Editor’s choice January/February 2013

The Real Cuban Missile Crisis

Everything you think you know about those 13 days is wrong.

If the administration’s domestic political priorities alone dictated the removal of the Cuban missiles, a solution to Kennedy’s problem would have seemed pretty obvious: instead of a public ultimatum demanding that the Soviets withdraw their missiles from Cuba, a private agreement between the superpowers to remove both Moscow’s missiles in Cuba and Washington’s missiles in Turkey. (Recall that the Kennedy administration discovered the missiles on October 16, but only announced its discovery to the American public and the Soviets and issued its ultimatum on the 22nd.)

The administration, however, did not make such an overture to the Soviets. Instead, by publicly demanding a unilateral Soviet withdrawal and imposing a blockade on Cuba, it precipitated what remains to this day the most dangerous nuclear crisis in history. In the midst of that crisis, the sanest and most sensible observers—among them diplomats at the United Nations and in Europe, the editorial writers for the Manchester Guardian, Walter Lippmann, and Adlai Stevenson—saw a missile trade as a fairly simple solution. In an effort to resolve the impasse, Khrushchev himself openly made this proposal on October 27. According to the version of events propagated by the Kennedy administration (and long accepted as historical fact), Washington unequivocally rebuffed Moscow’s offer and instead, thanks to Kennedy’s resolve, forced a unilateral Soviet withdrawal.

Beginning in the late 1980s, however, the opening of previously classified archives and the decision by a number of participants to finally tell the truth revealed that the crisis was indeed resolved by an explicit but concealed deal to remove both the Jupiter and the Cuban missiles. Kennedy in fact threatened to abrogate if the Soviets disclosed it. He did so for the same reasons that had largely engendered the crisis in the first place—domestic politics and the maintenance of America’s image as the indispensable nation. A declassified Soviet cable reveals that Robert Kennedy—whom the president assigned to work out the secret swap with the U.S.S.R.’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin—insisted on returning to Dobrynin the formal Soviet letter affirming the agreement, explaining that the letter “could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future.”

Only a handful of administration officials knew about the trade; most members of the ExComm, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, did not. And in their effort to maintain the cover-up, a number of those who did, including McNamara and Rusk, lied to Congress. JFK and others tacitly encouraged the character assassination of Stevenson, allowing him to be portrayed as an appeaser who “wanted a Munich” for suggesting the trade—a deal that they vociferously maintained the administration would never have permitted.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts.”

The patient spadework of Stern and other scholars has since led to further revelations. Stern demonstrates that Robert Kennedy hardly inhabited the conciliatory and statesmanlike role during the crisis that his allies described in their hagiographic chronicles and memoirs and that he himself advanced in his posthumously published book, Thirteen Days. In fact, he was among the most consistently and recklessly hawkish of the president’s advisers, pushing not for a blockade or even air strikes against Cuba but for a full-scale invasion as “the last chance we will have to destroy Castro.” Stern authoritatively concludes that “if RFK had been president, and the views he expressed during the ExComm meetings had prevailed, nuclear war would have been the nearly certain outcome.” He justifiably excoriates the sycophantic courtier Schlesinger, whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts—“profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive”—were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.

Although Stern and other scholars have upended the panegyrical version of events advanced by Schlesinger and other Kennedy acolytes, the revised chronicle shows that JFK’s actions in resolving the crisis—again, a crisis he had largely created—were reasonable, responsible, and courageous. Plainly shaken by the apocalyptic potentialities of the situation, Kennedy advocated, in the face of the bellicose and near-unanimous opposition of his pseudo-tough-guy advisers, accepting the missile swap that Khrushchev had proposed. “To any man at the United Nations, or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade,” he levelheadedly told the ExComm. “Most people think that if you’re allowed an even trade you ought to take advantage of it.” He clearly understood that history and world opinion would condemn him and his country for going to war—a war almost certain to escalate to a nuclear exchange—after the U.S.S.R. had publicly offered such a reasonable quid pro quo. Khrushchev’s proposal, the historian Ronald Steel has noted, “filled the White House advisors with consternation—not least of all because it appeared perfectly fair.”

Although Kennedy in fact agreed to the missile swap and, with Khrushchev, helped settle the confrontation maturely, the legacy of that confrontation was nonetheless pernicious. By successfully hiding the deal from the vice president, from a generation of foreign-policy makers and strategists, and from the American public, Kennedy and his team reinforced the dangerous notion that firmness in the face of what the United States construes as aggression, and the graduated escalation of military threats and action in countering that aggression, makes for a successful national-security strategy—really, all but defines it.

The president and his advisers also reinforced the concomitant view that America should define a threat not merely as circumstances and forces that directly jeopardize the safety of the country, but as circumstances and forces that might indirectly compel potential allies or enemies to question America’s resolve. This recondite calculation led to the American disaster in Vietnam: in attempting to explain how the loss of the strategically inconsequential country of South Vietnam might weaken American credibility and thereby threaten the country’s security, one of McNamara’s closest aides, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, allowed that “it takes some sophistication to see how Vietnam automatically involves” our vital interests. Kennedy said in his address to the nation during the missile crisis that “aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war.” He explained that “if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe,” then the United States could not tolerate such conduct by the Soviets—even though, again, he had privately acknowledged that the deployment of the missiles did not change the nuclear balance.

This notion that standing up to aggression (however loosely and broadly defined) will deter future aggression (however loosely and broadly defined) fails to weather historical scrutiny. After all, America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq didn’t deter Muammar Qaddafi; America’s war against Yugoslavia didn’t deter Saddam Hussein in 2003; America’s liberation of Kuwait did not deter Slobodan Milošević; America’s intervention in Panama did not deter Saddam Hussein in 1991; America’s intervention in Grenada did not deter Manuel Noriega; America’s war against North Vietnam did not deter Grenada’s strongman, Hudson Austin; and JFK’s confrontation with Khrushchev over missiles in Cuba certainly did not deter Ho Chi Minh.

Moreover, the idea that a foreign power’s effort to counter the overwhelming strategic supremacy of the United States—a country that spends nearly as much on defense as does the rest of the world combined—ipso facto imperils America’s security is profoundly misguided. Just as Kennedy and his advisers perceived a threat in Soviet efforts to offset what was in fact a destabilizing U.S. nuclear hegemony, so today, both liberals and conservatives oxymoronically assert that the safety of the United States demands that the country must “balance” China by maintaining its strategically dominant position in East Asia and the western Pacific—that is, in China’s backyard. This means that Washington views as a hazard Beijing’s attempts to remedy the weakness of its own position, even though policy makers acknowledge that the U.S. has a crushing superiority right up to the edge of the Asian mainland. America’s posture, however, reveals more about its own ambitions than it does about China’s. Imagine that the situation were reversed, and China’s air and naval forces were a dominant and potentially menacing presence on the coastal shelf of North America. Surely the U.S. would want to counteract that preponderance. In a vast part of the globe, stretching from the Canadian Arctic to Tierra del Fuego and from Greenland to Guam, the U.S. will not tolerate another great power’s interference. Certainly America’s security wouldn’t be jeopardized if other great powers enjoy their own (and for that matter, smaller) spheres of influence.

This esoteric strategizing—this misplaced obsession with credibility, this dangerously expansive concept of what constitutes security—which has afflicted both Democratic and Republican administrations, and both liberals and conservatives, is the antithesis of statecraft, which requires discernment based on power, interest, and circumstance. It is a stance toward the world that can easily doom the United States to military commitments and interventions in strategically insignificant places over intrinsically trivial issues. It is a stance that can engender a foreign policy approximating paranoia in an obdurately chaotic world abounding in states, personalities, and ideologies that are unsavory and uncongenial—but not necessarily mortally hazardous.

Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.
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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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