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Reading the transcripts of Kennedy’s meetings with his advisers is an object lesson in the pernicious effects of secrecy on government policy. No doubt Kennedy, in taping these meetings, intended them as a day by day record from which he would later select favourable tidbits to burnish his image for posterity. Reviewing them in their entirety, the ineffaceable impression left is of a President whose recklessness very nearly precipitated a nuclear holocaust.
As Noam Chomsky brilliantly documents, the adulation that has been heaped on Kennedy for his handling of the Cuban missile crisis is, to say the least, unwarranted. Rather than evidence of his deft diplomacy and circumspect approach, the fact there was a crisis at all attests to the lunatic order of priorities of those in power. In effect, Kennedy’s government was prepared to risk a nuclear conflagration to safeguard US prestige. Secretary of State Dean Rusk jubilantly exclaimed after the first Soviet ships opted not to run the American blockade that ‘we’re eye ball to eye ball and I think the other fellow just blinked.’ Had the Soviets not blinked, it is likely Rusk would not have been around to give his reaction.
In the official history, the crisis started after the sighting of a missile base on Cuba by a U-2 reconnaissance plane. In actual fact, it began following the foolhardy decision to institute a blockade and transform the situation into a full-blown confrontation with the Soviet Union. For a full week before the announcement of this blockade – given the innocuous name of ‘quarantine’ – Kennedy and his trusted advisers debated the various military courses available to them. Insulated against public scrutiny, they evinced a blithe indifference to the threat of an impending cataclysm at odds with the measured façade they sought to present to the world. Had the public been apprised of the full truth, then it is probable the resultant uproar would have forced them to radically rethink their approach.
The immediate assessment of Kennedy and his group of top officials – known as EXCOMM – was that the stationing of Soviet missiles in Cuba changed very little. During their first meeting on the 16th of October, they frankly admitted that, strategically, the threat of a nuclear strike against the United States had not increased. Indeed, Kennedy aptly encapsulated this conclusion when he candidly stated: ‘You may say it doesn’t make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one from 90 miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much…’ His most senior officials concurred, with defence secretary Robert McNamara bluntly stating in response to a question from Bundy as to how much the situation had altered: ‘In my personal view: not at all.’ Marshall Carter, deputy director of the CIA, even opined that the reason the intelligence community had been wrongfooted by the discovery of missile bases was because such a move had been considered futile, since it ‘doesn’t improve anything’ in the strategic balance. The real threat was of a far less grave character, and consisted, according to Kennedy’s advisers, in the ‘psychological factor’ – or the perceived affront of a small country thinking it was entitled to act in a manner normally reserved to the world’s most powerful nation. By permitting the Soviet Union to station missiles 90 miles off the American mainland, Cuba, in the words of Kennedy, was creating the impression that ‘they’re co-equal with us.’ Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Martin, characterized the danger to American prestige in the following terms: ‘Well, it’s a psychological factor that we have sat back and let them do it to us. That is more important than the direct threat.’
Astonishingly, such tenuous reasons were considered sufficient grounds for the perilous brinkmanship which ensued. After all, as Kennedy averred, this is a ‘political struggle as much as military.’ Much of the conversation on that first day was given over to debating the most efficacious military options for destroying the missile bases and, in the process, deposing Castro. One option envisaged a general air strike followed by an invasion. Kennedy’s advisers discussed such a policy with evident glee, musing on whether the minimum seven day interim between air strikes and an invasion could possibly be reduced to five days to capitalize on the disarray of Cuban forces. By the end of the meeting, Kennedy stated his determination to launch a strike. It only remained to decide on the extent of those air strikes, and whether an invasion should be launched in the aftermath.
A consistent aim of the Kennedy administration since acceding to office had been to extirpate the intolerable threat to US interests posed by Fidel Castro. In April 1961, Kennedy had sponsored an invasion by an assortment of CIA-trained exiles, in an episode which went down in history as the Bay of Pigs. Following the abject failure of this clandestine operation, a humiliated Kennedy authorised a CIA campaign of sabotage and assassinations to ‘visit the terrors of the earth’ on the Castro regime. On the very same day that missile bases were discovered, McNamara met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss measures for removing Castro, including a possible invasion – though this was to be delayed till after the mid-term elections. Castro’s only hope of securing the fragile gains of the revolution was thus to align himself with the only power which acted as a significant counterweight to the US. Nuclear weapons in Cuba were a way of guaranteeing the revolution against further American attempts at subversion.
Having created the conditions which led to the establishment of missile bases, Kennedy surpassed himself by proceeding to enter into a stand-off with the Soviet Union, in spite of the firmly held belief of EXCOMM that there were no security related grounds for doing so. Though he eschewed an expressly military course, he opted for one just short of open conflict. Indeed, in international law, a blockade amounted to an act of war – a fact implicitly acknowledged by the US government which speciously characterised it as a ‘quarantine’. In discussions, Kennedy’s advisers voiced anxieties about the psychological effect on the US population if it should appear that America had acquiesced in the stationing of missiles in Cuba. But what would the public have thought had they known that their government was prepared to impose a blockade in response to missiles which, by their own admission, had not appreciably increased the threat to US security?
The blockade was undoubtedly an act of lunacy in the circumstances – one that can only be accounted for by the warped sense of priorities which reigns in the inner counsels of government, and that an endemic lack of accountability inevitably breeds. In the tense confrontation that followed, the leaderships of both the Soviet Union and the US were impotent to exert any control over the course events assumed. The blockade could at any moment have degenerated into outright war through the actions of lowly individuals. Defence Secretary McNamara frequently attracts effusive praise for his adept supervision of the ’quarantine’. Yet the fact a nuclear holocaust was averted owes not to his supervision, but the timely actions of a lone Soviet submariner. In an effort to rigorously enforce the blockade, US ships tracked Soviet submarines operating around Cuba and dropped depth charges to force them to surface. Unknown to the US navy, however, the submarines they were targeting were armed with nuclear tipped torpedoes. This policy of harassment resulted in the most perilous moment of the crisis on the 27th of October, when a Soviet Commander, disoriented by the dropping of American depth charges, ordered that the nuclear torpedoes be armed. One officer on board, Vadim Orlov, recalled the event:
The Americans hit us with something stronger than the grenades – apparently with a practical depth bomb. We thought – that’s it – the end. After this attack, the totally exhausted Savitsky, who in addition to everything, was not able to establish connection with the General Staff, became furious. He summoned the officer who was assigned to the nuclear torpedo, and ordered him to assemble it to battle-readiness. ‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing sommersaults here,’ screamed emotional Valentin Grigorievich, trying to justify his order. ‘We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not disgrace our navy!’
Ultimately, disaster was only narrowly avoided after Second Captain Vasily Arkhipov opposed the order and persuaded Captain Vasitsky to calm down.
In his speech to the nation on the 22nd of October, Kennedy had solemnly intoned about the insufferable threats to national security arising from the advent of nuclear weapons, such that:
We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.
This stance was disingenuous in the extreme. If the President had actually believed his own words, then he would not have one year previously stationed missiles in Turkey, close to the borders of the Soviet Union. CIA director John McCone had predicted months in advance that the Soviet Union might seek to counterbalance these with missiles of its own in Cuba. By the 27th of October, it was evident, judging from Soviet overtures, that the withdrawal of these Turkish missiles in return for the dismantling of bases in Cuba presented a clear-cut way of defusing the crisis. Whilst the US was prepared to assent to Soviet demands to publicly promise not to invade Cuba, it was loath to accept a deal which entailed the removal of Turkish missiles as a quid pro quo for the Soviet Union removing its own bases.
As long as the blockade was in place, the risk of errors – like that mentioned above – resulting in a nuclear war could only grow. Yet the Kennedy administration was nevertheless reluctant to seize a perfect opportunity to bring the stand-off to a swift, peaceful conclusion and avert the unthinkable. Ostensibly, the reason that Kennedy’s advisers adduced for not accepting such a deal was the detrimental effect it would have on relations with NATO allies. If the US agreed to withdraw the missiles, then members of NATO might be left with the impression that America was prepared to sell them out in order to safeguard its own security. National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, summarised this curious position when he said to the President: ‘I think that if we sound as if we wanted to make this trade, to our NATO people and to all the people who are tied to us by alliance, we are in real trouble….I think we should tell you that that’s the universal assessment of everyone in the government that’s connected with these alliance problems.’
Why America’s allies would take exception to a straight-forward trade, ending a tense nuclear stand-off in which they stood to be destroyed, is something not clearly explained by these government officials. In any case, it is belied by the numerous references, many contemptuous, to NATO allies interspersed throughout the transcripts of EXCOMM meetings. For instance, in an earlier discussion, Kennedy had talked of simply notifying British Prime Minister MacMillan of an air strike against Cuba, rather than consulting with him, stating: ‘I don’t know how much use consulting with the British…I expect they’ll just object. Just have to decide to do it. Probably ought to tell them, though, the night before.’ Clearly, what NATO allies thought did not feature prominently in US calculations. To the extent that their concerns did impinge upon the consciousness of US policy makers, it was with respect to the inevitable objections that a US decision to escalate the confrontation would arouse. Vice-President Johnson, for instance, at one point acknowledged that US allies, far from favouring a militant stance towards the Soviet Union, would be likely to urge moderation and pose some discomforting questions if the US proceeded with its confrontational policy: ‘Well we’ve lived all these years (with missiles). Why can’t you? Why get your blood pressure up?’ Evidently, for the US, whether to accept a deal or not was never dependent on the concerns of allies, but rather a question which revolved around ensuring the credibility of US power.
In the end, a compromise was reached – with the Soviet Union doing most of the compromising. In a formal letter to Khruschev, the US agreed to publicly promise it would not invade Cuba. Secretly, it promised to withdraw the Turkish missiles. Anxious that America should not be seen to be giving in to the demands of its Soviet rival, Kennedy swore the Soviet Union to absolute silence over the matter. He tasked his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, with passing on the letter along with an informal assurance that Turkish missiles would be removed. Speaking to the Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Robert Kennedy warned that no public reference should be made to Turkey, otherwise this would render the deal null and void. Moreover, he coupled the offer with a threat of military force against the Cuban missile sites if no positive response was received by the next day. Incredibly, such an ultimatum prized not publicly losing face above reducing the substantial risk of nuclear war. Fortunately for humanity, Khruschev agreed to the terms and Kennedy was consequently lionised as a masterly statesmen who had stared down the Soviet Union. The evidence, however, starkly contradicts this popular image.
Fifty years ago, Kennedy and his advisers deliberated in secret upon how best to deal with a crisis they bore a substantial responsibility for creating, without even once consulting those millions of people whose lives they held in the balance. Reading the transcripts of those meetings is a useful corrective to the oft-repeated shibboleth of the powerful that secrecy is essential to enable them to govern effectively in the interests of the public. We can only hope that those in government now are not animated by the same perverse disregard for human life and fixation on prestige that typified the attitude of top US officials during the most dangerous moment in human history.
Joseph Richardson is a freelance journalist for Voice of Russia radio station in London. He studied history at Merton College, Oxford.