Just after the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the subsequent visit of President Kennedy (JFK) to Ireland, it is time to re-evaluate the mythology around the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In summary, everything you “know” about the Crisis is wrong: the “13 days in October ” in fact did not end until December 1962; the pithy summary -“we were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow [the Soviets] just blinked”, attributed to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, is fundamentally inaccurate –J FK agreed a secret, balanced deal with Khrushchev; the striking visual image of Soviet ships carrying missiles to Cuba turning around just miles from the US-imposed naval blockade is just plain wrong – the Soviet ships were 500 miles away and were headed in the opposite direction –having been ordered by Khrushchev to turn around the previous day; finally the supposed dovish, conciliatory approach of Robert Kennedy (RFK) was in fact a myth- during the crisis he was an ardent hawk, calling for airstrikes and invasion of Cuba.
The basic story is well known. On 16 October 1962, JFK was shown irrefutable photographic evidence that Soviet nuclear – missile sites were nearing completion in Cuba. Soviet ships carrying weapons and in transit to Cuba had also been detected. JFK set up a group of advisers – the Executive Committee (ExComm) to discuss how to react. On 22nd October JFK, in a national televised address, demanded that the missiles be removed, and imposed a naval blockade around Cuba, preventing further arms shipments. On 28 October, Khrushchev, having apparently been faced down by JFK, announced that he was ordering the removal of the missiles from Cuba. The world breathed a sigh of relief thinking the crisis was over.
In fact, because of the fury of Fidel Castro at the deal, and the fact that he was kept out of the key discussions between the Soviets and the US, together with his unstable behaviour during and after the crisis, it took until December 1962 to get the known missiles off the island, as well as an additional 100 tactical nuclear weapons that the CIA thought had not arrived in Cuba, but were in fact in place and ready for use if a US invasion, one of the options considered by ExComm, had occurred.
These myths have endured for over 50 years despite the extensive information refuting them that has become available since 1962, from many sources, particularly the relevant Soviet archives and 43 hours of tapes of ExComm meetings which became publicly available, starting in 1987. These tapes were recorded at the request of JFK on the basis that they would remain secret. A summary of the current understanding of the crisis is included in a review essay by Alexa van Sickle titled The Myth of October, in the February/March 2013 edition of Survival, the bimonthly Journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The review focuses on three books. The first – The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths Versus Reality, by Sheldon M. Stern (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), by the Kennedy Library former chief historian, uses a thorough study of the tapes to contradict the main myths about the crisis, demonstrating that these myths were deliberately created by ExComm members. The second – The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis, by James Blight and Janet Lang (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.) is based on 25 years of research and particularly the correspondence between the various leaders, including between Castro and Khrushchev. (It was not known for many years that Kennedy and Khrushchev had been in regular correspondence with each other from just after Kennedy’s inauguration until days before his assassination.) The third book –The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume Four, the Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro (New York: Albert Knopf, 2012.), confirms that Johnson (LBJ) was an outsider with respect to key ExComm Crisis decisions, with unfortunate implications for his subsequent approach to the war in Vietnam.
The core myth was that the Soviets withdrew their nuclear missiles from Cuba and got very little, if anything, in return. In fact, as confessed by McGeorge Bundy (Kennedy’s National Security Adviser), Robert McNamara (Defence Secretary), Ted Sorensen (Kennedy’s speechwriter) and other, in Time Magazine in 1982 the secret deal agreed by JFK with Khrushchev was based on the US promising not to invade Cuba, and more importantly agreeing to the full subsequent removal of US Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. (The missiles had been placed in Turkey in 1961 as part of NATO’s deterrent strategy against the Soviet Union.) Sorensen had previously claimed in his influential book on Kennedy (A Thousand Days) that Kennedy had rejected this deal, subsequently explaining that the seven who knew about the deal agreed after JFK was killed, to keep the Turkey Missile aspect secret.
However even the Time Magazine article itself was inaccurate, failing to mention that JFK had been the only one who wanted to agree this deal with the Soviets, despite strenuous opposition from all his advisers (“the best and the brightest”.) This explains why in the light of its success, everyone else involved wanted to muddy the waters or misstate their position.
In retrospect JFK exercised great political judgement in agreeing this deal with the Soviets. He was however wrong to keep the deal secret, not just from the public but also from most of his advisers, almost all of his administration, and his Vice President, LBJ. When LBJ became president he therefore inherited not the real lessons of the Crisis but the initial mythology of JFK’s supposed successful tough approach with the Soviets,which may have had disastrous consequences for his decision-making on Vietnam. Johnson, the president who pushed through the “Great Society” and much of the civil rights legislation that changed the face of the US, could have taken a very different approach to Vietnam if only he had known what actually succeeded in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The enduring myths are not just on the US side. History had been extraordinarily kind, if not absolutely blind, to the behaviour during the crisis of both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Castro-a “loose cannon that nearly exploded in the face of the superpowers” was kept out of the loop while Khrushchev and Kennedy negotiated. Both were oblivious to the fact that Castro was actually preparing for nuclear war. On 27 October, believing the end of his revolution to be nigh, he sent a letter to Khrushchev urging him to launch the nuclear missiles on US targets. Weeks later Che Guevara told a British journalist that the missiles would have been fired, had they been under Cuban control. Has that occurred a huge number of American civilians would have been killed or wounded, while the inevitable retaliation would have destroyed Cuba and millions of its people.
It is now clear that balanced, realistic leadership by JFK and rational decision-making by Khrushchev, together with a huge amount of luck, saved the day in Autumn/Winter 1962. It could have been very different.
(Richard Whelan is an active member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a geopolitical analyst, and author of Al Qaedaism the Threat to Islam the Threat to the World.)