The Atlantic Monthly
On october 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy and his advisers were stunned to learn that the Soviet Union was, without provocation, installing nuclear-armed medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. With these offensive weapons, which represented a new and existential threat to America, Moscow significantly raised the ante in the nuclear rivalry between the superpowers—a gambit that forced the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. On October 22, the president, with no other recourse, proclaimed in a televised address that his administration knew of the illegal missiles, and delivered an ultimatum insisting on their removal, announcing an American “quarantine” of Cuba to force compliance with his demands. While carefully avoiding provocative action and coolly calibrating each Soviet countermeasure, Kennedy and his lieutenants brooked no compromise; they held firm, despite Moscow’s efforts to link a resolution to extrinsic issues and despite predictable Soviet blustering about American aggression and violation of international law. In the tense 13‑day crisis, the Americans and Soviets went eyeball-to-eyeball. Thanks to the Kennedy administration’s placid resolve and prudent crisis management—thanks to what Kennedy’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. characterized as the president’s “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world”—the Soviet leadership blinked: Moscow dismantled the missiles, and a cataclysm was averted.
Every sentence in the above paragraph describing the Cuban missile crisis is misleading or erroneous. But this was the rendition of events that the Kennedy administration fed to a credulous press; this was the history that the participants in Washington promulgated in their memoirs; and this is the story that has insinuated itself into the national memory—as the pundits’ commentaries and media coverage marking the 50th anniversary of the crisis attested.
Scholars, however, have long known a very different story: since 1997, they have had access to recordings that Kennedy secretly made of meetings with his top advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “ExComm”). Sheldon M. Stern—who was the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library for 23 years and the first scholar to evaluate the ExComm tapes—is among the numerous historians who have tried to set the record straight. His new book marshals irrefutable evidence to succinctly demolish the mythic version of the crisis. Although there’s little reason to believe his effort will be to any avail, it should nevertheless be applauded.
Reached through sober analysis, Stern’s conclusion that “John F. Kennedy and his administration, without question, bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis” would have shocked the American people in 1962, for the simple reason that Kennedy’s administration had misled them about the military imbalance between the superpowers and had concealed its campaign of threats, assassination plots, and sabotage designed to overthrow the government in Cuba—an effort well known to Soviet and Cuban officials.
In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy had cynically attacked Richard Nixon from the right, claiming that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow in the U.S.S.R.’s favor. But in fact, just as Eisenhower and Nixon had suggested—and just as the classified briefings that Kennedy received as a presidential candidate indicated—the missile gap, and the nuclear balance generally, was overwhelmingly to America’s advantage. At the time of the missile crisis, the Soviets had 36 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 138 long-range bombers with 392 nuclear warheads, and 72 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warheads (SLBMs). These forces were arrayed against a vastly more powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal of 203 ICBMs, 1,306 long-range bombers with 3,104 nuclear warheads, and 144 SLBMs—all told, about nine times as many nuclear weapons as the U.S.S.R. Nikita Khrushchev was acutely aware of America’s huge advantage not just in the number of weapons but in their quality and deployment as well.
Moreover, despite America’s overwhelming nuclear preponderance, JFK, in keeping with his avowed aim to pursue a foreign policy characterized by “vigor,” had ordered the largest peacetime expansion of America’s military power, and specifically the colossal growth of its strategic nuclear forces. This included deploying, beginning in 1961, intermediate-range “Jupiter” nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey—adjacent to the Soviet Union. From there, the missiles could reach all of the western U.S.S.R., including Moscow and Leningrad (and that doesn’t count the nuclear-armed “Thor” missiles that the U.S. already had aimed at the Soviet Union from bases in Britain).
The Jupiter missiles were an exceptionally vexing component of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Because they sat aboveground, were immobile, and required a long time to prepare for launch, they were extremely vulnerable. Of no value as a deterrent, they appeared to be weapons meant for a disarming first strike—and thus greatly undermined deterrence, because they encouraged a preemptive Soviet strike against them. The Jupiters’ destabilizing effect was widely recognized among defense experts within and outside the U.S. government and even by congressional leaders. For instance, Senator Albert Gore Sr., an ally of the administration, told Secretary of State Dean Rusk that they were a “provocation” in a closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1961 (more than a year and a half before the missile crisis), adding, “I wonder what our attitude would be” if the Soviets deployed nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba. Senator Claiborne Pell raised an identical argument in a memo passed on to Kennedy in May 1961.
Given America’s powerful nuclear superiority, as well as the deployment of the Jupiter missiles, Moscow suspected that Washington viewed a nuclear first strike as an attractive option. They were right to be suspicious. The archives reveal that in fact the Kennedy administration had strongly considered this option during the Berlin crisis in 1961.
It’s little wonder, then, that, as Stern asserts—drawing on a plethora of scholarship including, most convincingly, the historian Philip Nash’s elegant 1997 study, The Other Missiles of October —Kennedy’s deployment of the Jupiter missiles “was a key reason for Khrushchev’s decision to send nuclear missiles to Cuba.” Khrushchev reportedly made that decision in May 1962, declaring to a confidant that the Americans “have surrounded us with bases on all sides” and that missiles in Cuba would help to counter an “intolerable provocation.” Keeping the deployment secret in order to present the U.S. with a fait accompli, Khrushchev may very well have assumed America’s response would be similar to his reaction to the Jupiter missiles—rhetorical denouncement but no threat or action to thwart the deployment with a military attack, nuclear or otherwise. (In retirement, Khrushchev explained his reasoning to the American journalist Strobe Talbott: Americans “would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.”)
Khrushchev was also motivated by his entirely justifiable belief that the Kennedy administration wanted to destroy the Castro regime. After all, the administration had launched an invasion of Cuba; had followed that with sabotage, paramilitary assaults, and assassination attempts—the largest clandestine operation in the history of the CIA—and had organized large-scale military exercises in the Caribbean clearly meant to rattle the Soviets and their Cuban client. Those actions, as Stern and other scholars have demonstrated, helped compel the Soviets to install the missiles so as to deter “covert or overt US attacks”—in much the same way that the United States had shielded its allies under a nuclear umbrella to deter Soviet subversion or aggression against them.
Remarkably, given the alarmed and confrontational posture that Washington adopted during the missile crisis, the tapes of the ExComm deliberations, which Stern has minutely assessed, reveal that Kennedy and his advisers understood the nuclear situation in much the same way Khrushchev did. On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev’s motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: “Why does he put these in there, though? … It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamned dangerous , I would think.” McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: “Well we did it, Mr. President.”
Once that was straightened out, Kennedy himself declared repeatedly that the Jupiter missiles were “the same” as the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Rusk, in discussing the Soviet motivation for sending missiles to Cuba, cited CIA Director John McCone’s view that Khrushchev “knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority … He also knows that we don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent that he has to live under fear of ours. Also, we have nuclear weapons nearby, in Turkey.” The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maxwell Taylor, had already acknowledged that the Soviets’ primary purpose in installing missiles in Cuba was “to supplement their rather defective ICBM system.”
Kennedy and his civilian advisers understood that the missiles in Cuba did not alter the strategic nuclear balance. Although Kennedy asserted in his October 22 televised address that the missiles were “an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas,” he in fact appreciated, as he told the ExComm on the first day of the crisis, that “it doesn’t make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was 90 miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much.” America’s European allies, Kennedy continued, “will argue that taken at its worst the presence of these missiles really doesn’t change” the nuclear balance.
That the missiles were close to the United States was, as the president conceded, immaterial: the negligible difference in flight times between Soviet Union–based ICBMs and Cuba-based missiles wouldn’t change the consequences when the missiles hit their targets, and in any event, the flight times of Soviet SLBMs were already as short as or shorter than the flight times of the missiles in Cuba would be, because those weapons already lurked in submarines off the American coast (as of course did American SLBMs off the Soviet coast). Moreover, unlike Soviet ICBMs, the missiles in Cuba required several hours to be prepared for launch. Given the effectiveness of America’s aerial and satellite reconnaissance (amply demonstrated by the images of missiles in the U.S.S.R. and Cuba that they yielded), the U.S. almost certainly would have had far more time to detect and respond to an imminent Soviet missile strike from Cuba than to attacks from Soviet bombers, ICBMs, or SLBMs.
“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.”
Sorensen’s comment about a surprise attack reminds us that while the missiles in Cuba did not add appreciably to the nuclear menace, they could have somewhat complicated America’s planning for a successful first strike—which may well have been part of Khrushchev’s rationale for deploying them. If so, the missiles paradoxically could have enhanced deterrence between the superpowers, and thereby reduced the risk of nuclear war.
Yet, although the missiles’ military significance was negligible, the Kennedy administration advanced on a perilous course to force their removal. The president issued an ultimatum to a nuclear power—an astonishingly provocative move, which immediately created a crisis that could have led to catastrophe. He ordered a blockade on Cuba, an act of war that we now know brought the superpowers within a hair’s breadth of nuclear confrontation. The beleaguered Cubans willingly accepted their ally’s weapons, so the Soviet’s deployment of the missiles was fully in accord with international law. But the blockade, even if the administration euphemistically called it a “quarantine,” was, the ExComm members acknowledged, illegal. As the State Department’s legal adviser recalled, “ Our legal problem was that their action wasn’t illegal.” Kennedy and his lieutenants intently contemplated an invasion of Cuba and an aerial assault on the Soviet missiles there—acts extremely likely to have provoked a nuclear war. In light of the extreme measures they executed or earnestly entertained to resolve a crisis they had largely created, the American reaction to the missiles requires, in retrospect, as much explanation as the Soviet decision to deploy them—or more.
On that very first day of the ExComm meetings, McNamara provided a wider perspective on the missiles’ significance: “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem here … This is a domestic, political problem.” In a 1987 interview, McNamara explained: “You have to remember that, right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically .” What largely made the missiles politically unacceptable was Kennedy’s conspicuous and fervent hostility toward the Castro regime—a stance, Kennedy admitted at an ExComm meeting, that America’s European allies thought was “a fixation” and “slightly demented.”
In his presidential bid, Kennedy had red-baited the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, charging that its policies had “helped make Communism’s first Caribbean base.” Given that he had defined a tough stance toward Cuba as an important election issue, and given the humiliation he had suffered with the Bay of Pigs debacle, the missiles posed a great political hazard to Kennedy. As the State Department’s director of intelligence and research, Roger Hilsman, later put it, “The United States might not be in mortal danger, but … the administration most certainly was.” Kennedy’s friend John Kenneth Galbraith, the ambassador to India, later said: “Once [the missiles] were there, the political needs of the Kennedy administration urged it to take almost any risk to get them out.”
But even weightier than the domestic political catastrophe likely to befall the administration if it appeared to be soft on Cuba was what Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Martin called “the psychological factor” that we “sat back and let ’em do it to us.” He asserted that this was “more important than the direct threat,” and Kennedy and his other advisers energetically concurred. Even as Sorensen, in his memorandum to the president, noted the ExComm’s consensus that the Cuban missiles didn’t alter the nuclear balance, he also observed that the ExComm nevertheless believed that “the United States cannot tolerate the known presence” of missiles in Cuba “if our courage and commitments are ever to be believed by either allies or adversaries” (emphasis added). America’s European allies (not to mention the Soviets) insisted that Washington should ignore these intangible concerns, but Sorensen was dismissive. Appealing to psychology rather than to the hard calculations of statecraft, he asserted that such arguments “carried some logic but little weight.”
Indeed, Washington’s self-regard for its credibility was almost certainly the main reason it risked nuclear war over a negligible threat to national security. At the same meeting in which Kennedy and his aides were contemplating military action against Cuba and the U.S.S.R.—action they knew could bring about an apocalyptic war—the president stated, “Last month I said we weren’t going to [permit Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba] and last month I should have said … we don’t care. But when we said we’re not going to, and [the Soviets] go ahead and do it, and then we do nothing, then … I would think that our … risks increase .”
The risks of such a cave-in, Kennedy and his advisers held, were distinct but related. The first was that America’s foes would see Washington as pusillanimous; the known presence of the missiles, Kennedy said, “makes them look like they’re coequal with us and that”—here Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon interrupted: “We’re scared of the Cubans.” The second risk was that America’s friends would suddenly doubt that a country given to appeasement could be relied on to fulfill its obligations.