The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Forty years after the United States went to the brink of nuclear war, the first comprehensive narrative assembled from secret White House tapes shows how President John F. Kennedy defied the hawks and avoided a conflagration.
Late in 1961, President John F. Kennedy approved a covert plan (Operation Mongoose) to undermine or eliminate President Fidel Castro of Cuba. Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschchev, angered by US Jupiter missiles in Turkey, decided to protect Castro and alter the balance of power by shipping offensive nuclear missiles to Cuba. The secret plan required deceiving American officials in Moscow and Washington.
TUESDAY MORNING, OCTOBER 16, 1962
National security adviser McGeorge Bundy had received the stunning news by telephone the previous evening while giving a dinner party - U-2 spy-plane photographs had revealed irrefutable evidence of offensive missile sites under construction in Cuba. But Bundy had waited until early Tuesday to brief the president, later insisting that he had not wanted to disturb JFK's sleep.
Kennedy, still in his pajamas and his face and voice taut with anger at Soviet duplicity, exclaimed, "He can't do that to me." The president reeled off the names of key members of the National Security Council and told Bundy to organize a meeting for later that morning. He then summoned his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to the White House. "Oh, (expletive deleted)! (expletive)! (expletive)! Those (expletive) Russians," RFK exclaimed upon seeing the U-2 pictures.
As the president's advisers gathered in the Cabinet Room just before noon, they found JFK talking with his daughter, Caroline, only a month short of her fifth birthday. She scurried away, and the meeting began. Tensions were high, but JFK and his advisers (later called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm) knew that nothing was to be gained from emotion and panic and that any effort to humiliate the Soviets would only make the situation worse. This was one case where a favorite Kennedy family maxim, "Don't get mad, get even," did not apply.
Kennedy pored over the aerial photos with a large magnifying glass supplied by Arthur Lundahl, director of the National Photographic Interpretation Center. As his advisers took their seats, the president hit the switch under the conference table, activating a concealed tape recorder.
Deputy CIA Director Marshall Carter began by explaining what thephotographs of a medium-range ballistic missile site in San Cristobal revealed to his trained eye. "This is the result of the photography taken Sunday, sir." Then, turning to Lundahl, he said, "The president would like to see those" and proceeded to point out "at least 14 canvas-covered missile trailers measuring 67 feet in length, 9 feet in width." Lundahl, noting the small, rectangular shapes in the photos, told the president in a whispered aside: "These are the launchers here."
For several minutes, Carter and Lundahl continued to focus on the technical specifics revealed by the photographs. The president then cut to the heart of the matter: "How far advanced is this?" he asked Lundahl in an almost clinical tone of voice.
Lundahl hedged. "Sir, we've never seen this kind of an installation before."
"Not even in the Soviet Union?" Kennedy pressed.
"No, sir," Lundahl responded.
JFK continued to pump the experts for details, and he was not reluctant to ask even the most basic questions; it was essential to know exactly what was happening even if the query revealed his own lack of knowledge.
"How do you know this is a medium-range ballistic missile?" he asked.
"The length, sir," Lundahl responded patiently.
"The what? The length?" JFK repeated.
"Yes," Lundahl confirmed.
"The length of the missile?" Kennedy asked, examining the photo. "Which part?"
"Mr. Graybeal," Lundahl said, referring to missile specialist Sydney Graybeal, "our missile man, who has some pictures of the equivalent Soviet equipment that has been dragged through the streets of Moscow that can give you some feel for it, sir."
Graybeal handed the president photographs from the Soviet Union's annual May Day display of military might, but JFK quickly returned to the missile issue at hand: Cuba.
"It's ready to be fired?" the president asked grimly."No, sir," Graybeal replied.
"How long have . . . we can't tell that, can we, how long before they fire?"
"No, sir," Graybeal interjected before the president had finished his question.
FRIDAY MORNING, OCTOBER 19
"It's good to have men like [General and Air Force chief of staff] Curt[is] LeMay and [Admiral] Arleigh Burke commanding troops once you decide to go in," the president had once told journalist Hugh Sidey. "But these men aren't the only ones you should listen to when you decide whether to go in or not." In short, he respected the military as soldiers but not as policy makers. LeMay, who regarded Cuba as a "sideshow" in the life-and-death struggle with the Soviet Union, once replied to a question about how he would deal with Cuba by contemptuously retorting, "Fry it." These strains were bubbling close to the surface as the Joint Chiefs of Staff joined the president and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the Cabinet Room for a meeting that quickly escalated into a virtual confrontation.
Joint Chiefs chairman General Maxwell Taylor recommended: "I think the benefit at this point . . . this morning, Mr. President, would be for you to hear the other chiefs' comments."
Kennedy pointedly ignored Taylor's request and began to speak in an obvious effort to control the agenda of the meeting and demonstrate that the commander-in-chief was in charge. But he was initially hesitant and uncomfortable, repeatedly tripping over his words:
"Let me just say a little a . . . first about a . . . what the problem is, a . . . from . . . at least from a . . . my point of view," he began. "I . . . ah . . . first, a . . . wh . . . er . . . I think we ought to think of why the Russians did this."
He then became progressively more confident and lucid, telling the chiefs that if the United States did nothing in response to this "rather dangerous but rather useful play of theirs," the Soviets would end up with a significant military base from which to pressure the United States and damage American prestige in the world. Kennedy could not push aside his Cold War blinders, any more than the Joint Chiefs or the ExComm, to even consider the possibility that the weapons in Cuba were at least in part a genuine Soviet commitment todefend their Cuban allies against American subversion and attack.
But, he warned, if the United States attacked the missiles or invaded Cuba, it would give the Soviets "a clear line to take Berlin," and the United States would then be regarded by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies as "the Americans who lost Berlin, [because] we didn't have the guts to endure a situation in Cuba. After all, Cuba is five or six thousand miles from them. They don't give a damn about Cuba. But they do care about Berlin and about their own security. I must say, I think it's a very satisfactory position from their point of view."
Airstrikes on the missile sites could lead to the Soviets taking Berlin by force, JFK said, "which leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons - which is a hell of an alternative - and begin a nuclear exchange." JFK had by now become quite fluent and authoritative. His use of the personal pronoun sent a clear message - he would listen to the chiefs' advice, but the decision was his, and he said he had decided to respond with a limited naval blockade.
General LeMay jumped aggressively into the discussion, giving no indication that he had understood the grim contingencies raised by the president. He declared that the United States doesn't have "any choice except direct military action." LeMay turned Kennedy's Berlin argument on its head: "I don't share your view that if we knock off Cuba they're gonna knock off Berlin. We've got the Berlin problem staring us in the face anyway." On the contrary, the Soviets "are gonna push on Berlin and push real hard" only if the United States failed to take military action in Cuba, since they would then feel "they've got us on the run."
A skeptical JFK interrupted to ask, "What do you think their reprisal would be" if we attacked Cuba? There would be no reprisal, LeMay asserted without missing a beat, as long as Kennedy told Khrushchev again: "If they make a move [in Berlin], we're gonna fight." He added, "Now, I don't think this changes the Berlin situation at all, except you've got to make one more statement on it."
The general moved in for the verbal kill: "So, I see no other solution. This uh . . . uh . . . blockade and . . . and political action I see leading into war. I don't see any other solution for it. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich. I just don't see any other solution except direct military interv . . . intervention, right now."
The Joint Chiefs of Staff must have held their collective breath. LeMay had gone well beyond merely giving advice or even disagreeing with the commander-in-chief. He had taken their generation's ultimate metaphor for cowardice, the 1938 appeasement of Hitler at Munich, and flung it in the president's face. Everyone at the table knew that JFK's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had been a supporter of appeasement as ambassador to England between 1938 and 1940. President Kennedy, in a remarkable display of sang-froid, refused to take the bait; he said nothing.
Moments later, LeMay renewed his attack. As to the "political factor," the Air Force chief asserted: "I think that a blockade and political talk would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as bein' a pretty weak response to this. And I'm sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way, too.
"In other words, you're in a pretty bad fix at the present time," LeMay said, almost taunting the president.
Kennedy had not heard or perhaps thought he had heard wrong. "What'd you say?" he asked matter-of-factly.
"I say, you're in a pretty bad fix," LeMay repeated.
"You're in with me," Kennedy replied with an acerbic laugh, "personally."
MONDAY NOON, OCTOBER 22
A comprehensive effort was launched to inform foreign leaders and US embassies and consulates around the world of the imminent blockade. As JFK prepared to speak to the nation on television that evening, the Cubans and the Soviets received a clear signal that something was up when the evacuation of US military family dependents began at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba. By 4 p.m., some 2,500 family members, who had been given 15 minutes to pack one bag each, were on their way to Norfolk, Virginia.
Paul Nitze, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, began the noon ExComm meeting with a briefing on the Berlin situation before being interrupted by the president. JFK was determined to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war if the Soviets reacted to the blockade or possible air assaults in Cuba by attacking American missiles in Turkey.
The president had first raised this issue on October 20, recommending that the Joint Chiefs of Staff issue new orders to American personnel on the Jupiter bases not to fire their missiles at the USSR, even if attacked, without specific presidential authorization. Nitze reported that "McNamara and I wrote out a suggested instruction from him [the president] to the chiefs, and we took it up with the chiefs. The chiefs came back with a paper saying that those instructions are already out."
JFK was not satisfied: "Well, why don't we reinforce 'em, because, as I say, we may be attacking the Cubans, and they may . . . a reprisal may come on these. We don't want them firingwithout our knowing about it." The tension in the room surfaced when Secretary of State Dean Rusk erroneously said, "The ones in Turkey are not operational, are they?" and Nitze retorted, "Yes, they are!"
Deputy Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatric confirmed that 15 of the Turkish missiles were operational and on alert, and Kennedy pressed Nitze to be sure that his orders were fully understood: "Can we take care of that then, Paul? We need a new instruction out." Nitze muttered a sullen and barely audible reply: "All right. I'll go back and tell them." "They object to sending a new one out?" JFK asked patiently. Nitze reiterated that the chiefs objected to a new order, because, "to their view, it compromises their standing instructions." Nitze then informed the president that the Joint Chiefs had also made another point in their response - a startling point: " NATO strategic contact [a Soviet nuclear attack] requires the immediate execution of EDP in such events."
"What's EDP?" Kennedy asked.
"The European Defense Plan," Nitze answered chillingly, "which is nuclear war."
"Now that's why," the president barked, "we want to get on that, you see." The commander-in-chief's reservations about military judgment were obvious in his sharp reply: "But you see, what they don't know in Greece and Turkey - uh, Turkey and Italy [Jupiter missiles had also been deployed in Italy] - what we know. And therefore they don't realize there is a chance there will be a spot reprisal, and what we gotta do is make sure these fellows do know, so that they don't fire 'em off and think the United States is under attack. I don't think," he asserted flatly, "we ought to accept the chiefs' word on that one, Paul."
"All right," Nitze mumbled grudgingly. Nitze tried again to defend the chiefs' position. "But surely these fellows are thoroughly indoctrinated not to fire," he bristled, banging on the table, "and this is what McNamara and I went over . . . and they really are indoctrinated on this point."
Kennedy cut him off with a temperate but firm order: "Well, let's do it again, Paul." The president's response was clear: His orders would be carried out, regardless of the Joint Chiefs' rules and procedures.
"I've got your point, we'll do it again," Nitze answered, finally retreating. Some strained laughter broke out at the resolution of this "difference of opinion," and Bundy relieved the tension by telling Nitze, in a tongue-in-cheek tone, "Send me the documents, and I will show them to a doubting master," likely glancing toward the president. The laughter briefly grew even louder.
MONDAY EVENING, OCTOBER 22
At 5 o'clock, the president and several key advisers met with nearly 20 leaders of Congress from both parties - summoned to Washington from all across the country and flown to the capital in military aircraft. Some of the leaders resented being informed of Kennedy's decision barely two hours before his speech to the nation. As a member of Congress, JFK had never been an insider, and many of his colleagues had dismissed him as an indifferent legislator at best, a playboy at worst. Now, whether they liked it or not, he was the president; but that did not mean they would passively accept his decisions.
The meeting began with detailed briefings by CIA Director John McCone and Lundahl. The president undoubtedly watched the faces of his congressional allies and adversaries, wondering what they were thinking. JFK concluded the briefings with a review of the options discussed over the past seven days of secret meetings - specifically appealing to the Republicans in the room by revealing that he had sent McCone to brief former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. If the United States bombed or invaded Cuba, Kennedy explained, "we have a chance that these missiles will be fired - on us." Khrushchev would probably seize Berlin, and the unity of NATO would be shattered, the president said, because "Europe will regard Berlin's loss as having been the fault of the United States by acting in a precipitous way."
Kennedy then revealed his decision: "Beginning tonight, we're going to blockade Cuba under the Rio Treaty [1947 mutual defense treaty]. We called for a meeting of the Rio Pact countries and hope to get a two-thirds vote for them to give the blockade legality. In order not to give Mr. Khrushchev the justification for imposing a complete blockade on Berlin, we're going to start with a blockade on the shipment of offensive weapons into Cuba but stop all ships." If the situation deteriorated further, the blockade could be tightened. Plans for an invasion, he added, were still going forward.
"If there's any STRONG DISAGREEMENTS WITH WHAT AT LEAST WE'VE SET OUT TO DO," HE CONCLUDED, ``I WANT TO HEAR IT.''
Democrat Richard Russell of Georgia, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lashed out: "Mr. President, I could not stay silent under these circumstances and live with myself. I . . . I . . . I think that our responsibilities to our people demand some stronger steps than that." The United States, he maintained, would never be stronger or in a better position: "It seems to me that we're at the crossroads. We're either a first-class power, or we're not.
"You have warned these people time and again, in the most eloquent speeches I have read since Woodrow Wilson, as to what would happen if there was an offensive capability created in Cuba. They can't say they're not on notice." The Soviets, he declared, had challenged "the announced foreign policy of the United States. And I think that you . . . we should assemble as speedily as possible an adequate force and . . . and . . . and clean out that situation. The time's gonna come, Mr. President, when we're gonna have to take this gamble, in Berlin, in Korea and Washington, D.C., and Winder, Georgia, for the . . . for the . . . for the nuclear war. I don't know whether Khrushchev will launch a nuclear war over Cuba or not. I don't believe he will! But I think that the more that we temporize, the more surely he is to convince himself that we are afraid to make any real movement and . . . and . . . and . . . and to really fight."
An obviously discomfited JFK suggested that Russell listen to McNamara's military analysis, but the senator cut in: "Pardon me. I . . . I . . . You had said if anybody disagrees, and I . . . I couldn't sit here feel in' as I do."
"I understand," Kennedy replied.
But Russell became even more agitated: "Mr. President, I don't wanna make a nuisance of myself, but I . . . I . . . would like to complete my statement." Delaying an invasion, he insisted, would give the Soviet MiGs in Cuba a chance "to attack our shipping or to drop a few bombs around Miami or some other place," and when the United States did invade, "we'll lose a great many more men than we would right now."
"But Senator," JFK explained, "we can't invade Cuba," because it would take several days to assemble and deploy the men required for an invasion. "We don't have the forces to seize Cuba."
"Well, we can assemble 'em," Russell retorted.
"So that's what we're doing now," Kennedy replied impatiently.
Russell would not relent. "This blockade is gonna . . . is gonna put them on the alert," he said, and divide and weaken our forces "around the . . . the . . . whole periphery of . . . of the free . . . free world."
Kennedy, perhaps hoping to isolate Russell by appealing for support from the other congressional leaders, laid out the stark choices: "If we go into Cuba, we have to all realize that we are taking a chance that these missiles, which are ready to fire, won't be fired. So that's . . . is that really a gamble we should take? In any case, we're preparing to take it. Ah . . . well, I think, fact is, that that is one hell of a gamble."
The president's summation seemed to make Russell even more combative: "Excuse me again, but do you yet see a time ever in the future when Berlin will not be hostage to this?" When JFK bluntly replied, "No," Russell declared brusquely that Berlin would remain a hostage in any case. He sharply demanded that the president put up or shut up: "And if we're gonna back up on that, we might as well pull our horns in from Europe and save 15 to 25 billion dollars a year and just prepare to defend this continent. We've got to take a chance somewhere, sometime, if we're gonna re . . . retain our position as a great world power."
Russell finally backed off. "I'm through," he said. "Excuse me. I wouldn't have been honest with myself if I hadn't . . . I hope you forgive me, but I . . . you asked for opinions."
"Well, I forgive you," Kennedy broke in rather defensively, obviously trying to control his irritation, "but it's a very difficult problem we're faced with. I'll just tell you that. It's a very difficult choice that we're facing together."
"Oh, my God, I know that," Russell exclaimed, not even letting the president finish. "Our authority and the world's destiny will hinge on this decision. But it's comin' someday, Mr. President. Will it ever be under more auspicious circumstances?"
The president tried to placate the Georgia senator. "I appreciate," he said, before pausing for several seconds to find the appropriate words, "the vigor and the strength of what Senator Russell feels and says." But Russell interjected an uncompromising admonition: "You know, the right of self-defense is pretty elemental, and you relied on that in . . . in your . . . in that very telling statement you made. You relied on that, the right of self-defense, and that's what we'd be doing."
Suddenly, another influential Southern Democrat, Senator J. William Fulbright, weighed in against the president's chosen course of action. An invasion, he insisted, was less risky: "I mean legally. I mean, it's just between us and Cuba. I think a blockade is the . . . is the worst of the alternatives, because you're confronted with a Russian ship, you are actually confronting Russia." An invasion of Cuba "is not actually an affront to Russia. They're [Cuba] not part of the Warsaw Pact."
McNamara intervened to remind the Arkansas senator that the missile sites were occupied by 8,000 Russians; an invasion would first require 2,000 air sorties directly against Soviet military personnel.
"That's quite different," Fulbright maintained confidently. "They're in Cuba. And Cuba . . . Cuba still is supposed to be a sovereign country. It isn't a member of the Warsaw Pact. It's not even a satellite. It's just a communist country."
His patience clearly strained, JFK asked, "What are you in favor of, Bill?"
"I'm in favor," Fulbright said, "on the basis of this information, of an invasion and an all-out one and as quickly as possible." Russell remained silent, but he must have been gratified.
The president again reminded Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former Rhodes Scholar, that an invasion would require a direct attack on 8,000 Russians. "We are gonna have to shoot them up. And I think that it would be foolish," JFK said, "to expect that the Russians would not regard that as a far more direct thrust. And I think that the inevitable result will be immediately the seizure of Berlin. Now, as I say, we may have to put up with all that, and uh . . . But, uh . . . I think that if we're talkin' about nuclear war, then escalation ought to be at least with some degree of control." Of course, JFK acknowledged, it was offensive to the Russians to have their ships stopped, but "when you start talking about the invasion, it's infinitely more offensive."
"But not to the Russians, it seems to me," Fulbright continued. "They have no . . . they have no right to say that you've had an attack on Russia. I don't see that they have."
The president, as the tense meeting wound down, reflected fatalistically, "The people who are the best off are the people whose advice is not taken, because whatever we do is filled with hazards.
"I'll say this to Senator Fulbright," Kennedy continued, "we don't know where we're gonna end up on this matter. We just tried to make good judgments on a matter on which everyone's uncertain. So we start here; we don't know where he's gonna take us or where we're gonna take ourselves."
"Now, just wait, Mr. President," Russell interrupted. "The nettle is gonna sting anyway."
"That's correct. Now I just think at least we start here, then we see where we go." JFK then said curtly, "I gotta go and make this speech" announcing the blockade.
House Minority Leader Charles Halleck, a tough and partisan Republican, offered a surprising statement of support to the beleaguered commander-in-chief: "Mr. President, could I make just one . . . I didn't know what I was called in for. Happy to come. I'm glad you asked me. I don't have the background information to make these decisions. You do. And I've been glad to speak a piece or two here, but . . . uh . . . uh . . . whatever you decide to do."
"Well, I appreciate that," the president replied gratefully.
"I guess that's it," Halleck concluded.
John F. Kennedy switched off the tape recorder and headed for the Oval Office. He certainly noticed that all of the congressional flak had come from Democrats.
TUESDAY EVENING, OCTOBER 23
At 7:06, President Kennedy signed the quarantine proclamation in the Oval Office and returned to the Cabinet Room. JFK, RFK, Taylor, and Bundy remained behind after the meeting and talked informally. JFK, clearly tired and on edge, pressed RFK about reports that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain had permitted a CIA briefing on classified aerial surveillance photos to be shown on British television without US approval.
"Bobby," JFK asserted impatiently, "I don't wanna make it look like we're all (expletive deleted) here" by allowing the British to show the photos and denying access to the American press.
The attorney general, always sensitive to the president's political problems, suggested, "What about just saying we were planning to release them?" The president quickly agreed. JFK's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, interrupted with a message that Jacqueline Kennedy was on the telephone, and the president left to take the call. As Taylor and Bundy prepared to leave, RFK said jokingly: "I have a feelin' I don't like to see you people go. You have all the answers."
When JFK returned, the Kennedy brothers were alone in the Cabinet Room. "Oh, Christ!" the agitated president burst out, recalling that he had to attend a formal dinner that evening. He was obviously not in the mood for hours of social chitchat.
But RFK quickly zeroed in on the real source of his older brother's irritability: "How's it look?" he asked point-blank.
"Well, it looks like it's gonna be real mean, doesn't it?" JFK exploded. "But on the other hand, there's really no choice. If they get this mean on this one - Jesus Christ - what are they gonna (expletive) up next?"
"No choice," RFK echoed.
"I don't think there was a choice," the president repeated.
RFK hastily added: "No, there wasn't any choice. I mean you woulda had a . . . you woulda been impeached."
"Well, that's what I think," JFK agreed. "I woulda been impeached."
Robert Kennedy, eager to bolster his brother's self-assurance, contended that "you got all the South American countries and Central American countries to vote unanimously [to support the blockade] when they kicked us in the ass for two years, they vote unanimously for this, and then you get the reaction from the rest of the allies and everybody else, say that you had to do it. I mean, if it's gonna come, it's gonna come; it's somethin' you couldn't have avoided."
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27
In Cuba, Castro received reliable new intelligence that American airstrikes and an invasion could be only a few days away. In Moscow, Khrushchev approved a plan to defend Soviet installations in Cuba against an American assault.
President Kennedy became increasingly irritable at the morning ExComm meeting in response to nearly unanimous opposition to Khrushchev's latest letter, which just arrived in Washington, proposing a trade of US missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. Most advisers preferred responding to Khrushchev's offer, made the previous day, to withdraw the missiles in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba.
JFK grumbled: "How much negotiation have we had with the Turks this week? Who's done it?" Rusk revealed that NATO Ambassador Thomas Finletter and Ambassador to Turkey Raymond Hare had been consulted and there had been some discussion in NATO, but no direct contact had been made with the Turkish government.
"I've talked about it now for a week," the president protested. "Have we got any conversations in Turkey with the Turks?"
Undersecretary of State George Ball tried to explain that approaching the Turks on withdrawing the Jupiter missiles "would be an extremely unsettling business."
"Well," JFK retorted sharply, "this is unsettling now, George, because he's got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people will regard this as not an unreasonable proposal. I'll just tell you that."
"But what `most people,' Mr. President?" Bundy asked disdainfully.
The president shot back: "I think you're gonna have it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba against these sites when he's saying, `If you get yours out of Turkey, we'll get ours out of Cuba.' I think you've got a very tough one here."
"I don't see why we pick that track," Bundy argued, "when he's offered us the other track in the last 24 hours."
JFK repeated impatiently, "Well, he's now offered us a new one!"
"You think the public one is serious when he has a private one?" Taylor asked incredulously.
"Yes," the president declared resolutely, "I think we have to assume that this is their new and latest position, and it's a public one."
Ball suggested pulling the rug out from under Khrushchev by releasing his October 26 letter. Bundy endorsed the idea: "I think it has a good deal of virtue."
Barely suppressing an exasperated laugh, the president countered: "Yeah, but I think we have to be now thinking about what our position's gonna be on this one, because this is the one that's before us and before the world."
Later that evening, a small group of ExComm members joined President Kennedy in the Oval Office. JFK revealed that his brother was about to hand-deliver a new letter for Khrushchev to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and requested advice on what the attorney general should say. The group agreed that RFK should warn Dobrynin that military action against Cuba was imminent unless the missiles were removed.
Rusk, however, obviously mindful of the president's persistent advocacy of the Turkish option, suggested that RFK advise the ambassador that although a public quid pro quo for the missiles in Turkey was unacceptable, the president was prepared to remove them once the Cuban crisis was resolved.
A consensus quickly developed around the idea, and RFK was instructed to tell Dobrynin that any public disclosure would cancel the offer.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28
By early morning, Moscow time, Khrushchev had made up his mind: The danger was simply too great. "Remove them as soon as possible, before something terrible happens," he said, according to an account written by his son, Sergei. Khrushchev told his foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko: "Comrade Gromyko, we don't have the right to take risks. Once the president announces there will be an invasion, he won't be able to reverse himself. We have to let Kennedy know that we want to help him." He hesitated at the word "help," but after a moment's silence repeated firmly: "Yes, help. We now have a common cause, to save the world from those pushing us toward war." He instructed Gromyko to direct Dobrynin to contact Robert Kennedy at once and tell him that a reply to the president's message would arrive shortly. "Emphasize that the answer is a positive one."
The Kremlin had apparently received a report that President Kennedy had scheduled a television address on Sunday afternoon - presumably to announce an invasion of Cuba. (In fact, it was simply a rebroadcast of his October 22 speech announcing the blockade.) Khrushchev decided not to risk sending his message through the slow and unreliable diplomatic channels but instead to broadcast it immediately over Moscow radio. "This was an unusual, perhaps unprecedented, step in international practice, but an effective one," Sergei Khrushchev later wrote of his father's decision. "The answer would be on the president's desk in just a few minutes."
In Washington, President Kennedy was preparing to attend 10 a.m. Mass at St. Stephen's Church. CIA Director John McCone had gone to Mass an hour earlier after hearing on his car radio that the Kremlin would shortly make a significant announcement. He later recalled the Mass as almost interminable. The president reacted to Khrushchev's message with surprise, relief, and some skepticism. The Soviets, after all, had systematically deceived the United States about putting the missiles in Cuba, and Gromyko had lied to the president in the Oval Office. It seemed entirely possible that the announcement might be a trick.
The Joint Chiefs remained very suspicious, warning the president that the announcement was "an effort to delay direct action by the United States while preparing the ground for diplomatic blackmail." They also urged JFK to order sweeping airstrikes in Cuba in 24 hours, followed by an invasion, unless irrefutable evidence proved that the missile sites were being dismantled. General Taylor dissented but agreed to transmit the message to McNamara. "We have been had," Admiral George Anderson moaned. General LeMay denounced the agreement as "the greatest defeat in our history" and banged the table demanding, "We should invade today!"
By the time JFK returned from St. Stephen's, however, a groundswell of elation had overwhelmed the White House. Nuclear war had apparently been averted.
Soviet-American relations improved in the year following the Cuban missle crisis: The US missiles in Turkey were withdrawn, a Moscow-Washington hot line was established, and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was negotiated. But the Kennedy administration never abandoned its commitment to bring down Castro.
Sheldon M. Stern served as historian at the John F. Kennedy Library from 1977 through 1999. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Averting ``The Final Failure'': The Leadership of John F. Kennedy in the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford University Press). Copyright 2002 by Sheldon M. Stern.