The Magazine

The Cuban Missile Crisis, Reconsidered

Was John F. Kennedy really the model Cold War statesman?

Oct 21, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 06 • By PETER SCHWEIZER
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In May 1962, Khrushchev announced to the Politburo his secret plan to put Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Fidel Castro was eager for the missiles because they would deter another Bay of Pigs-type invasion. Khrushchev figured if he could pull the plan off, it would shift the balance in the arms competition because his shorter-range ballistic missiles would now be capable of reaching the United States.

The Soviet premier, seemingly always the gambler, was hoping to build the missile sites before the United States even detected them. On the chance that they were discovered, he believed that Kennedy might fear a confrontation and not take any substantial action. Soviet transport ships brought material and specialists to Cuba where construction crews busily worked on the missile batteries. The plan seemed to be going as Khrushchev hoped, until an American U-2 spy plane flying over the island uncovered the scheme. When Kennedy learned about it, he was again furious.

The president ordered an immediate naval blockade of Cuba and regular U-2 flights to monitor the situation. He explained his position to Khrushchev in unambiguous terms: Remove the missiles and the personnel to man them or military action is imminent. Khrushchev, mulling over the situation in his Kremlin office, knew the strategic situation favored the United States. Not only did America have nuclear superiority; Cuba was just off the American coastline while the Soviet Union was halfway around the world. Kennedy had called his bluff; a bargain needed to be struck. And Kennedy, contrary to the steely determination portrayed in the movies, was all too willing to deal.

Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles. But he wanted several things in return. For his ally Fidel Castro, who was angered by any suggestion that the missiles be pulled out, he demanded a pledge that the United States would never invade Cuba again. And for good measure, he wanted U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey, which were pointed at Soviet forces, removed as well.

On Saturday, October 27, 1962, as the crisis reached a crescendo, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin went to the Justice Department for a private meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was serving as a confidant for his brother. Moscow might have been negotiating from a weak position, but Bobby Kennedy didn't press the matter. His brother was prepared to make a no invasion pledge, he told Dobrynin, and would pull the Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. But he cautioned that the deal needed to be done quietly. "The president can't say anything public in this regard about Turkey," the Soviet transcripts of the meetings quote RFK as saying. It would be too much of a political embarrassment. The missiles would need to be withdrawn under some pretext and without consulting NATO allies. Dobrynin agreed to the secret bargain and it was never mentioned in public.

Indeed, Bobby Kennedy was so sensitive about the secret deal involving missiles in Turkey that when his diary of the crisis was later published as "Thirteen Days," the editor of the book, Ted Sorensen, purposely deleted any mention of them.

LIKE THE REST OF AMERICA, Ronald Reagan spent much of October 1962 watching closely the duel between Kennedy and Khrushchev. He was of course pleased that the crisis was over. But he fretted in public that Kennedy had given up too much. He faulted Kennedy for agreeing to a no invasion pledge. "Are missile bases enough," he asked, "or will we insist on freedom for all Cubans?"

Reagan had always had his doubts about Kennedy, fearing that he was simply not up to meeting the Soviet challenge. In January 1962, during a speech at Huntington Memorial Hospital in California, he saw what Khrushchev saw, and expressed his concerns about whether JFK could handle "the roughnecks of the Kremlin." He was surrounded by "well-meaning and misguided people" who failed to understand the threat. Reagan also astutely noted that by not challenging the Communist move into Laos, Kennedy was signaling his willingness "to drink the bitter cup of capitulation" in Southeast Asia.

In the months following the Cuban missile crisis, Reagan made some pointed suggestions about what America should do next. While the Kennedy administration began pursuing arms control agreements, Reagan wrote an article explaining that the goal should be not to coexist with communism but to defeat it. Crank up the arms race, he advised in early 1963; there was no way Moscow could keep up.

When Reagan announced for the presidency years later, in 1979, the KGB wrote a secret analysis of Reagan the man. Unlike Kennedy, whom they considered prone to changing his mind, Reagan got grudging respect from the KGB. He was "a firm and unbending politician for whom words and deeds are one and the same."