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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Most important, ExComm had the benefit of the considered views of Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson, Jr., the just returned ambassador to Moscow who knew Khrushchev better and longer than any Western diplomat. He thought the Soviet leader intended for his missiles to be discovered—to invigorate his campaign against the West. Thompson felt that Khrushchev might well respect a U.S. weapons blockade and was unlikely to risk a fight in faraway Cuba. While he might strike impetuously at Berlin, that was a gamble he had been reluctant to take for four years.

Returning Saturday from Chicago with his “cold,” Kennedy seemed to buy Thompson’s assessment. He was ready to risk a Berlin crisis because, as he had told the Ex-Comm, “if we do nothing, we’re going to have the problem of Berlin anyway.” A blockade would buy time. They could always ratchet up tougher action if Khrushchev didn’t back down.

Kennedy was plainly haunted, however, by the Bay of Pigs and by his reputation for timidity. So he ended the week’s deliberation by again cross-examining the Joint Chiefs. Would an air strike destroy all the missiles and bombers? Well, 90 percent. And would Russian troops be killed? Yes, for sure. And couldn’t Khrushchev just send more missiles? Yes, we’d have to invade. And wouldn’t invasion provoke countermoves in Europe?

The president decided to avoid violent measures for as long as possible. But he did not want to reveal the tactical reasons for preferring a blockade. He insisted his aides use “the Pearl Harbor explanation” for rejecting an air strike—that Americans do not engage in preemptive surprise attacks—a disingenuous rationale that Robert Kennedy piously planted in histories of the crisis.

Story of a Lifetime

When I learned from his butler that the west German ambassador was fast asleep before midnight Friday, I became certain that the agitation in Washington did not concern Berlin, and so my Times colleagues and I focused on Cuba. And if it was Cuba, given all the recent alarms, that had to mean the discovery of “offensive” missiles. On Sunday, October 21, as promised, Scotty Reston called the White House. When Kennedy came on the line, Scotty asked me to listen on an extension.

“So you know?” Kennedy asked Reston, as I recall it. “And do you know what I’m going to do about it?”

“No, sir, we don’t,” Reston answered, “except we know you promised to act, and we hear you’ve asked for television time tomorrow night.”

“That’s right. I’m going to order a blockade.”

I was tasting a great story when Kennedy dropped the other shoe. If he lost the element of surprise, he went on, Khrushchev could take steps that would deepen the crisis. Would we suppress the news in the national interest?


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