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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Public tension, however, persisted Thursday because work on the missile sites continued. But Kennedy let a Soviet oil tanker pass through the blockade after it identified itself and its cargo. And Friday morning, October 26, a Soviet ship allowed Americans to inspect what they knew would be innocent cargo. At the prospect of negotiation, however, Kennedy still could not decide what price he was willing to pay for a Soviet withdrawal of the missiles. ExComm (and the press) debated removing the U.S. missiles in Turkey, but the Turks would not cooperate.

The most unsettling hours were the next 24, which brought a maddening mix of good and bad news that once again rattled nerves in both Washington and Moscow. Three separate unofficial sources reported a Soviet inclination to withdraw from Cuba if the United States promised publicly to prevent another invasion of the island. And Friday night, in a rambling, highly emotional private message that he had obviously composed without the help of his advisers, Khrushchev implored Kennedy “not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war.” He said his weapons in Cuba were always intended to be “defensive,” and if Cuba’s safety were guaranteed, “the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.”

“I think we’d have to do that because we weren’t going to invade them anyway,” Kennedy told ExComm. But early Saturday, Moscow broadcast a colder message asking as well for an American withdrawal from Turkey. The Turks publicly protested and urged American officials not to capitulate.

The Russians seemed to be upping the ante, and Kennedy feared that he would lose world support and sympathy if he held out against the reasonable-sounding proposal to trade off reciprocal missile bases. Then came the shocking news that an American U-2 pilot had been shot down over Cuba and killed, presumably by a Soviet SAM, and another U-2 was chased out of Soviet Siberia, where it had accidentally strayed. Were accidents and miscalculations propelling the United States and the Soviet Union toward war after all?

In another Kennedy-Reston conversation that night that I was invited to listen in on, the president expressed his greatest fear that diplomacy might not resolve the crisis after all. He said the reconnaissance simply had to continue, and if his planes were again molested, he might be forced to attack antiaircraft installations.

With the Pentagon pressing for just such an attack, the president made doubly sure that no one assumed he had already decided to strike. He told ExComm that unless more planes were shot down, he envisioned the slowest possible escalation of pressure on the Soviets—starting with a blockade of oil shipments to Cuba, then of other vital supplies—taking great care to avoid the nuclear conflagration that the American public so obviously feared. Eventually, perhaps, he would take a Russian ship in tow. And if he had to shoot, he thought it was wiser to sink a ship than to attack the missile sites.

Plainly neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev was anywhere near risking anything like a nuclear shoot-out.

Still, without much hope for negotiations, Kennedy yielded to advice from several ExComm members that he accept Khrushchev’s no-invasion bargain and ignore the bid for a missile swap in Turkey. The president signaled his readiness to guarantee that the United States would not attack Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn, but simultaneously sent his brother to tell Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin that the time for diplomacy was running out, that work on the missiles had to stop at once.

In delivering this ultimatum, however, Robert Kennedy also offered Khrushchev a sweetener: an oral promise to withdraw the missiles from Turkey within a few months, provided that this part of the deal was not disclosed. Only a half dozen Americans knew of this promise, and they, as well as the Russians, kept the secret for more than a decade.

A Collective Sigh of Relief


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