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Kennedy Diary Recording of Cuban Missile Crisis

Kennedy Diary Recording of Cuban Missile Crisis

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On October 18, 1962, President Kennedy met with nine of his advisers to discuss what to do about the Soviet missiles that U.S. aerial surveillance discovered in Cuba on October 16. After the meeting, President Kennedy went to the White House Oval Office and recorded his recollections of the meeting.

JFK’s Lunatic Priorities During the Cuban Missile Crisis

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 16 th 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 27 th 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 22 nd 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 27 th 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.

The JFK White House Tape Recordings

On July 16, 1973, in testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, presidential aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that President Nixon had installed a taping system in the White House to secretly record his meetings and discussions. The Kennedy Library soon acknowledged that audio recordings of meetings dealing with "highly sensitive national defense and foreign policy," as well as tapes of presidential telephone conversations, had also been made during the Kennedy administration. In fact, it is now known that some taping was done by every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Richard M. Nixon. Hundreds of hours of tapes have been declassified, the vast majority from the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.

There is no definitive answer to the question of why President Kennedy installed the first practical White House taping system. Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s personal secretary, recalled that the president was enraged after the April, 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster when several advisers who had supported the invasion in closed meetings claimed later to have opposed it she also maintained that the president simply wanted accurate records for writing his memoirs. Robert Bouck, the Secret Service agent who installed the recording devices, claimed that the president personally asked him to set up the taping system but never mentioned a reason. He, too, speculated that JFK wanted to create an accurate record of his administration for his personal use after he left the White House.

Bouck installed taping systems in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room in the spring of 1962. The actual recording device was confined to one of two rooms in the basement. The President did not have access to the tape recorder itself he could only turn the system on or off in the Oval Office by hitting a "very sensitive" switch concealed in a pen socket on his desk, in a bookend near his favorite chair or in a coffee table in front of the fireplace his desk. The Cabinet Room switch was installed on the underside of the conference table in front of JFK’s chair. The Oval Office microphones were hidden in the desk knee well and in a table across the room the Cabinet Room microphones were mounted on the outside wall directly behind JFK’s chair in spaces that once held light fixtures.

A separate Dictaphone taping system was installed in the Oval Office and possibly in the president’s bedroom around September, 1962, to record telephone conversations. Since the reel-to-reel tapes could record for a maximum of about two hours, Bouck subsequently installed a second back up tape machine which was automatically activated if the first machine ran out of tape. The agents put the tapes in a plain sealed envelope and turned them over to Lincoln for storage in a locked cabinet near her White House desk.

On November 22, 1963, after receiving confirmation of the president’s death in Texas, Bouck disconnected the taping system. The records of the Kennedy administration, including 248 hours of meeting tapes and 12 hours of telephone dictabelts, were moved to the National Archives in Washington and later transferred to the Federal Records Center in Waltham, Massachusetts. Finally, in 1976, the tapes were legally deeded to the Kennedy Library and the National Archives. Many of the tapes, most significantly more than 20 hours of recordings from the ExComm (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council) meetings during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, were gradually declassified over the next two decades.

When Rose Kennedy Asked for Khrushchev’s Autograph

JFKWHP-ST-C21-5-62. President John F. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy participate in arrival ceremonies for the President of the Republic of Ecuador, Dr. Carlos Julio Arosemena Monroy, at Washington National Airport, 23 July 1962. Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs.

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in 1890 and lived through almost the entire 20th century, keeping detailed records on her life, family, and travels along the way. And thanks to her papers in the archives at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, we can see glimpses of Rose urging her children – including President Kennedy – to capture history in the making, too. From reminding her kids to write the date on their letters, to encouraging JFK to buy the furniture he and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used during their famous 1961 “Vienna Summit” meetings (now in our museum collection!), Rose kept an eye on the historical record for nearly all of her 104 years.

JFKPOF-138-006-p0008. Letter from Rose Kennedy to John F. Kennedy with handwritten note by Evelyn Lincoln, 11 October 1962. President’s Office Files, Box 138, “Correspondence regarding chair and sofa used in talks with Chairman Khrushchev, 1961.”

So it’s no surprise that for years, including during her son’s Presidency, Rose Kennedy kept up a side project collecting autographs from well-known people – sometimes to give as gifts, and sometimes to save for her own archives. She eventually collected signatures from artists like Robert Frost and Marc Chagall former Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower and world leaders including Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany. The fact that the President’s mother was exchanging letters with some of the most powerful people in the world seemed to go mostly unnoticed – that is, until Rose asked for an autograph from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the summer of 1962.

PX 96-33:12. President John F. Kennedy meets with Chairman Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union at the U. S. Embassy residence, Vienna, Austria, 3 June 1961. US State Department photograph, Miscellaneous Photographs Accessions.

Khrushchev agreed to sign a few photographs that were taken of himself and President Kennedy in Vienna, and Rose received them through the Soviet Ambassador in October. Her staff quickly sent the photos on to the President, suggesting that he add his own signature – and apparently tipping off JFK that his mother had been in touch with the Soviet government. In November, President Kennedy wrote back to Rose to explain that asking international leaders for favors could be a tricky business, and to request that she “let me know in the future any contacts you have with heads of state.”

ROFKPP-057-001-p0017. Letter from John F. Kennedy to Rose Kennedy, 3 November 1962, with Rose Kennedy’s hand-written notation. Rose Kennedy Personal Papers, Box 57, “Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy, 1961-1968 (folder 1 of 2).”

The President’s worry that his mother’s request would be “subject to interpretations” might’ve been sparked by the interesting timing of her communication with Khrushchev. On October 16, 1962, just eighteen days before he wrote his letter to Rose, JFK learned that Khrushchev was working with Cuban leader Fidel Castro to place Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba the discovery kicked off a two-week period of tense negotiation between Kennedy and Khrushchev that’s now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

DODCMCBM-PX-66-20-13. Briefing Board #13: a map of the Western Hemisphere showing the ranges of ballistic missiles placed in Cuba. US Department of Defense Cuban Missile Crisis Briefing Materials.

In Rose’s archival records, we’ve found that President Kennedy must have learned about her communication with Khrushchev sometime between October 19 and November 3, 1962 – firmly in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The timing meant that the President’s note to his mother wasn’t the only carefully-crafted letter he sent on November 3, 1962 on the same day, Kennedy and his national security team also wrote to Khrushchev about the delicate negotiations surrounding the end of the Crisis.

RFKAG-217-001-p0116. Letter from President John F. Kennedy to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, 3 November 1962. Robert F. Kennedy Attorney General Files, Box 217, 𔄞-4-2: Cuba: Cuban Crisis, 1962: Kennedy-Khrushchev Letters, Etc.”

In Rose’s response to the President’s letter, she noted that while she hadn’t thought about the complications of writing to world leaders, she could “see that it was probably an error, and it will not happen again.” She also joked: “when I ask for Castro’s autograph, I shall let you know in advance!”

Putting aside matters of international diplomacy, Rose went on to discuss the family news and reminiscences that often came up in her letters to her children here, she included an update on Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.’s care following his 1961 stroke, and a memory from JFK’s childhood.

JFKPOF-138-006-p0008. Letter from Rose Kennedy to President John F. Kennedy, 10 November 1962. President’s Office Files, Box 138, “Correspondence regarding chair and sofa used in talks with Chairman Khrushchev, 1961.”

Rose recalled the Khrushchev signature episode when writing her 1974 memoir Times to Remember, noting, “We often joked about the incident later.” It’s clear, though, that she took her son’s request seriously a few months later, Rose’s secretary asked for permission to contact Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India. President Kennedy responded “Yes, go ahead,” and Rose’s collection was soon expanded by signed copies of Nehru’s autobiography.

ROFKPP-063-002-p0027. Carbon copy of letter from Diane Winter to Evelyn Lincoln, Personal Secretary for John F. Kennedy, 12 March 1963. Rose Kennedy Personal Papers, Box 63, “Autographed books: General, 1961-1963, 1967.”

Luckily for archivists and historians, Rose continued to document her life and experiences for the rest of her days, collecting papers and photographs until her death in 1995. You can find more information about Rose Kennedy’s papers in the finding aid to her collection, and see more photographs and materials from Rose’s life in our other blog posts!

Record of Meeting During the Cuban Missile Crisis

Secretary Rusk opened the meeting by asking Mr. Johnson if he was ready to lay a program before the group. Mr. Johnson said that he was not.

Then ensued a military photographic intelligence briefing on installations in Cuba, presented by a CIA representative (Arthur Lundahl). Following this, Mr. McCone called on Mr. Cline to give the most recent intelligence estimate conclusions of the United States Intelligence Board. Mr. Cline did so on the basis of three papers which were distributed to the group. (As he started, Mr. Cline spoke of China by inadvertence instead of Cuba a few moments later this was called to his attention and corrected.)

Secretary Rusk then said he thought there should be an exposition of the legal framework surrounding possible military measures by the United States, turned to me, and seemed about to call on me, when the Attorney General signalled and said “Mr. Katzenbach.” Secretary Rusk then called on the latter. Mr. Katzenbach said he believed the President had ample constitutional and statutory authority to take any needed military measures. He considered a declaration of war unnecessary. From the standpoint of international law, Mr. Katzenbach thought United States action could be justified on the principle of self-defense.

I said that my analysis ran along much the same lines. I did not think a declaration of war would improve our position, but indeed would impair it. I said that a defensive quarantine of Cuba would involve a use of force, and this had to be considered in relation to the United Nations Charter. The Charter contained a general prohibition against the use of force except in certain limited kinds of situation. One of these was “armed attack,” but the situation in Cuba did not constitute armed attack on any country. Another exception was collective action voted by the competent United Nations organ to deal with a situation under Chapter VII of the Charter. Obviously, no resolution could be obtained from the Security Council. And it seemed quite problematical whether we could obtain a recommendation from the General Assembly.

The Charter also contained Chapter VIII on regional arrangements. Article 52 provided that regional arrangements could deal with “such matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security as are appropriate for regional action”. Thus a case could be made under the Charter for the use of force if it were sanctioned by the American Republics acting under the Rio Treaty. The Organ of Consultation, pursuant to Articles 6 and 8 of that Treaty, could recommend measures, including the use of armed force, to meet a situation endangering the peace of America. As to the prospects for securing the necessary two-thirds vote in the Organ of Consultation, Mr. Martin would have something to say about that.

If the contention were advanced that a defensive quarantine voted under the Rio Treaty constituted “enforcement action” under Article 53 of the United Nations Charter, and therefore required the authorization of the Security Council, we would be able to make a reasonably good argument to the contrary. While our ability to persuade seven members of the Security Council to vote with us on this issue might be uncertain, we would in any event be able to prevent a vote going against our position.

Mr. Martin then gave as his estimate that the United States could secure immediately a vote of 14 in the OAS. He thought the majority could be increased within 24 hours to 17 or perhaps even 18 or 19. He was hopeful in regard to Ecuador and Chile, and believed there was a good chance of getting Mexico. The Attorney General said the President would be placed in an impossible position if we went to the OAS and then failed to get the necessary votes, or if there were a delay. He asked if we could be perfectly sure of the outcome before seeking OAS concurrence. Mr. Martin said he hated to guarantee anything, but he had a lot of confidence about this. You couldn’t go to the American Republics in advance without loss of security, but he felt that a last-minute approach to heads of state, laying the situation on the line, would produce the votes. The Attorney General again expressed his great concern at the possibility of a slip.

There followed a discussion covering the meeting held the night before with the President. One participant looked back on the meeting as having arrived at a tentative conclusion to institute a blockade, and thought the President had been satisfied at the consensus by then arrived at among his advisers. General Taylor quickly indicated that he had not concurred and that the Joint Chiefs had reserved their position.

Mr. Bundy then said that he had reflected a good deal upon the situation in the course of a sleepless night, and he doubted whether the strategy group was serving the President as well as it might, if it merely recommended a blockade. He had spoken with the President this morning, and he felt there was further work to be done. A blockade would not remove the missiles. Its effects were uncertain and in any event would be slow to be felt. Something more would be needed to get the missiles out of Cuba. This would be made more difficult by the prior publicity of a blockade and the consequent pressures from the United Nations for a negotiated settlement. An air strike would be quick and would take out the bases in a clean surgical operation. He favored decisive action with its advantages of surprises and confronting the world with a fait accompli.

Secretary Rusk asked Mr. Acheson for his views. Mr. Acheson said that Khrushchev had presented the United States with a direct challenge, we were involved in a test of wills, and the sooner we got to a showdown the better. He favored cleaning the missile bases out decisively with an air strike. There was something else to remember. This wasn’t just another instance of Soviet missiles aimed at the United States. Here they were in the hands of a madman whose actions would be perfectly irresponsible the usual restraints operating on the Soviets would not apply. We had better act, and act quickly. So far as questions of international law might be involved, Mr. Acheson agreed with Mr. Katzenbach’s position that self-defense was an entirely sufficient justification. But if there were to be imported a qualification or requirement of approval by the OAS, as apparently suggested by Mr. Meeker, he could not go along with that.

Secretary Dillon said he agreed there should be a quick air strike. Mr. McCone was of the same opinion.

General Taylor said that a decision now to impose a blockade was a decision to abandon the possibility of an air strike. A strike would be feasible for only a few more days after that the missiles would be operational. Thus it was now or never for an air strike. He favored a strike. If it were to take place Sunday morning, a decision would have to be made at once so that the necessary preparations could be ordered. For a Monday morning strike, a decision would have to be reached tomorrow. Forty-eight hours’ notice was required.

Secretary McNamara said that he would give orders for the necessary military dispositions, so that if the decision were for a strike the Air Force would be ready. He did not, however, advocate an air strike, and favored the alternative of blockade.

Under Secretary Ball said that he was a waverer between the two courses of action.

The Attorney General said with a grin that he too had had a talk with the President, indeed very recently this morning. There seemed to be three main possibilities as the Attorney General analyzed the situation: one was to do nothing, and that would be unthinkable another was an air strike the third was a blockade. He thought it would be very, very difficult indeed for the President if the decision were to be for an air strike, with all the memory of Pearl Harbor and with all the implications this would have for us in whatever world there would be afterward. For 175 years we had not been that kind of country. A sneak attack was not in our traditions. Thousands of Cubans would be killed without warning, and a lot of Russians too. He favored action, to make known unmistakably the seriousness of United States determination to get the missiles out of Cuba, but he thought the action should allow the Soviets some room for maneuver to pull back from their over-extended position in Cuba.

Mr. Bundy, addressing himself to the Attorney General, said this was very well but a blockade would not eliminate the bases an air strike would.

I asked at this point: who would be expected to be the government of Cuba after an air strike? Would it be anyone other than Castro? If not, would anything be solved, and would we not be in a worse situation than before? After a pause, Mr. Martin replied that, of course, a good deal might be different after a strike, and Castro might be toppled in the aftermath. Others expressed the view that we might have to proceed with invasion following a strike. Still another suggestion was that US armed forces seize the base areas alone in order to eliminate the missiles. Secretary McNamara thought this a very unattractive kind of undertaking from the military point of view.

Toward one o’clock Secretary Rusk said he thought this group could not make the decision as to what was to be done that was for the President in consultation with his constitutional advisers. The Secretary thought the group’s duty was to present to the President, for his consideration, fully staffed-out alternatives. Accordingly, two working groups should be formed, one to work up the blockade alternative and the other to work up air strike. Mr. Johnson was designated to head the former, and Mr. Bundy the latter. Mr. Johnson was to have with him Ambassador Thompson, Deputy Secretary Gilpatric, Mr. Martin, Mr. Nitze, and Mr. Meeker. Mr. Bundy was to have Secretary Dillon, Mr. Acheson, and General Taylor. Mr. McCone, when asked to serve with the air strike group, begged off on the ground that his position and duties on the US Intelligence Board made it undesirable for him to participate in the working group. Mr. Katzenbach was detailed to the Johnson group, later visiting the Bundy group to observe and possibly serve as a devil’s advocate.

Mr. Sorensen commented that he thought he had absorbed enough to start on the draft of a speech for the President. There was some inconclusive discussion on the timing of such a speech, on the danger of leaks before then, and on the proper time for meeting with the President once more, in view of his current Western campaign trip.

Before the whole group dispersed, Ambassador Thompson said the Soviets attached importance to questions of legality and we should be able to present a strong legal case. The Attorney General, as he was about to leave the room, said he thought there was ample legal basis for a blockade. I said: yes, that is so provided the Organ of Consultation under the Rio Treaty adopted an appropriate resolution. The Attorney General said: “That’s all political it’s not legal.” On leaving the room, he said to Mr. Katzenbach, half humorously: “Remember now, you’re working for me.”

The two groups met separately until four o’clock. They then reconvened and were joined once more by the cabinet officers who had been away in the earlier afternoon.

The Johnson group scenario, which was more nearly complete and was ready earlier, was discussed first. Numerous criticisms were advanced. Some were answered others led to changes. There was again a discussion of timing, now in relation to a Presidential radio address. Mr. Martin thought Sunday might be too early, as it would be virtually impossible to get to all the Latin American heads of state on Sunday. Ambassador Thompson made the point that 24 hours must be allowed to elapse between announcement of the blockade and enforcement, so as to give the Soviet Government time to get instructions to their ship captains.

Approximately two hours were spent on the Johnson scenario. About 6 o’clock the Bundy approach was taken up, its author saying, “It’s been much more fun for us up to this point, since we’ve had a chance to poke holes in the blockade plan now the roles will be reversed.” Not much more than half an hour was spent on the Bundy scenario.

More than once during the afternoon Secretary McNamara voiced the opinion that the US would have to pay a price to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba. He thought we would at least have to give up our missile bases in Italy and Turkey and would probably have to pay more besides. At different times the possibility of nuclear conflict breaking out was referred to. The point was made that, once the Cuban missile installations were complete and operational, a new strategic situation would exist, with the United States more directly and immediately under the gun than ever before. A striking Soviet military push into the Western Hemisphere would have succeeded and become effective. The clock could not be turned back, and things would never be the same again. During this discussion, the Attorney General said that in looking forward into the future it would be better for our children and grandchildren if we decided to face the Soviet threat, stand up to it, and eliminate it, now. The circumstances for doing so at some future time were bound to be more unfavorable, the risks would be greater, the chances of success less good.

Secretary Rusk, toward the end of the afternoon, stated his approach to the problem as follows: the US needed to move in a way such that a planned action would be followed by a pause in which the great powers could step back from the brink and have time to consider and work out a solution rather than be drawn inexorably from one action to another and escalate into general nuclear war. The implication of his statement was that he favored blockade rather than strike.

In the course of the afternoon discussion, the military representatives, especially Secretary McNamara, came to expressing the view that an air strike could be made some time after the blockade was instituted in the event the blockade did not produce results as to the missile bases in Cuba. The Attorney General took particular note of this shift, and toward the end of the day made clear that the firmly favored blockade as the first step other steps subsequently were not precluded and could be considered he thought it was now pretty clear what the decision should be.

At about six-thirty Governor Stevenson came into the room. After a few minutes, Secretary Rusk asked him if he had some views on the question of what to do. He replied: “Yes, most emphatic views.” When queried as to them, he said that in view of the course the discussion was taking he didn’t think it was necessary to express them then. When asked: “But you are in favor of blockade, aren’t you?”, he answered affirmatively. He went on to say he thought we must look beyond the particular immediate action of blockade we need to develop a plan for solution of the problem—elements for negotiation designed to settle the current crisis in a stable and satisfactory way and enable us to move forward on wider problems he was working on some ideas for a settlement. One possibility would be the demilitarization of Cuba under effective international supervision, perhaps accompanied by neutralization of the island under international guaranties and with UN observers to monitor compliance.

Once again there was discussion of when another meeting with the President should be held. It was generally agreed that the President should continue on his trip until Sunday morning. He would be reachable by telephone prior to that time.


The original tape recordings of EXCOMM's meetings are currently held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester, Boston. Great strides have been made in declassifying and publishing the tapes. [2] Excerpts from the first meeting, which took place on October 16, 1962, document the reactions of the committee members upon initially hearing the news that medium and long-range ballistic missiles might be stationed in Cuba. In the summer of 1985, McGeorge Bundy, who served as EXCOMM's Special Assistant for National Security, transcribed the tapes from the October 27, 1962 meeting. James G. Blight, while Executive Director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, edited and annotated Bundy's transcriptions. Authorities in Washington and at the library granted Bundy access to the tape recordings given his role with EXCOMM. [3]

Bundy considered the October 27 meeting especially important, as it was the meeting which immediately preceded EXCOMM's resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Bundy believed the tape recordings included important historical information that should be shared with the public: notably, how political decisions are carried out when involving matters pertaining to nuclear weaponry.

In the mid-1990s, the audio tapes were systematically declassified (with a modest number of excisions) and released, first as published transcripts [4] [5] and later as downloadable audio files. [6]

The EXCOMM's deliberations are a favorite topic of social scientists. [ citation needed ] Irving Janis argued that they were relatively free of the "groupthink" that plagued discussions leading up to the Bay of Pigs. Allison and Zelikow make frequent reference to them in the second edition of Essence of Decision, in connection with the "bureaucratic politics" perspective. [7]

One political theorist, James Blight, has analyzed the behavior of EXCOMM's members in the midst of the impending crisis with the Soviet Union. He suggests that the thought of war with the Soviet Union instilled a sense of fear in the committee members so that their deliberations became more productive as they reacted to this emotion. [8] Blight argues that EXCOMM's focus of attention shifted: as the possibility of war with the Soviet Union became more probable, the committee members became less concerned with removing the missiles from Cuba and instead focused their energy on avoiding a nuclear war.

In Kennedy Recordings, History’s Raw Materials

BOSTON — President John F. Kennedy opened the newspaper one day in 1963 and learned to his horror that military aides had built a hospital bedroom for his pregnant wife at an air base on Cape Cod in case she went into labor. He thought the $5,000 spent on the furniture was wasteful and would be a public-relations disaster that would prompt Congress to cut his military budget. The angry president picked up the phone.

First, he a took a press underling to task. He demanded that the furniture be sent back and that those responsible — including “that silly fellow who had his picture taken next to the bed” — be transferred to Alaska.

He then called Gen. Godfrey McHugh, his Air Force aide. “What the hell did they let the reporters in there for?” the president thundered. “You just sank the Air Force budget!”

And he was not finished venting his rage about the aide who appeared in the newspaper picture. “He’s a silly bastard!” he exclaimed. “I wouldn’t have him running around a cathouse!” Before hanging up, he characterized the entire episode with an expletive.

The story came straight from Kennedy himself.

Though even some of his closest aides did not know at the time, Kennedy recorded more than 260 hours of Oval Office conversations, telephone calls and dictation into his Dictaphone. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation has culled the highlights into a new book of annotated transcripts and two audio CDs. Some of the audio portions will be available online.

The book, “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy,” with a foreword by his daughter, Caroline Kennedy, and an introduction by Ted Widmer, a presidential historian at Brown University, offers “the raw material of history,” said Thomas Putnam, the director of the Kennedy Library.

“This is the memoir that President Kennedy never got to write,” Mr. Putnam said.

In a meeting in November 1962, the president bluntly told James Webb, the NASA administrator, that putting a man on the moon was his top priority. Mr. Webb said it was more important to understand the environment of space, prompting Mr. Kennedy to say, “If we get second to the Moon, it’s nice, but it’s like being second anytime.”

Mr. Webb continued to push back, prompting the president to spell it out: “I’m not that interested in space,” he said, only in beating the Russians.

Kennedy’s obsession with the cold war extended to the athletic rivalry with the Russians over hockey. In March 1963, he called up an old friend who had played hockey in the Olympics to complain about the American men’s hockey team losing to Sweden, 17-2.

“Christ,” the president complained. “Who are we sending over there? Girls?”

Like Richard M. Nixon after him and several presidents before him, Kennedy installed hidden recording devices in the Oval Office. Almost no one knew about the practice until the existence of the Nixon tapes was revealed in 1973 during the Watergate hearings. This lifted the curtain on stealth self-bugging in the White House that began with Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Kennedy’s recording system was dismantled immediately after his assassination. The family kept the tapes until 1976 and then gave them to the National Archives. The Kennedy Library later acquired them and began to make them available to historians in 1983. Their release was a slow and laborious process because the sound quality was uneven and they had to be transcribed and declassified. The last 45 hours of tapes were released only this year.

Historians have turned to the tapes for insight into major events of the Kennedy presidency like the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The value of this book, Mr. Putnam said, is that “it is the first time the material has been published in one collection with annotations and a serious historian providing context for each conversation.”

The book was published by Hyperion, which released a book last year of interviews conducted with Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s death.

The tapes reveal that Kennedy talked several times with his predecessors about pressing issues of the day, including with Dwight D. Eisenhower about the Cuban missile crisis. But one conversation with Harry S. Truman veered in a surprisingly personal direction as they wrapped up a call in July 1963.

“Well, you sound in good shape,” Kennedy said.

“All right,” Truman replied. “The only trouble with me is that, the main difficulty I have, is keeping the wife satisfied.” Both men laughed.

“Well, that’s all right,” Kennedy said.

“Well, you know how that is,” Truman went on. “She’s very much afraid I’m going to hurt myself. Even though I’m not. She’s a tough bird.”

Mr. Widmer, the historian, said he believed that Truman was talking about erectile dysfunction. “I wanted the book to have human moments,” he said.

The book also includes the transcript and audio of a tape made during a private dinner party that the Kennedys held in their Georgetown home on Jan. 5, 1960, days after he announced he was running for president. It was recorded by James M. Cannon, a correspondent for Newsweek, and was given to the Kennedy library to be released after Mr. Cannon’s death, which occurred in 2011. Other guests included Ben Bradlee, then Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and later the editor of The Washington Post.

Kennedy openly discussed his desire for the thrill of being in the white-hot crucible of decision-making on the world stage, which would give him a rush “like playing Yale every Saturday,” he said.

He was, by turns, reflective, vulnerable and confident. He played down the role of money in his success, saying he owed more to the family name than to his wealth. He said the chief problem with losing an election was “being cut off from this fascinating life at mid-age.” He compared it to having a leg amputated.

Unlike the Nixon taping system, which was voice-activated, Kennedy’s had to be started by pressing a button, so he was obviously aware that he was being recorded. On a grim day in 1963, Kennedy turned to his Dictaphone to record his thoughts about a coup in Vietnam. He rued into the machine that his administration was responsible for the coup, and he was going over the blunders that had led to it, when suddenly a child’s voice chirped “hello.”

John F. Kennedy Jr., then not quite 3, had toddled into the Oval Office and, most likely, into his father’s lap. The president made a seamless transition from burdened commander in chief to doting father and began a nursery word play with his son.

Kennedy: “Why do the leaves fall?”

After questions about winter and spring, the president asked: “When do we go to the Cape? Hyannis Port?”

“It’s summer,” repeated the youthful father, though it was November and in less than three weeks, he would be dead.

Forgotten Casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis

President John F. Kennedy and his staff used this secret map to chart the locations of various bases and missile sites in Cuba using intelligence gleaned from U-2 overflights.

On Friday, October 26, 1962, one day before “Black Saturday,” the most terrifying day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, CIA Director John McCone gave President John F. Kennedy more bad news about the Soviet military build-up on the island. He explained that the Soviets were spending an estimated $1 billion on their military installations and that “rapid construction activity” was contin­uing. More alarming was the discovery of a Soviet FROG-7 missile launch system (also referred to as a Luna-M), a tactical nuclear weapon that could be used against an American invasion or the U.S. outpost at Guantanamo Bay.

This information prompted Strategic Air Command (SAC) to authorize a Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance flight over Cuba for October 27. U.S. Air Force U-2s and Navy Vought RF-8 Crusaders had been used extensively in the prior days to photograph medium-range ballistic missile sites, SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and a variety of Soviet military installations and troop barracks. While the Crusaders were used for the low-level surveillance and close-up photographs, the high-flying U-2s could cover a much broader area with their high-resolution cameras.

Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. returns from a flight in a North American F-86. In October 1962, his high-altitude Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba. (Courtesy of the Anderson Family)

With its 103-foot wingspan and lightweight frame, the U-2 looks something like a sailplane on steroids. It can fly so high—73,000 feet—that the pilot must don a specialized pressure suit and fishbowl-style helmet, similar to what astronauts wear. Should the single-seat cockpit lose air pressure, the suit is designed to inflate and keep the pilot alive. Otherwise in the thin air of the stratosphere the pilot’s blood would literally begin to boil.

While the U-2’s cruising altitude put it safely beyond reach of Soviet MiG fighters, the spyplane was vulnerable to SAMs. Francis Gary Powers had been shot down in his U-2 just two years before the Cuban crisis. Consequently, President Kennedy and his military advisers were well aware of this risk, and they had agreed upon a course of action should a U-2 be shot down over Cuba. Kennedy secretly recorded all of his Cabinet Room meetings during the crisis, and on the tape recordings Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara gave his opinion on the subject: “We are maintaining aircraft on alert that have the capability, if you decide to instruct us to do so, to go in and shoot the SAM site that shot down the U-2. We would recommend that we send eight aircraft out to destroy the site, and have it destroyed within two hours of the time the U-2 itself was struck.”

The president agreed and added details to the strategy, saying, “[W]hen we take out the SAM site we announce that if any [other] U-2 is shot down, we’ll take out every SAM site.” This agreement brought a measure of satisfaction to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had been clamoring for a more robust military response to the Soviet build-up on the island than the naval quarantine that Kennedy had earlier implemented. The naval blockade would stop new equipment from arriving in Cuba, but would do nothing to curtail ongoing work to bring the nuclear missiles on the island to operational status. U.S. military leaders advocated a massive series of airstrikes followed by an invasion, and continued reconnaissance was essential for success.

On Saturday, October 27, SAC flight planners decided to send a U-2 to photograph the eastern part of the island. Major Rudolf Anderson Jr., stationed at McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Fla., was ready. The night before, he had asked operations manager Tony Martinez to put him on standby in case a pilot was needed the next day.

Technicians load a type A-2 camera set into a U-2’s equipment bay, or “Q-bay.” (U.S. Air Force)

Once in the cockpit of his U-2, Rudy Anderson and a technician went through several checks, followed by more checks from Captain Roger Herman, who found everything in order and cleared him for launch. Herman slapped the pilot on the shoulder and said, “Okay, Rudy, here we go, have a good trip. See you when you get back.”

Anderson responded with a thumbs-up, and Herman closed the canopy. The pilot had taped two photos above his control panel: one of his smiling wife, the other of his two boys. Staring at the photos, he must have truly believed that his mission could save their lives and those of millions more around the world.

Leaving McCoy AFB at 9:10 a.m., Anderson enjoyed relatively clear skies. While he had performed five recon missions over Cuba during the crisis, none of the pilots who flew multiple missions viewed them as routine. His flight path would take him over the easternmost third of the island, coasting in from the north, initially in a straight line heading south-southeast. He would be passing within range of no less than eight SAM sites.

Anderson flew at the usual 72,000 feet, first crossing over Cuba at the northern coastal islands of Caya Coco before continuing his trajectory over Esmeralda and Camagüey. So far so good. The weather was a mix of sun and clouds, the cameras were working fine and Anderson knew the extreme importance of the mission. His photos might reveal that warheads had been put on the missiles, indicating they were ready for firing. In 24 hours the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Kennedy himself would likely be examining some of his film to guide them in planning their next steps.

On the ground in Cuba, Soviet radar was tracking Anderson’s U-2, and the Russians labeled this intruding aircraft “target 33.” Nerves were frayed: Both the Soviets and the Cubans expected the United States to launch an all-out attack at any moment. And there was anger, too, particularly among the Cubans. Why let the Americans invade their airspace in the high-flying U-2s when they had the capability to shoot them down? Many of the Russians on the island agreed with their Cuban counterparts. After all, the Cubans and Russians toiling in Cuba—not those in Moscow—would pay the ultimate price if the U.S. attacked. They could not understand Moscow’s reluctance to let them defend themselves, but their orders were to withhold fire unless under attack. Some Soviet commanders on the ground thought this gave them a bit of leeway to use their judgment to shoot down the offending American planes if they sensed an attack coming during the overflights.

Monitoring target 33 were Soviet forces deputy commander Maj. Gen. Leonid Garbuz and deputy commander of air defenses Lt. Gen. Stepan Grechko, both stationed in a command center in Havana. “Our guest has been circling above us for more than an hour,” said Grechko. “I think we should give the order for downing the plane.”

The two generals decided to propose the action to General Issa Pliyev, who commanded all Soviet forces in Cuba. But a phone call to General Pliyev’s headquarters proved futile, as his aide-de-camp said he was unavailable. Pli­yev, known to be ill with kidney disease, was possibly too sick to take the call.

Meanwhile Anderson flew over the town of Guantanamo, just north of the U.S. naval base there, his cameras recording Soviet military activity on the ground. This was an especially sensitive area, since it housed the troops and weapons, including the tactical nuclear missiles, that would be used to attack the naval base if the Americans launched an invasion.

Once past Guantanamo, Anderson made a slight turn to the east-northeast and continued to Jamal (just south of Baracoa). He was now close to the easternmost tip of Cuba. Over Jamal he made a wide U-turn (now heading west-northwest). By then Anderson had covered approximately 70 percent of his prearranged miles over Cuba.

At about this time Generals Garbuz and Grechko agreed they had the authority to decide whether to fire their SAMs. They believed an invasion was imminent, and the reports of large numbers of Crusaders buzzing the island, to which the Cubans responded with anti-aircraft fire, added to their apprehension. They were in communication with Colonel Grigory Danilevich at a command outpost in Camagüey, who also had target 33 on his radar screen. The two generals wanted to be sure the Camagüey men were tracking the same target on their monitor. Danilevich later said the anxiety was enormous, as was the uncertainty of action: “It [authorization for use of SAMs] was not a clear one. Where there is such great tension between two superpowers, why should there also not be confusion at the division level?”

The generals had watched target 33 come down from the north, turn toward the east and now make yet another turn that would take the U-2 over additional military installations before heading to safety over the ocean. The spyplane appeared as a light dot on a huge 5- by 10-meter screen, called a firing chart. As the dot moved across the screen, the two generals worried the plane would escape back to the U.S. with its intelligence. The men made another call to General Pliyev, but again he could not be located.

If the two lower-ranking generals were to act, they must do so immediately. The men felt Pliyev would agree with them the commanding general had repeatedly asked Moscow for permission to shoot down spyplanes, but had not received the go-ahead. Grechko announced, “Well, let’s take responsibility ourselves.”

The Russians at the Banes SAM site had their missiles trained on Anderson’s U-2. They were ready to fire, worried that if the orders did not come soon, the spyplane would be out of the targeting zone. Then over the radio came the command: “Target 33 is to be destroyed.”

Two SA-2s were launched, at least one of them by Lieutenant Alexy Raypenko, a member of the Soviet antiaircraft rocket unit. “A task is a task,” he later said, “and you have to do it well. I just happened to be at the end of the chain.”

One of the missiles exploded close enough to Anderson’s U-2 that shrapnel hit the aircraft and pierced his pressure suit. That would have caused decompression, and he likely died immediately. Anderson never had time to eject from the aircraft or hit the destruct switch, which would have blown the aircraft to pieces after a short delay to allow him to bail out.

When a U-2 has been damaged but not torn apart it pinwheels to the ground, like a leaf falling from a tree. This is what likely happened to Anderson’s plane, and as it spun toward the earth the tail and the wings were sheared off. The fuselage, still mostly intact, plummeted into the ground. Villagers and military personnel ran to the crash site. They found the smoldering ruins of the strange-looking aircraft, and inside the cockpit, still strapped to his seat, was the dead pilot.

Cuban personnel examine the remains of Anderson’s U-2 after he was shot down and killed by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. (Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Back in the U.S., SAC knew almost immediately that something was amiss with Anderson’s mission. SAC technicians could monitor the flight paths of their U-2s mile by mile, and when Anderson’s aircraft disappeared from the screen and he didn’t send the secret radio signal that all U-2 pilots routinely transmitted when leaving Cuban airspace, they knew with certainty that an accident or missile strike had forced the aircraft down.

Reconnaissance planes patrolling just off the island’s shore reported that they did not spot Anderson’s U-2 on their radar, nor did they see it crash. They searched the ocean but found no debris. Crusader pilots risked their lives flying directly over Banes in search of the downed spyplane. Some hoped that Anderson might have bailed out and was hiding in the jungle, ready to shoot off a flare if friendly aircraft appeared. But the Americans located neither the pilot nor the wreckage. SAC labeled Anderson missing in action, but almost no one held out hope that he had somehow parachuted safely to the ground. That fear was soon realized when Cuban radio stations began boasting of the shootdown of an American plane and the death of the pilot.

Air Force chief of staff General Curtis LeMay immediately ordered his North American F-100 fighter pilots at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida to be briefed and prepare for attack flights to Cuba. They carried Zuni air-to-ground rockets that could obliterate the SAM sites, killing both Soviet and Cuban defenders. Launch awaited only the president’s final approval.

Kennedy was informed of Anderson’s shootdown only after Cuban radio confirmed it, about three hours after SAC knew the U-2 was missing. In fact, it came up at a Cabinet Room meeting of the Executive Committee (Kennedy’s team to deal with the crisis) in an almost offhand way, after the meeting had been going on for some time. McNamara brought up the incident first, saying, “I think the rush is what we do. A U-2 was shot down.”

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was stunned, and spoke up first: “A U-2 was shot down? Was the pilot killed?’

McNamara answered yes. Then President Ken­nedy responded, almost in a subdued manner, saying “Well now, this is much of an escalation by them, isn’t it?”

After more discussion the president decided not to immediately strike back and destroy the offending SAM site as he had agreed to earlier. He wanted to give Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev one last chance to come to an agreement that would resolve the crisis. Most members of the Executive Committee disagreed and advocated retaliation. General LeMay, who was not at the meeting but quickly learned of the president’s decision, said in disgust, “He’s chickened out again. How in the hell do you get men to risk their lives when the SAMs are not attacked?”

Bobby Kennedy wrote that the despair and tension at the Executive Committee meeting that afternoon was palpable. “There was a feeling that the noose was tightening on all of us, on all Americans, on mankind, and the bridges to escape were crumbling.”

Anderson’s wife, Jane, receives the burial flag as he is laid to rest in Greenville, S.C., on November 6, 1962. (Courtesy of the Anderson Family)

In an interview by this author with Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev’s son, he explained that the shootdown of Anderson had a profound effect on his father. The Soviet premier, like the U.S. president, feared that a single incident might cause the leaders to lose their grip on the situation. That event had now happened, and the two leaders had to come to an agreement before they lost control of events and the world hurtled toward nuclear Armageddon.

The key to the deal was Turkey, where the U.S. had nuclear missiles that Khrushchev wanted removed. JFK did not see this as an unreasonable demand, and in an evening meeting of the Executive Committee on Black Saturday he said as much: “We can’t very well invade Cuba with all the toil and blood it’s going to be, when we could have gotten them [the Soviet missiles] out by making the same deal in Turkey.” The president knew the missiles in Turkey were not essential to U.S. defenses, as nuclear-armed Polaris submarines off the Turkish coast could provide the same destructive force.

That night Bobby Kennedy relayed his brother’s proposal to the Soviet ambassador, essentially saying that if the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba the U.S would promise not to invade the island, and in a very short time would remove the missiles from Turkey. The agreement could not be made public because of the potential political fallout for JFK and the need to inform both NATO and the Turks about the president’s plans.

Khrushchev knew this might be the last offer before military conflict engulfed Cuba, potentially leading to nuclear war between the two super­powers. His response to Kennedy’s offer was swift, and he did so publicly over Radio Moscow so as not to waste a single second. In an open letter to Kennedy, he announced the Soviet government’s intention to “dismantle the arms which you described as offensive, and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union.”

War had been avoided, but not before Major Rudy Anderson had paid the ultimate price. The Cubans released his body to the Swiss on November 5, and he was buried in his hometown of Greenville, S.C., the following day. In recognition of Anderson’s valor, President Kennedy posthumously awarded him the first Air Force Cross and the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal.

Michael Tougias is the co-author, with Casey Sherman, of Above & Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Spy Mission, from which this article is adapted. Visit michaeltougias.com for more info.

This feature appeared in the January 2019 issue of Aviation History. Click here to subscribe today!

Kennedy Diary Recording of Cuban Missile Crisis - HISTORY

These texts are from versions published in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Volume VI: Kennedy-Khrushchev Exchanges (Washington D.C. : U.S. Department of State, 1996). Source notes and footnotes added to the published version have been removed.

Chairman Khrushchev's Letter to President Kennedy, October 23, 1962

Department of State
Division of Language Services

LS NO. 45989

Embossed Seal of the USSR

I have just received your letter, and have also acquainted myself with the text of your speech of October 22 regarding Cuba.

I must say frankly that measures indicated in your statement constitute a serious threat to peace and to the security of nations. The United States has openly taken the path of grossly violating the United Nations Charter, path of violating international norms of freedom of navigation on the high seas, the path of aggressive actions both against Cuba and against the Soviet Union.

The statement by the Government of the United States of America can only be regarded as undisguised interference in the internal of the Republic of Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other states. The United Nations Charter and international norms give no right to any state to institute in international waters the inspection of vessels bound for the shores of the Republic of Cuba.

And naturally, neither can we recognize the right of the United States to establish control over armaments which are necessary for the Republic of Cuba to strengthen of its defense capability.

We affirm that the armaments which are in Cuba, regardless of the classification to which they may belong, are intended solely for defensive purposes, in order to secure the Republic of Cuba against the attack of an aggressor.

I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace.

The viewpoint of the Soviet Government with regard to your statement of October 22 is set forth in statement of the Soviet Government, which is being transmitted to you through your Ambassador at Moscow.

Draft of President Kennedy's Letter to Chairman Khrushchev, October 23, 1962

Dear Mr. Chairman:

I have received your letter of October twenty-third. I think you will recognize that the step which started the current chain of events was the action of your Government in secretly furnishing long-range missiles to Cuba. We will be [handwritten "are" inserted] discussing this matter in the Security Council. In the meantime, I am concerned that we both show prudence and do nothing to allow events to make the situation more difficult to control than it already is.

With this in mind I hope you will issue instructions to your ships bound for Cuba not to challenge the quarantine legally established by the Organization of American States this afternoon


The Final Version of President Kennedy's Letter of October 23 as Transmitted by State Department Telegram

Washington, October 23, 1962, 6:51 p.m.

985. You should deliver following letter addressed by the President to Chairman Khrushchev immediately. This replaces message contained Deptel 982.

"Dear Mr. Chairman:

I have received your letter of October twenty-third. I think you will recognize that the step which started the current chain of events was the action of your Government in secretly furnishing offensive weapons to Cuba. We will be discussing this matter in the Security Council. In the meantime, I am concerned that we both show prudence and do nothing to allow events to make the situation more difficult to control than it already is.

I hope that you will issue immediately the necessary instructions to your ships to observe the terms of the quarantine, the basis of which was established by the vote of the Organization of American States this afternoon, and which will go into effect at 1400 hours Greenwich time October twenty-four.

Sincerely, JFK."


Letter From Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy, October 24, 1962

Moscow, October 24, 1962.

Dear Mr. President:

I have received your letter of October 23, have studied it, and am answering you.

Just imagine, Mr. President, that we had presented you with the conditions of an ultimatum which you have presented us by your action. How would you have reacted to this? I think that you would have been indignant at such a step on our part. And this would have been understandable to us.

In presenting us with these conditions, you, Mr. President, have flung a challenge at us. Who asked you to do this? By what right did you do this? Our ties with the Republic of Cuba, like our relations with other states, regardless of what kind of states they may be, concern only the two countries between which these relations exist. And if we now speak of the quarantine to which your letter refers, a quarantine may be established, according to accepted international practice, only by agreement of states between themselves, and not by some third party. Quarantines exist, for example, on agricultural goods and products. But in this case the question is in no way one of quarantine, but rather of far more serious things, and you yourself understand this.

You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one's relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.

No, Mr. President, I cannot agree to this, and I think that in your own heart you recognize that I am correct. I am convinced that in my place you would act the same way.

Reference to the decision of the Organization of American States cannot in any way substantiate the demands now advanced by the United States. This Organization has absolutely no authority or basis for adopting decisions such as the one you speak of in your letter. Therefore, we do not recognize these decisions. International law exists and universally recognized norms of conduct exist. We firmly adhere to the principles of international law and observe strictly the norms which regulate navigation on the high seas, in international waters. We observe these norms and enjoy the rights recognized by all states.

You wish to compel us to renounce the rights that every sovereign state enjoys, you are trying to legislate in questions of international law, and you are violating the universally accepted norms of that law. And you are doing all this not only out of hatred for the Cuban people and its government, but also because of considerations of the election campaign in the United States. What morality, what law can justify such an approach by the American Government to international affairs? No such morality or law can be found, because the actions of the United States with regard to Cuba constitute outright banditry or, if you like, the folly of degenerate imperialism. Unfortunately, such folly can bring grave suffering to the peoples of all countries, and to no lesser degree to the American people themselves, since the United States has completely lost its former isolation with the advent of modern types of armament.

Therefore, Mr. President, if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States. When you confront us with such conditions, try to put yourself in our place and consider how the United States would react to these conditions. I do not doubt that if someone attempted to dictate similar conditions to you--the United States--you would reject such an attempt. And we also say--no.

The Soviet Government considers that the violation of the freedom to use international waters and international air space is an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war. Therefore, the Soviet Government cannot instruct the captains of Soviet vessels bound for Cuba to observe the orders of American naval forces blockading that Island. Our instructions to Soviet mariners are to observe strictly the universally accepted norms of navigation in international waters and not to retreat one step from them. And if the American side violates these rules, it must realize what responsibility will rest upon it in that case. Naturally we will not simply be bystanders with regard to piratical acts by American ships on the high seas. We will then be forced on our part to take the measures we consider necessary and adequate in order to protect our rights. We have everything necessary to do so.


N. Khrushchev

Letter From President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev, October 25, 1962

October 25, 1962

Dear Mr. Chairman:

I have received your letter of October 24, and I regret very much that you still do not appear to understand what it is that has moved us in this matter.

The sequence of events is clear. In August there were reports of important shipments of military equipment and technicians from the Soviet Union to Cuba. In early September I indicated very plainly that the United States would regard any shipment of offensive weapons as presenting the gravest issues. After that time, this Government received the most explicit assurances from your Government and its representatives, both publicly and privately, that no offensive weapons were being sent to Cuba. If you will review the statement issued by Tass in September, you will see how clearly this assurance was given.

In reliance on these solemn assurances I urged restraint upon those in this country who were urging action in this matter at that time. And then I learned beyond doubt what you have not denied -- namely, that all these public assurances were false and that your military people had set out recently to establish a set of missile bases in Cuba. I ask you to recognize clearly, Mr. Chairman, that it was not I who issued the first challenge in this case, and that in the light of this record these activities in Cuba required the responses I have announced.

I repeat my regret that these events should cause a deterioration in our relations. I hope that your Government will take the necessary action to permit a restoration of the earlier situation.

Sincerely yours,

Department of State Telegram Transmitting Letter From Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy, October 26, 1962

Moscow, October 26, 1962, 7 p.m.

1101. Policy. Embassy translation follows of letter from Khrushchev to President delivered to Embassy by messenger 4:43 p.m. Moscow time October 26, under cover of letter from Gromyko to me.

Begin Text.

Dear Mr. President:

I have received your letter of October 25. From your letter, I got the feeling that you have some understanding of the situation which has developed and (some) sense of responsibility. I value this.

Now we have already publicly exchanged our evaluations of the events around Cuba and each of us has set forth his explanation and his understanding of these events. Consequently, I would judge that, apparently, a continuation of an exchange of opinions at such a distance, even in the form of secret letters, will hardly add anything to that which one side has already said to the other.

I think you will understand me correctly if you are really concerned about the welfare of the world. Everyone needs peace: both capitalists, if they have not lost their reason, and, still more, Communists, people who know how to value not only their own lives but, more than anything, the lives of the peoples. We, Communists, are against all wars between states in general and have been defending the cause of peace since we came into the world. We have always regarded war as a calamity, and not as a game nor as a means for the attainment of definite goals, nor, all the more, as a goal in itself. Our goals are clear, and the means to attain them is labor. War is our enemy and a calamity for all the peoples.

It is thus that we, Soviet people, and, together with US, other peoples as well, understand the questions of war and peace. I can, in any case, firmly say this for the peoples of the Socialist countries, as well as for all progressive people who want peace, happiness, and friendship among peoples.

I see, Mr. President, that you too are not devoid of a sense of anxiety for the fate of the world understanding, and of what war entails. What would a war give you? You are threatening us with war. But you well know that the very least which you would receive in reply would be that you would experience the same consequences as those which you sent us. And that must be clear to us, people invested with authority, trust, and responsibility. We must not succumb to intoxication and petty passions, regardless of whether elections are impending in this or that country, or not impending. These are all transient things, but 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 know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.

In the name of the Soviet Government and the Soviet people, I assure you that your conclusions regarding offensive weapons on Cuba are groundless. It is apparent from what you have written me that our conceptions are different on this score, or rather, we have different estimates of these or those military means. Indeed, in reality, the same forms of weapons can have different interpretations.

You are a military man and, I hope, will understand me. Let us take for example a simple cannon. What sort of means is this: offensive or defensive? A cannon is a defensive means if it is set up to defend boundaries or a fortified area. But if one concentrates artillery, and adds to it the necessary number of troops, then the same cannons do become an offensive means, because they prepare and clear the way for infantry to attack. The same happens with missile-nuclear weapons as well, with any type of this weapon.

You are mistaken if you think that any of our means on Cuba are offensive. However, let us not quarrel now. It is apparent that I will not be able to convince you of this. But I say to you: You, Mr. President, are a military man and should understand: Can one attack, if one has on one's territory even an enormous quantity of missiles of various effective radiuses and various power, but using only these means. These missiles are a means of extermination and destruction. But one cannot attack with these missiles, even nuclear missiles of a power of 100 megatons because only people, troops, can attack. Without people, any means however powerful cannot be offensive.

How can one, consequently, give such a completely incorrect interpretation as you are now giving, to the effect that some sort of means on Cuba are offensive. All the means located there, and I assure you of this, have a defensive character, are on Cuba solely for the purposes of defense, and we have sent them to Cuba at the request of the Cuban Government. You, however, say that these are offensive means.

But, Mr. President, do you really seriously think that Cuba can attack the United States and that even we together with Cuba can attack you from the territory of Cuba? Can you really think that way? How is it possible? We do not understand this. Has something so new appeared in military strategy that one can think that it is possible to attack thus. I say precisely attack, and not destroy, since barbarians, people who have lost their sense, destroy.

I believe that you have no basis to think this way. You can regard us with distrust, but, in any case, you can be calm in this regard, that we are of sound mind and understand perfectly well that if we attack you, you will respond the same way. But you too will receive the same that you hurl against us. And I think that you also understand this. My conversation with you in Vienna gives me the right to talk to you this way.

This indicates that we are normal people, that we correctly understand and correctly evaluate the situation. Consequently, how can we permit the incorrect actions which you ascribe to us? Only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die, could do this. We, however, want to live and do not at all want to destroy your country. We want something quite different: To compete with your country on a peaceful basis. We quarrel with you, we have differences on ideological questions. But our view of the world consists in this, that ideological questions, as well as economic problems, should be solved not by military means, they must be solved on the basis of peaceful competition, i.e., as this is understood in capitalist society, on the basis of competition. We have proceeded and are proceeding from the fact that the peaceful co-existence of the two different social-political systems, now existing in the world, is necessary, that it is necessary to assure a stable peace. That is the sort of principle we hold.

You have now proclaimed piratical measures, which were employed in the Middle Ages, when ships proceeding in international waters were attacked, and you have called this "a quarantine" around Cuba. Our vessels, apparently, will soon enter the zone which your Navy is patrolling. I assure you that these vessels, now bound for Cuba, are carrying the most innocent peaceful cargoes. Do you really think that we only occupy ourselves with the carriage of so-called offensive weapons, atomic and hydrogen bombs? Although perhaps your military people imagine that these (cargoes) are some sort of special type of weapon, I assure you that they are the most ordinary peaceful products.

Consequently, Mr. President, let us show good sense. I assure you that on those ships, which are bound for Cuba, there are no weapons at all. The weapons which were necessary for the defense of Cuba are already there. I do not want to say that there were not any shipments of weapons at all. No, there were such shipments. But now Cuba has already received the necessary means of defense.

I don't know whether you can understand me and believe me. But I should like to have you believe in yourself and to agree that one cannot give way to passions it is necessary to control them. And in what direction are events now developing? If you stop the vessels, then, as you yourself know, that would be piracy. If we started to do that with regard to your ships, then you would also be as indignant as we and the whole world now are. One cannot give another interpretation to such actions, because one cannot legalize lawlessness. If this were permitted, then there would be no peace, there would also be no peaceful coexistence. We should then be forced to put into effect the necessary measures of a defensive character to protect our interests in accordance with international law. Why should this be done? To what would all this lead?

Let us normalize relations. We have received an appeal from the Acting Secretary General of the UN, U Thant, with his proposals. I have already answered him. His proposals come to this, that our side should not transport armaments of any kind to Cuba during a certain period of time, while negotiations are being conducted--and we are ready to enter such negotiations--and the other side should not undertake any sort of piratical actions against vessels engaged in navigation on the high seas. I consider these proposals reasonable. This would be a way out of the situation which has been created, which would give the peoples the possibility of breathing calmly. You have asked what happened, what evoked the delivery of weapons to Cuba? You have spoken about this to our Minister of Foreign Affairs. I will tell you frankly, Mr. President, what evoked it.

We were very grieved by the fact--I spoke about it in Vienna--that a landing took place, that an attack on Cuba was committed, as a result of which many Cubans perished. You yourself told me then that this had been a mistake. I respected that explanation. You repeated it to me several times, pointing out that not everybody occupying a high position would acknowledge his mistakes as you had done. I value such frankness. For my part, I told you that we too possess no less courage we also acknowledged those mistakes which had been committed during the history of our state, and not only acknowledged, but sharply condemned them.

If you are really concerned about the peace and welfare of your people, and this is your responsibility as President, then I, as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, am concerned for my people. Moreover, the preservation of world peace should be our joint concern, since if, under contemporary conditions, war should break out, it would be a war not only between the reciprocal claims, but a world wide cruel and destructive war.

Why have we proceeded to assist Cuba with military and economic aid? The answer is: We have proceeded to do so only for reasons of humanitarianism. At one time, our people itself had a revolution, when Russia was still a backward country. We were attacked then. We were the target of attack by many countries. The USA participated in that adventure. This has been recorded by participants in the aggression against our country. A whole book has been written about this by General Graves, who, at that time, commanded the US Expeditionary Corps. Graves called it "The American Adventure in Siberia."

We know how difficult it is to accomplish a revolution and how difficult it is to reconstruct a country on new foundations. We sincerely sympathize with Cuba and the Cuban people, but we are not interfering in questions of domestic structure, we are not interfering in their affairs. The Soviet Union desires to help the Cubans build their life as they themselves wish and that others should not hinder them.

You once said that the United States was not preparing an invasion. But you also declared that you sympathized with the Cuban counter-revolutionary emigrants, that you support them and would help them to realize their plans against the present Government of Cuba. It is also not a secret to anyone that the threat of armed attack, aggression, has constantly hung, and continues to hang over Cuba. It was only this which impelled us to respond to the request of the Cuban Government to furnish it aid for the strengthening of the defensive capacity of this country.

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. I am not speaking for Fidel Castro, but I think that he and the Government of Cuba, evidently, would declare demobilization and would appeal to the people to get down to peaceful labor. Then, too, the question of armaments would disappear, since, if there is no threat, then armaments are a burden for every people. Then too, the question of the destruction, not only of the armaments which you call offensive, but of all other armaments as well, would look different.

I spoke in the name of the Soviet Government in the United Nations and introduced a proposal for the disbandment of all armies and for the destruction of all armaments. How then can I now count on those armaments?

Armaments bring only disasters. When one accumulates them, this damages the economy, and if one puts them to use, then they destroy people on both sides. Consequently, only a madman can believe that armaments are the principal means in the life of society. No, they are an enforced loss of human energy, and what is more are for the destruction of man himself. If people do not show wisdom, then in the final analysis they will come to a clash, like blind moles, and then reciprocal extermination will begin.

Let us therefore show statesmanlike wisdom. I propose: We, for our part, will declare that our ships, bound for Cuba, will not carry any kind of armaments. You would declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its forces and will not support any sort of forces which might intend to carry out an invasion of Cuba. Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.

Mr. President, I appeal to you to weigh well what the aggressive, piratical actions, which you have declared the USA intends to carry out in international waters, would lead to. You yourself know that any sensible man simply cannot agree with this, cannot recognize your right to such actions.

If you did this as the first step towards the unleashing of war, well then, it is evident that nothing else is left to us but to accept this challenge of yours. If, however, you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.

Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.

We welcome all forces which stand on positions of peace. Consequently, I expressed gratitude to Mr. Bertrand Russell, too, who manifests alarm and concern for the fate of the world, and I readily responded to the appeal of the Acting Secretary General of the UN, U Thant.

There, Mr. President, are my thoughts, which, if you agreed with them, could put an end to that tense situation which is disturbing all peoples.

These thoughts are dictated by a sincere desire to relieve the situation, to remove the threat of war.

Respectfully yours,

[s] N. Khrushchev

October 26, 1962. End Text.

Original of letter being air pouched today under transmittal slip to Executive Secretariat.


Telegram of President Kennedy's Reply to Chairman Khrushchev's Letter of October 26, 1962

Washington, October 27, 1962, 8:05 p.m.

1015. Following message from President to Khrushchev should be delivered as soon as possible to highest available Soviet official. Text has been handed Soviet Embassy in Washington and has been released to press:

"Dear Mr. Chairman:

I have read your letter of October 26th with great care and welcomed the statement of your desire to seek a prompt solution to the problem. The first thing that needs to be done, however, is for work to cease on offensive missile bases in Cuba and for all weapons systems in Cuba capable of offensive use to be rendered inoperable, under effective United Nations arrangements.

Assuming this is done promptly, I have given my representatives in New York instructions that will permit them to work out this weekend--in cooperation with the Acting Secretary General and your representative--an arrangement for a permanent solution to the Cuban problem along the lines suggested in your letter of October 26th. As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals--which seem generally acceptable as I understand them--are as follows:

1) You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision and undertake, with suitable safeguards, to halt the further introduction of such weapons systems into Cuba.

2) We, on our part, would agree--upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations to ensure the carrying out and continuation of these commitments--(a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect and (b) to give assurances against an invasion of Cuba. I am confident that other nations of the Western Hemisphere would be prepared to do likewise.

If you will give your representative similar instructions, there is no reason why we should not be able to complete these arrangements and announce them to the world within a couple of days. The effect of such a settlement on easing world tensions would enable us to work toward a more general arrangement regarding 'other armaments', as proposed in your second letter which you made public./2/ I would like to say again that the United States is very much interested in reducing tensions and halting the arms race and if your letter signifies that you are prepared to discuss a detente affecting NATO and the Warsaw Pact, we are quite prepared to consider with our allies any useful proposals.

But the first ingredient, let me emphasize, is the cessation of work on missile sites in Cuba and measures to render such weapons inoperable, under effective international guarantees. The continuation of this threat, or a prolonging of this discussion concerning Cuba by linking these problems to the broader questions of European and world security, would surely lead to an intensification of the Cuban crisis and a grave risk to the peace of the world. For this reason I hope we can quickly agree along the lines in this letter and in your letter of October 26th.

/s/ John F. Kennedy"


Letter From Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy, October 27, 1962

Department of State
Division of Language Services

LS NO. 46236

Embossed Seal of the USSR

J. Kennedy, President of the United States
Copy to U Thant, Acting Secretary General of the U.N.

I have studied with great satisfaction your reply to Mr. Thant concerning measures that should be taken to avoid contact between our vessels and thereby avoid irreparable and fatal consequences. This reasonable step on your part strengthens my belief that you are showing concern for the preservation of peace, which I note with satisfaction.

I have already said that our people, our Government, and I personally, as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, are concerned solely with having our country develop and occupy a worthy place among all peoples of the world in economic competition, in the development of culture and the arts, and in raising the living standard of the people. This is the most noble and necessary field for competition, and both the victor and the vanquished will derive only benefit from it, because it means peace and an increase in the means by which man lives and finds enjoyment.

In your statement you expressed the opinion that the main aim was not simply to come to an agreement and take measures to prevent contact between our vessels and consequently a deepening of the crisis which could, as a result of such contacts spark a military conflict, after which all negotiations would be superfluous because other forces and other laws would then come into play--the laws of war. I agree with you that this is only the first step. The main thing that must be done is to normalize and stabilize the state of peace among states and among peoples.

I understand your concern for the security of the United States, Mr. President, because this is the primary duty of a President. But we too are disturbed about these same questions I bear these same obligations as Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. You have been alarmed by the fact that we have aided Cuba with weapons, in order to strengthen its defense capability--precisely defense capability--because whatever weapons it may possess, Cuba cannot be equated with you since the difference in magnitude is so great, particularly in view of modern means of destruction. Our aim has been and is to help Cuba, and no one can dispute the humanity of our motives, which are oriented toward enabling Cuba to live peacefully and develop in the way its people desire.

You wish to ensure the security of your country, and this is understandable. But Cuba, too, wants the same thing all countries want to maintain their security. But how are we, the Soviet Union, our Government, to assess your actions which are expressed in the fact that you have surrounded the Soviet Union with military bases surrounded our allies with military bases placed military bases literally around our country and stationed your missile armaments there? This is no secret. Responsible American personages openly declare that it is so. Your missiles are located in Britain, are located in Italy, and are aimed against us. Your missiles are located in Turkey.

You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you because it is 90 miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But Turkey adjoins us our sentries patrol back and forth and see each other. Do you consider, then, that you have the right to demand security for your own country and the removal of the weapons you call offensive, but do not accord the same right to us? You have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Turkey, literally next to us. How then can recognition of our equal military capacities be reconciled with such unequal relations between our great states? This is irreconcilable.

It is good, Mr. President, that you have agreed to have our represent-atives [sic] meet and begin talks, apparently through the mediation of U Thant, Acting Secretary General of the United Nations. Consequently, he to some degree has assumed the role of a mediator and we consider that he will be able to cope with this responsible mission, provided, of course, that each party drawn into this controversy displays good will.

I think it would be possible to end the controversy quickly and normalize the situation, and then the people could breathe more easily, considering that statesmen charged with responsibility are of sober mind and have an awareness of their responsibility combined with the ability to solve complex questions and not bring things to a military catastrophe.

I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive. We are willing to carry this out and to make this pledge in the United Nations. Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States, for its part, considering the uneasiness and anxiety of the Soviet State, will remove its analogous means from Turkey. Let us reach agreement as to the period of time needed by you and by us to bring this about. And, after that, persons entrusted by the United Nations Security Council could inspect on the spot the fulfillment of the pledges made. Of course, the permission of the Governments of Cuba and Turkey is necessary for the entry into those countries of these representatives and for the inspection of the fulfillment of the pledge made by each side. Of course it would be best if these representatives enjoyed the confidence of the Security Council as well as yours and mine--both the United States and the Soviet Union--and also that of Turkey and Cuba. I do not think it would be difficult to select people who would enjoy the trust and respect of all parties concerned.

We, in making this pledge, in order to give satisfaction and hope of the peoples of Cuba and Turkey and to strengthen their confidences in their security, will make a statement within the framework of the Security Council to the effect that the Soviet Government gives a solemn promise to respect the inviolability of the borders and sovereignty of Turkey, not to interfere in its internal affairs, not to invade Turkey, not to make available our territory as a bridgehead for such an invasion, and that it would also restrain those who contemplate committing aggression against Turkey, either from the territory of the Soviet Union or from the territory of Turkey's other neighboring states.

The United States Government will make a similar statement within the framework of the Security Council regarding Cuba. It will declare that the United States will respect the inviolability of Cuba's borders and its sovereignty, will pledge not to interfere in its internal affairs, not to invade Cuba itself or make its territory available as a bridgehead for such an invasion, and will also restrain those who might contemplate committing aggression against Cuba, either from the territory of the United States or from the territory of Cuba's other neighboring states.

Of course, for this we would have to come to an agreement with you and specify a certain time limit. Let us agree to some period of time, but without unnecessary delay--say within two or three weeks, not longer than a month.

The means situated in Cuba, of which you speak and which disturb you, as you have stated, are in the hands of Soviet officers. Therefore, any accidental use of them to the detriment of the United States is excluded. These means are situated in Cuba at the request of the Cuban Government and are only for defense purposes. Therefore, if there is no invasion of Cuba, or attack on the Soviet Union or any of our other allies, then of course these means are not and will not be a threat to anyone. For they are not for purposes of attack.

If you are agreeable to my proposal, Mr. President, then we would send our representatives to New York, to the United Nations, and would give them comprehensive instructions in order that an agreement may be reached more quickly. If you also select your people and give them the corresponding instructions, then this question can be quickly resolved.

Why would I like to do this? Because the whole world is now apprehensive and expects sensible actions of us. The greatest joy for all peoples would be the announcement of our agreement and of the eradication of the controversy that has arisen. I attach great importance to this agreement in so far as it could serve as a good beginning and could in particular make it easier to reach agreement on banning nuclear weapons tests. The question of the tests could be solved in parallel fashion, without connecting one with the other, because these are different issues. However, it is important that agreement be reached on both these issues so as to present humanity with a fine gift, and also to gladden it with the news that agreement has been reached on the cessation of nuclear tests and that consequently the atmosphere will no longer be poisoned. Our position and yours on this issue are very close together.

All of this could possibly serve as a good impetus toward the finding of mutually acceptable agreements on other controversial issues on which you and I have been exchanging views. These issues have so far not been resolved, but they are awaiting urgent solution, which would clear up the international atmosphere. We are prepared for this.

"The Silent Guns of Two Octobers" Reviewing a New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Sheldon M. Stern served as historian at the JFK Library in Boston from 1977 to 2000. He is the author of Averting &lsquothe Final Failure&rsquo: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005) and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012). Dr. Stern was the first historian and non-ExComm participant to listen to and evaluate the then-classified Cuban Missile Crisis White House tape recordings.

HNN Editor's Note: This review was originally published in Washington Decoded on June 11, 2020, and is republished here with permission at the anniversary of the crisis.

[Note to readers: Theodore Voorhees, whom I did not know, contacted me in 2017 about reading his manuscript. I concluded that his work added an important and fresh perspective to Cold War scholarship and, with Professor Martin Sherwin, assisted in finding a receptive university press. This article originally appeared on washingtondecoded.com on June 11, 2020]

Part I: The Author&rsquos Argument:

The standard view of the Cuban missile crisis is engraved in our historical memory. My own books reflect that outlook, describing those iconic thirteen days as the most dangerous episode of the nuclear era and the thirteenth day, October 27, 1962, as the most perilous twenty-four hours in human history. That view is so widely shared in missile crisis literature that it was startling to read a book in which that interpretation was all but relegated to the status of &ldquothe conventional wisdom.&rdquo

Theodore Voorhees, Jr., Senior Counsel at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, DC, concludes &ldquothat much of the Cold War rhetoric the leaders employed was posturing and that neither had any intention of starting a nuclear war.&rdquo Voorhees begins by dissecting the October 1961 confrontation along the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie when some sixty Soviet and US tanks faced each other &ldquoacross a tense Cold War border.&rdquo His conclusion, however, is that John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were personally determined to avoid escalation. Indeed, in a matter of hours, they maneuvered to assure that the confrontation evaporated without violence or casualties.

One year later, a vastly more dangerous crisis arose when US surveillance aircraft discovered that the Soviets had secretly placed medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba (the IRBMs were never actually delivered because of the imposition of the US naval blockade). How Voorhees asks, did the rival leaders resolve the crisis &ldquowith lightning speed?&rdquo [i]

The simple answer is that the sudden, seemingly miraculous, restoration of peaceful coexistence was possible because both the underlying point of dispute and the ultimate deal terms that ended each crisis were matters under the personal control of each leader. When Kennedy and Khrushchev chose to settle, each man had the authority and the power to do so almost instantaneously. The two leaders personally directed all key decisions down to precise details&hellip. It has become increasingly clear that Khrushchev and Kennedy felt free to reject the views of their closest advisers and brush aside the consternation they caused their alliance partners. &hellip Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev, whatever his publicly stated position, actually believed that his adversary&rsquos actions presented a problem whose substantive importancewarranted even a conventional military engagement, far less a nuclear showdown.

Voorhees acknowledges that hawks on both sides of the divide regarded the missile crisis as an opportunity to settle the Cold War militarily and &ldquothere was always the danger that men lower down the chains of command might pull the trigger, whether by mistake, through personal belligerence, through fear, or all three.&rdquo However, this shared outlook at the top also significantly diminished the potential for unwelcome contingencies. The two leaders kept both the conventional and nuclear buttons under tight control and used back-channel diplomacy (involving the president&rsquos brother Robert and Khrushchev&rsquos son-in-law Alexei Adzhubei) to make sure that the other side received unmistakable signals of their ultimate intent to restore the status quo. JFK intended the naval quarantine of Cuba as a sign of caution and sober restraint,

and that is how Khrushchev and his colleagues at the Kremlin immediately interpreted it&mdashwith great relief. On the other hand, the president&rsquos DEFCON-2 alert unmistakably signaled to the Soviets the dire peril into which their gamble in Cuba had placed them. &hellip In the days that immediately followed, both Khrushchev and Kennedy were literally tripping over one another to be first to make a settlement proposal that would be so generous that his adversary would be unable to turn it down.

Both leaders, Voorhees contends, understood that the US held &ldquoall the cards&rdquo in the nuclear balance of power with a twenty-to-one advantage in nuclear warheads. The extraordinary Kennedy-Khrushchev missile crisis correspondence, he insists, once the Cold War bluster is discounted, reveals two anxious men committed to &ldquokeeping the lid on&rdquo and ready &ldquoto get the deal done.&rdquo

And, most importantly, the rivals understood the danger posed by the tinder box in West Berlin, located deep inside Soviet East Germany, and carefully avoided any sign of aggressive intent to alter the status of that divided city. The US had nuclear superiority, but the USSR, with a substantial advantage in troops on the ground in East Germany and the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, could quickly overrun West Berlin. President Kennedy had remarked at a White House meeting that &ldquoIt is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to bring an end to civilization.&rdquo Khrushchev, fortunately, shared that point of view. The antagonists &ldquorealized that no politician in his right mind was going to use nuclear weapons first.&rdquo

There were, Voorhees concedes, unanticipated and very dangerous incidents: most notably the October 27 th downing of a U-2 by a surface-to-air missile fired without Kremlin authorization by a Soviet officer on the ground in Cuba. Sergei Khrushchev recalled his father&rsquos near-hysterical reaction to that stunning development, which led to the death of the American pilot, the only fatality of the missile crisis. The furious Khrushchev even threatened to exile the officer to Siberia because &ldquoEverything is hanging by a thread as it is.&rdquo From Voorhees&rsquo perspective, Khrushchev&rsquos response, surely one of the dramatic highpoints in missile crisis literature, coupled with Kennedy&rsquos decision not to retaliate against the SAM site(s), confirm the shared determination in Moscow and Washington to avoid nuclear war.

Could it be,&rdquo Voorhees argues,

that the Cuban missile crisis proved exactly the opposite of what was widely feared: namely, just how much safer and better protected the world had become from the risk of war arising between the superpowers given the widely appreciated horrors that nuclear weapons had introduced to modern war-fighting? &hellip The lesson&mdashperhaps counterintuitive to generations who have long accepted that the world came close to a nuclear holocaust in October 1962&mdashis that the fearsome prospect of nuclear war-fighting of any kind virtually guaranteed that the crisis would be settled with remarkable speed and certainly well before the parties came anywhere near a point of no return.

Part II: The Reviewer&rsquos Response:

After listening to hundreds of hours of recorded meetings and telephone conversations, I agree that JFK would never have chosen the nuclear option. Kennedy eagerly pursued a secret fallback plan, the so-called Cordier Ploy, in the wee hours of October 27-28 to give Khrushchev a face-saving way out by offering a Cuba-Turkey missile withdrawal plan that would appear to the world at large to have been put together by the United Nations rather than the US. JFK was ready, albeit reluctantly, to face the inevitable political fallout in the upcoming midterm elections if the secret missile swap had to be made public to avert war. The president, in a state of near despondency, told his 19-year old mistress that he would rather his children be red than dead&mdashnot the predominant view in the United States in 1962. The only other choice was nuclear fallout.

Voorhees, however, in my judgment, seriously exaggerates the ability of the Kremlin to successfully micromanage a complex operation&mdashcarried out in secret for many weeks and more than 6,000 miles from the USSR. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin later acknowledged that erratic and limited communications severely undermined Moscow&rsquos ability to cope with every conceivable or inconceivable eventuality in real time because their Washington Embassy did not have direct phone or radio communications with the Kremlin coded messages had to be sent by Western Union Telegram&mdashwhich could take 8-12 hours&mdashafter being picked up by bicycle couriers who, oblivious to the urgency of the situation, were known to stop for a snack or to flirt with a girl. JFK and the ExComm struggled with similar constraints&mdashfor example, waiting hours to receive State Department translations of Khrushchev&rsquos messages. And, of course, neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev were able to control a potentially lethal wild card in the crisis, Fidel Castro&mdashas revealed by his October 26 cable to Khrushchev advocating a nuclear first-strike on the US and his refusal to accept on-site UN inspection of the missile sites even after the October 27-28 negotiated breakthrough.

There were, of course, several other perilous and potentially unmanageable episodes. Khrushchev had also ordered the nuclear warheads in Cuba to be stored miles away from the missile bases to prevent an accidental or rogue launch but at least one base commander, again without authorization from Moscow, secretly moved them to his site. And, even more ominously, tactical nuclear cruise missiles had been put into position to obliterate the American naval base at Guantanamo if the US bombed or invaded Cuba. If the Soviets had killed thousands of Marines using tactical nuclear weapons, could Kennedy have kept the public demand for retribution in check? Voorhees seems confident that the answer is yes, despite the fevered Cold War context of 1962 (which included a poll in which most Americans concluded that a nuclear showdown with the USSR was inevitable).

Perhaps the most striking incident, which has gained a great deal of notoriety in recent decades, involves a Soviet submarine near the quarantine line forced to surface on October 27 after the US Navy dropped so-called &ldquopractice depth charges&rdquo [PDCs]&mdashwith the explosive force of a hand-grenade&mdashproducing &ldquoharmless explosive sound signals.&rdquo Voorhees recapitulates:

One of these PDC hand grenades may have detonated close enough to inflict some modest damage on at least one of the Soviet submarines, B-59, which would have allowed its captain under his standing orders to respond to any presumed damage-causing attack by firing torpedoes, one of which available to him in this case carried a nuclear warhead. &hellip This incident has earned an outsized place in missile crisis lore owing to reports that a Soviet naval officer named Vasily Arkhipov on board B-59 allegedly stood up to his vessel&rsquos captain, Valentin Savitsky single-handedly talked him out of his threat to arm the submarine&rsquos nuclear-capable torpedo for possible firing at US naval vessels and thereby became known as &lsquothe man who saved the world from nuclear apocalypse&rsquo.

Voorhees argues that Savitsky &ldquohad received notice of the new American [PDC signals] policy,&rdquo sent from Washington to Moscow on October 25, and &ldquopresumably [my italics] knew the difference between the sound of signaling PDCs and a determined lethal attack using real, full-strength depth charges.&rdquo However, JFK and the ExComm, Michael Dobbs concluded, &ldquoassumed that the Soviet submarine captains had been informed about the new procedures and understood the meaning of the [PDC] signals. They were mistaken.&rdquo [my italics] The Kremlin failed to confirm receipt of the message about the underwater signals and did not alert their four submarines in harm&rsquos way near Cuba. Savitsky &ldquoknew nothing about the signaling procedures&rdquo and &ldquonobody [on board] knew what was going on.&rdquo The submarines, Svetlana Savranskaya stressed, were also unable to contact Moscow without reaching &ldquoperiscope depth&rdquo or surfacing in waters teeming with US Navy vessels.[ii] Voorhees remains confident, however, about &ldquothe essential inevitability of the actual outcome.&rdquo

Finally, also on Black Saturday, October 27, a U-2 from a Strategic Air Command base in Alaska, apparently on a &ldquoroutine air sampling mission&rdquo to check on nuclear testing in the USSR, &ldquoaccidentally&rdquo strayed into Soviet air space. MiG fighters scrambled and the plane was permitted to return to its base escorted by US F-102 fighters equipped with nuclear air-to-air missiles. Voorhees insists that the Soviets, &ldquoalready facing actual [my italics] oncoming attack threats&rdquo from American B-52&rsquos &ldquotook no responsive measures.&rdquo In short, he concludes that the evidence suggests that the threat was not an &ldquoactual&rdquo threat and the Soviets knew it. Fortunately, however, the MiG&rsquos could only reach a maximum of 60,000 feet and the U-2 flew at 70,000 feet&mdashthus limiting the Soviet fighters, at least initially, to tracking the path of the American intruder.

However, when Dean Rusk updated the president about the U-2 &ldquoaccident&rdquo just hours later, he was reading from a prepared text&mdashunlikely to have been written in the brief time since the intrusion: &ldquoWould there be,&rdquo Rusk asks President Kennedy, &ldquoanyadvantage [my italics] in our saying that &lsquoan Alaska-based U-2 flight engaged in routine air sampling operations in an area &hellip normally 100 miles from the Soviet Union had an instrument failure and went off course &hellip overflying a portion of the Soviet Union?&rsquo&rdquo Rusk&rsquos calculated language and tone, captured on the tape recording, suggest that he was proposing a public relations cover story rather than simply presenting the facts to the president.

Decades later, at a conference, Professor Scott Sagan asked Robert McNamara if the U-2 flight was part of the ultra-secret Strategic Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) for nuclear war. The former defense chief curtly denied it but refused to discuss details&mdashintensifying the skepticism of the panelists and the audience. Fred Kaplan, however, has documented that JFK, in 1961, had read and seriously discussed a nuclear first-strike plan that could have led to a million Soviet casualties in the first attack alone.[iii]

Michael Dobbs later utilized some newly released documents and interviewed U-2 pilots and senior SAC officers to nail down additional details on the overflight.[iv] He nonetheless stressed that the full report, originally ordered by McNamara, remains classified. Can historians rule out, without this potentially definitive evidence, the possibility that this episode was linked to a botched or aborted effort to &ldquoresolve&rdquo the crisis with a pre-emptive nuclear strike&mdashin other words, that it was initially a strategic gamble that contingency morphed into a hazardous unanticipated consequence?

Both Kennedy and Khrushchev, Voorhees insists, were resolved to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. But, as explicated above, the micromanagement of historical contingency is an illusion. &ldquoThe destinies of nations,&rdquo Martin Sherwin demonstrates, &ldquojust as the lives of individuals, are moved inexorably forward through crossroad after crossroad by decisions and chance, with the influence of each in constant flux. The disconcerting conclusion &hellip [is that] a global nuclear war was averted because a random selection process had deployed Captain Vasily Arkhipov aboard a particular Soviet submarine.&rdquo[v]

Theodore Voorhees, Jr. has written a boldly original and impressively researched account of how events, fortunately, did turn out in October 1962. But, if those fateful thirteen days could be repeated one hundred times, it is all but inconceivable that fortuitous contingency, branded as &ldquoplain dumb luck&rdquo by former secretary of state Dean Acheson, would substantiate Voorhees&rsquo confidence in &ldquothe essential inevitability&rdquo of a peaceful outcome. Kennedy was steadfast about deterring nuclear war&mdasha fact incontrovertibly documented by the real-time tape recordings Khrushchev&rsquos apparently analogous motives must be deduced from his actions, his memoirs, and the testimony of those around him. Nonetheless, that shared outlook alone could not and did not predetermine the outcome. As historian Fredrik Logevall recently warned: &ldquowe should avoid the trap of hindsight bias, or what the philosopher Henri Bergson called &lsquothe illusion of retrospective determinism&rsquo&mdashthe belief that whatever occurred in history was bound to occur.&rdquo[vi]

[i] If, as Voorhees maintains, the Checkpoint Charlies standoff provided Kennedy and Khrushchev with &ldquoa kind of blueprint and preview in miniature&rdquo of the missile crisis, it did not have a noteworthy impact, despite the persistent angst about Berlin, on the ExComm discussions or the correspondence between the two leaders.

[ii] Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, 2008, 297-303 Svetlana Savranskaya, &ldquoNew sources on the Soviet submarines in the Cuban missile crisis,&rdquo Journal of Strategic Studies, 28/2 (2005) 233-59.

[iii] Fred Kaplan, &ldquoJFK&rsquos First-Strike Plan, Atlantic Monthly, October 2001, 81-86.

[v] Martin Sherwin, www.cornerstone.gmu.edu/articles/4198 and Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945-1962, forthcoming September 2020.

[vi] Fredrik Logevall, JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, 2020, 361.

Watch the video: Thirteen Days (June 2022).


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