Authors: Jeffrey D. Sachs
ExComm meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Clockwise from President Kennedy (center): Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara; Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor; Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze; Deputy Director of the U.S. Information Agency Donald Wilson; special counsel Theodore Sorensen; special assistant McGeorge Bundy; Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon; Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (hidden); Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson; Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director William C. Foster; CIA director John McCone (hidden); Undersecretary of State George Ball; Secretary of State Dean Rusk (October 29, 1962).
Several considerations went into this unanimous view. Most important was Kennedy’s belief that the United States would suffer a decisive loss of international power and prestige if the missiles remained in place. Kennedy had clearly and irrevocably drawn a line just a month earlier: the United States would not tolerate Soviet offensive weaponry in Cuba. He could not afford to lose face by abandoning that commitment. As he commented during the deliberations, “Last month I should have said that we don’t care. But when we said we were not going to [allow missiles in Cuba] and they go ahead and do it, and then we do nothing, I would think that our risks increase.”
Second was Kennedy’s domestic political flank. The Republican right and some senators in his own party believed that Kennedy
was too soft in his foreign policy, a viewpoint that was heightened after Kennedy’s reluctance to use U.S. military force in the Bay of Pigs invasion. If he failed to act now, his domestic base of support might collapse. During the crisis, he asked his brother Robert why they were risking war; Robert replied, “I just don’t think there was any choice … if you hadn’t you would have been impeached.” Kennedy responded, “That’s what I think, I would have been impeached.”
The ExComm held divergent views on the substantive effect of the missiles on the East-West
balance. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara held that the missiles had zero net effect, given that the Soviets had intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could target the United States from Soviet territory anyway. The military brass felt otherwise, that Soviet missiles just off the U.S. coast would substantially enhance Soviet military power, especially since the Soviet strategic forces at that point depended overwhelmingly on bombers with a long and difficult flight path to the United States. All agreed, however, that the missiles must go.
At the start of the secret deliberations, the president himself and almost all of the advisers, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocated a U.S. military air strike on the Soviet installations—an action that would have guaranteed a shooting war on both sides, particularly given that the military couldn’t guarantee complete accuracy in destroying all the Cuban missiles. It might also have triggered a Soviet retaliation in Berlin, and perhaps in additional hotspots. Nor could one rule out the escalation from an antimissile attack to an all-out nuclear Armageddon. Here then was the bind. The missiles needed to go, a military option seemed necessary, yet that option could trigger mutual destruction.
The ExComm process offered one absolutely decisive benefit: time. The ExComm was able to sit together in secret all-day meetings, debating options and strategies. This forced a thorough review of options, and it allowed some time for communication
between Kennedy and Khrushchev, albeit through a laborious and confused process of letters, public pronouncements, telegrams, and messengers. It gave time for heated emotions—panic, fear, and desire to lash out at the adversary—to be kept in check so that reason could be invoked. “Slow” rational thinking was given time to dominate the “quick” emotional thinking.
And ultimately, it gave time for negotiations to ensue. Although most of the generals continued to push for a quick military strike, the president, his brother, Sorensen, and several other advisers eventually came to favor a much more gradual approach. This started with a naval quarantine of Soviet ships entering Cuban waters, announced publicly and sanctioned by the Organization of American States, combined with a U.S. demand that the missiles be removed, with any shooting held off as a last resort. These tactics proved critical. The quarantine gave Khrushchev time to consider his moves and the opportunity to pull back.
As with his demands over Berlin, Khrushchev had to stand down, this time in full view of the world. Kennedy was determined, however, to help Khrushchev save face. Most important, Kennedy agreed to Khrushchev’s public demand to combine the Soviet withdrawal of the missiles with a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. Kennedy would secure the dismantling of the missile installations, while Khrushchev could at least claim to have saved Cuba from another attempted U.S. invasion.
Privately, Kennedy also substantially sweetened the deal by letting Khrushchev know that within five to six months of the dismantling of the Cuban missiles, the United States would withdraw its own Jupiter missiles from Turkey, a condition that Khrushchev had publicly called for in a radio address. Kennedy took this step on three conditions. First, the Turkish missile withdrawal could not be viewed as a quid pro quo, as Khrushchev’s phrasing had implied. In fact, Kennedy mildly prevaricated by telling Khrushchev that the decision to remove the Jupiter missiles had already been made before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Second, the formal decision would be NATO’s, to be confirmed later, rather than that of the United States alone. And third, it would have to be kept confidential, in order to avoid the appearance that the United States had struck a bargain at the expense of an ally. Any leak of the decision would force the United States to cancel the withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles. Kennedy entrusted his closest confidant, his brother and attorney general, Robert, to deliver this message in a secret meeting with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Amazingly, the secrecy held on all sides for more than twenty years. Even most members of ExComm remained in the dark afterward, not realizing that the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey had helped to resolve the crisis.
A close reading of the timeline shows that Kennedy’s concession was not actually necessary to end the crisis. Khrushchev had decided to withdraw the weapons before news of the Kennedy offer on the Jupiter missiles reached him. Nonetheless, Kennedy’s concession surely paved the way for further progress in U.S.-Soviet relations. It revealed that Kennedy could see things from the Soviet perspective, and was prepared to act symmetrically. Khrushchev had indeed blinked, but Kennedy had demonstrated the constructive flexibility that would further the working relationship between the two leaders. In a private letter of October 28, the day the acute phase of the crisis concluded, Khrushchev expressed his great appreciation to Kennedy:
Agreement on this matter, too, shall be a no [sic] small step advancing the cause of relaxation of international tensions and the tensions between our two powers. And that in turn can provide a good impetus to resolving other issues concerning both the security of Europe and the international situation as a whole.
This is a notable statement by Khrushchev, underscoring the wisdom of Kennedy’s action. And Khrushchev never revealed the secret of Kennedy’s Jupiter trade, even while he was lambasted at home and abroad for a humiliating retreat under U.S. pressure.
The Soviet military soon began dismantling and crating the weapons in Cuba for return to the Soviet Union. Kennedy strongly admonished his jubilant and relieved team to avoid any public gloating. The president’s public standing soared, contributing to his party’s successful congressional election results the next week. Yet opponents from the extremes also attacked the peaceful outcome. Castro denounced the agreement as an abandonment of Cuba and socialist resolve. The communist People’s Republic of China mocked Khrushchev for appeasing the West, denigrating the U.S. nuclear threat as a “paper tiger” (to which Khrushchev reportedly answered that the tiger had “nuclear teeth”).
The American right bemoaned the new commitment to not invade Cuba. Senator Barry Goldwater, who would become the 1964 Republican nominee for president, complained vociferously that the no-invasion pledge had “locked Castro and communism into Latin America and thrown away the key to their removal.”
The world had never before peered into the abyss as it did in those days. And the two leaders who steered the world away from it,
Kennedy and Khrushchev, were now joined by this near-death experience, each feeling a responsibility that only the other could understand. As Kennedy said, “The president bears the burden of responsibility. The advisers may move on to new advice.”
David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador to the United States and a close Kennedy friend for decades, recalled that after the crisis, “he finally realized that the decision for a nuclear holocaust was his. And he saw it in terms of children—his children and everybody else’s children. And then that’s where his passion came in, that’s when his emotions came in.”
Khrushchev also recalled the terror of the missile crisis: “Any man who could stare at the reality of nuclear war without sober thoughts was an irresponsible fool … Of course I was scared. It would have been insane not to have been scared. I was frightened about what could happen to my country—or your country and all the other countries that would be devastated by a nuclear war.”
Both leaders were changed and sobered by the events. Both realized how the world was on a hair trigger, how misunderstanding could lead to utter disaster, and how fragile their positions had been during the crisis. For those thirteen days, local commanders on both sides could easily have sparked a global war by disobeying or misunderstanding orders from above, or by acting on the prerogatives that they were granted as a result of the heightened military alert status. And despite all efforts by both sides to avoid calamitous accidents, such calamities nevertheless nearly occurred multiple times. Khrushchev was furious when a local Soviet unit in Cuba shot down a U-2 spy plane at the most delicate moment in the negotiations.
Kennedy’s mistrust of the military grew even stronger after the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the generals had single-mindedly advocated military strikes that almost certainly would have led to nuclear war. Robert Kennedy concluded that “this experience pointed out for all of us the importance of civilian direction and control,” and the president concurred.
The crisis further
strengthened Kennedy’s confidence in his own foreign policy judgment, and his resolve to more forcefully steer the course of relations in the future.
Kennedy concluded from the crisis that a “world in which there are large quantities of nuclear weapons is an impossible world to handle.”
He had come to the view that proposals to share nuclear weapons with NATO under a Multilateral Force needed to be shelved despite pressure from U.S. diplomats and West German Chancellor Adenauer. The nuclear arsenal of the Western alliance would be limited to the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, without Germany. And weighing on his mind was the fact that the People’s Republic of China would soon have its own bomb, with many others to follow. Khrushchev had the same instinct. He wrote to Kennedy that they should use the aftermath of the crisis to end nuclear tests “once and for all.”
Kennedy and Khrushchev realized they shared the responsibility to avoid blowing up the world. Khrushchev emphasized that the missiles in Cuba did not in any way signal a desire for nuclear war:
Only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die, could do this [attack you]. We, however, want to live and do not at all want to destroy your country … 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.