted. In other words, if all else failed, he would have agreed to the terms of the second, “unacceptable” Soviet letter of September 27, proposing the removal of the Jupiters and an agreement not to invade Cuba in exchange for the dismantling of the missiles there.29

But even if there really had been no fallback plan and Kennedy had authorized air strikes and an invasion of Cuba in the following days, a generalized nuclear war would probably not have happened, despite the strong Soviet military presence in Cuba (stronger than the Americans knew) and the nuclear weapons already there. The reason, once again, is very simple. In McGeorge Bundy’s words, “The largest single factor that might have led to nuclear war—the readiness of one leader or the other to regard that outcome as remotely acceptable—simply did not exist in October 1962.” Both leaders tried hard to pretend otherwise, of course, for the sake of public appearance and because their diplomatic strategies depended upon the credibility of their nuclear threats. And in The Glasnost Tapes, Khrushchev does suggest that precisely because the Soviet Union could not have responded to a Cuban invasion with an effective attack on the US, (conventional) war might have broken out in the European theater instead.30 But even this seems unlikely. Khrushchev’s own state of mind in the crucial ninety-six hours between the start of the quarantine and his agreement to remove the missiles is now quite clear—he was horrified at the prospect of war and decided very quickly that the game was not worth the candle.

The whole crisis, and the degree of risk it entailed, thus hinged on a paradox. If Kennedy and his colleagues had known what Khrushchev’s real purposes were, they might have been able to defuse the whole business quietly and privately (though Bundy and other commentators always insisted that Khrushchev’s own bluff required a public response, lest he suppose that the US wasn’t serious about resisting him). But had the Americans also known how many armed nuclear missiles the USSR had already installed in Cuba—and how reluctant Khrushchev was actually to fire them—the temptation to act first and talk afterward might have proven irresistible. So their partial ignorance both provoked the drama and prevented a tragic dÌ©nouement.

Conversely, had the US not uncovered Khrushchev’s plans to install missiles in Cuba before they were complete, Kennedy would certainly have been faced, in November 1962, with a huge political dilemma: accept the indefinite presence of Soviet ballistic missiles just off the US coast, or else stage a crisis under much less favorable military and diplomatic conditions. This situation might have been made worse by Khrushchev, who, with his missiles securely in situ, could have been tempted to push his advantage well beyond what was prudent; at best he would then have suffered a reversal even more humiliating and public than the one he accepted on October 28.

Given Khrushchev’s decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba (a decision taken well before Kennedy’s public warnings of September 1962), an international crisis of some kind was thus unavoidable. If it took the unnecessarily terrifying form that it did, this was in large measure because of a simple American misunderstanding that can stand as a metaphor for much of the early cold war. The officials in Washington thought that their Soviet opponents were playing a complicated game of diplomatic chess, with the various pawns on the international board—Czechoslovakia, Korea, Germany, Egypt, Indochina, and now Cuba—being subtly moved around to the calculated advantage of the Moscow principals.

In fact, however, the Soviet leaders—first Stalin, now Khrushchev—were not playing chess. They were playing poker. They had a weak hand and they knew it—long before the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt made the observation, Khrushchev and many of his senior colleagues understood intuitively that the empire they ruled over was basically “Upper Volta with missiles.” So they bluffed. The outcome of the Cuban crisis would not have been very different if the Americans had realized sooner which game they were in; but the risks encountered along the way would have been much reduced.

Poker and chess have this in common, however—that their outcome depends more on the nerve, character, and intuition of the players than on any formal disposition of resources or rules. And the more we learn of the Cuban missile crisis the more we must come to appreciate the two men who held our fate in their hands in those days. Mr. Khrushchev’s role is easier to grasp. Having made a major miscalculation he resisted the temptation to raise the stakes. When Kennedy imposed a quarantine and demanded the removal of the missiles from Cuba, the Soviet leader could have responded by threatening nuclear retaliation if Soviet ships were intercepted or Cuban territory attacked. That, after all, was the logic of the missile emplacements in the first place—the threat of a nuclear response to deter the US from aggressive moves in the Caribbean.

But Khrushchev never even considered such a challenge. As he explained on October 30 to a disappointed Castro, who would have preferred an armed (and if necessary nuclear) confrontation with the Americans, “There’s no doubt that the Cuban people would have fought courageously or that they would have died heroically. But we are not struggling against imperialism in order to die….”31 Other Soviet leaders might well have behaved similarly—and Stalin, at least, would never have exposed himself as thoughtlessly as Khrushchev had done. All the same, it was Khrushchev whose decisions defused and resolved the Cuban crisis, and history owes him that much recognition.

John F. Kennedy’s position is more troubling. His own posturing, no less than that of Khrushchev, got the US into its Cuban imbroglio in the first place, and it was in large measure Kennedy’s need to seem strong, his concern for “credibility,” that fueled the rhetoric swirling around Washington in the autumn of 1962. He was a young president, under great pressure to do the “right” thing, possessing imperfect information about a possible threat to his country’s security, and advised by a mixed group of men (many of them older and more experienced) who had in common only their frequently reiterated awareness that this was a major crisis and that the fate of the world hung upon their decisions.

And yet The Kennedy Tapes reveal a remarkable coolness in John Kennedy, a willingness and a capacity to listen, question, absorb, weigh, and finally adjudicate in extraordinary circumstances. At each turn in the proceedings, Kennedy chose the most moderate available option, sometimes against the specialized advice pressing in upon him. Instead of an invasion he favored an air strike on missile bases; instead of a blanket air strike he favored selective strikes only; he insisted that no strikes, however selective, should happen until warning had been given. He opted for a naval blockade over immediate military action, and a partial naval quarantine over a blanket blockade on all shipping.32

It was at Kennedy’s insistence that an innocuous ship of non-Soviet registry was targeted for a symbolic exercise of the quarantine and he pressed his staff to obtain all possible legal and international support in advance of even that limited action. He ignored suggestions that the US might take advantage of the quarantine to seize Soviet ships carrying missiles in order to learn more about the Soviet weapons program. He rebuffed all pressure to respond aggressively when Captain Rudolf Anderson’s U-2 was shot down over Cuba on October 27, and repeatedly postponed the confidential deadline after which the countdown to US military intervention would begin. He welcomed the opportunity to use the Jupiter missiles in Turkey as a secret bargaining ploy and even authorized his secretary of state to have the United Nations urge him publicly to accept such a trade if all else failed. And just to be sure that there were no mistakes, on October 27 he instructed that those same Jupiter missiles be defused so that if he had to authorize air strikes on Cuba, and the Soviets responded by an attack on the Turkish missile sites, there would be minimal risk of further escalation.

Each of these decisions was taken in the face of criticism from some quarter among his advisers and generals—according to George Ball the defusing of the Jupiters was ordered “much to the disgust of those eager for dramatic action.”33 With hindsight we can see that Kennedy managed to obtain the best possible outcome in the circumstances. He was not just lucky, either, pace Acheson—he was consistent. In rejecting the advice he was offered in hundreds of hours of secret meetings he ran serious risks, too; as he remarked to the assembled senior congressmen on the day of his press conference revealing the crisis, “The people who are the best off are the people whose advice is not taken because whatever we do is filled with hazards.”

Of course Kennedy’s motives were never unmixed, and like any politician he sought to turn his management of the affair into a political asset. He presented himself, and his colleagues and admirers presented him, as the man who “faced down” the Soviets, who drew a line in the sand, who won the first phase of the cold war; in Dean Rusk’s words, spoken on Thursday, October 25, when the Soviet ships turned back, “We [were] eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.”34

Just to make sure, Kennedy went to the trouble of slandering his old political opponent Adlai Stevenson, then the US ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson, it was hinted, had been “soft” during the crisis, favoring negotiations and a missile “trade,” in contrast to Kennedy’s own firm, virile position. The implication—that Stevenson had been unwilling to “stand up to” the Soviets and that Kennedy had been uncompromising and unyielding—was doubly misleading; but after Charles Bartlett and Joseph Alsop published it in their “inside” account of the crisis in the December 8, 1962 issue of The Saturday Evening Post (with John Kennedy’s prior knowledge and approval), the damage was done. The irony is that Kennedy himself was no less a victim of these domestic “dirty tricks” than Stevenson: the qualities that the President did display during the crisis—patience, moderation, a capacity for independent judgment, and a steady preference for negotiation over confrontation—were kept hidden from view.

All modern US presidents are perforce also politicians, prisoners of their past pronouncements, their party, their constituency, and their colleagues. Yet there are advantages to a life spent in democratic politics: what these books show is how vulnerable Khrushchev was for lack of anyone to question his more impetuous moves, and how McGeorge Bundy’s logic, Dean Acheson’s diplomatic experience, and even Robert McNamara’s years at the head of the Ford Motor Company had furnished none of them with that “seat of the pants” instinct that John Kennedy (like Lyndon Johnson) brought to the ExComm discussions. In any case, how many recent US presidents would have fared better than Kennedy, or even half as well? It is a grimly sobering exercise to insert into The Kennedy Tapes some of JFK’s recent successors and guess at their likely conduct under such pressure. One of the side benefits of the Cuban crisis is that none of them has ever had to face similarly trying circumstances. Meanwhile, the editors of The Kennedy Tapes are, I think, convincing when they write: “It seems fortunate that, given the circumstances that he had helped create, Kennedy was the president charged with managing the crisis.”

This Issue

January 15, 1998