Posted 14 October 2004 - 07:22 AM
Question: Did JFK play the key role in ending the Cuban Missile Crisis? Was the final decision his or did he follow advice from others?
The divergence between good reasons and real reasons is at the root of the issue of why Khrushchev chose to deploy nuclear missiles to the Western Hemisphere. Publicly, Khrushchev always maintained that the U.S. created the need for the deployment by attempting the invasion of Cuban at the Bay of Pigs, and by continuing to wage war, albeit secretly, against Castro’s regime. Although Operation Mongoose was an extreme provocation, leading Castro to believe, with good reason, that the U.S. was preparing to invade, there is still cause for skepticism that Khrushchev would have been willing to risk nuclear war to defend the island. It would not have served his interests to announce, especially to Castro, that Cuba provided a means of rectifying a problem of deeper significance to the Soviet Union.
At a meeting early in the Crisis, the plainspoken William Harvey had the temerity to bluntly tell both Kennedys in front of all those assembled that they were to blame for the present state of affairs: if they hadn’t publicly distinguished offensive from defensive, thereby signaling that certain missiles would be tolerated, then none of this would be happening. Others attending the meeting were absolutely horrified that Harvey would exercise such poor professional judgment and so openly criticize the Kennedy brothers. He would not be long for the Washington scene, but before leaving he would, unbeknownst to his superiors, dispatch ten teams of commandos to Cuba at the very time that measures were being taken not to enflame the already dangerous situation. His initiative came to light when he was asked, at a National Security Council executive meeting in the Joint Chiefs of Staff war room, if all operations had been stopped according to directive. “Well,” he said, “all but one.” He told them that a number of the agents had already landed and there was no way to call them back. When Harvey was later sent packing, E. Howard Hunt claimed the reason to be a wall poster in Harvey’s office that, in a reference to the Bay of Pigs, read: “The tree of liberty is watered with the blood of patriots” Supposedly this represented too much “Gunsmoke stance” for the Attorney General.
Since the late 1950s, when the Russian leader had boasted of “building missiles like sausages,” the American public had feared a Soviet superiority in strategic weapons, otherwise known as “the missile gap.” This misconception grew out of a mutual deception by Khrushchev and Eisenhower, who both knew that the U.S. was overflying the Soviet Union with the top secret U-2 reconnaissance plane, and who also both knew that Khrushchev’s boasts were false. But Eisenhower was served well by the deceit: it forestalled an actual Soviet buildup, it created a pretext for a massive American increase in strategic weapons, and it fostered the continuation of rabid anti-communism in domestic American politics. For Khrushchev, the boasts were an integral part of his blustery campaign to bolster Soviet prestige throughout the Third World and in China. The impression that the Soviet Union was equal or superior to the U.S. in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) was essential to both his domestic and international standing. This deception by the two leaders was the most tightly held secret within both superpower governments.
One of Kennedy’s most effective arguments during his election campaign had been the notion of a missile gap, which held that the Soviets had a greater industrial capability for missile manufacturing than the U.S. He had declared from the floor of the Senate in 1958: “We are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival.” Sending Allen Dulles to brief Kennedy during the election, Eisenhower told his CIA director to emphasize the fact of the U.S.’ commanding military superiority. But Dulles decided on his own to tell the candidate that he could not be sure of the true status of the missile gap until the U.S. had full satellite coverage of the Soviet Union. Richard Nixon would later assert that the CIA, and Dulles in particular, had deliberately held back the truth in order to provide Kennedy with a powerful campaign issue. Nixon may well have been correct given the fact that the CIA was better informed on the issue than even the Air Force as a result of its own U-2 reconnaissance overflights. The Bay of Pigs, however, would quickly dispel the CIA of the notion that Kennedy would be a more favorable friend to have in the White House.
Only three weeks after the Inauguration, Secretary of Defense McNamara told a group of reporters in a casual briefing that there actually was no missile gap. He was so naïve at that point that he had misunderstood the difference between “off the record” and “on background.” As soon as he had entered the Pentagon he had made it his first order of business to “determine the size of the gap and the remedial action required to close it.” He had quickly concluded that “the CIA was right and the Air Force was wrong. There was a gap—but it was in our favor!” When he told this to the reporters, they “nearly broke down the door in their rush to get to the phones.” When he went to Kennedy to apologize and offer his resignation, the President said, “Oh come on, Bob, forget it. We’re in a helluva mess, but we all put our foot in our mouth once in a while. Just forget it. It’ll blow over.”
The construction of the missile gap fears was not so easily dismissed for the public or the military bureaucracy. When the Kennedy administration had come to power it quickly become apparent that Kennedy could not match his predecessor’s military credentials. By the autumn of 1961, the Soviets were threatening to seize West Berlin. After refusing to commit American forces at the Bay of Pigs, and then being beaten in debate with Khrushchev in Vienna, Kennedy feared that the Soviets might seek to exploit his perceived weakness. However, information from the new Corona satellite had revealed the location and provided for the targeting of all Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Kennedy knew that the few (perhaps only three ) Soviet ICBMs that actually existed were suddenly obsolete. He expected that if the United States revealed the Soviet inferiority, Khrushchev would be dissuaded from pursuing his risky policy on West Berlin. Thus, Kennedy arranged for the Soviets to learn the true situation.
In hindsight, it can be surmised that Khrushchev did not anticipate that pressing his agenda on West Berlin would result in Kennedy being forced to reveal the degree of the Soviet ICBM inferiority; and Kennedy did not anticipate that his public revelation would require Khrushchev to produce a remedy that would more quickly redress the exposed strategic imbalance than a crash ICBM buildup would offer. The strain such a buildup would have placed on an already beleaguered economy, the impatience of the hard-line Soviet generals, and the potential loss of face with the Chinese and the Third World, were all elements that demanded an immediate solution. The constructions of political spectacles and impressions management had come to result in the deployment of medium and intermediate range missiles to Cuba, thereby precipitating the most dangerous confrontation in the history of the world.
Upon learning of the placement of the missiles in Cuba, the President’s first move was to assemble a special group of advisers, designated as the Executive Committee, or ExComm for short. This team of experts concluded that the defense of Cuba was not a sufficient reason to explain the Soviet action. It was their conclusion that Khrushchev’s primary motivation was to accomplish a quick fix countermove against what later came to be known as the missile gap in reverse. The group considered attempting to exploit the Soviet motive by driving a wedge between the Soviets and Cubans. The President suggested “getting some word to Castro, perhaps through the Canadian ambassador in Havana or through his representative at the U.N.” Kennedy thought a back channel approach to Castro would be best, “get him apart privately and tell him that this is no longer support for Cuba, that Cuba is being victimized here, and that the Soviets are preparing Cuba for destruction, or betrayal.” He noted that the New York Times had quoted high Soviet officials as saying: “We’ll trade Cuba for Berlin.”
Even Kennedy’s most severe critics laud “his skillful management of the early phase of the Crisis.” He kept the secret for almost a week during which time he withstood the pressure of demands from the military and other hard-liners within ExComm for a complete invasion of Cuba. After extensive deliberation and debate over the proper course, the President made the crisis move of establishing a naval blockade of Cuba. Seeking to enhance the perceived legitimacy and avoid the connotation of an act of war, he decided to term the blockade a “quarantine,” which he announced to the public in what was perhaps the most alarming speech ever delivered by an American president. His address was designed to divert public attention from his private belief that the missiles did not significantly alter the balance of power and that he had failed to warn against them until after they were already on their way. He knew that a less apocalyptic speech would not have been as effective in arousing the public and rallying support, as well as silencing the domestic political criticism he expected to receive.
For his part, Castro accepted Soviet missiles into his country to reduce the risk of another American invasion attempt, such as the Bay of Pigs a year before. He could have had little doubt that some pretext would be found or created to legitimize the use of American forces the next time. But with the missiles at the assembly stage and Kennedy having imposed a quarantine of Cuba, Castro found himself and his country to be pawns in a battle between superpowers. The Cuban Ambassador to the United Nations, Carlos Lechuga, has noted that Castro “didn’t know what was going on” and wasn’t consulted on key issues. Although his anger would later be tempered by revelations of the seriousness of the situation, at the time, Castro was very indignant about this circumstance and desired the onset of what he considered to be the inevitable military clash with the United States. He considered, along with most foreign policy experts in the world, that a blockade was an act of war deserving of the most aggressive kind of response.
Although critics have questioned whether the imposition of the quarantine was risk-taking incommensurate with any expected gain, a more relevant question is whether Kennedy could have gotten away with any less belligerent posture, given the edifice of Cold War constructions which contextualized the situation and constricted the range of options available. The true nature of the problem was revealed in a comment made by Secretary of Defense McNamara to the ExComm on the first day of the Crisis when he said, “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem here. . . . This is a domestic political problem.” In this it can be seen that the Cuban Missile Crisis, far less than being the strategic danger of historical representation, was the political payment due bill for the myth of the missile gap, which began with the impression management performances of Khrushchev and Eisenhower in the 1950s. The Russian’s promises “to obliterate Western Europe” and to “bury” capitalism , accompanied by the quiet complicity of Eisenhower, resulted in a deeply rooted misperception. The public necessity generated by this misperception severely limited the range of options available to Kennedy, who remarked to his brother that if he had responded less forcefully, he “would have been impeached.”
Bobby Kennedy’s role at the beginning of the Crisis was quite different than the history-making rendition he was to later promote. At the first meeting of the ExComm group, the President’s brother adopted his then-usual militant stance, endorsing an invasion of Cuba even at the cost of an all-out war. He suggested that a pretext be engineered to validate the legitimacy of attacking Cuba. Making reference to historical rumors that the battleship Maine had been deliberately sunk in Havana harbor by the U.S. to pave the way for entrance into the Spanish American War, Bobby Kennedy is heard on tape to say, “Sink the Maine again or something.” This is a flagrantly clear example of the instinct to construct, to completely fabricate out of whole cloth, false pretexts for actions which on their face may be unpalatable by the governed masses.
The more moderate approach of quarantine, as opposed to air strikes followed by full invasion, was consistent with Kennedy’s policy of Gradual Escalation Strategy, which mirrors the process of legitimacy construction in its piecemeal character, precluding any overall or comprehensive examination. It is an incremental approach that is intended to steadily squeeze a resolution out of the enemy. It can, however, lead to a quagmire which is unseen going in, and from which extrication is very difficult. In the short-run, it avoids the kind of extreme action that requires public explanation or even serious decision-making. That is why the myth that Gradual Escalation worked during the Cuban Missile Crisis is thought to have misled official leaders to later apply it to Vietnam, where this policy constituted a kind of quicksand. Another pitfall of this approach is that it makes official leaders unduly dependent on the actions and information generated by the military along the way. The quarantine was a classic example of this, being far more dangerous and far less effective than generally reported.
There are sometimes apparently layers of the legitimation process being enacted, such as when the military or an intelligence agency submits data designed to force a political leader’s decision-making in a certain direction. Such was the case with the Navy’s execution of the quarantine, which bore mixed results. As Joseph F. Bouchard reports in his detailed study of the U.S. Navy’s activities during the crisis: “Submerged Soviet submarines essentially ignored the sonar and explosive charge signals.” Bouchard found “no reported instances of a Soviet submarine immediately surfacing” in response to signals to do so: “The Soviet submarines did not react to the signals with other than their normal efforts at evasion.” Particularly noteworthy, and contrary to the impression conveyed in previous accounts, the data obtained by Bouchard from U.S. Navy sources indicate that the three Soviet submarines that were headed toward the Caribbean from the Atlantic “had all but reversed their course and were headed home by the time U.S. Navy ASW [anti-submarine warfare] forces were able to locate them and prosecute them.” This is contrary to the information the President himself was given to work with.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, a wealth of new information has emerged, exposing more clearly than ever before the methods and motives of Soviet command and control structures. Recent oral history conferences involving both American and Soviet participants have generated startling revelations about the nature and degree of the threat represented by the Crisis. Ironically, a quarter of a century earlier, there was a popular culture depiction of what Robert McNamara has now described as “the most dangerous element of the entire episode.” This was contained in Peter Sellers’ classic movie parody of ExComm, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Love The Bomb. The movie portrays the absurdity of the nuclear deterrence doctrine, whereby knowledge of an opponent’s nuclear capability supposedly forecloses the use of one’s own. When the fictional Soviet Ambassador is brought in and informed that a lunatic general has launched a fleet of B-52 bombers, he informs the Americans that this will trigger a newly-constructed “Doomsday Device,” an ultimate deterrent that will destroy the world. To this disclosure, the leading American mad scientist, a former Nazi German mad scientist, explains the fundamental logic of such deterrence. Exposing the absurdity, he declares that such a deterrent only has value “if you tell the other side about it.” In the movie, the Ambassador explains that the announcement of the device’s existence was to take place within a couple of weeks, in celebration of Lenin’s birthday.
Twenty-five years after the release of this motion picture, analysts would learn that the absurdity of an unknown, unannounced deterrent had actually been in place in Cuba in 1962, revealing to some degree the illegitimacy of the deterrence doctrine itself. A former Soviet general has revealed that his country intalled more than medium and intermediate range missiles in Cuba during those dangerous days. Soviet field commanders also had six mobile launchers and nine Luna tactical missiles with nuclear warheads. The officers were pre-authorized to use the missiles at their discretion to repel a U.S. invasion, which the Soviets believed to be imminent. Although Kennedy was in Washington lobbying and stalling ExComm from its demands to invade, it is entirely possi-ble that failing in these efforts, he would have had no choice but to give his generals the go-ahead. Had the invasion taken place, it is likely that at least one of the tactical nukes would have been used against U.S. forces.
McNamara has said that the resulting pressure for the United States to launch a nuclear counterstrike at Cuba or the Soviet Union would have been irresistible. He has called this “the most dangerous element of the entire episode.” In hindsight it can be seen that the apocalypse would have been initiated “not by a head of state in consultation with his best informed and thoughtful aides, but by some panicked colonel in fatigues on a beleaguered island far from home who was just trying to do the best he could to save his men and himself.”
The question raised by the gauntlet thrown down by Khrushchev seemed to be whether Kennedy would choose holocaust or humiliation. But the President, never one to play by the rules, sought to find his own path without regard for the advice of the so-called experts. To his mind, this was the big test he had been preparing for all his life—the negotiation to end all negotiations. And in that context, knowing that the United States was vulnerable on the purpose of the Turkey-based Jupiter missiles, yet also knowing that he could not be seen as conceding American or NATO assets at the point of a gun, Kennedy admitted in private that the Jupiters would be negotiated away, but not too soon. If he folded his cards prematurely, the stakes would rise. To his sense of how the game is played, timing was key in such gamesmanship.
Despite their post-World War II expansionism, the Soviets had never based nuclear weapons beyond their own borders, whereas the Americans had placed nuclear weapons all along the periphery of the communist world. Particularly egregious to the Soviets had been the Eisenhower administration’s treaty with Turkey, establishing an agreement to base Jupiter missiles there, right along the Soviet border. Politically, these missiles helped solidify Turkey as part of NATO, but militarily they represented an offensive, first-strike capability on the part of the United States against the Soviet Union. Khrushchev’s concern about the American impetus toward such a first-strike capability was reflected in a remark he had made to then-Vice President Richard Nixon, “If you intend to make war on us, I understand; if not, why [do this]? The U.S. could hardly have done a better job of provoking the historical Russian fear of attack.
A still-debated issue is whether the U.S. deployment to Turkey was a Kennedy or Eisenhower policy. In the midst of the Crisis, the Soviets claimed they had placed missiles in Cuba in response to the United States deployment of Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Kennedy’s aides have recounted the President’s exasperation that the Jupiters were still there, despite his repeated requests that they be removed. Ken O’Donnell reported the President as saying, “Just to set the record straight, will you find out when was the last time I asked to have those damned missiles taken out of Turkey? Not the first five times I asked for their removal, just the date of the last time.” According to Barton Bernstein, Kennedy did not actually order the removal of what he called “those frigging missiles” out of Turkey, “but only implied a study of its feasibility.” This dispute about what constitutes a presidential order seems somewhat semantical when one considers that it is not a monarchy being discussed. There is a process that must be engaged, involving State Department and Defense Department reviews, embassies to be contacted, etc. While noting that “presidents rarely order moves that reverse a previous president’s promise to an ally,” Roger Hilsman reports that “Kennedy made his desires very clear on at least three occasions at which [he] was present.”
On the last full day of the Crisis, later to become known as Black Saturday, the president decided to add an ultimatum to his demand that the missiles be removed. The elements of this ultimatum were a time limit for compliance and a credible threat of punishment for noncompliance. The President sent his brother, Bobby, to deliver the final word to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin, with whom he had been conducting secret meetings throughout the Crisis. There has been considerable debate over the nature of the message actually delivered and whether it constituted an ultimatum. In an oral history interview not published until a quarter century later, Bobby admitted to having “delivered [Dobrynin] some ultimatums, particularly the one that Saturday night.” Ambassador Dobrynin would later support Bobby Kennedy’s public version that “This was not an ultimatum . . . but just a statement of fact.” Perhaps this perspective reflects the Soviet willingness to believe the Ambassador’s account, which had Bobby saying, “If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power. The American Army could get out of control.”
One of the most flagrantly illegitimate of governments is that created by coup d’état. This is so true in the context of the United States that it is generally dismissed as impossible in such a democratic a country. Nevertheless, debate over whether Bobby delivered an ultimatum or a statement of fact (the threat of military overthrow) to the Soviet ambassador centers on the differentiation. Transcripts reveal that the real ultimatum had been issued earlier that day to the President by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Maxwell Taylor delivered the military’s demand to the president that the air strike and invasion had to begin “no later than Monday morning, the 29th, unless there is irrefutable evidence in the meantime that offensive weapons are being dismantled and rendered inoperable.”
JFK would have had a far more difficult time garnering public support had he overreached, pursuing the removal of Castro or of Soviet influence from Cuba rather than remaining focused on the removal of the missiles. Limiting the objective to removal of the missiles gave greater legitimacy to Kennedy’s policy than would have been the case had he embraced either of the two more ambitious goals. Alexander George notes,
"Kennedy’s advantage over Khrushchev with respect to the legitimacy of their competing claims was invaluable, in turn, allowing for Kennedy to gain the support of the OAS and that of much of the international community. . . . Limiting the U.S. objective to removal of the missiles also exacerbated Khrushchev’s problem of reconciling the secrecy and deception with which he had carried out the missile deployment with his claim that the deployment constituted a legitimate contribution to the security of his Cuban ally. "
Some of the greatest myth-making about the Cuban Missile Crisis centered on the process of its resolution. The earliest versions held that Khrushchev fell back on his public reason for deploying the missiles, the defense of Cuba, and agreed to settle the dispute in exchange for a no-invasion pledge from Kennedy. When Soviet hard-liners added the deal-busting condition of withdrawal of the U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey in a letter sent only a few hours after Khrushchev’s, resolution of the impasse seemed as remote as ever. It was at this point, so the myth went, that Bobby Kennedy came up with the clever idea of ignoring the existence of the second letter and agreeing to the terms of the earlier, more favorable letter. When the Soviets acquiesced to these terms, the resolution became known as the “Trollope Ploy,” named for the nineteenth century British romance novelist who described a girl taking a suitor’s remark as a proposal of marriage. We have since learned not only that the Trollope Ploy was not by any means the whole explanation for the settlement; we have learned that it was McGeorge Bundy’s idea, and not Bobby’s. Moreover, the letter ploy was only a cover-up of the secret deal that could not be revealed publicly, not even to the ExComm.
For years, analysts and participants alike, including Fidel Castro, were puzzled over Khrushchev’s seeming surrender. Richard Nixon, after losing the race for governor of California and blaming the distraction of the events in Cuba for his defeat, publicly speculated that there may have been a “secret deal” to settle the Crisis. When it was first revealed that there had, in fact, been a secret deal to resolve the Crisis, it was over-looked for a number of years because the disclosure was contained in a book written by an overt Kennedy apologist, Arthur Schlesinger. Noting Schlesinger’s “privileged access” to documents that would have revealed the secret agreement to remove the U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey, Barton Bernstein has complained that his own “efforts to gain access to the major segments on the Missile Crisis have been unsuccessful despite various requests from 1979-1991.” Finally revealing the degree to which Kennedy insiders had controlled the history of the Crisis, in 1989 Ted Sorensen offered what he called a “confession” about the secret deal: that before Bobby Kennedy’s posthumous book was published, he had taken it upon himself to “edit that out of his diaries.” In this, the flagrancy of the Kennedy history-making influence is shown to have reigned supreme for many years.
Now we know that, as Garry Wills charged, Kennedy “wanted to remove the [Jupiter] missiles provided he did not appear forced to bargain with the Soviets to accomplish this.” This observation recognizes the influence of the Munich Syndrome, which held appeasement up to high scorn in memory of British efforts to avoid a war with Hitler. It was ironic that President Kennedy’s college thesis, later published as Why England Slept, was concerned with this very same episode. The lesson learned and now being applied was vintage JFK: no president can be seen to be capitulating to, or appeasing, a blackmail-type demand, regardless of the context or legitimacy. But what if Khrushchev had refused to settle for a private assurance that the Turkish Jupiters would be dismantled? Was Kennedy willing to risk nuclear holocaust rather than admit, as Wills suggests, “that a trade of useless missiles near each other’s countries was eminently fair?” It was a quarter century before historians learned that Kennedy had prepared a fall-back contingency that would provide for an internationalist solution doing precisely that, thereby avoiding personal political damage and promoting an alternative legitimacy; if all else failed, he had arranged for a Turkey-for-Cuba missile swap to be proposed in the U.N.
Khrushchev’s willingness to engage in a secret deal to settle the crisis demonstrated his emphasis on substance in contrast to Kennedy’s prioritization of style and the importance of appearances, even when they are misleading or false. Khrushchev gained all his objectives yet appeared to lose, Kennedy gave away the store, but appeared to win. Thus, Kennedy trumped Khrushchev in the eyes of the world and history. By a standard that measures legitimation according to which government is best able to construct a palatable explanation, Kennedy’s deceptive performance was legitimate and Khrushchev’s was not.
The revelation of the secret solution takes us back to the fallacy of the Soviets’ public reasons for the deployment in the first place. While analysts continue to advance the defense of Cuba perspective, Fidel Castro’s analysis is more sophisticated. As recently as 1993, he asserted that his country being used as a bargaining chip,
“ran counter to the theory that the missiles had been sent to defend Cuba. You do not defend Cuba by withdrawing missiles from Turkey. That was very clear. That was elementary logic. Defending Cuba would have been accomplished by insisting that the United States withdraw from the base at Guantánamo, stop the pirate attacks, and end the blockade. But withdrawing missiles from Turkey completely contradicted the theory that the main objective of the deployment had been defending Cuba.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, admiration and criticism of the handling of the affair came from both sides of the political spectrum. From the Right, Barry Goldwater declared that the no-invasion pledge had “locked Castro and communism into Latin America and thrown away the key to their removal.” Richard Nixon wrote that the White House had “enabled the United States to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory.” From the Left came cries that the President had recklessly and needlessly endangered mankind. I. F. Stone asked: “Mr. Kennedy’s gamble paid off. But what if it had failed?” According to Garry Wills, “Having fooled the people in order to lead them, Kennedy was forced to serve the folly he had induced.”
While such diverse opinions are not unusual in politics, it is remarkable how long the narrative of the Crisis has developed without any historical consensus developing regarding even the most basic facts. Originally, many of the misconceptions were fostered by the Kennedy public relations apparatus. Con-cerning JFK’s secretiveness and penchant for history-making, Michael Beschloss notes that “the President wished his communications with Khrushchev . . . to be classified into eternity.” They didn’t make it quite that long, so these communications, along with other recently declassified pieces of evidence, have already refuted several mythical versions of the Crisis, and they serve to refute anyone who considers remembering to be a relatively straight-forward process. Of course, it comes as no surprise that steps would be taken to color history a certain way; that this would be done is precisely the probability that should be assumed by analysts.