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Most of what you know about the Cuban Missile Crisis is wrong

President John Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
National Archives
Atlantic national editor Benjamin Schwartz quotes Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, right, who, in his retirement, emphasized that President Kennedy, left, felt allowing the missiles would be politically unacceptable.

I’m a month or so late in seeing this, but if you have the time I highly commend this book review from the January-February issue of Atlantic about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It will not only revise some of what you think you know about the crisis, but also serves as a reminder of how hard it is to bravely follow your thoughts and questions where they lead instead of always tacking back to the safety of groupthink.

Although the 50th anniversary of the missile crisis was last fall, it hasn’t exactly been in the news much. Still, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is very likely the closest we (and by “we” I mean the world) have ever been to a straight-on war between nuclear superpowers. Maybe we all know just enough about it to be dangerous.

The Atlantic piece and the book it reviews are based on the complete transcript of the deliberations of the special ExComm (executive committee) of top Kennedy administration officials that met during the famed “13 Days” of the crisis.

It turns out that a huge portion of the received version of the story that we were all raised on is a lie. Bobby Kennedy’s book, titled “13 Days,” was the main source for the lies, but there are many more sources. Even the recent treatment of the crisis in the great Robert Caro series on LBJ follows the conventional mythology and ducks the really hard questions.

The new book is titled “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory; Myths versus Reality.” Its author, Sheldon M. Stern, worked as a historian at the Kennedy Library in Boston from 1977 to 2000, and was the first person who was not an ExComm member to have access to the full set of tapes made of the ExComm meetings. He had read, and accepted, the fundamental accuracy of “13 Days” before he listened to the tapes and discovered falsehood after omission after distortion.

Distorting RFK’s role

The biggest distortion was the role of RFK himself. The received version, which relies on RFK’s own book and on the testimony of Kennedy loyalists, generally portrays RFK as a cool-headed voice of reason. Stern found that the tapes revealed Bobby Kennedy as “confrontational and hawkish from day one through day thirteen -- and even beyond into the November post-crisis.”

(In this piece, for the History News Network, Stern summarizes nine strong, clear contradictions between the “13 Days” version and the evidence of the tapes.)

The Atlantic book review that got me started on this post, written by the magazine’s national editor Benjamin Schwartz, takes a somewhat different tack. Schwartz seizes the occasion to work through elements of the heroic version of the tale that clearly have bothered him for years. He challenges fundamental elements of the tale, starting with the argument that it was worth risking a nuclear confrontation to keep those missiles out of Cuba in the first place.

For example, the United States had nuclear missiles positioned in Turkey, close to the Soviet Union. The Soviets weren’t happy about that and Schwartz surmises that this fact absolutely contributed to Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to put Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The Soviets had ICBM’s on their own territory that could reach the United States (just as we did, only we had more and better missiles) and missiles on submarines that could rise up out of the ocean and nuke us from close range (just as we did) so the fact that missiles in Cuba could reach the U.S. quickly was of no real consequence. The Soviets weren’t violating any international laws by installing missiles on the territory of a willing ally (any more than the Turks were in allowing our missiles) but the U.S. decision to blockade Cuba actually was an illegal act of war.

The tapes indicate clearly that JFK, RFK and the ExComm generally realized that the Cuban missiles would not have significantly altered the real military balance of power which greatly favored the United States and would have continued to do so.

Maybe this comes across as a summary compiled by a self-hating American of the notoriously subversive media elite. But, on the tapes, the Kennedy brothers and their advisers make all the same points. From the Schwartz review:

“A missile is a missile,” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asserted. “It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile from the Soviet Union or Cuba.” On that first day of the ExComm meetings, Bundy asked directly, “What is the strategic impact on the position of the United States of MRBMs in Cuba? How gravely does this change the strategic balance?” McNamara answered, “Not at all”—a verdict that Bundy then said he fully supported. The following day, Special Counsel Theodore Sorensen summarized the views of the ExComm in a memorandum to Kennedy. “It is generally agreed,” he noted, “that these missiles, even when fully operational, do not significantly alter the balance of power -- i.e., they do not significantly increase the potential megatonnage capable of being unleashed on American soil, even after a surprise American nuclear strike.”

So what exactly was it about the Cuban/Soviet that might be worth starting World III over?

A U-2 reconnaissance photo
Courtesy of the CIAA U-2 reconnaissance photo showing evidence of missile assembly in Cuba. Shown are missile transporters and missile-ready tents where fueling and maintenance took place.

Politics

The Republicans would surely make hay if the Soviets seemed to be stealing some advantage of JFK’s watch. Schwartz quotes Defense Secretary Robert McNamara who, in his retirement, emphasized that JFK felt allowing the missiles would be politically unacceptable.

Credibility

On the tapes, JFK said that he had recently said publicly that the United States would not permit the Soviets to put missiles in Cuba, although he added: “I should have said … we don’t care.” Schwartz adds in his own voice: “Washington’s self-regard for its credibility was almost certainly the main reason it risked nuclear war over a negligible threat to national security.”

Deterrence

The always popular presidential belief that the U.S. needs to show resolve and toughness in order to deter future provocations. And here Schwartz really unburdens his chest challenging what he calls the playground logic:

“ This notion that standing up to aggression (however loosely and broadly defined) will deter future aggression (however loosely and broadly defined) fails to weather historical scrutiny. After all, America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq didn’t deter Muammar Qaddafi; America’s war against Yugoslavia didn’t deter Saddam Hussein in 2003; America’s liberation of Kuwait did not deter Slobodan Milošević; America’s intervention in Panama did not deter Saddam Hussein in 1991; America’s intervention in Grenada did not deter Manuel Noriega; America’s war against North Vietnam did not deter Grenada’s strongman, Hudson Austin; and JFK’s confrontation with Khrushchev over missiles in Cuba certainly did not deter Ho Chi Minh.”

Thank goodness Khrushchev decided this wasn’t worth blowing up the world over. But as I torture myself with all these misgivings about the way the Kennedy brothers and their genius friends handled the crisis, I realize that I’ve known most of these facts and arguments for years. It’s just that they are usually narrated by someone who is on board with the Camelot myth and is able to make them sound heroic and wise.

I was 9 years old when John F. Kennedy was elected, and a Bostonian, and with parents who were FDR-worshipping Democrats, and he looked so good on TV. I continue to be impressed with the power of wanting one’s team to be heroic, and able to believe that they are, even when the facts point in a different direction.

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Comments (9)

I must have been born

a cynic, because I find very little new in this.

By the way: "(just as we had did, only we had more and better missiles)". Really? ;-}

Punch drunk on his "success"

Punch drunk on his "success" during the Cuban Missle Crisis, Robert McNamara employed the same logic as he led the United States into the Viet Nam war.

The personal roots of the

The personal roots of the crisis should not be overlooked.

There were long term ties between the Kennedy family and the Mafia, especially Sam Giancana.

Cuba had been a Mafia center with its gambling, rum-running and prostitution.

Castro ruined a Mafia "profit center" with his take-over. This was a concern to the Mafia and the Kennedy family via their pre-existing ties.

Numerous assassination attempts were made on Castro, with some joint actions between the CIA and the Mafia.

Russian missiles in Cuba made it a much more dubious proposition to assassinate or remove the Castro government. Missiles in Cuba might more easily be brought into play during any overthrow and would raise the stakes unacceptably. Therefore, the missiles had to be removed at almost any cost and distance created between the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Principle or personal interest?

The motivations are often intertwined.

Disillusionment

…is always painful. I confess to not thinking much about the Cuban Missile Crisis once it — and Kennedy, and then Khrushchev — had passed from the scene. At the time, I was just happy not to have been part of a nuclear fireball, but in years hence, when I did think about it, the process always started with that same received wisdom from “13 Days,” which I remember reading. One more example, far too many of which we ignore as a society, of hindsight being much more clear than whatever lenses we happen to have been looking through at the time.

I am absolutely on board with Benjamin Schwartz in his disdain for what he calls the “playground logic” of perpetual pugnaciousness. It’s of a piece with the chest-thumping jingoism characterized by the oft-repeated notion that the U.S. is never wrong, and, to paraphrase a whole series of bellicose politicians of the past generation, should never apologize for its actions. I, too, continue to be impressed by the power of that desire to see “our” point of view and “my” political representatives as noble and good when the reality is frequently something else.

Even more terrifying:

How close JFK and his cabinet brought us to nuclear annihilation - one Russian submarine captain's judgement call off Bermuda. This story was delivered chillingly in the PBS broadcast of Secrets of the Dead, The Man Who Saved the World. www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/
If this program was true, we had a Russian sub captain, arguing with his political officer on board, refusing to launch a nuclear missle as US helicopter pilots pestered his ship from above.
I think it was shown last October, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head, with all our blustering over Iran. (Even worse is Israeli blustering).

Old News or Older?

The Turkey missile trade-off had gotten little notice (relatively) at the time of the crisis, but was pretty well-known later. (As I recall, the missiles in Turkey weren't state-of-the-art either.) But what I do recall, and not listed here as a reason, was the invocation by many of the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European colonial powers to stay out of North and South America. This might be a good time for Eric to give us another history lesson about that particular piece of American diplomatic legacy.

You forgot...

Jack and his brother used to say: "Cuber". I'm pretty sure it made McNamara giggle all the time.

Cuber

Your comment jostled a childhood memory that had long been dormant. I was just a little kid at the time, but I clearly recall my Mom, a school teacher, expressing disdain for anyone who pronounced "cuba" as "cuber". Strange, the things the brain latches onto as salient enough to commit to memory.

Another very early memory also involves JFK - seeing the flag draped casket on the caisson in the funeral procession, on our black & white t.v. I was too young to understand what it was all about, but I knew, from the somber faces of the adults, and from the images on the t.v., that something Horrible had happened. It's true, I guess, that everyone remembers where they were, even little kids.

Memories...

OK, we're off topic but I'll make it short, this is interesting. The memory Lance is describing was for years referred to in psychology as a: "flash bulb" memory. It was always assumed that certain events were more or less burned into the brain with incredible accuracy because so many people report that they have such memories.

No one really tested the reality of flash bulb memories until the mid 90s when "dissociation" became a big concept in the recovered memory/multiple personality fad that swept the county for a few years. The model of memory of that the dissociative theory promoted was actually completely at odds the research and neurology of the period. The dissociative model claimed that memory was about recording events and retrieving those recording while everyone in the memory field had long since concluded that we construct our memories every time remember something. The last hold out of the recording theory turned out be flash bulb memories. Researchers actually started studying the accuracy of such memories in a variety of different ways and concluded that really don't exist. The truth is that certain events are so powerfully woven into our personal narratives that we experience certain memories as absolute recordings. I'm not disputing Lance's memory but researchers actually found a number of people who claimed to flash bulb memories of Kennedy's assassination and funeral from the ages of 2 and 3. Memories of that age are very rare and always vague.