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How Kennedy and Khrushchev averted war in Cuba
By Les Young
Aug 25, 2007, 00:00

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A Book Review

Thirteen Days, A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis

by Robert Kennedy


The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most perilous episode of the Cold War.  For thirteen days in October 1962, the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. came dreadfully close to waging war over the Soviet’s installation of nuclear-armed missiles on the island of Cuba – a confrontation preceded by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, in April 1961, and several C.I.A.-ordered assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro.


Aerial photographs taken by U-2 spy aircraft convinced the U.S. government that Russia was installing missiles and atomic weapons in Cuba, a situation the U.S. government would not permit.  It is widely agreed that efforts to eliminate these weapon systems could have easily resulted in nuclear war on the beaches of Cuba, spiraling into a global holocaust.


Thank heavens that did not happen.


Frightened and dismayed by reckless talk of first-strike bombing of Iran, I turned to history to learn how President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev averted war in Cuba and effected the peaceful removal of the missiles and nuclear weapons.


Thirteen Days, A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a contemporary account of that dreadful period, written by the President’s brother and most trusted advisor, Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General of the U.S.A. 


At the initial meeting of the Cuban Missile Crisis team, most of President Kennedy’s advisors supported immediate bombing of the missile sites.  Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued for a more cautious response, a blockade of Russian vessels sailing for Cuba.  All of the uniformed military Chiefs favored bombing.


President Kennedy, having recently read Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August, told a group of key aids, “The great danger and risk in all of this is a miscalculation – a mistake in judgment,” and he talked about the miscalculations at the outset of World War I by the Germans, the Russians, the Austrian, the French, and the British.


As new aerial photographs arrived and discussions matured within the crisis team, opinions slowly shifted in favor of a blockade.  Still, some advisors continued to argue vehemently for bombing, especially General Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff.  When the President questioned what the response of the Russians might be, General LeMay assured him that there would be no reaction.  President Kennedy was skeptical.  “They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something.  They can’t, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing.  If they don’t take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin.”


In the final meeting of the crisis team, President Kennedy firmly made up his mind for a naval blockade when General Walter Sweeney, Jr., Commander in Chief of the Tactical Air Command, told him that even a major surprise air attack could not be certain of destroying all the missiles and nuclear weapons in Cuba.


The President ordered the naval blockade, informed Congress, our allies, and Russia, and spoke to the nation by television.  President Kennedy and the world nervously waited as Russian vessels approached the U.S. naval blockade.  Then, word was received that Russian ships had stopped dead in the water, while others turned and retreated.  Some tankers continued sailing for Cuba, and the U.S. allowed them to pass, for they were not likely to be carrying missiles or nuclear weapons.  Finally, a test vessel was selected, a Panamanian-owned one, registered in Lebanon, and bound for Cuba under Soviet charter.  Two American destroyers came along side; their officers boarded and inspected the ship and allowed it to pass.  The U.S.A. had proven it could enforce its quarantine. 


At about this time, Premier Khrushchev dispatched a personal letter to President Kennedy.  In it he wrote,


We must not succumb to ‘petty passions’ or to ‘transient things’ but should realize that 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.


Further on Khrushchev continued,


If you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not 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 the knot will be tied.  And a moment may come when that knot will be tied too 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 the 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.


The President’s advisors were surprised by this letter, and from its style knew it to be written by Khrushchev himself.  Within hours a second, sterner letter arrived, this one written in formal style, typical of exchanges from government to government.


After due consideration with his crisis team, President Kennedy decided to reply to the first letter, and to ignore the second one.  The President suspected there were two factions within the Kremlin – one advising a tough approach, the other seeking a peaceful resolution of the crisis – just as existed within the American government.


President Kennedy’s reply to Khrushchev was:


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 weapon 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 proposal – which seem generally acceptable as I understand them – are as follows:


1. You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriated 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.  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 détente 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 outlined in this letter and in your letter of October 26th.


John Kennedy


In his forward to Thirteen Days, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. writes, “The President’s purpose was to stop the delivery of further missiles through the naval ‘quarantine’ of Cuba and to effect the removal of missiles already in Cuba through diplomacy.  He took his negotiating credo from the British military analyst Basil Liddell Hart (whose book Deterrent or Defense he reviewed in 1960): ‘Keep strong, if possible.  In any case, keep cool.  Have unlimited patience.  Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save his face.  Put yourself in his shoes – so as to see things through his eyes.  Avoid self-righteousness like the devil – nothing is so self-blinding.’ ”


On the evening of the crisis’ resolution, Robert Kennedy visited for a long period with President Kennedy.  The President placed telephone calls to former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.  Then, as Robert Kennedy was leaving, President Kennedy said, referring to Abraham Lincoln, “This is the night I should go to the theater.”




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