The Cuban Missile Crisis - 30 years on

Brian Dooley assesses the incident which brought the world perilously close to nuclear war.

A US Navy P-2H Neptune of VP-18 flying over a Soviet cargo ship with crated Il-28sNo doubt the Goebbels diaries will not be the last historical treasure plundered from the Kremlin vaults. There have already been revelations about the Soviet Union's old spy network, Second World War prisoners of war, and the extent of U2 flights during the late 1950s. There is also likely to be more information forthcoming on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a better idea of exactly how close we came to war in the last week of October 1962. President Kennedy regarded the avoidance of conflict over the missiles as his finest achievement. The Allied powers (and others) applauded his cool efficiency in averting a nuclear disaster, in restoring stability to the balance of power, and for making Soviet Premier Khrushchev blink.

The president's brother, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, was given much of the credit for the administration's success. It was his insistence on a blockade of Cuba, rather than an airstrike against the island, that ensured a peaceful outcome. 'The way Bobby and his brother played their hand was absolutely masterly,' noted Harold Macmillan.

Robert Kennedy is also credited with engineering the brilliant diplomatic response to two Kremlin letters warning the US not to intervene in Cuban affairs: the attorney-general advised the president simply to ignore the second, more hostile letter, and reply instead on the terms of the first, conciliatory message. This advice was followed with impressive results: Soviet ships turned back from the their mission to support the Cuban military, and the world was saved.

What we have known for some time, of course, is that things did not work out quite that smoothly. The truth is that John and Robert Kennedy struck a secret deal with the Soviets, promising to remove Jupiter missiles from Europe if Khrushchev withdrew his missiles from Cuba (in April 1963 Jupiter missiles were removed from Britain, Italy and Turkey). The precise details of the deal were kept secret from the US public, the US government and very possibly from everyone in the Kennedy administration except the president and his brother.

It appears that members of ExComm (The Executive Committee of the National Security Council which was handling the crisis from the White House) were not fully informed about the details of the offer Bobby Kennedy made to Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. Secretary to the Treasury and senior Excomm member Douglas Dillon remembers:

I was there and I don't recall the ExComm telling Bobby Kennedy anything very specific about what he should say to Dobrynin. He got his last-minute and final instructions from the president and only from the president. There would be no written record of this...

Dillon also claims that ExComm was not even briefed about the encounter the next day.

In fact, the existence of the deal was first made in 13 Days , Robert Kennedy's account of the crisis, which was published in 1969, when both John and Robert Kennedy were dead.

Recent evidence also questions the image of the Kennedys as cool and rational throughout the fortnight. In the early accounts of the crisis, the Kennedys – and especially Robert – are presented as voices of reason and moderation, persuading the more impetuous members of the cabinet that the military options of an invasion or an air-strike against Cuba were not the only alternatives. However, it would now appear that the president and attorney-general were far from calm and unemotional in their behaviour.

Of course, the episode put the administration under severe pressure and apart from the nuclear considerations, JFK could not afford the encounter to embarrass him politically – he had already been humiliated about Cuba the year before at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the missile crisis came only two weeks before important mid-term elections.

Nevertheless, the president and the attorney-general both appear to have responded to the crisis with remarkable emotion and aggression. The CIA photo expert who first showed Robert Kennedy the U2 pictures of the missile bases said the president's brother 'walked around the room like a boxer between rounds, thumbing his nose and uttering epithets'. In a splendid study of the first day of the crisis (Belligerent Beginnings, Journal of Strategic Studies, March 1992 ) Mark White traces the initial reactions of the president, the attorney-general and other members of the cabinet from recently-declassified oral histories and tapes of the ExComm meetings.

The president, according to one observer, was 'tense and clipped' while Secretary of State Dean Rusk remembered the attorney-general's mood as 'emotional'. The tape of the first ExComm meeting reveal the president outlining four available courses of action – all involve some kind of air strike against Cuba. A fifth option – invasion – is suggested by Robert Kennedy.

'We're certainly going to do number one [bomb the missile sites]', said the president. By the second ExComm meeting, which took place later that day (October 16), Kennedy had reduced the options to three: a 'surgical' strike, a more general strike, and an invasion.

In fact, the tapes reveal it was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor, who first proposed the idea of a blockade around Cuba, if only as helpful to a general invasion. The Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, suggested that the blockade might be an option on its own, and two others joined with him in an effort to counter the president's military preference.

The attorney-general, meanwhile, was no less belligerent than his brother. At the very first meeting, he pointed out that an invasion was an alternative, and asked General Taylor how long such an invasion would take. He also passed a note to the president: 'I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor'.

At the second, he proposed 'whether it wouldn't be, uh, the argument, if you're going to get into it [Cuba] at all, uh, whether we should just get into it and get it over with and say that, uh, take our losses'. He also suggested that a pretext might be found for such an invasion and wondered if 'there is some other way we can get involved in this through, uh... Guantanamo Bay [the US naval base in Cuba) or something... or whether there's some ship that, you know, sink the Maine again [a US ship that exploded off Havana in 1898] or something'.

Of course, those advising the president all changed their preferences at least once throughout the crisis, and it would be wrong to read too much significance into Robert Kennedy's (or the president's) initial reactions to the missiles. The attorney-general went on to champion the idea of a blockade in the following days, and the deal struck with Dobrynin served world peace very well.

Nevertheless, the notion that the Kennedy brothers held out against advisers counselling confrontation is only partly true: they were initially the most aggressive and emotional members of the cabinet. The Soviet version of events has long supported this theory – Dobrynin claimed that the attorney-general was overcome with stress at their meeting, and broke down in tears:

Robert Kennedy looked exhausted. One could see from his eyes that he had not slept for days. He himself said he had not been home for six days and nights. 'The president is in a grave situation' Robert Kennedy said, and he does not know how to get out of it. We are under very severe stress. In fact we are under pressure from our military to use force against Cuba...'

This account, of course, concurs with the idea that the Kennedy brothers were keen to avoid any military involvement, but this meeting took place towards the end of the crisis when the president's advisers had guided him away from his initial preference for an immediate attack.

Whatever the real personal mood of the Kennedy brothers, the outcome was a huge political success for the administration. The public was led to believe that no compromise had been made with the Soviets, that their young president had stood up squarely to the Kremlin, and that Khrushchev had blinked first. The president's Democrats did well in the mid-term elections, and there was less pressure on the administration to stand tough against Communism elsewhere in the world.

In the following years, much of Robert Kennedy's political reputation relied on his cool performance during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he had provided wise but firm counsel for his brother. Unlike other liberals – who feared being labelled as soft on Communism – Robert Kennedy was free to criticise US involvement in Vietnam. Such criticisms were credible from the man who, the public believed, had refused to compromise with the Soviets.

Perhaps the coming years will throw more light in the discussion which went on in Kremlin meeting-rooms at the time, who made political gain out of the crisis in the Soviet Union, and just how close the finger was to the button.

The Havana government, meanwhile, stands defiant, if increasingly isolated in the New World Order. Castro is now regarded in Washington as an eccentric neighbour, noisy but harmless. The only leader still blinking thirty years on, he owes his survival partly to Kennedy's pledge that the US would never invade Cuba. The missiles which his brother Raul requested from Moscow saved his regime and entrenched Communism in Latin America for a whole generation after the Bay of Pigs. In the end, the victory went to neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy, but to Castro.

Brian Dooley is a journalist and former aide to Edward Kennedy.

Recent stories