“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.”
BETTER “RED THAN DEAD”
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.