‘Ken, you will never know how much bad advice I received in those days.” That’s what John F. Kennedy said to John Kenneth Galbraith just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. But now we do know, and with terrifying precision; it turns out JFK taped the ExComm meetings. ExComm, as in the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, a group he specially convened for the crisis.
There were 20 meetings in all, with some 20 at the table. The names include McGeorge Bundy, General Maxwell Taylor, Adlai Stevenson, Dean Rusk, LBJ, and Robert McNamara. The recording device itself hissed away in the White House basement. JFK pushed a discreet button located under the Excomm conference table. He was good at hitting on, but sketchy about hitting off. Sometimes, you can hear the clank and scrape of the cleaning crew after hours.
No one knew they were being recorded, except probably Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general. It seems JFK planned to use the recordings as fodder for his memoirs after leaving office. Poignant, that RFK had the system dismantled the day his brother was assassinated. And they may have never come to light if not for the Watergate tapes (their discovery prompted the JFK library to reveal they had presidential tapes, too), the Freedom of Information Act, and the Presidential Records Act.
As they’ve become declassified over the decades, the tapes have been released in hungrily-anticipated batches. Sheldon M. Stern, historian at the John F. Kennedy Library from 1977-2000, was the first scholar to have at them. His subsequent books teem with remarkable revelations. First up is “The Week The World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Missile Crisis” (Stanford University, 2005). I defy you to read it without feeling sick. The near-casual belligerence of JFK’s advisers! In the age of Iraq and Afghanistan we’re used to talk of air strikes and landing forces. But when you realize that using them on Cuba might well have prompted a nuclear reprisal that could kill 80 to 100 million Americans — “you’re talkin’ about the destruction of a country,” says JFK — you can hardly believe your ears.
A little basic history here: August 1961 brought the Bay of Pigs calamity. After that attack, Cuba asked its Soviet allies to help construct bases to defend against a sequel. On Oct. 14 — 50 years ago today — an American U-2 surveillance plane spotted apparent nuclear missiles on those bases. Apart from defending Cuba, the Soviets saw the missile placements as a quid pro quo for American missiles set up in 1961 on bases in Italy and Turkey.
What followed was two weeks of brinksmanship that resulted in the biggest near-miss in history. Now get ready for even more stark revisionism in Stern’s later “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths Versus Reality” (Stanford University, 2012). Let’s begin with RFK, who has been lionized as a clever statesmen, partly due to his own posthumous 1969 book on the crisis: “Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Norton reissue, 1999). He’s generally been credited with coming up with the “Trollope ploy,” which applied diplomacy á la the novelist’s demure Victorian female characters. When a gentleman merely squeezed a lady’s hand, in a Trollope novel, the lady chose to read that as an outright marriage proposal. Thus JFK’s choice to accept Khrushchev’s more pacifying Friday letter, on the 12th day of the crisis, and disregard his saber-rattling Saturday letter. But Stern says RFK did not come up with the Trollope ploy. The tapes show that Stevenson first proposed it. Also: RFK was much more of a hawk than was later believed. In this, he was in the majority. Time and time again, JFK “stood virtually alone against war-like counsel” from ExComm, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and congressional leaders.
Khrushchev stared down “war-like counsel” as well, but then got his underlings on board. It was long thought that the conciliatory Friday letter was a rogue move on the premier’s part. Not so, says “One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy 1958-1964” (Norton, 1997), co-written by the Russian historian Alexsandr Fursenko and the Yale historian Timothy Naftali. Khrushchev’s famous words to Kennedy were vetted by the Presidium and Central Committee and are worth quoting here: “Now we and you should not 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.”
To loosen the tie, Khrushchev floated a deal: He’d remove the missiles if the United States promised no Cuban invasion, ever. (Secretly, JFK also withdrew our missiles from Turkey and Italy.) Thus both leaders ended the crisis — but let’s remember that they began it too. “Gamble” is an essential source for understanding the other sides to the story, particularly how the Soviet world of “morbid suspicion” combusted with Castro’s manic grandiloquence. Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, but I especially ate up the book’s reporters-and-spies stuff. Take the story of the Baltic émigré bartender Johnny Prokov, who overhears a pair of New York Herald Tribune reporters on Oct. 25, at the Tap Room of the National Press Club. One, Warren Rogers, mentions he was supposed to fly south that night, “to cover the operation to capture Cuba.’’ Prokov then tips off another barfly, a D.C.-based TASS reporter, who’s also a KGB agent — and this pub chatter makes it all the way to Khrushchev’s desk.
“Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse” (Rowman & Littlefield reprint, 2002) tunnels more deeply into the other side. It hinges on what’s emerged at the various scholarly conferences held on the topic, starting at Hawk’s Cay, Fla., in 1987, and culminating at the groundbreaking Havana conference of 1992, where Castro long-windedly (big surprise) aired his grievances with Khrushchev. Authors James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch, all Crisis experts, say they’ve been “continually astonished at what we have been told.” For instance: the amount of deployed Soviet troops and variety of weapons was much bigger than JFK’s administration “imagined in their wildest dreams.” Also, not only were there nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Soviets had nuclear torpedos in their submarines. Kennedy assumed that Khrushchev would invade West Berlin if we invaded Cuba, but historian Sergei Khrushchev, the premier’s son, disagrees. In the middle of the crisis, Vandenberg Air Force Base stupidly launched a previously scheduled non-nuclear missile test. It’s sheer luck that the Soviets did not detect it. If they had, they would likely have retaliated. Heart-stopping.
Even now, fresh history continues to blow holes in what we thought we knew. So it goes with “The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Norton, 2012). Author David G. Coleman, a University of Virginia professor specializing in nuclear history and policy, lets fly that some of the missiles of October, supposedly removed, hung around through February. The good news here: Kennedy continued his alert statesmanship. The bad: He ordered warrantless wiretaps on much of the Washington press corps. As you read this today, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library is hosting a 50 anniversary retrospective on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sheldon Stern, Timothy Naftali, and Sergei Khrushchev will all be there, along with others who keep changing the way we think about the unthinkable.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the Bay of Pigs invation. The invasion occurred in 1961.