50 years ago tonight

Imagine turning on your TV for a speech by the president this Monday night and watching this:

This is on film, not video, which is why President John F. Kennedy isn’t looking at the camera. The video looks like this:

This speech, 50 years ago tonight, was the first the American public knew about what was percolating east of Florida.

What became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis started well before Oct. 22, 1962. Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista at the beginning of 1959. By the end of 1960, Castro had aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union, which put the Soviets in essence in the middle of the southeastern U.S. (Cuba is between Florida and Puerto Rico.)

Recall last week that John F. Kennedy was a fan of Ian Fleming’s Bond. James Bond. Kennedy apparently inherited more than one plot to reinvoke the Platt Amendment, which gave the U.S. control of Cuba from 1901 until 1934. Kennedy pledged on April 12, 1961 that the U.S. would not invade Cuba, five days before the Bay of Pigs invasion, a covert attempt to, yes,  invade Cuba. Seven months later, the Kennedy administration hatched Operation Mongoose, the next attempt to overthrow Castro through sabotage.

Six months after that, in late May 1962, a Soviet delegation to Cuba suggested installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Castro announced in late July that Cuba was taking measures that would make any direct U.S. attack on Cuba the equivalent of a world war, with help, he said, from the U.S.S.R. U.S. Sen. Kenneth Keating (R–New York) announced in the Senate Aug. 31 that evidence existed of missile installations in Cuba. (Keating’s reward was to be defeated in 1964 by Robert F. Kennedy.)

The missile and launcher parts began arriving in September by freighter, but were not discovered by the Americans until a U-2 flight Oct. 14, 1962, four days after Keating announced Cuba had six missile sites. After the missiles were identified as medium-range surface-to-surface missiles, Kennedy’s morning Oct. 16 began with news of the missiles being installed in Cuba. (Interestingly, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy knew about the missiles one day before Kennedy did.)

Kennedy formed an executive committee of some of his cabinet and others, none of whom were named Lyndon Johnson. The committee met for a week while Kennedy made various campaign appearances outside Washington, and met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, without telling Gromyko what the U.S. knew. Kennedy then broke off his trip and returned to Washington, according to Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, because of a cold.

Truth be told, the cold war was in danger of getting radioactively hot. Kennedy decided on a quarantine of  Cuba because the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he could not guarantee that an air strike could not guarantee destroying all the missile sites. He spoke to the country a day after asking the press (and you’d never see this today) to report nothing until the speech, and after meeting with congressional leaders. (Another thing you’d never see today: No leaks.)

If Kennedy’s speech alarmed the public, their panic didn’t compare to how the public should have felt. The day of Kennedy’s speech, Castro announced a war alert. One day after the speech, the U.S. proceeded with an atomic bomb test in the South Pacific. (Perhaps in retrospect that should have been rescheduled, along with the Atlas missile test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.) One day later, on Oct. 24, U.S. forces were upgraded from Defense Condition 3 to DEFCON 2, their highest alert level in history. (DEFCON refers to how imminent a nuclear attack is; even though U.S. forces are in harm’s way overseas, we’re at DEFCON 5 now. The U.S. was at DEFCON 3 during the 1973 Yom Kippur war and on Sept. 11, 2001. If we ever reach DEFCON 1, you’ll probably be hearing air raid sirens, and that will not be a test.)

On Oct. 25, Khrushchev wrote a letter to Kennedy:

I think you will understand me correctly if you are really concerned for the welfare of the world. Everyone needs peace: both capitalists, if they have not lost their reason, and all the more, communists — people who know how to value not only their own lives but, above all else, the life of nations. WE communists are against any wars between states at all, and have been defending the cause of peace ever since we came into the world. WE have always regarded war as a calamity, not as a game or a means for achieving particular purposes, much less as a goal in itself. Our goals are clear, and the means of achieving them is work. War is our enemy and a calamity for all nations.

In contrast to the tone of the letter, one day later, more aerial photos showed the Soviets had not slowed down on their missile site work, and were beginning to camouflage the sites. Meanwhile, Castro wrote a letter to Khrushchev:

From an analysis of the situation and the reports in our possession, I consider that the aggression is almost imminent within the next 24 or 72 hours.

There are two possible variants: the first and likeliest one is an air attack against certain targets with the limited objective of destroying them; the second, less probable although possible, is invasion. I understand that his variant would call for a large number of forces and it is, in addition, the most repulsive form of aggression, which might inhibit them. …

At this time I want to convey to you briefly my personal opinion. If the second variant is implemented and the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.

I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through tan act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.

Khrushchev reportedly read the third paragraph as Castro’s suggesting that the Soviet Union launch a first nuclear strike.

That same day, United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson spoke to the UN:

That same day, ABC-TV reporter John Scali got a request to meet with Aleksandr Fomin, a top Soviet intelligence officer in Washington. (I guarantee you that doesn’t happen at weekly newspapers.) Fomin proposed to Scali that the Soviet Union would dismantle the Cuban missile bases if the U.S. publicly pledged not to invade Cuba.

A day later, on Oct. 27, a U-2 plane was shot down by Soviet orders over Cuba, and its pilot was killed. Another U-2 in Alaska got too close to Soviet airspace and was nearly intercepted by Soviet fighters. Kennedy reportedly ordered an attack on Cuba to begin Monday morning, two days from then.

That same day, though, Kennedy got a letter from Khrushchev repeating Fomin’s offer. Kennedy then got another, more bellicose, letter from Khrushchev, demanding the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey, and hinting of a possible coup attempt in the Kremlin. It must have taken some nerve to decide to respond to the first, more conciliatory letter, and pretend the second letter didn’t exist. (Kind of like pretending you didn’t read that email.) Kennedy wrote a letter pledging that the U.S. wouldn’t invade Cuba, and a day later Khrushchev announced on Moscow Radio that the Soviet Union would pull the missiles out of Cuba, without, incidentally, consulting Castro on the issue.

Khrushchev then wrote to Castro:

Our October 27 message to President Kennedy allows for the question to be settled in your favor, to defend Cuba from an invasion and prevent war from breaking out. Kennedy’s reply, which you apparently also k now, offers assurances that the United States will not invade Cuba with its own forces, nor will it permit its allies to carry out an invasion. In this way the president of the United States has positively answered my messages of October 26 and 27, 1962. …

With this motive I would like to recommend to you now, at this moment of change in the crisis, not to be carried away by sentiment and to show firmness. I must say that I understand your feelings of indignation toward the aggressive actions and violations of elementary norms of international law on the part of the United States. …

Therefore, I would like to advise you in a friendly manner to show patience, firmness and even more firmness. Naturally, if there’s an invitation it will be necessary to repulse it by every means. But we mustn’t allow ourselves to be carried away by provocations, because the Pentagon’s unbridled militarists, now that the solution to the conflict is in sight and apparently in your favor, creating a guarantee against the invasion of Cuba, are trying to frustrate the agreement and provoke you into actions that could be used against you. I ask you not to give them the pretext for doing that.

Castro’s response was to issue his own conditions for resolving the crisis, including ending the U.S. trade embargo, ending U.S. support for attempts to overthrow Castro, the end of violations of Cuban naval and air space, and the return of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay to Cuba. The U.S. told Castro to go jump in Guantanamo Bay, so to speak.

The conventional wisdom, promoted heavily by the JFK propaganda machine, was that this was a victory for the U.S. The Associated Press pokes more holes in the conventional wisdom that the U.S. prevailed in the crisis:

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The crisis was a triumph of U.S. brinkmanship.

REALITY: Historians say the resolution of the standoff was really a triumph of backdoor diplomacy.

Kennedy resisted pressure from aides advising that he cede nothing to Moscow and even consider a preemptive strike. He instead engaged in intense behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the Soviets, other countries and the U.N. secretary-general.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy met secretly with the Soviet ambassador on Oct. 27 and conveyed an olive branch from his brother: Washington would publicly reject any invasion of Cuba, and Khrushchev would withdraw the missiles from the island. The real sweetener was that Kennedy would withdraw Jupiter nuclear missiles from U.S. installations in Turkey, near the Soviet border. It was a secret pledge known only to a handful of presidential advisers that did not emerge until years later. …

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Washington won, and Moscow lost.

REALITY: The United States came out a winner, but so did the Soviet Union.

The Jupiter missiles are sometimes described as nearly obsolete, but they had come online just months earlier and were fully capable of striking into the Soviet Union. Their withdrawal, along with Kennedy’s assurance he would not invade Cuba, gave Khrushchev enough to feel he had saved face and the following day he announced the imminent dismantling of offensive weapons in Cuba.

Soon after, a U.S.-Soviet presidential hotline was established and the two nations initiated discussions that led to the Limited Test Ban treaty and ultimately the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“The major lesson is the necessity of compromise even when faced with a crisis like that,” said Robert Pastor, an international relations professor at American University and former national security adviser for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter. …

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: It was an intelligence coup for the CIA.

REALITY: Along with being a day late on the turnaround by Soviet ships, the CIA missed several key developments that would have helped Kennedy and his advisers navigate the crisis.

The CIA learned late in the game about the ballistic missiles’ presence in Cuba, and they were already operational by the time Kennedy was informed of their existence.

The agency was also unaware of other, tactical nuclear missiles in Cuba that could have been deployed against a U.S. attack. The Soviets had even positioned nuclear-tipped missiles on a ridge above the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in preparation for an invasion. …

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The crisis lasted just 13 days.

REALITY: This myth has been perpetuated in part by the title of Robert F. Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, “Thirteen Days,” as well as the 2000 movie of the same name starring Kevin Costner.

Indeed it was 13 days from Oct. 16, when Kennedy was first told about the missiles, to Oct. 28, when the Soviets announced their withdrawal.

But the “October Crisis,” as it is known in Cuba, dragged on for another tense month or so in what [Cuba analyst Peter] Kornbluh dubs the “November Extension,” as Washington and Moscow haggled over details of exactly what weapons would be removed.

The Soviet Union also had problems dealing with Fidel Castro, according to a Soviet document made public this month by Svetlana Savranskaya, a Russia analyst for the National Security Archive.

Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan traveled to Cuba that Nov. 2 and spent 20 days in tense talks with the Cuban leader, who was angry the Soviets had reached a deal without consulting him. Castro lobbied hard but unsuccessfully to keep the tactical nuclear weapons that the Americans had not learned about.

An interesting, though not necessarily accurate, perspective about how the Soviets and Cubans saw the crisis comes from Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Secret Struggles with the Superpowers after the Cuban Missile Crisis, excerpted on HistoryofCuba.com:

In reality, Kennedy was both more flexible than the early postmortems suggested and more sensitive to the Soviet need to salvage something positive from the crisis. In order to buy some time and avoid a direct confrontation with the Soviets, on October 25 he permitted a Soviet tanker (the Bucharest) to proceed through the quarantine. On October 28 the president instructed the ExComm members, as Robert Kennedy recalled, “that no interview should be given, no statement made which would claim any kind of victory. [President Kennedy] respected Khrushchev for properly determining what was in his own country’s interest and what was in the interest of mankind.” Perhaps most importantly, he offered up removal of the U.S. missiles in Turkey and was prepared to accept a public trade of the missiles if that was necessary to prevent a conflagration. The appropriate lesson that should have been drawn from this behavior, then, is that flexibility, compromise, and respect for an adversary’s calculus of its vulnerability is essential for the peaceful outcome of a crisis. Instead, the traditional view of what is needed in a crisis-toughness and inflexibility-seemingly has guided U.S. officials for decades, in confrontations from Vietnam to Iraq.

A second lesson of the crisis emerged from the plaudits given to Kennedy for the way he handled the crisis. Arthur Schlesinger captured this lesson-that crises can be managed-in his elusive observation that the world escaped a nuclear war and the United States achieved its aims because of the president’s “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated.” A clearer way of stating this lesson, though, might be that nuclear crises can be managed only when several unlikely conditions are present: leaders have sufficient time away from the glare of the media to learn about each other’s positions and interests; good fortune at that moment provides each of the adversaries with leaders who have adroit political skills, the political will to limit their objectives, and sufficient self-confidence to reject advice from forceful advisers; and unforeseen events and unanticipated behavior by any of the thousands of people involved does not set off an uncontrollable chain reaction.

Since then, there have been many critiques of the view that the United States can act with blithe confidence that nuclear crises can be managed, though none is more poignant than the one articulated by Robert McNamara, who originally had embraced the traditional view. He noted that, had the Soviets launched any of their nuclear weapons in 1962, “the damage to our own [country] would have been disastrous.” Then he added,

“But human beings are fallible. We know we all make mistakes. In our daily lives, mistakes are costly, but we try to learn from them. In conventional war, they cost lives, sometimes thousands of lives. But if mistakes were to affect decisions related to the use of nuclear forces, there would be no learning period. They would result in the destruction of entire nations. Therefore, I strongly believe that the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons carries a very high risk of a potential nuclear catastrophe.”

Notably, this was the lesson the Soviets took away from the crisis. For them, it was not the threat of force that ended the crisis. They saw U.S. threats-in the form of Gilpatric’s speech and seeming plans to invade Cuba-as the cause of the crisis. Though some in the Kremlin may have derived a lesson similar to U.S. policymakers-that superior U.S. force led to a humiliating withdrawal that they would avoid in the future by building up their military forces.-the Soviet leadership believed the crisis ended because both Soviet and U.S. officials realized they were at the brink and that the crisis was threatening to destroy humankind. They did not fear only for their immediate safety and were not worried merely about losing a battle in Cuba. That kind of fear is of a personal nature, where one’s own safety is at risk. That is the kind of fear evoked by the image of leaders going eyeball to eyeball. But a leader whose decisions may result in the deaths of thousands of others may experience a second kind of fear that is not common, the fear of deciding the fate of so many others, even civilization itself. Leaders in the United States and the Soviet Union experienced the second kind of fear during the missile crisis, which in fact was what enabled them to reach a peaceful solution. …

Cuba viewed the crisis from the vantage point of a small power, for whom an invasion by conventional means would be as threatening as a nuclear confrontation would be to a superpower. The Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement seemed to place Cuba in a perilous situation. It had been transformed into a strategic U.S. target when the Soviet Union placed missiles there. But then Soviet withdrawal of the missiles in the face of U.S. pressure made Cuba even more vulnerable. The Soviet Union’s acquiescence suggested that it would not come to Cuba’s assistance were the United States to attack the island. The Soviet posture, in Cuba’s view, had created a new set of conditions that would encourage hard-liners in the United States to press for an invasion.

The Soviets did not seem to comprehend this perspective, and so they did not appreciate fully why the removal of the IL-28 bombers was so significant to the Cubans. Mikoyan tried to explain to Castro that the Soviets were leaving other weapons in Cuba that were superior to the IL-28s. But the Cuban leader saw the withdrawal of the bombers as tantamount to inviting a U.S. invasion, because it demonstrated to the United States that the Soviet Union would not stand with Cuba in the face of U.S. threats. “We realized,” Castro explained to the 1968 Central Committee, “how alone we would be in the event of a war.” In the same mode, he described the Soviet decision to remove all but 3,000 of its 42,000 military personnel from Cuba as “a freely granted concession to top off the concession of the withdrawal of the strategic missiles.”

The primary lesson Cuba drew, then, was that neither superpower could be trusted. It viewed U.S. guarantees as ploys and Soviet promises as hollow. Both countries ignored Cuba during the crisis, and Castro’s suspicion that the Soviets were treating Cuba as a bargaining chip were confirmed early in 1963 during his trip to the Soviet Union. He learned inadvertently then about the secret agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev to exchange U.S. missiles in Turkey for Soviet ones in Cuba.

Though the United States posed the immediate menace to Cuba in 1962, Castro was concerned about Cuba’s relationship with the other superpower. Given the Soviet arrogance and lack of concern about Cuba’s fundamental rights, joining the Soviet camp as a subservient member posed a potential long-term threat to Cuban sovereignty and independence.

If that does indeed show the Soviet perspective, then this is one of those rare instances of history being written by the losers. Kennedy was assassinated a little more than a year later, Khrushchev was deposed in 1964, and the Soviet Union died a completely unmourned death in 1989. Castro has managed to delay his permanent residence in Hell by a half-century.

So was the Cuban Missile Crisis a triumph for the U.S.? Obviously it succeeded in that no nuclear war occurred and the Soviets removed the nukes from Cuba.

On the other hand, the Cold War went on for nearly three more decades before the Soviet Union and the Communist governments in the Warsaw Pact collapsed. The Soviet Union is responsible for the deaths of upwards of 70 million people, nearly 7 million of them after Joseph Stalin’s death. The Soviet Union helped North Vietnam in the Vietnam War,  Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, various Marxist governments in Africa, and opponents of Israel in the Middle East. Perhaps having survived the Cuban Missile Crisis without losing their Cuban allies emboldened Soviet leadership to engage in other international adventures. And that’s all in addition to the massive Soviet arms buildup that was not even slowed down by the 1963 test-ban treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, and SALT II (which the Senate rejected).

Relativists who believe there is no moral difference between the U.S. and any other country might not care. Those who believe that, flawed as we are, the United States remains the last, best hope of democracy on this planet, might think an American response short of taking out Castro and his government (which also funded the Sandinistas and the aforementioned African Marxists) was insufficient. An invasion of Cuba eventually would have eliminated the Castros; the question is at what cost, and not just for Cubans.

The crisis was made into an ABC-TV movie, “The Missiles of October,” which I recall my parents allowed me (a student at, yes, John F. Kennedy Elementary School) to watch despite its late hour:

One interesting thing to me as a media history geek is pondering how the broadcast networks would have covered this had more of what was going on been publicly known. Kennedy’s assassination 13 months later ushered in the era of breaking TV news, but the coverage of Kennedy’s assassination (as you have seen on this very blog) was definitely learning on the fly, with multiple technical snafus, inaccurate information being reported (you didn’t know Johnson had been shot and had had a heart attack? That was news to him too), and other things that happen in writing the first draft of  history live, in color and in HD.

The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred a year before Kennedy’s death; it also occurred nearly a dozen years before Watergate. It’s not that reporters weren’t professionally cynical before Watergate, but since then the guiding principle that politicians lie has been embedded into reporters’ DNA. (The embedding process gave me an ear infection, weirdly enough.) I’ve read for the past few weeks speculation about the October Surprise, or even November Surprise, of a military nature that the Obama administration is supposedly going to spring upon voters just in time to win reelection Nov. 6. Whether or not you buy that, I think it highly likely that a Cuban Missile Crisis-style crisis, sprung, as is the case right now, two weeks before national elections would be met with a great deal of cynicism, even if the crisis were real.

A press blackout of the kind Kennedy requested before his speech 50 years ago tonight is impossible today. Moreover, you’d get claims that the president was lying, or exaggerating, or that the president was springing a “Wag the Dog” incident to take attention away from something else.

For fun reading (if you enjoy reading about nuclear war, that is), read this version, or this version, of what could have happened.

5 thoughts on “50 years ago tonight

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