FORTY YEARS AGO this month, President John F. Kennedy was locked in a test of wills with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev over missiles in Cuba. Memorialized in both film and print, the Cuban missile crisis has come to be the ultimate symbol of presidential resolve and courage. In the 1974 movie "The Missiles of October" and the more recent "Thirteen Days," starring Kevin Costner, JFK is portrayed as a resolute and unflinching commander in chief. He's given the same heroic portrayal in his brother Bobby Kennedy's "Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis," a book still regularly assigned in college classes. And many historians still share the view of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that Kennedy's actions demonstrated to the "whole world . . . the ripening of American leadership unsurpassed in the responsible management of power . . . [a] combination of toughness . . . nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated that [it] dazzled the world."
In short, Kennedy's handling of the crisis has captured the popular imagination, making him perhaps the most potent symbol of Cold War courage and resolve. But now that the Soviet archives have been opened, it's time to retire JFK as Cold War hero. Instead, the mantle should be passed to Ronald Reagan who, according to those archives, was the president they most respected and feared.
Most portrayals of the Cuban missile crisis begin with the secret placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba and Kennedy's insistence that they be removed. But the story actually begins a couple of years earlier, when JFK first stepped into the Oval Office.
The Kremlin was very pleased when JFK edged out Richard Nixon in 1960. Before the election, the KGB resident in Washington had been ordered to "propose diplomatic or propaganda initiatives, or any other measures, to facilitate Kennedy's victory." The Kremlin regarded Kennedy as a "typical pragmatist," who would change his position and accommodate adversaries if it served his interests. Khrushchev went so far as to delay the release of American U-2 pilot Gary Francis Powers, who was being held in prison after being shot down on a spy mission over the Soviet Union, until after the election. By doing so, said Khrushchev, he was "voting" for Kennedy.
Shortly after JFK became president, he was put to the test. In March 1961, Communist guerrillas armed with new shipments of Soviet weapons advanced deep into the eastern reaches of Laos, which borders Vietnam. The peaceful country's neutrality was supposedly guaranteed by the 1954 Geneva Accords, but the North Vietnamese wanted to use the country as a supply line for their forces fighting in the south. In short order they occupied Eastern Laos and began developing what came to be called the Ho Chi Minh Trail to arm their forces fighting in South Vietnam. In Washington, Kennedy was apprised of the situation and elected to do nothing.
One month later, a large force of Cuban exiles began landing on the beaches of Cuba, near the so-called Bay of Pigs. They had been trained and equipped by the CIA with the intent of liberating the country from Fidel Castro. The plot was something that Kennedy had inherited from Eisenhower. Kennedy signed off on the operation, but nixed a critical ingredient: When the exiles hit the beaches they did so without American air or naval support. The exile army was driven back in a matter of days. The operation was an unmitigated disaster.
A few months later, Soviet bloc leaders decided to begin construction on the Berlin Wall to stem the flow of refugees into West Berlin. As they broke ground, Kennedy became furious. He called up the reserves, sent troops to Europe, and proposed a substantial increase in the military budget. But he was not prepared to resist the move. "It seems particularly stupid," he told aides, "to risk killing a million Americans over an argument about access rights on the Autobahn."
Kennedy thought that by showing restraint he was avoiding a crisis. But in reality he was causing one. In the Kremlin, the combination of Kennedy's tough words and lack of action was seen as weakness and fear. After JFK's speech on the Berlin crisis, Khrushchev hosted a secret meeting of the Central Committees of Communist Parties of the Soviet Union. "Kennedy spoke [to frighten us] and then got scared himself," snickered Khrushchev, according to a transcript. The president was "too much of a lightweight both for the Republicans as well as for the Democrats."
For Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy's failure at the Bay of Pigs, along with Communist successes in Laos and Berlin, was proof that he could have things his way with the young president. When Robert Frost returned from a September 1962 trip to the Soviet Union, he said that Khrushchev had told him Kennedy was "too liberal to fight." In short, Kennedy was encouraging Khrushchev to pursue what would become his most dangerous gambit.