Learning from the Missile Crisis

What Really Happened on Those Thirteen Fateful Days in October

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet warheads on Cuban soil could have attacked many major U.S. cities. (Bettmann / Corbis)
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So what? the president asked provocatively at one point. He had once said a missile was a missile, whether fired from 5,000 or 5 miles away. And Defense Secretary McNamara held throughout the discussion that 40 or 50 more missiles pointed at U.S. targets, while perhaps quadrupling the Soviets’ strike capacity, did nothing to alter our huge strategic advantage. The Joint Chiefs disagreed, insisting that by dramatically increasing America’s sense of vulnerability, the Soviet weapons would greatly limit our choices in any future exchange of threats or fire.

Everyone soon acknowledged that Soviet bases in Cuba were, at the very least, psychologically and politically intolerable. They would embolden Khrushchev’s diplomacy, especially when it came to his designs in Berlin. They would also enhance Castro’s prestige in Latin America and erode Kennedy’s stature at home and abroad. As if the missiles themselves were not challenge enough, Khrushchev’s deception was seen as undermining U.S.-Soviet negotiations.

The president kept posing the issue starkly, insisting there were only two ways to remove the missiles: bargain them out or bomb them out.

Bargaining might entail painful concessions in Berlin or the withdrawal of American missiles from NATO bases in Turkey; though the weapons were technically obsolete, they represented commitment to an ally. Bombing Cuba would surely kill Russians and risk Soviet counterattack against American bases in Florida or Europe. (Our southern coast lacked radar defenses; as General Taylor observed prophetically at the time, “We have everything, except [the capability] to deal with a simple aircraft coming in low.”) In any case, a strike at Cuba was bound to miss some missiles and require a follow-up invasion to seize the island.

Small wonder the advisers changed opinions as often as they changed clothes. For every possible “if,” they conjectured a discouraging “then.” If we withdrew our missiles from Turkey, then the Turks would shout to the world that American guarantees are worthless. If we sent a Polaris missile submarine into Turkish waters to replace the missiles, the Turks would say we always slither out of harm’s way.

What if we warn Khrushchev of a coming air strike? Then he’ll commit to a violent response. And if we don’t warn him? Then he’ll suffer a surprise attack, seize the moral high ground and announce that the United States would rather risk world war than live with the vulnerability that all Europeans have long endured.

Round and round they went. What about a U.S. naval blockade of Soviet weapons coming into Cuba? Well, it would not remove missiles already in place or prevent deliveries by air. A total blockade? That would offend friendly ships but not hurt Cuba for months.

Time grew short. Many Soviet missiles were installed, and the scent of crisis was in the air. At the New York Times, we heard of canceled speeches by the Joint Chiefs and saw officials being summoned away from their own birthday parties. Lights at the Pentagon and State Department blazed at midnight. We clamored for enlightenment, and officials mumbled about trouble in Berlin. Kennedy heard us approaching and asked our bureau chief, James “Scotty” Reston, to call him before we printed anything.

Thursday, October 18, was the day for a double bluff when Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko paid a scheduled visit to the White House. He sparred with the president over Berlin but held tightly to his written-out claim that only “defensive” weapons were going to Cuba. Though angry, Kennedy and Rusk pretended to be fooled.

The president had told ExComm earlier that morning that he discounted the threat of a nuclear attack from Cuba—“unless they’re going to be using them from every place.” He most feared nonnuclear retaliation in Europe, probably in Berlin. But as McNamara put it to the group, firm action was essential to preserve the president’s credibility, to hold the alliance together, to tame Khrushchev for future diplomacy—and by no means least—to protect the administration in domestic American politics.


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