In his memoirs, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave a chilling assessment of what would have happened if, in the 1960s, the US had launched an attack on Soviet weapons sites in Cuba and the Soviet Union:
I knew the United States could knock out some of our installations, but not all of them. If a quarter or even a tenth of our missiles survived — even if only one or two big ones were left — we could still hit New York, and there wouldn’t be much of New York left.
The closest the world came to seeing this scenario played out was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The standard narrative is this: The Soviet Union secretly installs nuclear warheads in Cuba (60 miles from the Florida coast). On discovering this, the Kennedy administration is torn between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, with JFK and his brother eventually pressing the decision to institute a blockade around Cuba, preventing Soviet ships entering the island.
As ships are drawing closer and the prospect of conflict heightens, Khrushchev ‘blinks’. The ships turn back, and ultimately the warheads are withdrawn from Cuba.
This narrative obscures several key points:
- JFK played fast and loose with American lives
- Robert Kennedy did not ‘see down the hawks’ or conceive the blockade idea
JFK’s politics of war and peace
The successful diffusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis is often hailed as the crowning moment of JFK’s Presidency. To his substantial credit, JFK didn’t cede to the hawks in launching an immediate strike on Cuba.
He was also prepared, at the risk of political expediency, to strike a secret deal whereby the US withdrew its nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal of ICBMs from Cuba. Kennedy’s legacy is shaped by this ability to ‘thread the needle’ — face up to the Soviets challenge whilst giving them a way out.
It is true that Kennedy was a cold political pragmatist, well-suited to these crisis moments. In a post-WWII world, appeasement was a very dirty word, and the dominant outlook in the military hierarchy was that nuclear war was inevitable and that the US should strike first.
In this vein, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Cold War veteran Dean Acheson all pushed for an immediate air attack on the Cuban missiles when they were discovered. Kennedy calmly saw down this challenge. It seems he was revolted by the idea that people could countenance a nuclear conflict so blithely.
Reporting his infamous meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna the year before, Kennedy had said:
I talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill seventy million people in ten minutes, and he just looked at me as if to say, ‘So what?’ My impression was that he just didn’t give a damn if it came to that.
However, it must be added that Kennedy himself played fast and loose with American lives. Political factors drove him to front up to Khrushchev in such a way that, had the Soviet Premier not had a moment of extraordinary humanity and called off the ships, a nuclear conflict would almost certainly have resulted. The Cold War was inherently full of posturing and bluster, but Kennedy, when given the option to dissolve tensions, would always heighten them.
Another major feature of the standard narrative of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that Attorney General Robert Kennedy was his brother’s main ally in seeing down the hawks and advocating a peaceful resolution.
In reality, at the outset RFK was major hawk who initially advocated a full invasion of Cuba. When he did take on a ‘dove’ position, it was only after vociferously defending the hawk’ stance.
Moreover, the idea for a blockade came from Robert McNamara. He would later gain historic infamy as a spearhead of the war in Vietnam, but his thinking in this conflagration was central to its peaceful outcome.