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JFK Theory: Sovet Union and Cuba

JFK Theory: Sovet Union and Cuba

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John Martino, an electronics expert, was employed by Santos Trafficante. He also worked as a CIA agent and took part in its Black Operations. This involved a policy that was later to become known as Executive Action (a plan to remove unfriendly foreign leaders from power). In an article published in January, 1964, Martino argued that in 1963 Castro discovered an American plot to overthrow his government. He retaliated by employing Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President John F. Kennedy.

Billy James Hargis, the founder of Christian Crusade, as "a Christian weapon against Communism and its godless allies" claimed in 1964 that John F. Kennedy was assassinated as a result of a communist conspiracy. He also believed that the KGB and the American Communist Party tried to place the blame on right-wing organizations such as the John Birch Society.

James Angleton believed that Nikita Khrushchev was involved in the assassination. He claimed that Khrushchev sought revenge after he had been humiliated by Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In his book, Khrushchev Killed Kennedy (1975), Michael Eddowes argued that Kennedy was killed by a Soviet agent impersonating Lee Harvey Oswald.In Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald (1978), Edward Jay Epstein argues that Oswald was a KGB agent.

In a series of articles for the Washington Post Jack Anderson argued that Fidel Castro joined forces with the Mafia to kill Kennedy. In his book, The Kennedy Assassination From a Historian's Perspective, Michael Kurtz claims that there was a possibility that the assassination was ordered by Fidel Castro.

Shortly before his death in 1975 John Martino confessed to a Newsday reporter, John Cummings, that he had been guilty of spreading false stories implicating Oswald in the assassination. Cummings added: "He told me he'd been part of the assassination of Kennedy. He wasn't in Dallas pulling a trigger, but he was involved. He implied that his role was delivering money, facilitating things.... He asked me not to write it while he was alive."

(J1) Dorothy Kilgallen, New York Journal American (15th July, 1959)

If our state department heads in Washington deny they're gravely worried over the explosive situation in Cuba and nearby Latin American countries, they're either giving out false information for reasons of their own or playing ostrich, which might prove to be a dangerous game. US intelligence is virtually nonexistent if the government isn't aware that Russia already has bases in Cuba, and Russian pilots in uniform are strutting openly in Havana... Fidel Castro is the target for so many assassins they're apt to fall over each other in their efforts to get him. The Mafia want to knock him off. So do the Batista sympathizers, of course, and then there are his own disillusioned rebels, just for starters. He has machine guns and other ammunition mounted on every key rooftop near his base of operations, but the smart money doubts if any amount of precaution can change his status as a clay pigeon.

According to Dorothy Kilgallen, what were the CIA and the Mafia trying to do in 1959?

(J2) Billy James Hargis, The Far Left (1964)

In spite of the absolute, indisputable evidence that Lee Oswald’s mind was molded by Communist conspiracy propaganda, that his hatred was of the American free enterprise system and all it embraces, and that no one with even the remotest connection with what is considered to be the extreme right has any remote connection with the entire hideous affair, the propaganda voices of the left continue to try to blame right wing conservatives for creating the atmosphere of “hate” which caused Oswald to commit the assassination of President Kennedy. Do they really think the American people are that stupid?

There is no doubt in my mind that the Communist assassin, Lee Oswald, intended to kill the President of the United States and disappear in the confused crowd, thus letting the conservative, anti-Communist element of Dallas take the blame. But it didn’t work. God is on the throne. He saw to it that Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended by a courageous Dallas policeman, Officer Tippit, who, in turn, gave his life for the cause of freedom in attempting to arrest the Communist assassin of the President.

Why did Billy James Hargis believe that Lee Harvey Oswald and the American Communist Party were behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy?

(J3) Thomas G. Buchanan, Who Killed Kennedy? (1964)

Nor could a native Marxist have expected any benefit from Kennedy's assassination. Communists had first been prosecuted under Truman, and the policy continued under Eisenhower. By the time the Kennedy Administration took office, membership in the U.S. Communist Party had been reduced from a peak strength of about 100,000 to less than 10,000. There had been no noticeable relaxation under Kennedy in this campaign against domestic Communists, but neither had the effort been intensified. A spokesman for the U.S. Communists had recently announced their membership, after a long decline, was finally beginning to make gains. This tendency might have continued and, indeed, expanded as official anti-Soviet hostility diminished. The first group to suffer, if such tensions were renewed, would be the U.S. Communists themselves. And if it could be shown that U.S. Communists had engineered the crime, the worst excesses which the country knew after the murder of McKinley or during the dominance of Senator McCarthy would have seemed an era of tranquillity and tolerance by contrast with the persecution to which Communists would then have been subjected. It is, consequently, inconceivable that if the Communists did have this suicidal notion, the assassin would have posed before the crime to have a snapshot taken of himself holding the murder weapons, with a copy of The Worker, the official party paper.

No conceivable political objective of the U.S. Communists, moreover, has been served by Kennedy's elimination. There appears to have been disagreement in the U.S. party, back in 1960, whether to support the Kennedy campaign or to remain completely neutral. Kennedy had run with Communist support, however. And by 1963, on the main issues of the daythe Negro civil rights drive and disarmament-the President was felt to be an ally-temporary, to be sure, but of a key and, it was later feared, an irreplaceable importance. One has but to read the very issue of The Worker Oswald is alleged to have been reading to observe that Kennedy was being treated, at that time, with a respect not far removed from admiration. To the Communists of the United States, the President's domestic foes were their foes, also. And Gus Hall, a national official, had asserted that the party should endorse the President for re-election in the 1964 campaign. One scarcely sees why any Communist would murder the one man who could make sure that Barry Goldwater would not reach the White House.

The assassination of the President may thus be shown to have served no political objective which can reasonably be attributed to the domestic Communists or, for that matter, to the Communists of any country. It is one of the ironic aspects of this case that the first people to proclaim their indignation that the President was murdered by the "Communists" were those who, one day earlier, had been attacking Kennedy as a "pro-Communist" himself, and saying that he was the best friend that the Communists had ever had.

Why does Thomas G. Buchanan believe that the American Communist Party was not involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy?

(J4) Jack Anderson, Peace, War, And Politics (1999)

When CIA chief John McCone learned of the assassination, he rushed to Robert Kennedy's home in McLean, Virginia, and stayed with him for three hours. No one else was admitted. Even Bobby's priest was turned away. McCone told me he gave the attorney general a routine briefing on CIA business and swore that Castro's name never came up. Yet McCone's agency had been trying to kill Castro, and just two months earlier Castro had threatened to retaliate if the assassination attempts continued. Another thing: On November 22, 1963, when I could talk about nothing else, when my wife could talk about nothing else, when the entire world was riveted on Dallas, the director of the CIA claimed that he spent three hours with the brother of the slain president and that they discussed routine CIA business.

Sources would later tell me that McCone anguished with Bobby over the terrible possibility that the assassination plots sanctioned by the president's own brother may have backfired. Then the following day, McCone briefed President Lyndon Johnson and his National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. Afterward, McCone told subordinates - who later filled me in - what happened at that meeting. The grim McCone shared with Johnson and Bundy a dispatch from the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, strongly suggesting that Castro was behind the assassination.

The CIA chief put this together with what he knew of the mood in Moscow. Nikita Khrushchev was on the ropes inside the Kremlin, humiliated over backing down less than a year earlier during the Cuban missile crisis. If Castro were to be accused of the Kennedy assassination, Americans would demand revenge against Cuba, and Khrushchev would face another Cuban crisis. He was an impulsive man who could become dangerous if backed into a corner. McCone warned that Khrushchev was unlikely to endure another humiliation over Cuba. This time he might do something reckless and provoke a nuclear war, which would cost forty million American lives. It was a staggering figure that the new president repeated to others.

What does Jack Anderson believe that Robert Kennedy and John McCone spoke about for three hours?

(J5) Michael Eddowes, November 22: How They Killed Kennedy (1976)

All those with whom I have discussed the facts of the assassination, although agreeing with my conclusions, have asked me what the Russians had stood to gain, and it has been necessary, therefore, to endeavour to identify not only the decisions and the words of the Kennedy brothers, but to try to identify the ultimate purpose of the foiled Cuban and Indian adventures in order to indicate a possible motive for the subsequent assassination of the President. If, as the evidence indicates, the KGB organised the assassination, it would seem that it had appeared imperative to remove Kennedy from the area of international relations, for he had captured the ear of the world and had obtained the support of the United Nations over the Cuba Crisis.

Why did Michael Eddowes believe the KGB organized the assassination of John F. Kennedy?

(J6) Gerry P. Hemming interviewed by Anthony Summers in 1979.

He (Lee Harvey Oswald) was attempting to get in with the representatives of Castro's new government, the consular officials in Los Angeles. And at that point in time I felt that he was a threat to me and to those Castro people, that he was an informant or some type of agent working for somebody. He was rather young, but I felt that he was too knowledgeable in certain things not to be an agent of law enforcement or of Military Intelligence, or Naval Intelligence.

As a radar operator living in a highly restricted area, he would have been fraternizing with CIA contract employees. Sooner or later he would fraternize with a case officer, one or more, that handled these contract employees. He would be a prime candidate for recruitment because of job skills, and expertise, and the fact that they could personally vouch for him and give him a security clearance.

Why does Gerry P. Hemming believe there was a link between Lee Harvey Oswald and Fidel Castro?

(J7) Robert J. Groden, The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald (1995)

How to pin the president's death on Castro? Simple. Have a pro-Castroite accused as the assassin. The perfect candidate for "designated patsy" was Lee Harvey Oswald.

In all likelihood, the CIA kept Oswald on as an inactive agent, as perhaps they had been since his defection to the USSR. In September 1962, he went to work for the FBI as a $200-per-month informant (Warren Commission executive session, January 27, 1964). But on what or whom could he inform? One possibility is that he was supposed to observe the White Russian community in and around Dallas, which included the late George DeMohrenschildt.

A very probable scenario is that in mid-1963 Lee Oswald was reactivated by the CIA and sent to New Orleans to create a pro-Castro cover by starting the New Orleans chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. It appears at this point that CIA agent payroll number 110669 had been ordered by his superiors to furnish himself with a pro-Castro cover in order to enable him to enter Cuba by way of Mexico City possibly in order to infiltrate Cuban intelligence, or perhaps to try to assassinate Castro. Possibly, those members of the CIA involved in the Kennedy assassination plot were setting Oswald up as "the missing link," the connection between Fidel Castro and the assassination.

Does Robert J. Groden believe that Fidel Castro organized the assassination of John F. Kennedy?

(J8) The Warren Commission Report (September, 1964)

The Commission has found no evidence to show that Oswald was employed, persuaded, or encouraged by any foreign government to assassinate President Kennedy or that he was an agent of any foreign government, although the Commission has reviewed the circumstances surrounding Oswald's defection to the Soviet Union, his life there from October of 1959 to June of 1962 so far as it can be reconstructed, his known contacts with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and his visits to the Cuban and Soviet Embassies in Mexico City during his trip to Mexico from September 26 to October 3, 1963, and his known contacts with the Soviet Embassy in the United States.

Did the Warren Commission believe that Lee Harvey Oswald had been employed by a foreign government to kill John F. Kennedy?

(J9) Jim Garrison, interviewed by Patrica Toole (18th February, 1986)

When I saw "Russian examination" and then found out that this was shortly before he (Lee Harvey Oswald) received an honorable discharge (not a dishonorable discharge) and within a few weeks he's on his way to Russia, this sounds more like intelligence to me. The next morning I noticed that he had handed out leaflets on which he had printed with a little rubber stamp, "544 Camp." I went down to 544 Camp Street and a little old Union building of false granite and I said well this is the side entrance to the offices of Guy Banister. He used to be in charge of the Chicago Office of the F.B.I., was in Naval Intelligence during the war. He was a fanatic anti-communist. I said Oswald can't be a genuine communist if this is where he was operating from. So then I thought that if he was operating from out of here then Banister had some kind of anti-Communist government operation, they would have removed that address immediately. So I checked that and sure enough the second time he was giving something out, the address had been removed.

Why did Jim Garrison not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a communist conspiracy?

(J10) Louis Stokes, House Select Committee on Assassinations (September 28, 1978)

In 1967, 1971, 1976, and 1977, those 4 years, columnist Jack Anderson wrote about the CIA-Mafia plots and the possibility that Castro decided to kill President Kennedy in retaliation. Mr. Anderson even contends in those articles that the same persons involved in the CIA-Mafia attempts on Castro's life were recruited by Castro to kill President Kennedy. The September 7, 1976 issue of the Washington Post contains one of Mr. Anderson's articles entitled, "Behind John F. Kennedy's Murder," which fully explains Mr. Anderson's position. I ask, Mr. Chairman, that at this point this article be marked as JFK exhibit F-409 and that it be entered into the record at this point.

Mr. Trafficante, I want to read to you just two portions of the article I have just referred to, after which I will ask for your comment. According to Mr. Anderson and Mr. Whitten in this article, it says: Before he died, Roselli hinted to associates that he knew who had arranged President Kennedy's murder. It was the same conspirators, he suggested, whom he had recruited earlier to kill Cuban Premier Fidel Castro. By Roselli's cryptic account, Castro learned the identity of the underworld contacts in Havana who had been trying to knock him off. He believed, not altogether without basis, that President Kennedy was behind the plot. Then over in another section, it says: According to Roselli, Castro enlisted the same underworld elements whom he had caught plotting against him. They supposedly were Cubans from the old Trafficante organization. Working with Cuban intelligence, they allegedly lined up an ex-Marine sharpshooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, who had been active in the pro-Castro movement. According to Roselli's version, Oswald may have shot Kennedy or may have acted as a decoy while others ambushed him from closer range. When Oswald was picked up, Roselli suggested the underworld conspirators feared he would crack and disclose information that might lead to them. This almost certainly would have brought a massive U.S. crackdown on the Mafia. So Jack Ruby was ordered to eliminate Oswald making it appear as an act of reprisal against the President's killer. At least this is how Roselli explained the tragedy in Dallas.

Why does Jack Anderson believe that Fidel Castro and the Mafia join forces to kill John F. Kennedy?

(J11) Michael Kurtz, Crime of the Century: The Kennedy Assassination From a Historians Perspective (1982)

The CIA knew that the Cuban government employed assassins and that it had actually carried out an assassination in Mexico. On 19 March 1964, the intelligence agency learned that a "Cuban-American" who was somehow "involved in the assassination" crossed the border from Texas to Mexico on 23 November, stayed in Mexico for four days, and flew to Cuba on 27 November. The CIA also received information that on 22 November, a Cubana Airlines flight from Mexico City to Havana was delayed for five hours until a passenger arrived in a private aircraft. The individual boarded the Cubana flight, and it left for Havana shortly before 11:00 p.m.

These occurrences clearly arouse suspicions of an assassination plot engineered by the Cuban government under Fidel Castro. Various items of information gleaned from the recently declassified FBI and CIA assassination files reinforce those suspicions. On 24 November 1963, for example, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent an urgent telegram to the FBI legation in Madrid: "Spanish Intelligence possesses a report that attributes president's assassination to Castro and claims that Oswald was acting as Cuban agent." The CIA also received similar information from several sources. One claimed that the Chinese Communists and Castro had masterminded the assassination. Another source claimed that a "Miss T" heard Cubans talking about having the president killed. Yet another source in Spain told the CIA that local Cuban officials asserted that Oswald "had nothing to do with Kennedy's murder."

Why does Michael Kurtz believe that the assassination of John F. Kennedy could have been "engineered by the Cuban government under Fidel Castro"?

Cuba–Soviet Union relations

After the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Cuba became increasingly dependent on Soviet markets and military aid and was an ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1972 Cuba joined the COMECON, an economic organization of states designed to create co-operation among the communist planned economies, which was dominated by its largest economy, the Soviet Union. Moscow kept in regular contact with Havana and shared varying close relations until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Cuba then entered an era of serious economic hardship, the Special Period.

Cuba–Soviet relations


Soviet Union

The Soviets and the JFK Conspiracy Theorists

It’s an open question whether the Russians successfully tilted the 2016 American election to Donald Trump. We know they did their best, but we’ll probably never know if their attempts really shifted the vote. What is certain is that Russian attempts to influence American politics and public opinion are not new. Back in the 1960s and the 1970s, the Soviets tried to convince people that the CIA was behind the JFK assassination. 45 years later, we are still learning about the full extent of these efforts. In the following extract from my new book, I look at just three of these Soviet disinformation campaigns. They have had a demonstrable effect on the thinking and arguments of conspiracy theorists, and these, in turn, have gradually seeped into the wider popular culture and helped shape public misperceptions about the assassination.

The Mark Lane Connection

Some of the evidence of Soviet interference comes from the April 2018 release of JFK assassination documents, one of which related to the American conspiracy theorist Mark Lane. Lane was an attorney and civil rights activist, and one of the earliest critics of the official Warren Report into the assassination. In 1966, he published the first of a series of books on the assassination entitled Rush to Judgment, which would go on to become a bestseller. A CIA document discovered in the FBI’s file on Lane disclosed that, according to information obtained from an unnamed foreign government, the KGB had funnelled $1,500 through a “trusted contact” to Lane for his “work on a book” and $500 for a trip to Europe. The document says that “LANE was not told who was financing his work, but he might have been able to guess” and adds that, in 1964, Lane “wanted to visit Moscow and acquaint the authorities there with the revealing materials he had regarding the KENNEDY murder.”

But the Soviets did “not wish to enter into difficulties with the US” and so the trip was postponed. From then on, “trusted contacts among Soviet journalists met with Lane,” and he maintained regular contact with Genrikh Borovik, a Soviet writer, film-maker, and suspected KGB agent. In 1969, Lane again expressed interest in travelling to the Soviet Union to screen his 1967 documentary (also entitled Rush to Judgment), but “he was delicately told that the time was not right for such a trip, since the American government might begin a slander campaign against him in connection with his involvement in the anti-war movement.” Furthermore, “American communists who were in Moscow in 1971 expressed the opinion that, although LANE was engaged in activity that was advantageous to the Communists, he was doing this not without profit to himself, and sought to achieve personal popularity and become a national figure.” The CIA memo also claims that “other investigators and Kennedy assassination buffs were supplied by the KGB not only with money but also with circumstantial evidence that made the affair appear to be a well-concealed political conspiracy.”

The Clay Shaw Connection

On March 1, 1967, gay businessman Clay Shaw was arrested by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison and charged with conspiring with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President John Kennedy. This startling development and Garrison’s lengthy investigation, both dramatised in Oliver Stone’s epic 1991 blockbuster JFK, led to further instances of Soviet disinformation.

Shaw’s arrest reverberated around the globe. In Rome, a small Communist Party-owned newspaper, Paese Sera, ran a story on March 4 claiming that Clay Shaw was involved in unsavoury activities while serving on the Board of the Centro Mondiale Commerciale (CMC). Paese Sera alleged that the CMC was a “creature of the CIA…set up as a cover for the transfer to Italy of CIA-FBI funds for illegal political-espionage activities.” Shaw was indeed on the Board of the CMC from 1958-1962, but there was nothing sinister about the organization. Its purpose was simply to take advantage of the new European Common Market and to make Rome an important trading hub.

Nevertheless, the Paese Sera story was reprinted in Pravda (the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), L’Unita (the newspaper of the Italian Communist Party), L’Humanité (the newspaper of the French Communist Party), and, finally, in Le Devoir in Canada. Le Devoir ran the article in the March 8, 1967, edition, followed by a longer article on March 16, under the byline of their New York correspondent Louis Wiznitzer. He listed the items confiscated from Shaw’s apartment and described him as a “Marquis de Sade.” He also alluded gratuitously to Shaw’s homosexuality, writing, “Finally, another detail that doesn’t lack for a certain spiciness: in his youth Clay Shaw published a story from which John Ford took his film, Men without Women.”

Clark Blaise’s article, “Neo-Fascism and the Kennedy Assassination” in the Sept-Oct, 1967, issue of Canadian Dimension, a left-wing socialist publication, referenced the articles in Le Devoir and noted that they have a “breezy disregard for documentation.” Blaise “expected to see the story spelled out that afternoon in the Montreal Star, or at least to see a solid article or two appear in the liberal journals. Nothing more ever appeared.” He was also disappointed that the New York Times never mentioned any of the details about the activities of the CMC and felt “it was useless” to write to CBC and NBC. Ramparts (a leading left-wing magazine in the 1960s), on the other hand, followed its radical comrades by running an essay entitled “The Garrison Commission” in its January, 1968, issue which referenced Paese Sera and Le Devoir as its sources on Clay Shaw and the CMC.

A persuasive body evidence now shows that Soviet intelligence would routinely plant misinformation in outlets like these. Between 1956 and 1985, KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin secretly documented the activities of the Soviet Union around the globe. His notes would subsequently be collected and released as The Mitrokhin Archive, after he defected to the UK in 1992. In a book co-authored with MI5 historian Christopher Andrew, Mitrokhin claimed that, “In April 1961 the KGB succeeded in planting on the pro-Soviet Italian daily Paese Sera a story suggesting that the CIA was involved in the failed putsch mounted by four French generals to disrupt de Gaulle’s attempts to negotiate a peace with the FLN which would lead to Algerian independence.”

The American historian Max Holland has written a number of articles suggesting that the original Paese Sera story about Clay Shaw and the CMC was also planted by the KGB. Holland found a note in the Mitrokhin archive which stated that: “In 1967, Department A of the First Chief Directorate conducted a series of disinformation operations … One such emplacement in New York was through Paese Sera.” Sure enough, an article in the left-wing National Guardian, which had previously published and promoted Mark Lane’s conspiracy theories, discussed Shaw’s arrest on March 19 and uncritically reproduced the claims made in the Paese Sera report. This technique was corroborated by a senior KGB officer, Sergey Kondrashev, who told Tennent Bagley, Deputy Chief of the Soviet Bloc Division in CIA counterintelligence, that “the most obvious route toward the broad Western public was, of course, newspapers, and magazines—planting articles in cooperative papers.” Paese Sera in Italy was among the examples Kondrashev cited.

By mid-March, 1967, Jim Garrison had received copies of the Paese Sera article, quite possibly sent to him by Ralph Schoenman, who was Bertrand Russell’s personal secretary. We know this from the diary of Richard Billings, a senior editor at Life magazine, who was a confidante of Garrison’s. His entry for March 22 reads, “Story about Shaw and CIA appears in Humanite [sic], probably March 8 … [Garrison] has copy date-lined Rome, March 7 th , from la press Italien [sic].” Jim Phelan wrote in the Saturday Evening Post that, after the Paese Sera article, Garrison’s switchboard “blazed like a pinball machine gone mad.” He now had a direct link from Clay Shaw to the CIA.

In addition, the plethora of left-wing conspiracy enthusiasts who had flocked to New Orleans convinced Garrison to move away from his initial theory that the assassination had been motivated by homosexual thrill-seeking and to begin theorizing about an ever-widening plot. Over time, Garrison’s conspiracy would grow to include “Minutemen, CIA agents, oil millionaires, Dallas policemen, munitions exporters, ‘the Dallas Establishment,’ reactionaries, White Russians, and certain elements of the invisible Nazi substructure.” But at the heart of Garrison’s thinking was some sort of massive CIA-planned assassination plot, although even that was somewhat malleable.

Clay Shaw was eventually found not guilty and the Garrison prosecution was exposed as a massive fraud. That didn’t stop Oliver Stone from making Jim Garrison the hero of his film JFK and Clay Shaw the evil villain. Stone, of course, makes use of the Paese Sera story, and does so with a subtle sleight of hand, characteristic of his slippery handling of facts. The Paese Sera story was published three days after Shaw’s arrest but in Stone’s film, Garrison confronts Shaw with its contents before the arrest, thereby implying that it was part of what justified his decision to charge him:

Jim Garrison: Mr. Shaw, this is an Italian newspaper article saying you were a board member of Centro Mondo Commerciale [sic] in Italy? That this company was a creature of the CIA for the transfer of funds in Italy for illegal political espionage activity. It says this company was expelled from Italy for those activities.

Clay Shaw: I’m well aware of that asinine article. I’m thinking very seriously of suing that rag of a newspaper.

The ‘Oswald Letter’

The recently declassified CIA documents mentioned above details another interesting KGB operation (also described in the Mitrokhin archive). In 1975, copies of a note that purported to be from Lee Harvey Oswald were sent from Mexico to three American conspiracy theorists. The letter, dated November 8, 1963, was addressed to a Mr. Hunt and said, “I would like information regarding my position” and “am suggesting that we discuss the matter fully before any steps are taken by me or anyone else.”

The note, however, was part of a Russian intelligence operation codenamed ‘Arlington.’ It was a Soviet forgery designed, the CIA document explains, to exploit “an assassination theory that was widespread in the US, according to which theory Howard HUNT, a former CIA employee, who was convicted in 1974 in connection with the Watergate affair, participated in 1963 in organizing a plot, the victim of which was President KENNEDY.” The KGB wrote the note using “individual phrases and expressions taken from letters written by Oswald during his stay in the USSR” on “a scrap of writing paper that OSWALD used in Texas.” Furthermore, “the note was on two occasions subjected to graphological and chronological examination ‘for authenticity’ by the Third Section of the KGB’s OUT (Operational-Technical Directorate).”

The note was then sent to assassination theorists Harold Weisberg, Penn Jones, and Howard Roffman. It was accompanied by another note saying that the document had been sent to FBI director Kelly and that he “has to date not done anything with this document.” The idea was to have the researchers ask the FBI to “produce the original note” and when Kelly denied he had received it, “this would encourage the investigator even more to obtain the desired document.” The operation was “carried out in such a way as to fuel [the flames of suspicion] with fresh news and to expose the participation of the American special services in the liquidation of KENNEDY.”

The problem for the KGB was that the conspiracy theorists tended to assume that the Oswald letter was intended for H.L. Hunt, the Texas oil billionaire, rather than for E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA operative. The first references to the document appeared in 1977, and the New York Times noted its possible authenticity.

Amusingly, the CIA document notes that “the FCD’s disinformation service believed that OSWALD’s connection with HUNT the millionaire, rather than with HUNT, the CIA officer, was purposely played up in the American press in order to divert public attention from OSWALD’s contacts with the special services.” The Oswald letter was later investigated by the House Select Committee on Assassinations which concluded that the letter was “much more precisely and much more carefully written” than other writings of Lee Harvey Oswald. They also professd themselves puzzled that Oswald’s middle name was misspelled—something he was not known to do—and were thus uncertain as to whether it was an authentic document. We now know that it was simply another operation designed to sow distrust and confusion.

Donald Trump’s decision to keep some of the JFK assassination documents secret caused huge consternation when it was announced in April of this year. But the explanation is straightforward enough—surviving informants must be protected and certain intelligence gathering operations need to remain confidential in the name of national security. In any case, the release of the outstanding documents has only been put back until 2021, and it is highly unlikely that we will learn much from them anyway.

We can learn far more from the files still under wraps in Russia and Belarus. Opening the Russian files could be useful in determining what else they did to influence American public opinion. As the declassified CIA document notes: “the KGB informed the Central Committee of the CPSU that it would take additional measures to promote theories regarding the participation of the American special services in a political conspiracy directed against President Kennedy.”

There aren’t many mysteries left in the JFK assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK and he did so alone. There was no conspiracy, and any fair-minded person who looks at the evidence supporting the lone gunman theory will eventually arrive at the same conclusion the Warren Commission reached. But files still held in the archives in Russia and Belarus might yet tell us something about the efficacy of Soviet disinformation campaigns, and who else in the United States was either financed or duped by them, or both.

Fred Litwin is the President of the Free Thinking Film Society of Ottawa. In addition to I Was a Teenage JFK Conspiracy Freak, he is the author of Conservative Confidential: Inside The Fabulous Blue Tent. You can follow him on Twitter @FredLitwin


Cuba and Berlin Wall Edit

With the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, the United States had grown concerned about the expansion of communism. A Latin American country openly allying with the Soviet Union was regarded by the US as unacceptable. It would, for example, defy the Monroe Doctrine, a US policy limiting US involvement in European colonies and European affairs but holding that the Western Hemisphere was in the US sphere of influence.

The Kennedy administration had been publicly embarrassed by the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961, which had been launched under President John F. Kennedy by CIA-trained forces of Cuban exiles. Afterward, former President Dwight Eisenhower told Kennedy that "the failure of the Bay of Pigs will embolden the Soviets to do something that they would otherwise not do." [5] : 10 The half-hearted invasion left Soviet first secretary Nikita Khrushchev and his advisers with the impression that Kennedy was indecisive and, as one Soviet adviser wrote, "too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations. too intelligent and too weak". [5] US covert operations against Cuba continued in 1961 with the unsuccessful Operation Mongoose. [6]

In addition, Khrushchev's impression of Kennedy's weaknesses was confirmed by the President's response during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, particularly to the building of the Berlin Wall. Speaking to Soviet officials in the aftermath of the crisis, Khrushchev asserted, "I know for certain that Kennedy doesn't have a strong background, nor, generally speaking, does he have the courage to stand up to a serious challenge." He also told his son Sergei that on Cuba, Kennedy "would make a fuss, make more of a fuss, and then agree". [7]

In January 1962, US Army General Edward Lansdale described plans to overthrow the Cuban government in a top-secret report (partially declassified 1989), addressed to Kennedy and officials involved with Operation Mongoose. [6] CIA agents or "pathfinders" from the Special Activities Division were to be infiltrated into Cuba to carry out sabotage and organization, including radio broadcasts. [8] In February 1962, the US launched an embargo against Cuba, [9] and Lansdale presented a 26-page, top-secret timetable for implementation of the overthrow of the Cuban government, mandating guerrilla operations to begin in August and September. "Open revolt and overthrow of the Communist regime" would occur in the first two weeks of October. [6]

Missile gap Edit

When Kennedy ran for president in 1960, one of his key election issues was an alleged "missile gap" with the Soviets leading. Actually, the US at that time led the Soviets by a wide margin that would only increase. In 1961, the Soviets had only four intercontinental ballistic missiles (R-7 Semyorka). By October 1962, they may have had a few dozen, with some intelligence estimates as high as 75. [10]

The US, on the other hand, had 170 ICBMs and was quickly building more. It also had eight George Washington- and Ethan Allen-class ballistic missile submarines, with the capability to launch 16 Polaris missiles, each with a range of 2,500 nautical miles (4,600 km). Khrushchev increased the perception of a missile gap when he loudly boasted to the world that the Soviets were building missiles "like sausages" but Soviet missiles' numbers and capabilities were nowhere close to his assertions. The Soviet Union had medium-range ballistic missiles in quantity, about 700 of them, but they were very unreliable and inaccurate. The US had a considerable advantage in total number of nuclear warheads (27,000 against 3,600) and in the technology required for their accurate delivery. The US also led in missile defensive capabilities, naval and air power but the Soviets had a 2–1 advantage in conventional ground forces, more pronounced in field guns and tanks, particularly in the European theatre. [10]

Justification Edit

In May 1962, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev was persuaded by the idea of countering the US's growing lead in developing and deploying strategic missiles by placing Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, despite the misgivings of the Soviet Ambassador in Havana, Alexandr Ivanovich Alexeyev, who argued that Castro would not accept the deployment of the missiles. [11] Khrushchev faced a strategic situation in which the US was perceived to have a "splendid first strike" capability that put the Soviet Union at a huge disadvantage. In 1962, the Soviets had only 20 ICBMs capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the US from inside the Soviet Union. [12] The poor accuracy and reliability of the missiles raised serious doubts about their effectiveness. A newer, more reliable generation of ICBMs would become operational only after 1965. [12]

Therefore, Soviet nuclear capability in 1962 placed less emphasis on ICBMs than on medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs). The missiles could hit American allies and most of Alaska from Soviet territory but not the Contiguous United States. Graham Allison, the director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, points out, "The Soviet Union could not right the nuclear imbalance by deploying new ICBMs on its own soil. In order to meet the threat it faced in 1962, 1963, and 1964, it had very few options. Moving existing nuclear weapons to locations from which they could reach American targets was one." [13]

A second reason that Soviet missiles were deployed to Cuba was because Khrushchev wanted to bring West Berlin, controlled by the American, British and French within Communist East Germany, into the Soviet orbit. The East Germans and Soviets considered western control over a portion of Berlin a grave threat to East Germany. Khrushchev made West Berlin the central battlefield of the Cold War. Khrushchev believed that if the US did nothing over the missile deployments in Cuba, he could muscle the West out of Berlin using said missiles as a deterrent to western countermeasures in Berlin. If the US tried to bargain with the Soviets after it became aware of the missiles, Khrushchev could demand trading the missiles for West Berlin. Since Berlin was strategically more important than Cuba, the trade would be a win for Khrushchev, as Kennedy recognised: "The advantage is, from Khrushchev's point of view, he takes a great chance but there are quite some rewards to it." [14]

Thirdly, from the perspective of the Soviet Union and of Cuba, it seemed that the United States wanted to increase its presence in Cuba. With actions including the attempt to expel Cuba from the Organization of American States, [15] placing economic sanctions on the nation, directly invading it in addition to conducting secret operations on containing communism and Cuba, it was assumed that America was trying to overrun Cuba. As a result, to try and prevent this, the USSR would place missiles in Cuba and neutralise the threat. This would ultimately serve to secure Cuba against attack and keep the country in the Socialist Bloc. [16]

Another major reason why Khrushchev planned to place missiles on Cuba undetected was to "level the playing field" with the evident American nuclear threat. America had the upper hand as they could launch from Turkey and destroy the USSR before they would have a chance to react. After the transmission of nuclear missiles, Khrushchev had finally established mutually assured destruction, meaning that if the U.S. decided to launch a nuclear strike against the USSR, the latter would react by launching a retaliatory nuclear strike against the U.S. [17]

Additionally, placing nuclear missiles on Cuba was a way for the USSR to show their support for Cuba and support the Cuban people who viewed the United States as a threatening force, [15] as the latter had become their ally after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. According to Khrushchev, the Soviet Union's motives were "aimed at allowing Cuba to live peacefully and develop as its people desire". [18]

Deployment Edit

In early 1962, a group of Soviet military and missile construction specialists accompanied an agricultural delegation to Havana. They obtained a meeting with Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro. The Cuban leadership had a strong expectation that the US would invade Cuba again and enthusiastically approved the idea of installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. According to another source, Castro objected to the missiles' deployment that would have made him look like a Soviet puppet, but he was persuaded that missiles in Cuba would be an irritant to the US and help the interests of the entire socialist camp. [19] Also, the deployment would include short-range tactical weapons (with a range of 40 km, usable only against naval vessels) that would provide a "nuclear umbrella" for attacks upon the island.

By May, Khrushchev and Castro agreed to place strategic nuclear missiles secretly in Cuba. Like Castro, Khrushchev felt that a US invasion of Cuba was imminent and that to lose Cuba would do great harm to the communists, especially in Latin America. He said he wanted to confront the Americans "with more than words. the logical answer was missiles". [20] : 29 The Soviets maintained their tight secrecy, writing their plans longhand, which were approved by Marshal of the Soviet Union Rodion Malinovsky on July 4 and Khrushchev on July 7.

From the very beginning, the Soviets' operation entailed elaborate denial and deception, known as "maskirovka". All the planning and preparation for transporting and deploying the missiles were carried out in the utmost secrecy, with only a very few told the exact nature of the mission. Even the troops detailed for the mission were given misdirection by being told that they were headed for a cold region and being outfitted with ski boots, fleece-lined parkas, and other winter equipment. The Soviet code-name was Operation Anadyr. The Anadyr River flows into the Bering Sea, and Anadyr is also the capital of Chukotsky District and a bomber base in the far eastern region. All the measures were meant to conceal the program from both internal and external audiences. [21]

Specialists in missile construction under the guise of "machine operators", "irrigation specialists", and "agricultural specialists" arrived in July. [21] A total of 43,000 foreign troops would ultimately be brought in. [22] Chief Marshal of Artillery Sergei Biryuzov, Head of the Soviet Rocket Forces, led a survey team that visited Cuba. He told Khrushchev that the missiles would be concealed and camouflaged by palm trees. [10]

The Cuban leadership was further upset when on September 20, the US Senate approved Joint Resolution 230, which expressed the US was determined "to prevent in Cuba the creation or use of an externally-supported military capability endangering the security of the United States". [23] [24] On the same day, the US announced a major military exercise in the Caribbean, PHIBRIGLEX-62, which Cuba denounced as a deliberate provocation and proof that the US planned to invade Cuba. [24] [25] [ unreliable source? ]

The Soviet leadership believed, based on its perception of Kennedy's lack of confidence during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, that he would avoid confrontation and accept the missiles as a fait accompli. [5] : 1 On September 11, the Soviet Union publicly warned that a US attack on Cuba or on Soviet ships that were carrying supplies to the island would mean war. [6] The Soviets continued the Maskirovka program to conceal their actions in Cuba. They repeatedly denied that the weapons being brought into Cuba were offensive in nature. On September 7, Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin assured United States Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson that the Soviet Union was supplying only defensive weapons to Cuba. On September 11, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS: Telegrafnoe Agentstvo Sovetskogo Soyuza) announced that the Soviet Union had no need or intention to introduce offensive nuclear missiles into Cuba. On October 13, Dobrynin was questioned by former Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles about whether the Soviets planned to put offensive weapons in Cuba. He denied any such plans. [24] On October 17, Soviet embassy official Georgy Bolshakov brought President Kennedy a personal message from Khrushchev reassuring him that "under no circumstances would surface-to-surface missiles be sent to Cuba." [24] : 494

As early as August 1962, the US suspected the Soviets of building missile facilities in Cuba. During that month, its intelligence services gathered information about sightings by ground observers of Russian-built MiG-21 fighters and Il-28 light bombers. U-2 spy planes found S-75 Dvina (NATO designation SA-2) surface-to-air missile sites at eight different locations. CIA director John A. McCone was suspicious. Sending antiaircraft missiles into Cuba, he reasoned, "made sense only if Moscow intended to use them to shield a base for ballistic missiles aimed at the United States". [26] On August 10, he wrote a memo to Kennedy in which he guessed that the Soviets were preparing to introduce ballistic missiles into Cuba. [10]

With important Congressional elections scheduled for November, the crisis became enmeshed in American politics. On August 31, Senator Kenneth Keating (R-New York) warned on the Senate floor that the Soviet Union was "in all probability" constructing a missile base in Cuba. He charged the Kennedy administration with covering up a major threat to the US, thereby starting the crisis. [27] He may have received this initial "remarkably accurate" information from his friend, former congresswoman and ambassador Clare Boothe Luce, who in turn received it from Cuban exiles. [28] A later confirming source for Keating's information possibly was the West German ambassador to Cuba, who had received information from dissidents inside Cuba that Soviet troops had arrived in Cuba in early August and were seen working "in all probability on or near a missile base" and who passed this information to Keating on a trip to Washington in early October. [29] Air Force General Curtis LeMay presented a pre-invasion bombing plan to Kennedy in September, and spy flights and minor military harassment from US forces at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base were the subject of continual Cuban diplomatic complaints to the US government. [6]

The first consignment of R-12 missiles arrived on the night of September 8, followed by a second on September 16. The R-12 was a medium-range ballistic missile, capable of carrying a thermonuclear warhead. [30] It was a single-stage, road-transportable, surface-launched, storable liquid propellant fuelled missile that could deliver a megaton-class nuclear weapon. [31] The Soviets were building nine sites—six for R-12 medium-range missiles (NATO designation SS-4 Sandal) with an effective range of 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) and three for R-14 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (NATO designation SS-5 Skean) with a maximum range of 4,500 kilometres (2,800 mi). [32]

On October 7, Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado spoke at the UN General Assembly: "If. we are attacked, we will defend ourselves. I repeat, we have sufficient means with which to defend ourselves we have indeed our inevitable weapons, the weapons, which we would have preferred not to acquire, and which we do not wish to employ." [33] On October 10 in another Senate speech Sen. Keating reaffirmed his earlier warning of August 31 and stated that, "Construction has begun on at least a half dozen launching sites for intermediate range tactical missiles." [34]

The missiles in Cuba allowed the Soviets to effectively target most of the Continental US. The planned arsenal was forty launchers. The Cuban populace readily noticed the arrival and deployment of the missiles and hundreds of reports reached Miami. US intelligence received countless reports, many of dubious quality or even laughable, most of which could be dismissed as describing defensive missiles. [35] [36] [37]

Only five reports bothered the analysts. They described large trucks passing through towns at night that were carrying very long canvas-covered cylindrical objects that could not make turns through towns without backing up and manoeuvring. Defensive missiles could turn. The reports could not be satisfactorily dismissed. [38]

Aerial confirmation Edit

The United States had been sending U-2 surveillance over Cuba since the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. [39] The first issue that led to a pause in reconnaissance flights took place on August 30, when a U-2 operated by the US Air Force's Strategic Air Command flew over Sakhalin Island in the Soviet Far East by mistake. The Soviets lodged a protest and the US apologised. Nine days later, a Taiwanese-operated U-2 [40] [41] was lost over western China to an SA-2 surface-to-air missile. US officials were worried that one of the Cuban or Soviet SAMs in Cuba might shoot down a CIA U-2, initiating another international incident. In a meeting with members of the Committee on Overhead Reconnaissance (COMOR) on September 10, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy heavily restricted further U-2 flights over Cuban airspace. The resulting lack of coverage over the island for the next five weeks became known to historians as the "Photo Gap". [42] No significant U-2 coverage was achieved over the interior of the island. US officials attempted to use a Corona photo-reconnaissance satellite to obtain coverage over reported Soviet military deployments, but imagery acquired over western Cuba by a Corona KH-4 mission on October 1 was heavily covered by clouds and haze and failed to provide any usable intelligence. [43] At the end of September, Navy reconnaissance aircraft photographed the Soviet ship Kasimov, with large crates on its deck the size and shape of Il-28 jet bomber fuselages. [10]

In September 1962, analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) noticed that Cuban surface-to-air missile sites were arranged in a pattern similar to those used by the Soviet Union to protect its ICBM bases, leading DIA to lobby for the resumption of U-2 flights over the island. [44] Although in the past the flights had been conducted by the CIA, pressure from the Defense Department led to that authority being transferred to the Air Force. [10] Following the loss of a CIA U-2 over the Soviet Union in May 1960, it was thought that if another U-2 were shot down, an Air Force aircraft arguably being used for a legitimate military purpose would be easier to explain than a CIA flight.

When the reconnaissance missions were reauthorized on October 9, poor weather kept the planes from flying. The US first obtained U-2 photographic evidence of the missiles on October 14, when a U-2 flight piloted by Major Richard Heyser took 928 pictures on a path selected by DIA analysts, capturing images of what turned out to be an SS-4 construction site at San Cristóbal, Pinar del Río Province (now in Artemisa Province), in western Cuba. [45]

President notified Edit

On October 15, the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) reviewed the U-2 photographs and identified objects that they interpreted as medium range ballistic missiles. This identification was made, in part, on the strength of reporting provided by Oleg Penkovsky, a double agent in the GRU working for CIA and MI6. Although he provided no direct reports of the Soviet missile deployments to Cuba, technical and doctrinal details of Soviet missile regiments that had been provided by Penkovsky in the months and years prior to the Crisis helped NPIC analysts correctly identify the missiles on U-2 imagery. [46]

That evening, the CIA notified the Department of State and at 8:30 pm EDT, Bundy chose to wait until the next morning to tell the President. McNamara was briefed at midnight. The next morning, Bundy met with Kennedy and showed him the U-2 photographs and briefed him on the CIA's analysis of the images. [47] At 6:30 pm EDT, Kennedy convened a meeting of the nine members of the National Security Council and five other key advisers, [48] in a group he formally named the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) after the fact on October 22 by the National Security Action Memorandum 196. [49] Without informing the members of EXCOMM, President Kennedy tape recorded all of their proceedings, and Sheldon M. Stern, head of the Kennedy library transcribed some of them. [50] [51]

On October 16, President Kennedy notified Robert Kennedy that he was convinced Russia was placing missiles in Cuba and it was a legitimate threat. This officially made the threat of nuclear destruction by two world superpowers a reality. Robert Kennedy responded by contacting the Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. Robert Kennedy expressed his "concern about what was happening" and Dobrynin "was instructed by Soviet Chairman Nikita S. Khrushchev to assure President Kennedy that there would be no ground-to-ground missiles or offensive weapons placed in Cuba". Khrushchev further assured Kennedy that the Soviet Union had no intention of "disrupting the relationship of our two countries" despite the photo evidence presented before President Kennedy. [52]

Responses considered Edit

The US had no plan in place because its intelligence had been convinced that the Soviets would never install nuclear missiles in Cuba. EXCOMM, of which Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was a member, quickly discussed several possible courses of action: [53]

  1. Do nothing: American vulnerability to Soviet missiles was not new.
  2. Diplomacy: Use diplomatic pressure to get the Soviet Union to remove the missiles.
  3. Secret approach: Offer Castro the choice of splitting with the Russians or being invaded.
  4. Invasion: Full force invasion of Cuba and overthrow of Castro.
  5. Air strike: Use the US Air Force to attack all known missile sites.
  6. Blockade: Use the US Navy to block any missiles from arriving in Cuba.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale attack and invasion was the only solution. They believed that the Soviets would not attempt to stop the US from conquering Cuba. Kennedy was skeptical:

They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something. They can't, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don't take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin. [54]

Kennedy concluded that attacking Cuba by air would signal the Soviets to presume "a clear line" to conquer Berlin. Kennedy also believed that US allies would think of the country as "trigger-happy cowboys" who lost Berlin because they could not peacefully resolve the Cuban situation. [55]

The EXCOMM then discussed the effect on the strategic balance of power, both political and military. The Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that the missiles would seriously alter the military balance, but McNamara disagreed. An extra 40, he reasoned, would make little difference to the overall strategic balance. The US already had approximately 5,000 strategic warheads, [56] : 261 but the Soviet Union had only 300. McNamara concluded that the Soviets having 340 would not therefore substantially alter the strategic balance. In 1990, he reiterated that "it made no difference. The military balance wasn't changed. I didn't believe it then, and I don't believe it now." [57]

The EXCOMM agreed that the missiles would affect the political balance. Kennedy had explicitly promised the American people less than a month before the crisis that "if Cuba should possess a capacity to carry out offensive actions against the United States. the United States would act." [58] : 674–681 Also, credibility among US allies and people would be damaged if the Soviet Union appeared to redress the strategic balance by placing missiles in Cuba. Kennedy explained after the crisis that "it would have politically changed the balance of power. It would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality." [59]

On October 18, Kennedy met with the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Gromyko, who claimed the weapons were for defensive purposes only. Not wanting to expose what he already knew and to avoid panicking the American public, [60] Kennedy did not reveal that he was already aware of the missile buildup. [61] By October 19, frequent U-2 spy flights showed four operational sites. [62]

Two Operational Plans (OPLAN) were considered. OPLAN 316 envisioned a full invasion of Cuba by Army and Marine units, supported by the Navy following Air Force and naval airstrikes. Army units in the US would have had trouble fielding mechanised and logistical assets, and the US Navy could not supply enough amphibious shipping to transport even a modest armoured contingent from the Army.

OPLAN 312, primarily an Air Force and Navy carrier operation, was designed with enough flexibility to do anything from engaging individual missile sites to providing air support for OPLAN 316's ground forces. [63]

Kennedy met with members of EXCOMM and other top advisers throughout October 21, considering two remaining options: an air strike primarily against the Cuban missile bases or a naval blockade of Cuba. [61] A full-scale invasion was not the administration's first option. McNamara supported the naval blockade as a strong but limited military action that left the US in control. The term "blockade" was problematic. According to international law, a blockade is an act of war, but the Kennedy administration did not think that the Soviets would be provoked to attack by a mere blockade. [65] Additionally, legal experts at the State Department and Justice Department concluded that a declaration of war could be avoided if another legal justification, based on the Rio Treaty for defence of the Western Hemisphere, was obtained from a resolution by a two-thirds vote from the members of the Organization of American States (OAS). [66]

Admiral Anderson, Chief of Naval Operations wrote a position paper that helped Kennedy to differentiate between what they termed a "quarantine" [67] of offensive weapons and a blockade of all materials, claiming that a classic blockade was not the original intention. Since it would take place in international waters, Kennedy obtained the approval of the OAS for military action under the hemispheric defence provisions of the Rio Treaty:

Latin American participation in the quarantine now involved two Argentine destroyers which were to report to the US Commander South Atlantic [COMSOLANT] at Trinidad on November 9. An Argentine submarine and a Marine battalion with lift were available if required. In addition, two Venezuelan destroyers (Destroyers ARV D-11 Nueva Esparta" and "ARV D-21 Zulia") and one submarine (Caribe) had reported to COMSOLANT, ready for sea by November 2. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago offered the use of Chaguaramas Naval Base to warships of any OAS nation for the duration of the "quarantine". The Dominican Republic had made available one escort ship. Colombia was reported ready to furnish units and had sent military officers to the US to discuss this assistance. The Argentine Air Force informally offered three SA-16 aircraft in addition to forces already committed to the "quarantine" operation. [68]

This initially was to involve a naval blockade against offensive weapons within the framework of the Organization of American States and the Rio Treaty. Such a blockade might be expanded to cover all types of goods and air transport. The action was to be backed up by surveillance of Cuba. The CNO's scenario was followed closely in later implementing the "quarantine."

On October 19, the EXCOMM formed separate working groups to examine the air strike and blockade options, and by the afternoon most support in the EXCOMM shifted to the blockade option. Reservations about the plan continued to be voiced as late as the October 21, the paramount concern being that once the blockade was put into effect, the Soviets would rush to complete some of the missiles. Consequently, the US could find itself bombing operational missiles if the blockade failed to force Khrushchev to remove the missiles already on the island. [69]

Speech to the nation Edit

At 3:00 pm EDT on October 22, President Kennedy formally established the Executive Committee (EXCOMM) with National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 196. At 5:00 pm, he met with Congressional leaders who contentiously opposed a blockade and demanded a stronger response. In Moscow, Ambassador Foy D. Kohler briefed Khrushchev on the pending blockade and Kennedy's speech to the nation. Ambassadors around the world gave notice to non-Eastern Bloc leaders. Before the speech, US delegations met with Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, French President Charles de Gaulle and Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, José Antonio Mora to brief them on the US intelligence and their proposed response. All were supportive of the US position. Over the course of the crisis, Kennedy had daily telephone conversations with Macmillan, who was publicly supportive of US actions. [71]

Shortly before his speech, Kennedy called former President Dwight Eisenhower. [72] Kennedy's conversation with the former president also revealed that the two were consulting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. [73] The two also anticipated that Khrushchev would respond to the Western world in a manner that was similar to his response during the Suez Crisis and would possibly wind up trading off Berlin. [73]

On October 22 at 7:00 pm EDT, Kennedy delivered a nationwide televised address on all of the major networks announcing the discovery of the missiles. He noted:

It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union. [74]

Kennedy described the administration's plan:

To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948. [74]

During the speech, a directive went out to all US forces worldwide, placing them on DEFCON 3. The heavy cruiser USS Newport News was designated flagship for the blockade, [67] with USS Leary as Newport News ' s destroyer escort. [68]

Crisis deepens Edit

On October 23, at 11:24 am EDT, a cable, drafted by George Wildman Ball to the US Ambassador in Turkey and NATO, notified them that they were considering making an offer to withdraw what the US knew to be nearly-obsolete missiles from Italy and Turkey, in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. Turkish officials replied that they would "deeply resent" any trade involving the US missile presence in their country. [77] Two days later, on the morning of October 25, American journalist Walter Lippmann proposed the same thing in his syndicated column. Castro reaffirmed Cuba's right to self-defense and said that all of its weapons were defensive and Cuba would not allow an inspection. [6]

International response Edit

Three days after Kennedy's speech, the Chinese People's Daily announced that "650,000,000 Chinese men and women were standing by the Cuban people." [78] In West Germany, newspapers supported the US response by contrasting it with the weak American actions in the region during the preceding months. They also expressed some fear that the Soviets might retaliate in Berlin. In France on October 23, the crisis made the front page of all the daily newspapers. The next day, an editorial in Le Monde expressed doubt about the authenticity of the CIA's photographic evidence. Two days later, after a visit by a high-ranking CIA agent, the newspaper accepted the validity of the photographs. Also in France, in the October 29 issue of Le Figaro, Raymond Aron wrote in support of the American response. [79] On October 24, Pope John XXIII sent a message to the Soviet embassy in Rome to be transmitted to the Kremlin in which he voiced his concern for peace. In this message he stated, "We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity. That they do all that is in their power to save peace." [80]

Soviet broadcast and communications Edit

The crisis was continuing unabated, and in the evening of October 24, the Soviet news agency TASS broadcast a telegram from Khrushchev to Kennedy in which Khrushchev warned that the United States' "outright piracy" would lead to war. [81] That was followed at 9:24 pm by a telegram from Khrushchev to Kennedy, which was received at 10:52 pm EDT. Khrushchev stated, "if you weigh the present situation with a cool head without giving way to passion, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot afford not to decline the despotic demands of the USA" and that the Soviet Union views the blockade as "an act of aggression" and their ships will be instructed to ignore it. [76] After October 23, Soviet communications with the USA increasingly showed indications of having been rushed. Undoubtedly a product of pressure, it was not uncommon for Khrushchev to repeat himself and send messages lacking simple editing. [82] With President Kennedy making his aggressive intentions of a possible air-strike followed by an invasion on Cuba known, Khrushchev rapidly sought a diplomatic compromise. Communications between the two super-powers had entered into a unique and revolutionary period with the newly developed threat of mutual destruction through the deployment of nuclear weapons, diplomacy now demonstrated how power and coercion could dominate negotiations. [83]

US alert level raised Edit

The US requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on October 25. US Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, challenging him to admit the existence of the missiles. Ambassador Zorin refused to answer. The next day at 10:00 pm EDT, the US raised the readiness level of SAC forces to DEFCON 2. For the only confirmed time in US history, B-52 bombers went on continuous airborne alert, and B-47 medium bombers were dispersed to various military and civilian airfields and made ready to take off, fully equipped, on 15 minutes' notice. [84] One eighth of SAC's 1,436 bombers were on airborne alert, and some 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles stood on ready alert, some of which targeted Cuba, [85] and Air Defense Command (ADC) redeployed 161 nuclear-armed interceptors to 16 dispersal fields within nine hours, with one third maintaining 15-minute alert status. [63] Twenty-three nuclear-armed B-52s were sent to orbit points within striking distance of the Soviet Union so that it would believe that the US was serious. [86] Jack J. Catton later estimated that about 80 percent of SAC's planes were ready for launch during the crisis David A. Burchinal recalled that, by contrast: [87]

the Russians were so thoroughly stood down, and we knew it. They didn't make any move. They did not increase their alert they did not increase any flights, or their air defense posture. They didn't do a thing, they froze in place. We were never further from nuclear war than at the time of Cuba, never further.

By October 22, Tactical Air Command (TAC) had 511 fighters plus supporting tankers and reconnaissance aircraft deployed to face Cuba on one-hour alert status. TAC and the Military Air Transport Service had problems. The concentration of aircraft in Florida strained command and support echelons, which faced critical undermanning in security, armaments, and communications the absence of initial authorization for war-reserve stocks of conventional munitions forced TAC to scrounge and the lack of airlift assets to support a major airborne drop necessitated the call-up of 24 Reserve squadrons. [63]

On October 25 at 1:45 am EDT, Kennedy responded to Khrushchev's telegram by stating that the US was forced into action after receiving repeated assurances that no offensive missiles were being placed in Cuba, and when the assurances proved to be false, the deployment "required the responses I have announced. I hope that your government will take necessary action to permit a restoration of the earlier situation."

Blockade challenged Edit

At 7:15 am EDT on October 25, USS Essex and USS Gearing attempted to intercept Bucharest but failed to do so. Fairly certain that the tanker did not contain any military material, the US allowed it through the blockade. Later that day, at 5:43 pm, the commander of the blockade effort ordered the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. to intercept and board the Lebanese freighter Marucla. That took place the next day, and Marucla was cleared through the blockade after its cargo was checked. [88]

At 5:00 pm EDT on October 25, William Clements announced that the missiles in Cuba were still actively being worked on. That report was later verified by a CIA report that suggested there had been no slowdown at all. In response, Kennedy issued Security Action Memorandum 199, authorizing the loading of nuclear weapons onto aircraft under the command of SACEUR, which had the duty of carrying out first air strikes on the Soviet Union. Kennedy claimed that the blockade had succeeded when the USSR turned back fourteen ships presumably carrying offensive weapons. [89] The first indication of this came from a report from the British GCHQ sent to the White House Situation Room containing intercepted communications from Soviet ships reporting their positions. On October 24, Kislovodsk, a Soviet cargo ship, reported a position north-east of where it had been 24 hours earlier indicating it had "discontinued" its voyage and turned back towards the Baltic. The next day, reports showed more ships originally bound for Cuba had altered their course. [90]

Raising the stakes Edit

The next morning, October 26, Kennedy informed the EXCOMM that he believed only an invasion would remove the missiles from Cuba. He was persuaded to give the matter time and continue with both military and diplomatic pressure. He agreed and ordered the low-level flights over the island to be increased from two per day to once every two hours. He also ordered a crash program to institute a new civil government in Cuba if an invasion went ahead.

At this point, the crisis was ostensibly at a stalemate. The Soviets had shown no indication that they would back down and had made public media and private inter-governmental statements to that effect. The US had no reason to believe otherwise and was in the early stages of preparing for an invasion, along with a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union if it responded militarily, which was assumed. [91] Kennedy had no intention of keeping these plans a secret with an array of Cuban and Soviet spies forever present, Khrushchev was quickly made aware of this looming danger.

The implicit threat of air strikes on Cuba followed by invasion allowed the United States to exert pressure in future talks. It was the possibility of military action that played an influential role in accelerating Khrushchev's proposal for a compromise. [92] Throughout the closing stages of October, Soviet communications to the United States indicated increasing defensiveness. Khrushchev's increasing tendency to use poorly phrased and ambiguous communications throughout the compromise negotiations conversely increased United States confidence and clarity in messaging. Leading Soviet figures consistently failed to mention that only the Cuban government could agree to inspections of the territory and continually made arrangements relating to Cuba without the knowledge of Fidel Castro himself. According to Dean Rusk, Khrushchev "blinked", he began to panic from the consequences of his own plan and this was reflected in the tone of Soviet messages. This allowed the US to largely dominate negotiations in late October. [93]

At 1:00 pm EDT on October 26, John A. Scali of ABC News had lunch with Aleksandr Fomin, the cover name of Alexander Feklisov, the KGB station chief in Washington, at Fomin's request. Following the instructions of the Politburo of the CPSU, [94] Fomin noted, "War seems about to break out." He asked Scali to use his contacts to talk to his "high-level friends" at the State Department to see if the US would be interested in a diplomatic solution. He suggested that the language of the deal would contain an assurance from the Soviet Union to remove the weapons under UN supervision and that Castro would publicly announce that he would not accept such weapons again in exchange for a public statement by the US that it would not invade Cuba. [95] The US responded by asking the Brazilian government to pass a message to Castro that the US would be "unlikely to invade" if the missiles were removed. [77]

— Letter From Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy, October 26, 1962 [96]

On October 26 at 6:00 pm EDT, the State Department started receiving a message that appeared to be written personally by Khrushchev. It was Saturday at 2:00 am in Moscow. The long letter took several minutes to arrive, and it took translators additional time to translate and transcribe it. [77]

Robert F. Kennedy described the letter as "very long and emotional". Khrushchev reiterated the basic outline that had been stated to Scali earlier in the day: "I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear." At 6:45 pm EDT, news of Fomin's offer to Scali was finally heard and was interpreted as a "set up" for the arrival of Khrushchev's letter. The letter was then considered official and accurate although it was later learned that Fomin was almost certainly operating of his own accord without official backing. Additional study of the letter was ordered and continued into the night. [77]

Crisis continues Edit

Direct aggression against Cuba would mean nuclear war. The Americans speak about such aggression as if they did not know or did not want to accept this fact. I have no doubt they would lose such a war.

Castro, on the other hand, was convinced that an invasion of Cuba was soon at hand, and on October 26, he sent a telegram to Khrushchev that appeared to call for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the US in case of attack. In a 2010 interview, Castro expressed regret about his earlier stance on first use: "After I've seen what I've seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn't worth it at all." [98] Castro also ordered all anti-aircraft weapons in Cuba to fire on any US aircraft: [99] the orders had been to fire only on groups of two or more. At 6:00 am EDT on October 27, the CIA delivered a memo reporting that three of the four missile sites at San Cristobal and the two sites at Sagua la Grande appeared to be fully operational. It also noted that the Cuban military continued to organise for action but was under order not to initiate action unless attacked. [ citation needed ]

At 9:00 am EDT on October 27, Radio Moscow began broadcasting a message from Khrushchev. Contrary to the letter of the night before, the message offered a new trade: the missiles on Cuba would be removed in exchange for the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Italy and Turkey. At 10:00 am EDT, the executive committee met again to discuss the situation and came to the conclusion that the change in the message was because of internal debate between Khrushchev and other party officials in the Kremlin. [100] : 300 Kennedy realised that he would be in an "insupportable position if this becomes Khrushchev's proposal" because the missiles in Turkey were not militarily useful and were being removed anyway and "It's gonna – to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade." Bundy explained why Khrushchev's public acquiescence could not be considered: "The current threat to peace is not in Turkey, it is in Cuba." [101]

McNamara noted that another tanker, the Grozny, was about 600 miles (970 km) out and should be intercepted. He also noted that they had not made the Soviets aware of the blockade line and suggested relaying that information to them via U Thant at the United Nations. [102]

While the meeting progressed, at 11:03 am EDT a new message began to arrive from Khrushchev. The message stated, in part:

"You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you because it is ninety-nine miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But. you have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Italy and Turkey, literally next to us. I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive. Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States. will remove its analogous means from Turkey. and after that, persons entrusted by the United Nations Security Council could inspect on the spot the fulfillment of the pledges made."

The executive committee continued to meet through the day.

Throughout the crisis, Turkey had repeatedly stated that it would be upset if the Jupiter missiles were removed. Italy's Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani, who was also Foreign Minister ad interim, offered to allow withdrawal of the missiles deployed in Apulia as a bargaining chip. He gave the message to one of his most trusted friends, Ettore Bernabei, the general manager of RAI-TV, to convey to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Bernabei was in New York to attend an international conference on satellite TV broadcasting. Unknown to the Soviets, the US regarded the Jupiter missiles as obsolete and already supplanted by the Polaris nuclear ballistic submarine missiles. [10]

On the morning of October 27, a U-2F (the third CIA U-2A, modified for air-to-air refuelling) piloted by USAF Major Rudolf Anderson, [103] departed its forward operating location at McCoy AFB, Florida. At approximately 12:00 pm EDT, the aircraft was struck by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile launched from Cuba. The aircraft was shot down, and Anderson was killed. The stress in negotiations between the Soviets and the US intensified it was only later believed that the decision to fire the missile was made locally by an undetermined Soviet commander, acting on his own authority. Later that day, at about 3:41 pm EDT, several US Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft, on low-level photo-reconnaissance missions, were fired upon.

On October 28, 1962, Khrushchev told his son Sergei that the shooting down of Anderson's U-2 was by the "Cuban military at the direction of Raul Castro". [104] [105] [106] [107]

At 4:00 pm EDT, Kennedy recalled members of EXCOMM to the White House and ordered that a message should immediately be sent to U Thant asking the Soviets to suspend work on the missiles while negotiations were carried out. During the meeting, General Maxwell Taylor delivered the news that the U-2 had been shot down. Kennedy had earlier claimed he would order an attack on such sites if fired upon, but he decided to not act unless another attack was made. Forty years later, McNamara said:

We had to send a U-2 over to gain reconnaissance information on whether the Soviet missiles were becoming operational. We believed that if the U-2 was shot down that—the Cubans didn't have capabilities to shoot it down, the Soviets did—we believed if it was shot down, it would be shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air-missile unit, and that it would represent a decision by the Soviets to escalate the conflict. And therefore, before we sent the U-2 out, we agreed that if it was shot down we wouldn't meet, we'd simply attack. It was shot down on Friday. Fortunately, we changed our mind, we thought "Well, it might have been an accident, we won't attack." Later we learned that Khrushchev had reasoned just as we did: we send over the U-2, if it was shot down, he reasoned we would believe it was an intentional escalation. And therefore, he issued orders to Pliyev, the Soviet commander in Cuba, to instruct all of his batteries not to shoot down the U-2. [note 1] [108]

Ellsberg said that Robert Kennedy (RFK) told him in 1964 that after the U-2 was shot down and the pilot killed, he (RFK) told Soviet ambassador Dobrynin, "You have drawn first blood . . [T]he president had decided against advice . not to respond militarily to that attack, but he [Dobrynin] should know that if another plane was shot at, . we would take out all the SAMs and antiaircraft . . And that would almost surely be followed by an invasion." [109]

Drafting response Edit

Emissaries sent by both Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to meet at the Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant in the Cleveland Park neighbourhood of Washington, DC, on Saturday evening, October 27. [110] Kennedy suggested to take Khrushchev's offer to trade away the missiles. Unknown to most members of the EXCOMM, but with the support of his brother the president, Robert Kennedy had been meeting with the Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin in Washington to discover whether the intentions were genuine. [111] The EXCOMM was generally against the proposal because it would undermine NATO's authority, and the Turkish government had repeatedly stated it was against any such trade.

As the meeting progressed, a new plan emerged, and Kennedy was slowly persuaded. The new plan called for him to ignore the latest message and instead to return to Khrushchev's earlier one. Kennedy was initially hesitant, feeling that Khrushchev would no longer accept the deal because a new one had been offered, but Llewellyn Thompson argued that it was still possible. [112] White House Special Counsel and Adviser Ted Sorensen and Robert Kennedy left the meeting and returned 45 minutes later, with a draft letter to that effect. The President made several changes, had it typed, and sent it.

After the EXCOMM meeting, a smaller meeting continued in the Oval Office. The group argued that the letter should be underscored with an oral message to Dobrynin that stated that if the missiles were not withdrawn, military action would be used to remove them. Rusk added one proviso that no part of the language of the deal would mention Turkey, but there would be an understanding that the missiles would be removed "voluntarily" in the immediate aftermath. The president agreed, and the message was sent.

At Rusk's request, Fomin and Scali met again. Scali asked why the two letters from Khrushchev were so different, and Fomin claimed it was because of "poor communications". Scali replied that the claim was not credible and shouted that he thought it was a "stinking double cross". He went on to claim that an invasion was only hours away, and Fomin stated that a response to the US message was expected from Khrushchev shortly and urged Scali to tell the State Department that no treachery was intended. Scali said that he did not think anyone would believe him, but he agreed to deliver the message. The two went their separate ways, and Scali immediately typed out a memo for the EXCOMM. [113]

Within the US establishment, it was well understood that ignoring the second offer and returning to the first put Khrushchev in a terrible position. Military preparations continued, and all active duty Air Force personnel were recalled to their bases for possible action. Robert Kennedy later recalled the mood: "We had not abandoned all hope, but what hope there was now rested with Khrushchev's revising his course within the next few hours. It was a hope, not an expectation. The expectation was military confrontation by Tuesday (October 30), and possibly tomorrow (October 29) . " [113]

At 8:05 pm EDT, the letter drafted earlier in the day was delivered. The message read, "As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals—which seem generally acceptable as I understand them—are as follows: 1) You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision and undertake, with suitable safe-guards, to halt the further introduction of such weapon systems into Cuba. 2) We, on our part, would agree—upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations, to ensure the carrying out and continuation of these commitments (a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect and (b) to give assurances against the invasion of Cuba." The letter was also released directly to the press to ensure it could not be "delayed". [114] With the letter delivered, a deal was on the table. As Robert Kennedy noted, there was little expectation it would be accepted. At 9:00 pm EDT, the EXCOMM met again to review the actions for the following day. Plans were drawn up for air strikes on the missile sites as well as other economic targets, notably petroleum storage. McNamara stated that they had to "have two things ready: a government for Cuba, because we're going to need one and secondly, plans for how to respond to the Soviet Union in Europe, because sure as hell they're going to do something there". [115]

At 12:12 am EDT, on October 27, the US informed its NATO allies that "the situation is growing shorter. the United States may find it necessary within a very short time in its interest and that of its fellow nations in the Western Hemisphere to take whatever military action may be necessary." To add to the concern, at 6:00 am, the CIA reported that all missiles in Cuba were ready for action.

On October 27, Khrushchev also received a letter from Castro, what is now known as the Armageddon Letter (dated the day before), which was interpreted as urging the use of nuclear force in the event of an attack on Cuba: [116] "I believe the imperialists' aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be," Castro wrote. [117]

Averted nuclear launch Edit

Later that same day, what the White House later called "Black Saturday", the US Navy dropped a series of "signalling" depth charges (practice depth charges the size of hand grenades) [118] on a Soviet submarine (B-59) at the blockade line, unaware that it was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo with orders that allowed it to be used if the submarine was damaged by depth charges or surface fire. [119] As the submarine was too deep to monitor any radio traffic, [120] [121] the captain of the B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided that a war might already have started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo. [122] The decision to launch these required agreement from all three officers on board. Vasily Arkhipov objected and so the nuclear launch was narrowly averted.

On the same day a U-2 spy plane made an accidental, unauthorised ninety-minute overflight of the Soviet Union's far eastern coast. [123] The Soviets responded by scrambling MiG fighters from Wrangel Island in turn, the Americans launched F-102 fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles over the Bering Sea. [124]

On Saturday, October 27, after much deliberation between the Soviet Union and Kennedy's cabinet, Kennedy secretly agreed to remove all missiles set in Turkey and possibly southern Italy, the former on the border of the Soviet Union, in exchange for Khrushchev removing all missiles in Cuba. [125] There is some dispute as to whether removing the missiles from Italy was part of the secret agreement. Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that it was, and when the crisis had ended McNamara gave the order to dismantle the missiles in both Italy and Turkey. [126]

At this point, Khrushchev knew things the US did not: First, that the shooting down of the U-2 by a Soviet missile violated direct orders from Moscow, and Cuban anti-aircraft fire against other US reconnaissance aircraft also violated direct orders from Khrushchev to Castro. [127] Second, the Soviets already had 162 nuclear warheads on Cuba that the US did not then believe were there. [128] Third, the Soviets and Cubans on the island would almost certainly have responded to an invasion by using those nuclear weapons, even though Castro believed that every human in Cuba would likely die as a result. [129] Khrushchev also knew but may not have considered the fact that he had submarines armed with nuclear weapons that the US Navy may not have known about.

Khrushchev knew he was losing control. President Kennedy had been told in early 1961 that a nuclear war would likely kill a third of humanity, with most or all of those deaths concentrated in the US, the USSR, Europe and China [130] Khrushchev may well have received similar reports from his military.

With this background, when Khrushchev heard Kennedy's threats relayed by Robert Kennedy to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin, he immediately drafted his acceptance of Kennedy's latest terms from his dacha without involving the Politburo, as he had previously, and had them immediately broadcast over Radio Moscow, which he believed the US would hear. In that broadcast at 9:00 am EST, on October 28, Khrushchev stated that "the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as 'offensive' and their crating and return to the Soviet Union." [131] [132] [133] At 10:00 am, October 28, Kennedy first learned of Khrushchev's solution to the crisis with the US removing the 15 Jupiters in Turkey and the Soviets would remove the rockets from Cuba. Khrushchev had made the offer in a public statement for the world to hear. Despite almost solid opposition from his senior advisers, Kennedy quickly embraced the Soviet offer. "This is a pretty good play of his," Kennedy said, according to a tape recording that he made secretly of the Cabinet Room meeting. Kennedy had deployed the Jupiters in March of the year, causing a stream of angry outbursts from Khrushchev. "Most people will think this is a rather even trade and we ought to take advantage of it," Kennedy said. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was the first to endorse the missile swap but others continued to oppose the offer. Finally, Kennedy ended the debate. "We can't very well invade Cuba with all its toil and blood," Kennedy said, "when we could have gotten them out by making a deal on the same missiles on Turkey. If that's part of the record, then you don't have a very good war." [134]

Kennedy immediately responded to Khrushchev's letter, issuing a statement calling it "an important and constructive contribution to peace". [133] He continued this with a formal letter:

I consider my letter to you of October twenty-seventh and your reply of today as firm undertakings on the part of both our governments which should be promptly carried out. The US will make a statement in the framework of the Security Council in reference to Cuba as follows: it will declare that the United States of America will respect the inviolability of Cuban borders, its sovereignty, that it take the pledge not to interfere in internal affairs, not to intrude themselves and not to permit our territory to be used as a bridgehead for the invasion of Cuba, and will restrain those who would plan to carry an aggression against Cuba, either from US territory or from the territory of other countries neighboring to Cuba. [133] [135] : 103

Kennedy's planned statement would also contain suggestions he had received from his adviser Schlesinger Jr. in a "Memorandum for the President" describing the "Post Mortem on Cuba". [136]

Kennedy's Oval Office telephone conversation with Eisenhower soon after Khrushchev's message arrived revealed that the President was planning to use the Cuban Missile Crisis to escalate tensions with Khrushchev [137] and in the long run, Cuba as well. [137] The President also claimed that he thought the crisis would result in direct military confrontations in Berlin by the end of the next month. [137] He also claimed in his conversation with Eisenhower that the Soviet leader had offered to withdraw from Cuba in exchange for the withdrawal of missiles from Turkey and that while the Kennedy Administration had agreed not to invade Cuba, [137] they were only in process of determining Khrushchev's offer to withdraw from Turkey. [137]

When former US President Harry Truman called President Kennedy the day of Khrushchev's offer, the President informed him that his Administration had rejected the Soviet leader's offer to withdraw missiles from Turkey and was planning on using the Soviet setback in Cuba to escalate tensions in Berlin. [138]

The US continued the blockade in the following days, aerial reconnaissance proved that the Soviets were making progress in removing the missile systems. The 42 missiles and their support equipment were loaded onto eight Soviet ships. On November 2, 1962, Kennedy addressed the US via radio and television broadcasts regarding the dismantlement process of the Soviet R-12 missile bases located in the Caribbean region. [139] The ships left Cuba on November 5 to 9. The US made a final visual check as each of the ships passed the blockade line. Further diplomatic efforts were required to remove the Soviet Il-28 bombers, and they were loaded on three Soviet ships on December 5 and 6. Concurrent with the Soviet commitment on the Il-28s, the US government announced the end of the blockade from 6:45 pm EST on November 20, 1962. [62]

At the time when the Kennedy administration thought that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, nuclear tactical rockets stayed in Cuba since they were not part of the Kennedy-Khrushchev understandings and the Americans did not know about them. The Soviets changed their minds, fearing possible future Cuban militant steps, and on November 22, 1962, Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union Anastas Mikoyan told Castro that the rockets with the nuclear warheads were being removed as well. [19]

In his negotiations with the Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Robert Kennedy informally proposed that the Jupiter missiles in Turkey would be removed "within a short time after this crisis was over". [140] : 222 Under an operation code-named Operation Pot Pie, the removal of the Jupiters from Italy and Turkey began on 1 April and was completed by 24 April 1963. The initial plans were to recycle the missiles for use in other programs, but NASA and the USAF were not interested in retaining the missile hardware. The missile bodies were destroyed on site, warheads, guidance packages, and launching equipment worth $14 million were returned to the United States. [141] [142]

The practical effect of the Kennedy-Khrushchev Pact was that the US would remove their rockets from Italy and Turkey and that the Soviets had no intention of resorting to nuclear war if they were out-gunned by the US. [143] [144] Because the withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles from NATO bases in Italy and Turkey was not made public at the time, Khrushchev appeared to have lost the conflict and become weakened. The perception was that Kennedy had won the contest between the superpowers and that Khrushchev had been humiliated. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev took every step to avoid full conflict despite pressures from their respective governments. Khrushchev held power for another two years. [135] : 102–105

By the time of the crisis in October 1962, the total number of nuclear weapons in the stockpiles of each country numbered approximately 26,400 for the United States and 3,300 for the Soviet Union. At the peak of the crisis, the U.S. had some 3,500 nuclear weapons ready to be used on command with a combined yield of approximately 6,300 megatons. The Soviets had considerably less strategic firepower at their disposal (some 300–320 bombs and warheads), lacking submarine-based weapons in a position to threaten the U.S. mainland and having most of their intercontinental delivery systems based on bombers that would have difficulty penetrating North American air defence systems. The U.S. had approximately 4,375 nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, most of which were tactical weapons such as nuclear artillery, with around 450 of them for ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and aircraft the Soviets had more than 550 similar weapons in Europe. [145] [146]

United States Edit

  • SAC
    • ICBM: 182 (at peak alert) 121 Atlas D/E/F, 53 Titan 1, 8 Minuteman 1A
    • Bombers: 1,595 880 B-47, 639 B-52, 76 B-58 (1,479 bombers and 1,003 refuelling tankers available at peak alert)
    • 112 UGM-27 Polaris in seven SSBNs (16 each) five submarines with Polaris A1 and two with A2
    • 4–8 Regulus cruise missiles
    • 16 Mace cruise missiles
    • 3 aircraft carriers with some 40 bombs each
    • Land-based aircraft with some 50 bombs
    • IRBM: 105 60 Thor (UK), 45 Jupiter (30 Italy, 15 Turkey)
    • 48–90 Mace cruise missiles
    • 2 U.S. Sixth Fleet aircraft carriers with some 40 bombs each
    • Land-based aircraft with some 50 bombs

    Soviet Union Edit

    • Strategic (for use against North America):
      • ICBM: 42 four SS-6/R-7A at Plesetsk with two in reserve at Baikonur, 36 SS-7/R-16 with 26 in silos and ten on open launch pads
      • Bombers: 160 (readiness unknown) 100 Tu-95 Bear, 60 3M Bison B
      • MRBM: 528 SS-4/R-12, 492 at soft launch sites and 36 at hard launch sites (approximately six to eight R-12s were operational in Cuba, capable of striking the U.S. mainland at any moment until the crisis was resolved)
      • IRBM: 28 SS-5/R-14
      • Unknown number of Tu-16 Badger, Tu-22 Blinder, and MiG-21 aircraft tasked with nuclear strike missions

      Soviet leadership Edit

      The enormity of how close the world came to thermonuclear war impelled Khrushchev to propose a far-reaching easing of tensions with the US. [147] In a letter to President Kennedy dated October 30, 1962, Khrushchev outlined a range of bold initiatives to forestall the possibility of a further nuclear crisis, including proposing a non-aggression treaty between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact or even disbanding these military blocs, a treaty to cease all nuclear weapons testing and even the elimination of all nuclear weapons, resolution of the hot-button issue of Germany by both East and West formally accepting the existence of West Germany and East Germany, and US recognition of the government of mainland China. The letter invited counter-proposals and further exploration of these and other issues through peaceful negotiations. Khrushchev invited Norman Cousins, the editor of a major US periodical and an anti-nuclear weapons activist, to serve as liaison with President Kennedy, and Cousins met with Khrushchev for four hours in December 1962. [148]

      Kennedy's response to Khrushchev's proposals was lukewarm but Kennedy expressed to Cousins that he felt constrained in exploring these issues due to pressure from hardliners in the US national security apparatus. The US and the USSR did shortly thereafter agree on a treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, known as the "Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty". [149]

      Further after the crisis, the US and the Soviet Union created the Moscow–Washington hotline, a direct communications link between Moscow and Washington. The purpose was to have a way that the leaders of the two Cold War countries could communicate directly to solve such a crisis.

      The compromise embarrassed Khrushchev and the Soviet Union because the withdrawal of US missiles from Italy and Turkey was a secret deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Khrushchev went to Kennedy as he thought that the crisis was getting out of hand, but the Soviets were seen as retreating from circumstances that they had started.

      Khrushchev's fall from power two years later was in part because of the Soviet Politburo's embarrassment at both Khrushchev's eventual concessions to the US and this ineptitude in precipitating the crisis in the first place. According to Dobrynin, the top Soviet leadership took the Cuban outcome as "a blow to its prestige bordering on humiliation". [150]

      Cuban leadership Edit

      Cuba perceived the outcome as a betrayal by the Soviets, as decisions on how to resolve the crisis had been made exclusively by Kennedy and Khrushchev. Castro was especially upset that certain issues of interest to Cuba, such as the status of the US Naval Base in Guantánamo, were not addressed. That caused Cuban–Soviet relations to deteriorate for years to come. [151] : 278

      Romanian leadership Edit

      During the crisis, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej sent a letter to President Kennedy dissociating Romania from Soviet actions. This convinced the American Administration of Bucharest's intentions of detaching itself from Moscow. [152]

      US leadership Edit

      The worldwide US Forces DEFCON 3 status was returned to DEFCON 4 on November 20, 1962. General Curtis LeMay told the President that the resolution of the crisis was the "greatest defeat in our history" his was a minority position. [55] He had pressed for an immediate invasion of Cuba as soon as the crisis began and still favoured invading Cuba even after the Soviets had withdrawn their missiles. [153] Twenty-five years later, LeMay still believed that "We could have gotten not only the missiles out of Cuba, we could have gotten the Communists out of Cuba at that time." [87]

      At least four contingency strikes were armed and launched from Florida against Cuban airfields and suspected missile sites in 1963 and 1964, although all were diverted to the Pinecastle Range Complex after the planes passed Andros island. [154] Critics, including Seymour Melman, [155] and Seymour Hersh [156] suggested that the Cuban Missile Crisis encouraged the United States' use of military means, such as the case in the later Vietnam War.

      Human casualties Edit

      U-2 pilot Anderson's body was returned to the US and was buried with full military honours in South Carolina. He was the first recipient of the newly created Air Force Cross, which was awarded posthumously. Although Anderson was the only combatant fatality during the crisis, 11 crew members of three reconnaissance Boeing RB-47 Stratojets of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing were also killed in crashes during the period between September 27 and November 11, 1962. [157] Seven crew died when a Military Air Transport Service Boeing C-135B Stratolifter delivering ammunition to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base stalled and crashed on approach on October 23. [158]

      Schlesinger, a historian and adviser to Kennedy, told National Public Radio in an interview on October 16, 2002 that Castro did not want the missiles, but Khrushchev pressured Castro to accept them. Castro was not completely happy with the idea, but the Cuban National Directorate of the Revolution accepted them, both to protect Cuba against US attack and to aid the Soviet Union. [151] : 272 Schlesinger believed that when the missiles were withdrawn, Castro was more angry with Khrushchev than with Kennedy because Khrushchev had not consulted Castro before deciding to remove them. [note 2] Although Castro was infuriated by Khrushchev, he planned on striking the US with remaining missiles if an invasion of the island occurred. [151] : 311

      In early 1992, it was confirmed that Soviet forces in Cuba had already received tactical nuclear warheads for their artillery rockets and Il-28 bombers when the crisis broke. [159] Castro stated that he would have recommended their use if the US invaded despite Cuba being destroyed. [159]

      Arguably, the most dangerous moment in the crisis was not recognised until the Cuban Missile Crisis Havana conference, in October 2002. Attended by many of the veterans of the crisis, they all learned that on October 27, 1962, USS Beale had tracked and dropped signalling depth charges (the size of hand grenades) on B-59, a Soviet Project 641 (NATO designation Foxtrot) submarine. Unknown to the US, it was armed with a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo. [160] Running out of air, the Soviet submarine was surrounded by American warships and desperately needed to surface. An argument broke out among three officers aboard B-59, including submarine captain Valentin Savitsky, political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and Deputy brigade commander Captain 2nd rank (US Navy Commander rank equivalent) Vasily Arkhipov. An exhausted Savitsky became furious and ordered that the nuclear torpedo on board be made combat ready. Accounts differ about whether Arkhipov convinced Savitsky not to make the attack or whether Savitsky himself finally concluded that the only reasonable choice left open to him was to come to the surface. [161] : 303, 317 During the conference, McNamara stated that nuclear war had come much closer than people had thought. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said, "A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."

      Fifty years after the crisis, Graham T. Allison wrote:

      Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, US President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was "between 1 in 3 and even", and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The US air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of over 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians. [162] [163]

      BBC journalist Joe Matthews published the story, on October 13, 2012, behind the 100 tactical nuclear warheads mentioned by Graham Allison in the excerpt above. [164] Khrushchev feared that Castro's hurt pride and widespread Cuban indignation over the concessions he had made to Kennedy might lead to a breakdown of the agreement between the Soviet Union and the US. To prevent that, Khrushchev decided to offer to give Cuba more than 100 tactical nuclear weapons that had been shipped to Cuba along with the long-range missiles but, crucially, had escaped the notice of US intelligence. Khrushchev determined that because the Americans had not listed the missiles on their list of demands, keeping them in Cuba would be in the Soviet Union's interests. [164]

      Anastas Mikoyan was tasked with the negotiations with Castro over the missile transfer deal that was designed to prevent a breakdown in the relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union. While in Havana, Mikoyan witnessed the mood swings and paranoia of Castro, who was convinced that Moscow had made the agreement with the US at the expense of Cuba's defence. Mikoyan, on his own initiative, decided that Castro and his military not be given control of weapons with an explosive force equal to 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs under any circumstances. He defused the seemingly intractable situation, which risked re-escalating the crisis, on November 22, 1962. During a tense, four-hour meeting, Mikoyan convinced Castro that despite Moscow's desire to help, it would be in breach of an unpublished Soviet law, which did not actually exist, to transfer the missiles permanently into Cuban hands and provide them with an independent nuclear deterrent. Castro was forced to give way and, much to the relief of Khrushchev and the rest of the Soviet government, the tactical nuclear weapons were crated and returned by sea to the Soviet Union during December 1962. [164]

      The American popular media, especially television, made frequent use of the events of the missile crisis and both fictional and documentary forms. [165] Jim Willis includes the Crisis as one of the 100 "media moments that changed America". [166] Sheldon Stern finds that a half century later there are still many "misconceptions, half-truths, and outright lies" that have shaped media versions of what happened in the White House during those harrowing two weeks. [167]

      Historian William Cohn argued in a 1976 article that television programs are typically the main source used by the American public to know about and interpret the past. [168] According to Cold War historian Andrei Kozovoi, the Soviet media proved somewhat disorganised as it was unable to generate a coherent popular history. Khrushchev lost power and was airbrushed out of the story. Cuba was no longer portrayed as a heroic David against the American Goliath. One contradiction that pervaded the Soviet media campaign was between the pacifistic rhetoric of the peace movement that emphasises the horrors of nuclear war and the militancy of the need to prepare Soviets for war against American aggression. [169]

      Declassified JFK Files Reveal Memo About U.S. Plans to Invade Cuba

      As journalists and researchers sift through more than 2,800 of the previously withheld documents related to the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy that President Trump ordered released on October 26, files dealing with events other than the assassination are surfacing. One of the most significant of these records is a “Memorandum for the Special Group (Augmented)” dated August 8, 1962 with the subject: “Consequences of US Military Intervention in Cuba.”

      The memorandum, which was released with deletions in 1998, originally was classified “Top Secret.” It presumably has gone largely unnoticed in the National Archives until the recent massive release of documents.

      1. On 2 August 1962, the Chief of Operations, Operation MONGOOSE, requested DOD/JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) Representative, Operation MONGOOSE, to prepare a paper for distribution to the Special Group (Augmented) on 8 August 1962. The specific requirement is to set forth “Consequences of (US) Military Intervention (in Cuba) to include (personnel, units and equipment), effect on world-wide ability to react, possibility of a requirement for sustained occupation, the level of national mobilization required, and Cuban counteraction.”

      The memorandum estimated that in order to seize control of strategic areas in Cuba within 10-15 days with minimum casualties to both sides, about 261,000 U.S. military personnel would participate in the operation. This would include about 71,000 Army and 35,000 Marine forces.

      As for the Special Group (Augmented) to which the memorandum was directed, an article posted by the UK-based Spartacus Educational online encyclopedia states:

      After the Bay of Pigs disaster [April 17, 1961], President John F. Kennedy created a committee called Special Group Augmented (SGA) charged with overthrowing Castro’s government. The SGA, chaired by Robert F. Kennedy (Attorney General), included John McCone (CIA Director), McGeorge Bundy (National Security Adviser), Alexis Johnson (State Department), Roswell Gilpatric (Defense Department), General Lyman Lemnitzer (Joint Chiefs of Staff) and General Maxwell Taylor. Although not officially members, Dean Rusk (Secretary of State) and Robert S. McNamara (Secretary of Defense) also attending meetings.

      At a meeting of this committee at the White House on 4th November, 1961, it was decided to call this covert action program for sabotage and subversion against Cuba, Operation Mongoose. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy also decided that General Edward Lansdale (Staff Member of the President’s Committee on Military Assistance) should be placed in charge of the operation.

      A USA Today report observed that while this memorandum and other documents that were released recently had nothing to do with the actual assassination, “it was included in the files because of the connection between Kennedy’s desire to remove Castro from power, his support of Cuban exiles to help him, and the affinity of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald for the Castro government.”

      Oswald’s sympathies for the Castro regime motivated him to write to the New York City headquarters of the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), on May 26, 1963, six months before the Kennedy assassination.

      In his letter, Oswald proposed to rent “a small office at my own expense for the purpose of forming a FPCC branch here in New Orleans.” Three days later, the FPCC responded to Oswald’s letter advising against opening a New Orleans office “at least not … at the very beginning.” In a follow-up letter, Oswald replied, “Against your advice, I have decided to take an office from the very beginning.”

      In May 31, 1961 UPI writer Louis Cassells wrote that the FPCC was organized the previous year by Robert Bruce Taber, a former television newsman who became a Castro supporter during the early days of the Cuban Revolution. The article noted:

      Tabor is now in Cuba, wielding sword and pen for Castro. During the April invasion attempt by anti-Castro forces, he was photographed wearing the uniform of the Castro militia. He also is reported to be working for Revolución, official organ of the Castro regime.

      Among the FPCC’s Communist connections, Cassells noted that Al Saxton, chairman of the FPCC chapter in San Francisco, was a member of the Communist Party from 1944 to 1946, according to testimony given to the House Committee on Un-American Activities by Ernest L. Seymour, an admitted former Communist.

      That Oswald would attempt to become a key partner with the FPCC seems only natural, given his history of sympathy for Soviet communism. He traveled to the Soviet Union just before he turned 20 in October 1959. Upon arriving, Oswald informed his Intourist guide of his desire to become a Soviet citizen. When asked why by the various Soviet officials he met with, he said that he was a Communist.

      While in the Soviet Union, Oswald met his future wife, Marina. On May 24, 1962, Oswald and Marina applied at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for documents enabling her to immigrate to America, and on June 1 the U.S. Embassy gave Oswald a repatriation loan, after which he, Marina, and their infant daughter left for the United States.

      Oswald also traveled to Mexico City in September 1963, where he applied for a transit visa at the Cuban Embassy, claiming he wanted to visit Cuba on his way to the Soviet Union. The Cuban embassy officials insisted Oswald would need Soviet approval, but he was unable to get prompt cooperation from the Soviet embassy. On October 18, the Cuban embassy finally approved the visa, but by this time Oswald was back in the United States because he had given up on his plans to visit Cuba and the Soviet Union.

      As the USA Today writer noted, the memorandum detailing our government’s consideration of Operation Mongoose had nothing to do with the assassination of Kennedy. As we observed previously, however, in the reporters’ opinion, it was included in the JFK assassination files “because of the connection between Kennedy’s desire to remove Castro from power … and the affinity of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald for the Castro government.”

      The Arms Race

      In June 1961, Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria. (See a memorandum below outlining the main points of conversation between President Kennedy and Khrushchev at their first lunch meeting.) Kennedy was surprised by Khrushchev's combative tone during the summit. At one point, Khrushchev threatened to cut off Allied access to Berlin. The Soviet leader pointed out the Lenin Peace Medals he was wearing, and Kennedy answered, "I hope you keep them." Just two months later, Khrushchev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall to stop the flood of East Germans into West Germany.

      As a result of these threatening developments, Kennedy ordered substantial increases in American intercontinental ballistic missile forces. He also added five new army divisions and increased the nation's air power and military reserves. The Soviets meanwhile resumed nuclear testing and President Kennedy responded by reluctantly reactivating American tests in early 1962.

      Memorandum relaying the main points of the conversation between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during their first lunch meeting in Vienna, on June 3, 1961.

      During this meeting, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev discussed Soviet agriculture, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's space flight, the possibility of putting a man on the moon, and their hopes that their two nations would have good relations in the future.

      Memorandum relaying the main points of the conversation between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during their first lunch meeting in Vienna, on June 3, 1961.

      During this meeting, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev discussed Soviet agriculture, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's space flight, the possibility of putting a man on the moon, and their hopes that their two nations would have good relations in the future.

      Memorandum relaying the main points of the conversation between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during their first lunch meeting in Vienna, on June 3, 1961.

      During this meeting, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev discussed Soviet agriculture, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's space flight, the possibility of putting a man on the moon, and their hopes that their two nations would have good relations in the future.

      Memorandum relaying the main points of the conversation between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during their first lunch meeting in Vienna, on June 3, 1961.

      During this meeting, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev discussed Soviet agriculture, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's space flight, the possibility of putting a man on the moon, and their hopes that their two nations would have good relations in the future.

      On This Day: JFK alerted to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962

      Russia had secretly placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the Florida coast. America could soon be under deadly attack. His adversary Nikita Kruschev was certain he had the measure of the young president, who ultimately proved the Soviet Premier wrong.

      Kennedy had learned to be wary of the military experts after the botched invasion of Cuban exiles trying to remove Castro who were driven back at the Bay of Pigs.

      That experience would stand to him greatly during the 13 days in October 1962 when Armageddon threatened.

      The following is how the crisis is unfolded, in part by the JFK Presidential Library:

      Two days earlier a United States military surveillance aircraft had taken hundreds of aerial photographs of Cuba. CIA analysts, working around the clock, had deciphered in the pictures conclusive evidence that a Soviet missile base was under construction near San Cristobal, Cuba just 90 miles from the coast of Florida.

      Aerial shots of Cuba taken in October 1962 (Getty Images)

      The most dangerous encounter in the history of the world and the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union had begun.

      For thirteen days in October 1962, the world waited—seemingly on the brink of nuclear war—and hoped for a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

      Meanwhile, the US moved its readiness for war to DEFCON 2 the last step before a nuclear war. It was going to be a white-knuckle two weeks.

      The thirteen days marking the most dangerous period of the Cuban missile crisis begin. President Kennedy and principal foreign policy and national defense officials are briefed on the U-2 findings.

      Discussions begin on how to respond to the challenge. Two principal courses are offered: an airstrike and invasion, or a naval quarantine with the threat of further military action. To avoid arousing public concern, the president maintained his official schedule, meeting periodically with advisors to discuss the status of events in Cuba and possible strategies.

      On Day 2, American military units begin moving to bases in the Southeastern U.S. as intelligence photos from another U-2 flight show additional sites and 16 to 32 missiles. President Kennedy attends a brief service at St. Matthew's Cathedral in observance of the National Day of Prayer.

      After, he has lunch with Crown Prince Hasan of Libya and then makes a political visit to Connecticut in support of Democratic congressional candidates.

      On Day 3, President Kennedy is visited by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who asserts that Soviet aid to Cuba is purely defensive and does not represent a threat to the United States. Kennedy, without revealing what he knows of the existence of the missiles, reads to Gromyko his public warning of September 4 that the "gravest consequences" would follow if significant Soviet offensive weapons were introduced into Cuba.

      Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (Getty Images)

      Day 4 was spent in discussion with his advisors, and on Day 5 President Kennedy returns suddenly to Washington. After five hours of discussion with top advisers, the President decides on the quarantine and blockade. Plans for deploying naval units are drawn and work is begun on a speech to notify the American people.

      On Day 6, after attending Mass at St. Stephen's Church with Mrs. Kennedy, the President meets with General Walter Sweeney of the Tactical Air Command who tells him that an airstrike could not guarantee 100% destruction of the missiles.

      On Day 7, President Kennedy phones former Presidents Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower to brief them on the situation. Meetings to coordinate all actions continue. Kennedy formally establishes the Executive Committee of the National Security Council and instructs it to meet daily during the crisis. Kennedy briefs the cabinet and congressional leaders on the situation. Kennedy also informs British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of the situation by telephone.

      At 7:00 p.m. Kennedy speaks on television, revealing the evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba and calling for their removal. He also announces the establishment of a naval quarantine around the island until the Soviet Union agrees to dismantle the missile sites and to make certain that no additional missiles are shipped to Cuba. Approximately one hour before the speech, Secretary of State Dean Rusk formally notifies Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin of the contents of the President's speech.

      On Day 8, the ships of the naval quarantine fleet move into place around Cuba. Soviet submarines threaten the quarantine by moving into the Caribbean area. Soviet freighters bound for Cuba with military supplies stop dead in the water, but the oil tanker Bucharest continues towards Cuba. In the evening Robert Kennedy meets with Ambassador Dobrynin at the Soviet Embassy.

      Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Federovich Dobrynin (Getty Images)

      On Day 9, Kruschev threatens war. He writes to Kennedy: "You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one's relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us."

      President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, pictured here circa 1960 (Getty Images)

      On Day 10, knowing that some missiles in Cuba were now operational, the president personally drafts a letter to Premier Khrushchev, again urging him to change the course of events. Meanwhile, Soviet freighters turn and head back to Europe. The Bucharest, carrying only petroleum products, is allowed through the quarantine line. U.N. Secretary General U Thant calls for a cooling-off period, which is rejected by Kennedy because it would leave the missiles in place.

      On Day 11, a Soviet-chartered freighter is stopped at the quarantine line and searched for contraband military supplies. None are found and the ship is allowed to proceed to Cuba. Photographic evidence shows accelerated construction of the missile sites and the uncrating of Soviet IL-28 bombers at Cuban airfields.

      A Soviet cargo ship with eight missile transporters and canvas-covered missiles lashed on deck during its return voyage from Cuba to the Soviet Union. (Getty Images)

      In a private letter, Fidel Castro urges Nikita Khrushchev to initiate a nuclear first strike against the United States in the event of an American invasion of Cuba.

      May 7, 1964: Cuba's Fidel Castro with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow. (Getty Images)

      John Scali, ABC News reporter, is approached by Aleksander Fomin of the Soviet embassy staff with a proposal for a solution to the crisis.

      Later, a long, rambling letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy makes a similar offer: removal of the missiles in exchange for lifting the quarantine and a pledge that the U.S. will not invade Cuba.

      On Day 12, the second letter from Moscow demanding tougher terms, including the removal of obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey, is received in Washington.

      Over Cuba, an American U-2 plane is shot down by a Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile and the pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson is killed. President Kennedy writes a letter to the widow of USAF Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., offering condolences, and informing her that President Kennedy is awarding him the Distinguished Service Medal, posthumously.

      On Day 13, the thirteen days marking the most dangerous period of the Cuban missile crisis ended. Radio Moscow announces that the Soviet Union has accepted the proposed solution and releases the text of a Khrushchev letter affirming that the missiles will be removed in exchange for a non-invasion pledge from the United States.

      The young American leader has faced down the Soviet Union and avoided nuclear war in the process. In refusing to use nuclear missiles Kennedy went against at least one of his own advisors but saved the world from incredible destruction.

      General Curtis LeMay of the Joint Chiefs had told Kennedy that the course the President had settled on–a naval blockade of Cuba–was a bad idea and was “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.” And at another point of this November 16 meeting, he advocated “solving” the problem, by which he meant implementing CINCLANT OPLAN 312-62, the air attack plan for Cuba.

      Kennedy and Cuba

      Kennedy inherits a military budget that's grown to take up nearly half of the entire government and he increases this by billions of dollars. He allows the American public to believe they're close to losing the arms race with Russia when America has enough atomic bombs to kill every man, woman and child on earth and 1,700 bombers to make it so. Russia, at this time, has less than two hundred. But Americans had realised by the end of the 1950s that nuclear testing meant radiation fall-out could soon be in their breakfast bowls. One of Kennedy's greatest achievements is the treaty agreed with Russia in 1963 that bans nuclear testing in the air. It's achieved after both countries come close to nuclear destruction over Cuba.

      The CIA has a plan to invade the communist island of Cuba with Cuban exiles in order to topple the leader, Fidel Castro. Castro was the Bin Laden of his day and actions such as confiscating over a million acres of land from American companies hadn't endeared him to the US. But his reforms, including distributing the newly acquired land to the poor, make him a popular leader. In April 1961, less than three months into his Presidency, Kennedy authorises the coup. But Castro even knew of the invasion point, the Bay of Pigs. Within three days, the exiles are beaten. The Russian leader, Khrushchev, takes advantage of the American failure by preparing to install nuclear missiles.

      On 16 October 1962, Kennedy's shown day old photographs of Soviet soldiers with nuclear warheads on Cuba. He turns for advice to ExComm, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, one of whose members is the attorney general, his brother, Robert Kennedy. It's unknown whether Robert is aware that his presidential brother secretly records most of ExComm's meetings.

      The first proposal, unanimously agreed, is to bomb Cuba without warning. This 'Pearl Harbor' option is dismissed by day three and it's decided to publicly denounce the missiles, and block any further missiles reaching Cuba. Russian defiance of this will be met with nuclear retaliation. On Monday 22 October Kennedy puts the world on nuclear alert. Americans stockpile food in preparation for the coming nuclear winter. Then, four days later, Khrushchev offers to remove the missiles. But only in return for a promise that America won't invade Cuba, and that nuclear missiles will be withdrawn from Turkey. Initially, Kennedy thinks this a fair swap. Others realise that to concede the safety of their European allies for the sake of American security would fatally undermine NATO. And the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was America's best defence against a Russian land invasion of Western Europe. But Khrushchev has already decided to back down, and as the Russians send their missiles home, the world breathes again. A year later, Kennedy is shot dead. Vice President Lyndon Johnson takes office and uses Kennedy's memory to push through the legislation that secures African Americans into the constitution. In August 1964, American officials fabricate an attack on a US vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin and use the Tonkin Resolution to officially launch the Vietnam war.

      Did you know?

      Three of the Bay of Pigs Cuban exiles used by President Kennedy returned to America only to find employment as burglars and wire-tappers for Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal., On taking office, JFK launched the Alliance for Progress to help develop Latin America. But according to author Howard Zinn, instead of this bettering the lives of people in Latin America, it 'turned out to be mostly military aid to keep in power right-wing dictatorships and enable them to stave off revolutions'., In 1961 JFK told the world that America will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. They just make it, in July 1969, when two men, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong become the first humans to walk upon the moon.

      Nuclear nightmare: the Cuban missile crisis

      The Cuban Missile Crisis, a tense 13-day standoff between the US and the Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, took place in October 1962. Arguably the most dangerous confrontation the world has faced, the crisis occurred at the height of Cold War tensions. More than 50 years on, Mark White re-examines the conduct of the president John F Kennedy and his brother Robert, attorney general of the United States…

      This competition is now closed

      Published: October 26, 2018 at 2:51 pm

      The reaction of Robert Kennedy, attorney general of the United States, when he learned on Tuesday, 16 October 1962, that Soviet nuclear missiles had been deployed in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, was understandable: “Oh shit! Shit! Shit! Those sons of bitches Russians.”

      In both public and private, Russian officials had assured their American counterparts that the Soviet military build-up in Cuba that had begun in the summer was no threat to the United States, because it would not include nuclear missiles capable of striking American territory. In fact, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had decided in the spring to dispatch nuclear weapons to Cuba for a variety of reasons.

      Among them was a desire to defend his ally, Fidel Castro – the communist revolutionary who had taken the reins of power in Cuba three years earlier – from an anticipated US attack, and to close a nuclear gap that was heavily in America’s favour.

      Some historians have queried whether Khrushchev would have put missiles in Cuba had President John F Kennedy not attempted to overthrow Castro with the CIA-organised Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Fearful that Kennedy would continue his drive to oust his government, Castro gratefully accepted Khrushchev’s proposal to bolster Cuba with nuclear missiles.

      What the Kennedy administration faced in October 1962 was the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War era. In fact, given the appalling loss of life inevitable in a nuclear war, the Cuban missile crisis can be regarded as the most dangerous confrontation in human history.

      This was one occasion when JFK and his advisers had to provide effective leadership and 2012, the 50th anniversary of the missile crisis, is an appropriate time to reconsider how the Kennedy administration handled this severe challenge. The way the US administration managed the crisis was a collaborative effort between the president and his advisers, of whom the centre of scholarly focus has always been Robert Kennedy.

      That focus can be explained by the exceptionally close fraternal relationship between John and Robert. But it also reflects the fact that Robert Kennedy penned one of the key early texts for missile crisis historians Thirteen Days, his memoir of the confrontation.

      Written with the assistance of JFK’s great speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, and published after Robert was assassinated in 1968 during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Thirteen Days presented a heroic view of Bobby Kennedy.

      It claimed he had stood up courageously to the hawks, who had wanted to attack Cuba, by championing the idea of a naval blockade around the island to prevent Khrushchev from sending in additional missiles and to furnish a period of time during which a negotiated settlement could be achieved.

      Thirteen Days also saw Robert Kennedy crafting a moralistic argument, based on the idea that a US assault on Cuba would be disturbingly reminiscent of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It also suggested that Robert hatched the plan for how to deal with the two different sets of proposals advanced by Khrushchev on 26–27 October – a plan that in effect defused the missile crisis and so ensured peace.

      Following JFK’s assassination in November 1963, a view crystallised that John Kennedy, brilliantly assisted by his brother, had provided America with exceptional leadership. This became known as the ‘Camelot’ interpretation, the notion – first articulated by John’s widow, Jackie Kennedy, in a Life magazine interview given only a week after her husband’s death – that JFK’s leadership had been so inspiring that it brought to mind the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

      Books published in 1965 by Theodore Sorensen, and by historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr, added weight to this rose-tinted view.

      Thirteen Days, then, was part of the process by which the Kennedy family and its supporters sought to convince the American people that the Kennedy administration had been one of the greatest in US history. Seeing beyond these powerful ‘Camelot’ myths is essential in developing a balanced assessment of a presidency that included notable successes, but major failures as well.

      Some scholars have gone too far in fashioning a view of Kennedy as a man with a private life as depraved as Caligula’s, from a family reminiscent of the Borgias, who possessed the same political morals as Shakespeare’s Richard III – a view very different from, but no less caricatured, than that propagated by the Camelot school.


      In terms of the missile crisis, John and Robert Kennedy did provide generally adroit leadership – but not, however, as flawless as that portrayed in Thirteen Days. For example, what Robert Kennedy did not mention in his memoir was that, at the start of the crisis, he was in fact one of those hawks in the administration who called for an attack on Cuba.

      Most hawks wanted to carry out some sort of air strike that would destroy the missile sites, but there was a ‘super-hawk’ position in favour of a full-scale invasion of the Caribbean island and that was the position he initially took.

      On 16 October at the first meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), the group of senior officials set up by JFK to advise him during the crisis, Robert Kennedy added to his brother’s list of policy options, saying: “We have the fifth one, really, which is the invasion.” Later that day he argued: “If you’re going to get into it [Cuba] at all, whether we should just get into it, and get it over with, and take our losses.”

      Famously, Robert Kennedy handed JFK a note that day, which stated: “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.” That statement used to be interpreted as a sarcastic condemnation of the ExComm officials who wanted to attack Cuba. It is now clear that the statement was meant literally by a man intent at that point on an invasion of the island.

      The advisers who first used the Pearl Harbor analogy in ExComm to criticise the idea of a hasty US attack were, in fact, CIA official Marshall Carter and undersecretary of state George Ball. Ball contended that an American attack on Cuba launched without warning would be “like Pearl Harbor. It’s the kind of conduct that one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one expects of the United States.”

      Tarnished reputation

      It was not Robert Kennedy, therefore, who in the first few days of the missile crisis led the way in arguing that a blockade of Cuba was a safer and potentially more effective approach than a military strike. That assertion was first made by secretary of defence Robert McNamara, whose reputation has forever been tarnished by the widespread belief that he, more than any other adviser, was the one who persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to go to war in Vietnam in 1965. In the early days of the missile crisis, however, it was McNamara – not Robert Kennedy – who most insistently made the case for a blockade.

      McNamara also increased the likelihood that his ExComm colleagues would plump for a blockade over a military-strike option, made dangerous by the risk of a forceful Soviet retaliation, by urging them to consider the ramifications of their proposals: “I don’t believe we have considered the consequences of any of these actions satisfactorily… I don’t know quite what kind of a world we’d live in after we have struck Cuba, and we’ve started it.”

      Tardily, Robert Kennedy did come to champion the blockade, condemn the ExComm hawks and use the Pearl Harbor comparison in developing a moral dimension to his arguments. But without exposure to the more enlightened views of some of his colleagues he might not have abandoned the hard-line position he initially took.

      Robert Kennedy’s reliance on the wisdom of colleagues was also evident at the climax of the missile crisis as the ExComm group grappled with the issue of how best to respond to the two different proposals relayed by Khrushchev in late October. In the first – a letter addressed to JFK on the 26 October – the Soviet premier promised to remove the missiles from Cuba if Kennedy pledged never to invade the island. In the second – a message dated the 27 October – Khrushchev demanded the additional concession that the United States withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

      Whether peace could be secured would depend on how effectively the US administration dealt with this dilemma. In Thirteen Days Robert Kennedy claimed the lion’s share of the credit for coming up with the idea of ignoring Khrushchev’s second message and embracing the proposals contained in his first letter.

      However, declassified documents make clear that the claim that Robert was responsible for the plan that ended the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear era is simply a piece of ‘Camelot’ propaganda. Several US officials, including national security adviser McGeorge Bundy and Theodore Sorensen, recommended this approach before Robert endorsed it.

      As for John Kennedy, he became more impressive as the missile crisis unfolded. On the first day he favoured a strike on the missile sites, but as the crisis went on, he became more determined to end it through diplomacy rather than force. In deciding to blockade rather than attack Cuba, he had to stand up to his bellicose military advisers.

      On 19 October he told them: “The argument for the blockade was that what we want to do is to avoid, if we can, nuclear war by escalation or imbalance.”

      JFK’s eloquent television and radio address on the evening of 22 October, in which he revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba and announced the imposition of the blockade, helped to win support, both in the US and elsewhere, for his administration’s position.

      His letter to Khrushchev on 27 October in which he agreed not to sanction any invasion of Cuba was manifestly effective in getting Khrushchev to back down by agreeing to remove the nuclear weapons from Cuba.

      So too was the secret mission he sent Robert Kennedy on that evening to inform the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, that in due course the US Jupiter missiles in Turkey would be secretly withdrawn. Khrushchev’s decision was probably influenced, too, by an alarming letter he received from Castro, urging the Soviet leader to launch a nuclear war against the United States if Kennedy decided to invade Cuba.

      The Cuban missile crisis profoundly affected Kennedy and Khrushchev. It left them with a heightened fear of the dangers of the Cold War, and a greater understanding of the need to reduce the chances that the superpower arms race could lead to nuclear conflict.

      The following year JFK delivered his American University speech in which he called upon Americans to adopt a less hostile view of the Russian people. Shortly after that, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the Test Ban Treaty, which limited nuclear testing.

      But later that same year JFK was assassinated in Dallas, and in 1964 Khrushchev was ousted in a coup by Kremlin rivals. The Kennedy-Khrushchev era, with all its dangers and opportunities, was over.

      This article was first published by BBC History Magazine in November 2012.

      The Kennedys and the Cold War

      John Kennedy’s early views on foreign policy were influenced by the time he spent in Britain in the late 1930s when his father, Joseph Kennedy, was the American ambassador in London. He studied the British appeasement of Hitler for his Harvard undergraduate dissertation, which was published in 1940 as his first book, Why England Slept.

      The basic lesson that JFK derived from his analysis of appeasement was that democracies must always be tough and militarily prepared in dealing with totalitarian enemies. Elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1946, this belief shaped his attitude towards the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Once in the White House, Kennedy’s pre-presidential convictions led him to adopt what was initially a hard-line foreign policy. He tried to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro with the Bay of Pigs invasion. He authorised a huge military build-up. He escalated US involvement in Vietnam. Although he remained determined to meet the communist challenge, the Cuban missile crisis changed his thinking and he became more interested in identifying approaches that could reduce Cold War tensions.

      Like his brother, Robert Kennedy’s initial views on the Cold War were hard-line. Early in his career he had worked for Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, who had launched a witch-hunt for communists in America and one of the lesser-known facts about the Kennedys is that Robert actually voted for Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican presidential candidate, in 1956.

      When JFK appointed Robert attorney general, Robert’s initial focus was on various domestic issues. Once the Bay of Pigs catastrophe took place, John turned to family by deciding to involve Robert in all key foreign policy matters. Thus, the attorney general played a major role in the secret programme Operation Mongoose, launched in November 1961, with the aim of toppling Castro. But the missile crisis also altered Robert Kennedy’s thinking on foreign affairs, making it less belligerent. After his brother’s death, he moved further to the left on both foreign and domestic policy. Before his own assassination in 1968, he had become an impassioned critic of the American war in Vietnam.

      Mark White is a professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London. His books include Missiles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Ivan R Dee, 1997)

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      The Joint Chiefs of Staff reciprocated the new president’s doubts. Lemnitzer made no secret of his discomfort with a 43-year-old president who he felt could not measure up to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former five-star general Kennedy had succeeded. Lemnitzer was a West Point graduate who had risen in the ranks of Eisenhower’s World War II staff and helped plan the successful invasions of North Africa and Sicily. The 61-year-old general, little known outside military circles, stood 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, with a bearlike frame, booming voice, and deep, infectious laugh. Lemnitzer’s passion for golf and his ability to drive a ball 250 yards down a fairway endeared him to Eisenhower. More important, he shared his mentor’s talent for maneuvering through Army and Washington politics. Also like Ike, he wasn’t bookish or particularly drawn to grand strategy or big-picture thinking—he was a nuts-and-bolts sort of general who made his mark managing day-to-day problems.

      To Kennedy, Lemnitzer embodied the military’s old thinking about nuclear weapons. The president thought a nuclear war would bring mutually assured destruction— MAD , in the shorthand of the day—while the Joint Chiefs believed the United States could fight such a conflict and win. Sensing Kennedy’s skepticism about nukes, Lemnitzer questioned the new president’s qualifications to manage the country’s defense. Since Eisenhower’s departure, he lamented in shorthand, no longer was “a Pres with mil exp available to guide JCS.” When the four-star general presented the ex-skipper with a detailed briefing on emergency procedures for responding to a foreign military threat, Kennedy seemed preoccupied with possibly having to make “a snap decision” about whether to launch a nuclear response to a Soviet first strike, by Lemnitzer’s account. This reinforced the general’s belief that Kennedy didn’t sufficiently understand the challenges before him.

      Admiral Arleigh Burke, the 59-year-old chief of naval operations, shared Lemnitzer’s doubts. An Annapolis graduate with 37 years of service, Burke was an anti-Soviet hawk who believed that U.S. military officials needed to intimidate Moscow with threatening rhetoric. This presented an early problem for Kennedy, in that Burke “pushed his black-and-white views of international affairs with bluff naval persistence,” the Kennedy aide and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. later wrote. Kennedy had barely settled into the Oval Office when Burke planned to publicly assail “the Soviet Union from hell to breakfast,” according to Arthur Sylvester, a Kennedy-appointed Pentagon press officer who brought the proposed speech text to the president’s attention. Kennedy ordered the admiral to back off and required all military officers on active duty to clear any public speeches with the White House. Kennedy did not want officers thinking they could speak or act however they wished.

      Kennedy’s biggest worry about the military was not the personalities involved but rather the freedom of field commanders to launch nuclear weapons without explicit permission from the commander in chief. Ten days after becoming president, Kennedy learned from his national-security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, that “a subordinate commander faced with a substantial Russian military action could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative.” As Roswell L. Gilpatric, Kennedy’s deputy defense secretary, recalled, “We became increasingly horrified over how little positive control the president really had over the use of this great arsenal of nuclear weapons.” To counter the military’s willingness to use nuclear weapons against the Communists, Kennedy pushed the Pentagon to replace Eisenhower’s strategy of “massive retaliation” with what he called “flexible response”—a strategy of calibrated force that his White House military adviser, General Maxwell Taylor, had described in a 1959 book, The Uncertain Trumpet. But the brass resisted. The stalemate in the Korean War had frustrated military chiefs and left them inclined to use atomic bombs to ensure victory, as General Douglas MacArthur had proposed. They regarded Kennedy as reluctant to put the nation’s nuclear advantage to use and thus resisted ceding him exclusive control over decisions about a first strike.

      The NATO commander, General Lauris Norstad, and two Air Force generals, Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power, stubbornly opposed White House directives that reduced their authority to decide when to go nuclear. The 54-year-old Norstad confirmed his reputation as fiercely independent when two high-profile Kennedy emissaries, thought to be Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, visited NATO’s strategic military command in Belgium. They asked whether Norstad’s primary obligation was to the United States or to its European allies. “My first instinct was to hit” one of the Cabinet members for “challenging my loyalty,” he recalled later. Instead, he tried to smile and said, “ ‘Gentlemen, I think that ends this meeting.’ Whereupon I walked out and slammed the door.” Norstad was so clearly reluctant to concede his commander in chief’s ultimate authority that Bundy urged Kennedy to remind the general that the president “is boss.”

      General Power, too, was openly opposed to limiting the use of America’s ultimate weapons. “Why are you so concerned with saving their lives?” he asked the lead author of a Rand study that counseled against attacking Soviet cities at the outset of a war. “The whole idea is to kill the bastards … At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.” Even Curtis LeMay, Power’s superior, described him as “not stable” and a “sadist.”

      The 54-year-old LeMay, known as “Old Iron Pants,” wasn’t much different. He shared his subordinate’s faith in the untrammeled use of air power to defend the nation’s security. The burly, cigar-chomping caricature of a general believed the United States had no choice but to bomb its foes into submission. In World War II, LeMay had been the principal architect of the incendiary attacks by B‑29 heavy bombers that destroyed a large swath of Tokyo and killed about 100,000 Japanese—and, he was convinced, shortened the war. LeMay had no qualms about striking at enemy cities, where civilians would pay for their governments’ misjudgment in picking a fight with the United States.

      During the Cold War, LeMay was prepared to launch a preemptive nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. He dismissed civilian control of his decision making, complained of an American phobia about nuclear weapons, and wondered privately, “Would things be much worse if Khrushchev were secretary of defense?” Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter and alter ego, called LeMay “my least favorite human being.”

      The strains between the generals and their commander in chief showed up in exasperating ways. When Bundy asked the Joint Chiefs’ staff director for a copy of the blueprint for nuclear war, the general at the other end of the line said, “We never release that.” Bundy explained, “I don’t think you understand. I’m calling for the president and he wants to see [it].” The chiefs’ reluctance was understandable: their Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan foresaw the use of 170 atomic and hydrogen bombs in Moscow alone the destruction of every major Soviet, Chinese, and Eastern European city and hundreds of millions of deaths. Sickened by a formal briefing on the plan, Kennedy turned to a senior administration official and said, “And we call ourselves the human race.”

      The tensions between Kennedy and the military chiefs were equally evident in his difficulties with Cuba. In 1961, having been warned by the CIA and the Pentagon about the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s determination to export communism to other Latin American countries, Kennedy accepted the need to act against Castro’s regime. But he doubted the wisdom of an overt U.S.-sponsored invasion by Cuban exiles, fearing it would undermine the Alliance for Progress, his administration’s effort to curry favor with Latin American republics by offering financial aid and economic cooperation.

      The overriding question for Kennedy at the start of his term wasn’t whether to strike against Castro but how. The trick was to topple his regime without provoking accusations that the new administration in Washington was defending U.S. interests at the expense of Latin autonomy. Kennedy insisted on an attack by Cuban exiles that wouldn’t be seen as aided by the United States, a restriction to which the military chiefs ostensibly agreed. They were convinced, however, that if an invasion faltered and the new administration faced an embarrassing defeat, Kennedy would have no choice but to take direct military action. The military and the CIA “couldn’t believe that a new president like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face,” Kennedy later told his aide Dave Powers. “Well, they had me figured all wrong.” Meeting with his national-security advisers three weeks before the assault on Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, according to State Department records, Kennedy insisted that leaders of the Cuban exiles be told that “U.S. strike forces would not be allowed to participate in or support the invasion in any way” and that they be asked “whether they wished on that basis to proceed.”When the Cubans said they did, Kennedy gave the final order for the attack.

      The operation was a miserable failure—more than 100 invaders killed and some 1,200 captured out of a force of about 1,400. Despite his determination to bar the military from taking a direct role in the invasion, Kennedy was unable to resist a last-minute appeal to use air power to support the exiles. Details about the deaths of four Alabama Air National Guard pilots, who engaged in combat with Kennedy’s permission as the invasion was collapsing, were long buried in a CIA history of the Bay of Pigs fiasco (unearthed after Peter Kornbluh of George Washington University’s National Security Archive filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2011). The document reveals that the White House and the CIA told the pilots to call themselves mercenaries if they were captured the Pentagon took more than 15 years to recognize the airmen’s valor, in a medal ceremony their families were required to keep secret. Even more disturbing, this Bay of Pigs history includes CIA meeting notes—which Kennedy never saw—predicting failure unless the U.S. intervened directly.

      Afterward, Kennedy accused himself of naïveté for trusting the military’s judgment that the Cuban operation was well thought-out and capable of success. “Those sons of bitches with all the fruit salad just sat there nodding, saying it would work,” Kennedy said of the chiefs. He repeatedly told his wife, “Oh my God, the bunch of advisers that we inherited!” Kennedy concluded that he was too little schooled in the Pentagon’s covert ways and that he had been overly deferential to the CIA and the military chiefs. He later told Schlesinger he had made the mistake of thinking that “the military and intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals.” His lesson: never rely on the experts. Or at least: be skeptical of the inside experts’ advice, and consult with outsiders who may hold a more detached view of the policy in question.

      The consequence of the Bay of Pigs failure wasn’t an acceptance of Castro and his control of Cuba but, rather, a renewed determination to bring him down by stealth. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s younger brother and closest confidant, echoed the thinking of the military chiefs when he warned about the danger of ignoring Cuba or refusing to consider armed U.S. action. McNamara directed the military to “develop a plan for the overthrow of the Castro government by the application of U.S. military force.”

      The president, however, had no intention of rushing into anything. He was as keen as everyone else in the administration to be rid of Castro, but he kept hoping the American military needn’t be directly involved. The planning for an invasion was meant more as an exercise for quieting the hawks within the administration, the weight of evidence suggests, than as a commitment to adopt the Pentagon’s bellicosity. The disaster at the Bay of Pigs intensified Kennedy’s doubts about listening to advisers from the CIA, the Pentagon, or the State Department who had misled him or allowed him to accept lousy advice.

      During the early weeks of his presidency, another source of tension between Kennedy and the military chiefs was a small landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Laos looked like a proving ground for Kennedy’s willingness to stand up to the Communists, but he worried that getting drawn into a war in remote jungles was a losing proposition. At the end of April 1961, while he was still reeling from the Bay of Pigs, the Joint Chiefs recommended that he blunt a North Vietnamese–sponsored Communist offensive in Laos by launching air strikes and moving U.S. troops into the country via its two small airports. Kennedy asked the military chiefs what they would propose if the Communists bombed the airports after the U.S. had flown in a few thousand men. “You [drop] a bomb on Hanoi,” Robert Kennedy remembered them replying, “and you start using atomic weapons!” In these and other discussions, about fighting in North Vietnam and China or intervening elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Lemnitzer promised, “If we are given the right to use nuclear weapons, we can guarantee victory.” By Schlesinger’s account, President Kennedy dismissed this sort of thinking as absurd: “Since [Lemnitzer] couldn’t think of any further escalation, he would have to promise us victory.”

      The clash with Admiral Burke, tensions over nuclear-war planning, and the bumbling at the Bay of Pigs convinced Kennedy that a primary task of his presidency was to bring the military under strict control. Articles in Time and Newsweek that portrayed Kennedy as less aggressive than the Pentagon angered him. He told his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, “This shit has got to stop.”

      Still, Kennedy couldn’t ignore the pressure to end Communist control of Cuba. He wasn’t ready to tolerate Castro’s government and its avowed objective of exporting socialism to other Western Hemisphere countries. He was willing to entertain suggestions for ending Castro’s rule as long as the Cuban regime demonstrably provoked a U.S. military response or as long as Washington’s role could remain concealed. To meet Kennedy’s criteria, the Joint Chiefs endorsed a madcap plan called Operation Northwoods. It proposed carrying out terrorist acts against Cuban exiles in Miami and blaming them on Castro, including physically attacking the exiles and possibly destroying a boat loaded with Cubans escaping their homeland. The plan also contemplated terrorist strikes elsewhere in Florida, in hopes of boosting support domestically and around the world for a U.S. invasion. Kennedy said no.

      Policy toward Cuba remained a minefield of bad advice. By late August 1962, information was flooding in about a Soviet military buildup on the island. Robert Kennedy urged Rusk, McNamara, Bundy, and the Joint Chiefs to consider new “aggressive steps” that Washington could take, including, according to notes from one discussion, “provoking an attack against Guantanamo which would permit us to retaliate.” The military chiefs insisted that Castro could be toppled “without precipitating general war” McNamara favored sabotage and guerrilla warfare. They suggested that manufactured acts of sabotage at Guantánamo as well as other provocations could justify U.S. intervention. But Bundy, speaking for the president, cautioned against action that could instigate a blockade of West Berlin or a Soviet strike against U.S. missile sites in Turkey and Italy.

      The events that became the Cuban missile crisis triggered Americans’ fears of a nuclear war, and McNamara shared Kennedy’s concerns about the military’s casual willingness to rely on nuclear weapons. “The Pentagon is full of papers talking about the preservation of a ‘viable society’ after nuclear conflict,” McNamara told Schlesinger. “That ‘viable society’ phrase drives me mad … A credible deterrent cannot be based on an incredible act.”

      The October 1962 missile crisis widened the divide between Kennedy and the military brass. The chiefs favored a full-scale, five-day air campaign against the Soviet missile sites and Castro’s air force, with an option to invade the island afterward if they thought necessary. The chiefs, responding to McNamara’s question about whether that might lead to nuclear war, doubted the likelihood of a Soviet nuclear response to any U.S. action. And conducting a surgical strike against the missile sites and nothing more, they advised, would leave Castro free to send his air force to Florida’s coastal cities—an unacceptable risk.

      Kennedy rejected the chiefs’ call for a large-scale air attack, for fear it would create a “much more hazardous” crisis (as he was taped telling a group in his office) and increase the likelihood of “a much broader struggle,” with worldwide repercussions. Most U.S. allies thought the administration was “slightly demented” in seeing Cuba as a serious military threat, he reported, and would regard an air attack as “a mad act.” Kennedy was also skeptical about the wisdom of landing U.S. troops in Cuba: “Invasions are tough, hazardous,” a lesson he had learned at the Bay of Pigs. The biggest decision, he thought, was determining which action “lessens the chances of a nuclear exchange, which obviously is the final failure.”

      Kennedy decided to impose a blockade—what he described more diplomatically as a quarantine—of Cuba without consulting the military chiefs with any seriousness. He needed their tacit support in case the blockade failed and military steps were required. But he was careful to hold them at arm’s length. He simply did not trust their judgment weeks earlier, the Army had been slow to respond when James Meredith’s attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi touched off riots. “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and their split-second timing, but it never works out,” Kennedy had said. “No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.” Kennedy waited for three days after learning that a U-2 spy plane had confirmed the Cuban missiles’ presence before sitting down with the military chiefs to discuss how to respond—and then for only 45 minutes.

      That meeting convinced Kennedy that he had been well advised to shun the chiefs’ counsel. As the session started, Maxwell Taylor—by then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—said the chiefs had agreed on a course of action: a surprise air strike followed by surveillance to detect further threats and a blockade to stop shipments of additional weapons. Kennedy replied that he saw no “satisfactory alternatives” but considered a blockade the least likely to bring a nuclear war. Curtis LeMay was forceful in opposing anything short of direct military action. The Air Force chief dismissed the president’s apprehension that the Soviets would respond to an attack on their Cuban missiles by seizing West Berlin. To the contrary, LeMay argued: bombing the missiles would deter Moscow, while leaving them intact would only encourage the Soviets to move against Berlin. “This blockade and political action … will lead right into war,” LeMay warned, and the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps chiefs agreed.

      “This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” LeMay declared. “In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”

      Kennedy took offense. “What did you say?”

      “You’re in a pretty bad fix,” LeMay replied, refusing to back down.

      The president masked his anger with a laugh. “You’re in there with me,” he said.

      After Kennedy and his advisers left the room, a tape recorder caught the military brass blasting the commander in chief. “You pulled the rug right out from under him,” Marine Commandant David Shoup crowed to LeMay. “If somebody could keep them from doing the goddamn thing piecemeal—that’s our problem. You go in there and friggin’ around with the missiles, you’re screwed … Do it right and quit friggin’ around.”

      Kennedy, too, was angry—“just choleric,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Gilpatric, who saw the president shortly afterward. “He was just beside himself, as close as he ever got.”

      “These brass hats have one great advantage,” Kennedy told his longtime aide Kenny O’Donnell. “If we … do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

      Jackie Kennedy told her husband that if the Cuban crisis ended in a nuclear war, she and their children wanted to die with him. But it was Mimi Beardsley, his 19-year-old intern turned paramour, who spent the night of October 27 in his bed. She witnessed his “grave” expression and “funereal tone,” she wrote in a 2012 memoir, and he told her something he could never have admitted in public: “I’d rather my children be red than dead.” Almost anything was better, he believed, than nuclear war.

      Kennedy’s civilian advisers were elated when Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles. But the military chiefs refused to believe that the Soviet leader would actually do what he had promised. They sent the president a memo accusing Khrushchev of delaying the missiles’ departure “while preparing the ground for diplomatic blackmail.” Absent “irrefutable evidence” of Khrushchev’s compliance, they continued to recommend a full-scale air strike and an invasion.

      Kennedy ignored their advice. Hours after the crisis ended, when he met with some of the military chiefs to thank them for their help, they made no secret of their disdain. LeMay portrayed the settlement as “the greatest defeat in our history” and said the only remedy was a prompt invasion. Admiral George Anderson, the Navy chief of staff, declared, “We have been had!” Kennedy was described as “absolutely shocked” by their remarks he was left “stuttering in reply.” Soon afterward, Benjamin Bradlee, a journalist and friend, heard him erupt in “an explosion … about his forceful, positive lack of admiration for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

      Yet Kennedy could not simply disregard their advice. “We must operate on the presumption that the Russians may try again,” he told McNamara. When Castro refused to allow United Nations inspectors to look for nuclear missiles and continued to pose a subversive threat throughout Latin America, Kennedy continued planning to oust him from power. Not by an invasion, however. “We could end up bogged down,” Kennedy wrote to McNamara on November 5. “We should keep constantly in mind the British in Boer War, the Russians in the last war with the Finnish and our own experience with the North Koreans.” He also worried that violating the understanding he had with Khrushchev not to invade Cuba would invite condemnation from around the world.

      Still, his administration’s goal in Cuba had not changed. “Our ultimate objective with respect to Cuba remains the overthrow of the Castro regime and its replacement by one sharing the aims of the Free World,” read a White House memo to Kennedy dated December 3, which suggested that “all feasible diplomatic economic, psychological and other pressures” be brought to bear. All, indeed. The Joint Chiefs described themselves as ready to use “nuclear weapons for limited war operations in the Cuban area,” professing that “collateral damage to nonmilitary facilities and population casualties will be held to a minimum consistent with military necessity”—an assertion they surely knew was nonsense. A 1962 report by the Department of Defense on “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons” acknowledged that exposure to radiation was likely to cause hemorrhaging, producing “anemia and death … If death does not take place in the first few days after a large dose of radiation, bacterial invasion of the blood stream usually occurs and the patient dies of infection.”

      Kennedy did not formally veto the military chiefs’ plan for a nuclear attack on Cuba, but he had no intention of acting on it. He knew that the notion of curbing collateral damage was less a realistic possibility than a way for the brass to justify their multitudes of nuclear bombs. “What good are they?,” Kennedy asked McNamara and the military chiefs a few weeks after the Cuban crisis. “You can’t use them as a first weapon yourself. They are only good for deterring … I don’t see quite why we’re building as many as we’re building.”

      In the wake of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev both reached the sober conclusion that they needed to rein in the nuclear arms race. Kennedy’s announced quest for an arms-control agreement with Moscow rekindled tensions with his military chiefs—specifically, over a ban on testing nuclear bombs anywhere but underground. In June 1963, the chiefs advised the White House that every proposal they had reviewed for such a ban had shortcomings “of major military significance.” A limited test ban, they warned, would erode U.S. strategic superiority later, they said so publicly in congressional testimony.

      The following month, as the veteran diplomat W. Averell Harriman prepared to leave for Moscow to negotiate a nuclear-test ban, the chiefs privately called such a step at odds with the national interest. Kennedy saw them as a treaty’s greatest domestic impediment. “If we don’t get the chiefs just right,” he told Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, “we can … get blown.” To quiet their objections to Harriman’s mission, Kennedy promised them a chance to speak their minds in Senate hearings should a treaty emerge for ratification, even as he instructed them to consider more than military factors. Meanwhile, he made sure to exclude military officers from Harriman’s delegation, and decreed that the Department of Defense—except for Maxwell Taylor—receive none of the cables reporting developments in Moscow.

      “The first thing I’m going to tell my successor,” Kennedy told guests at the White House, “is to watch the generals, and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”

      Persuading the military chiefs to refrain from attacking the test-ban treaty in public required intense pressure from the White House and the drafting of treaty language permitting the United States to resume testing if it were deemed essential to national safety. LeMay, however, testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, could not resist planting doubts: Kennedy and McNamara had promised to keep testing nuclear weaponry underground and to continue research and development in case circumstances changed, he said, but they had not discussed “whether what [the chiefs] consider an adequate safeguard program coincides with their idea on the subject.” The Senate decisively approved the treaty nonetheless.

      This gave Kennedy yet another triumph over a cadre of enemies more relentless than the ones he faced in Moscow. The president and his generals suffered a clash of worldviews, of generations—of ideologies, more or less—and every time they met in battle, JFK’s fresher way of fighting prevailed.


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