The Cuban Missile Crisis: 40 Years Later
With Thomas S. Blanton
Executive Director, National Security Archive
Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2002; 11 a.m. ET
Forty years ago today, President Kennedy called together his closest advisers to decide the course of action for the United States after the CIA had shown him evidence of Soviet missiles on the island of Cuba. The 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis gave meaning to the word "brinksmanship" and brought the world closer to disaster than it had ever been before.
Now, 40 years later, what have we learned about the politics of weapons of mass destruction? What went into the decisions that were made during those tense days? Are there lessons that apply today?
Thomas S. Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., just returned from Havana, Cuba, where he organized a three-day conference: The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A Political Perspective After 40 Years. Blanton was online to talk about the conference, those 13 days in 1962 and the politics of this historical event on Wednesday, Oct. 16.
Founded in 1985, the Archive has become the most prolific and successful non-profit user of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Blanton serves as series editor of the Archive's microfiche, CD-ROM and Web publications of declassified documents, now totaling over 500,000 pages. His books include "White House E-Mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan-Bush White House tried to Destroy" (The New Press, 1995). He has co-authored several other books, including "The Chronology" (Warner Books, 1987) on the Iran-Contra affair, "Litigation Under the Federal Open Government Laws" (American Civil Liberties Union, 1993), and "Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940" (Brookings Institution, 1998). His articles have appeared in The International Herald-Tribune, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, the Cold War International History Project Bulletin, and other publications; and he has appeared on numerous national broadcasts including ABC News, Nightline, CNN Crossfire, PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and NPR All Things Considered. A Harvard graduate, the university's 1979 Newcomen Prize in history.
The transcript follows.
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washingtonpost.com: Good morning, Tom, and thanks for joining us. You just recently wrapped up a conference in Havana with some of the key players of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even with all you know about those 13 days, what surprised you to uncover?
Thomas S. Blanton: The most surprising new evidence revealed that we were even closer to nuclear war than the policymakers knew at the time, and that's saying something, because on Saturday, Oct. 27, Robert McNamara thought he might not live to see the sunrise. At the time, there was a crescendo of bad news: a U-2 shot down over Cuba, another U-2 straying over Siberia with U.S. Air Force jets (also armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles) scrambling to head off possible MIG interception. The Joint Chiefs had recommended air strike and invasion of Cuba, as of 4 p.m. The Cubans were firing on all the low-level US recon flights. At the conference, we found out that exactly at that moment, US destroyers were dropping signaling depth charges on a Soviet submarine near the quarantine line that was carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo -- totally unbeknownst to the U.S. Navy. The Soviet captain lost his temper, there could be a world war up there, let's take some of them down with us, etc. Cooler heads prevailed, specifically the sub brigade deputy commander named Vasily Arkhipov, who was onboard and calmed the captain down. The sub came to the surface about 15 minutes after Soviet ambassador Dobrynin left Bobby Kennedy's office carrying RFK's urgent message to Khrushchev, time is running out, invasion in 48 hours, if you take the missiles out, we will pledge not to invade Cuba, plus we'll take our missiles out of Turkey as long as you don't mention that part of it publicly. Early the next morning, Khrushchev announced the Soviet missiles would be coming out.
Washington, D.C.: Who were the advisers who were most staunchly in President Kennedy's camp during the Missile Crisis? Thank you.
Thomas S. Blanton: Great question, since JFK was the main "dove" throughout the discussions of the ExComm. The first reaction of the President and all his advisers, 40 years ago today, as they looked at the photos of the missiles, was we'll have to take them out. Air strikes and invasion were the consensus. But the evidence from the Kennedy tapes shows that JFK led the move away from that position, and went for a quarantine plus secret diplomacy instead, for three reasons: 1. pre-emptive strike would be a "Pearl Harbor"; 2. it would shake up the allies, most of whom didn't agree with U.S. policy on Cuba to begin with, and 3. there was no guarantee it would get all the missiles. Bobby Kennedy was initially one of the most hard-line attack-oriented advisers, but he quickly picked up on his brother's caution and by the end was leading the secret diplomacy with Dobrynin. Robert McNamara was right with the President on the caution front, but McNamara also kept the military options open. Ted Sorensen was JFK's voice, so when Sorensen summed up the arguments against pre-emptive strike on Oct. 20, that crystallized the President's thinking. The Joint Chiefs were seriously out of step with the President, as was Dean Acheson. Immediately after the crisis, there's one very tough conversation in which JFK dresses down Dean Rusk for not having worked through all the options ahead of time. I would highly recommend your reading the second and third volume of the "Great Crises" transcripts of the Kennedy tapes, produced by the Miller Center at UVa. and published by Norton. Then you can draw your own conclusions.
Alexandria, Va.: What exactly did Kruschev hope to accomplish by installing the missiles clandestinely? Logically, if he was pursuing the deterrence model, he would have made sure the U.S. knew about the missiles.
Thomas S. Blanton: This was exactly Fidel Castro's point at the conference. Castro's criticism of Khrushchev was for putting the missiles in secretly. Castro presented evidence showing the Cubans in the summer of 1962 argued for a public mutual defense treaty and public placement of the missiles, the same way the US put its medium-range missiles in Turkey. The Soviets said no. I asked Castro why they accepted the no, since they felt strongly about it, and his answer was: our revolution was only three years old and the Soviets' was 45 years old, they beat Hitler, they marched into Berlin, "we thought they knew what they were doing!" Ted Sorensen said it would have tied U.S. hands if the Soviets had placed the missiles openly -- the key for the U.S. having the high ground was the secrecy and deceit about the missiles. As for Khrushchev's motivations, the Soviet documents suggest he didn't want to hurt Kennedy politically by doing this openly during mid-term election season, fall 1962, but planned to spring it on the world in late November. Obviously, the Soviets never thought through their actions and the US response.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: How come the Russians got so close to finishing construction on the missile silos in Cuba before the U.S. was ready to deal with the problem? Did the CIA miss this one, too? It sounds like General Sweeney thought if they bombed the installation, they wouldn't get all the missile launcers and thus we'd be exposed to a direct attack. As an engineer I can say, you can't build up to that level of completion and still hide the evidence of construction. Kennedy MUST have had U2 overflight photos MONTHS before the drama of October played out. How come the CIA and the military intelligence services didn't get the jump on this Russian-Cuban project from the get go? And please don't tell me because they didn't have enough funding or the authority to do so. Thanks much. Signed. Vietnam-Era Veteran.
Thomas S. Blanton: As an engineer, you should take a good look at the extraordinary feat of engineering the Soviets managed in getting all that equipment and all those people to Cuba in a very short time. The U-2 photographs from Aug. 29 and Sept. 4 show no construction whatsoever at the missile sites, and only anti-aircraft sites underway. The Soviets surged the construction, these were mobile missiles on trailers, all they had to do was pour some concrete for the pad and run some cables for the command-and-control and keep the nitric acid fuel a little ways away. The CIA caught the build-up, took photos of every single Soviet ship on its way to Cuba, but only the DCI John McCone believed MRBMs were on their way. One reason why is that CIA had already received some 3,000 human intelligence reports of sightings of missiles in Cuba before the first one went in. After the U-2 caught the missiles on Oct. 14 (and you can look at the www.nsarchive.org Web site linked here for the pictures -- the Soviets are arriving at the San Cristobal site in a convoy), the CIA/Navy/SAC photographic collection is one of the greatest intelligence feats of our time. Even so, they only found 33 of the 42 missiles we now know were there, and not a single one of the warheads for either the missiles or the tactical weapons. If the U.S. had invaded, the likelihood is, we would have set off a nuclear exchange.
Harrisburg, Pa.: What lessons on diplomacy are to be learned from studying this crisis? Wasn't a significant part of diplomacy in this crisis the choice of the Kennedy administration to ignore an antagonistic Russian communication and respond to a more concilitory communication, thus setting the level of discussion toward conciliation? Are there other lessons you would mention?
Thomas S. Blanton: You've put your finger on a key moment. JFK and his advisers are debating what to do about the two letters and thinking, well, we've got to respond to the tough one, that says the Soviets will only pull out if the US pulls out of Turkey. At this moment, Tommy Thompson, longtime Russia expert, former ambassador to Moscow, knows Khrushchev personally, says, hey, let's give him a way out, he wants to be able to say he saved Cuba, let's ignore the Turkey letter and give him a pledge on Cuba. JFK did both, the pledge on Cuba publicly (with conditions of course) and the Turkey deal secretly. The main lesson is they achieved Khrushchev's pullback by putting themselves in their adversary's shoes, they avoided backing him against the wall, and they looked for alternatives short of war -- which at best is a crude instrument of policy, sometimes necessary to be sure. As JFK commented on the tapes, we're not going to have a very good war if we find out later we could have gotten the missiles out by trading ours in Turkey.
Arlington, Va.: I recently heard a radio show discussing the recently released Kennedy tapes regarding the missile crisis. The show's guest claimed that Kennedy's withdrawal of our medium-range nuclear missles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets' pulling their missle from Cuba was a new revelation, i.e., that Kennedy swap had long been hidden from the American public. Hasn't that been well-known and well-documented for many, many years? Is there anything on the new tapes about the swap?
Thomas S. Blanton: This is still pretty controversial. The first versions of the story put out by Kennedy advisers in leaks after the crisis was only Adlai Stevenson (i.e., dove or wimp) proposed such a trade, which the President refused. In official testimony after the crisis, top officials Bundy and McNamara explicitly denied such a trade. In RFK's posthumous book, "Thirteen Days," he describes his conversation with Dobrynin on Oct. 27 as refusing any quid pro quo, just that the U.S. was planning to take the Turkey missiles out anyway. Only in 1989 did Ted Sorensen admit, under prodding from Dobrynin, that he had edited that passage of the book before publication. Now we have Dobrynin's own cables back to Moscow, including one just published in the 1990s in the Cold War History Project Bulletin, where Dobrynin comes back to RFK after the crisis with a letter memorializing the Turkey trade and RFK keeps it for a day and gives it back, saying such a letter in the files could ruin his political career. The real problem with the secrecy of this history is it contributed to the myth of "calibrated brinksmanship" -- we have to hang tough, ratchet up the pressure, and the other guy will blink. Well, that is what we tried in Vietnam.
Arlingon, Va.: My dad worked for ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) at the time. He always had a place to go in a nuclear attack. However his family did not.
I am sure many military and civ DOD employees faced the same predictment then and do today. I am a DOD employee and don't have a place to go in case of a nuc or WMD attack. Guess I am not essential.
My dad was to be evacuated by chopper to someplace in Pennsylvania or Virginia. Not sure if it was Mt. Weather or not.
Thomas S. Blanton: I think you are essential. So are we all. Your dad would have emerged from that bunker to a ruined world, if a nuclear war went off. Unfortunately, we and the Soviets caught ourselves in a nuclear arms race that built up tons of fissile material that now represents perhaps the biggest threat to our national security. I think Robert McNamara and the other officials came back to Cuba this past weekend precisely to find out more about the nuclear dangers so the world can better reduce those risks in the future.
Lyme, Conn.: I know you are engaged in American archives. Yet, after the fall of the Soviet Union, did any more Soviet papers regarding Cuba become public? Also, hasn't Cuba recently released more of its own documents? What interesting details, if any, have you seen emerge from the papers from the other side on this crisis?
Thomas S. Blanton: There was a brief golden age of openness in the Soviet archives, from 1991 to 1993 -- ironically corresponding with the brief age of openness in the CIA archives. For the conference this past weekend, the National Security Archive's Russian specialists, led by Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya, unearthed more than a thousand pages of new Soviet documents, such as the actual military orders that gave local commanders authority to fire tactical nuclear weapons if an invasion came, then took that authority away at the height of the crisis because Moscow feared events were getting out of control. Plus the Cuban government declassified nearly a thousand pages of its files, including all its defense agreements with the Soviets, long lists of all the equipment the Soviets gave them, transcripts of Castro's very difficult meeting with Soviet emissary Mikoyan -- amazing stuff. What's really interesting is the Cuban sense of constant threat from the U.S., or put another way, our covert operations that were meant to deter Castro from subverting the hemisphere actually compelled him to accept Soviet missiles. For the Cubans, they call the crisis "the October crisis," in effect the crisis of the month. From the new US and Soviet files, you can see both Kennedy and Khrushchev being reckless before the crisis, JFK with his covert operations and Nikita with his secret deceitful missile deployment, and both of them immediately going totally cautious once the crisis broke, knowing the world was on the brink, both looking for a way out without war.
Virginia: JFK was a liberal as well as his top aides. Your archive seemed to be more anti-liberal now in releasing anti-Communism documents. What gives?
Thomas S. Blanton: Whoever is or was in power will be embarrassed by the kind of openness we're pushing, in the US and around the world. We had to sue Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton to save the White House e-mail. We now have partners in 35 countries of like-minded people trying to open their secret files. In Poland those files not only embarrass Communists but lead to criminal trials for some of them. In Chile those files not only embarrass generals but lead to criminal trials for some of them. The Cold War was often a dirty war, on all sides, and to say so does not amount to moral equivalency. We're trying to do our part to hold power accountable. The Czech writer Milosz put it best: the struggle of the individual against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Thanks for your detailed response to my question. As an engineer, I also understand it's impossible to hide the communications requirements and the evidence of transportation of massive amounts of equipment and materials -- especially halfway around the world from HQ. In Russia then, no one did anything without orders from the homeland -- my guess was message [radio telephone] traffic from Cuba stepped up noticeably during the construction and deployment phase of the missile systems. Unless of course, our intelligence agencies WEREN'T LOOKING. Considering the inordinate amount of interest in Cuba by the CIA, why did it take till August for anyone in Washington to know that there was something dangerously afoot 90 miles from Miami? That's my concern and my question. Thanks much.
Thomas S. Blanton: The short answer is that the equipment didn't get there until August. We now know from Soviet documents that the Soviets didn't even propose the missiles to Castro until May 29, 1962. Raul Castro didn't even have the treaty drafted until his trip to Moscow in early July. At the end of August, Castro is sending Che Guevara to Moscow to make the final deal and argue to do the deployment openly. The missiles don't even arrive in Cuba until mid-September. Yes, there's tons of message traffic, but the deal was so closely held that the number 3 man in the Cuban military, now Vice President Jose Ramon Fernandez (who led the organizing group on the Cuban side that treated us with so much courtesy), was not told, found out about it from his subordinates who were stationed around the first missile site in late September, raises it with Raul Castro the Minister of Defense, who tells Fernandez that anybody who talks about it gets a session of house arrest.
Washington, D.C.: What would you suggest are the best books to read to get a fuller picture of the crisis?
Thomas S. Blanton: The book that the Washington Post Book World said "puts the reader in the shoes of the crisis managers" is one my own group, the National Security Archive, produced. The editors are Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, the title is "The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962" and the book includes the 85 greatest hits of the secret documents of the time, including tape transcripts, CIA reports, Khrushchev letters, and even Castro's own version of events as given in the 1992 conference in Havana. This book, plus one of the Kennedy tapes volumes, plus the new book by James Blight and Philip Brenner, "Sad and Luminous Days" on the Cuban perspective, plus the Fursenko/Naftali book "One Hell of a Gamble" on the Soviet perspective -- these are the best.
Australia: The Cuban leadership received a harsh lesson from Khruschev about the imbalance of power and interests between Cuba and its "partner" in relations with the United States.
That should have been gravely damaging to Castro's political position -- really, to much of his overall philosophy. Did the Cuban participants give any indications about what they expected to happen and what they did to forestall the damage?
Thomas S. Blanton: The Cuban participants said they were reluctant to take the missiles and only did so out of "solidarity" with the socialist camp. Then the Soviets cut their deal with the US without consulting Castro, and Castro only found out by accident on his trip to the USSR in May 1963 that Nikita had traded for the Turkish missiles. How does it feel to be a bargaining chip? You should take a good look at the British ambassador's after-action report, included on our Web site, a spectacular, prophetic document. He writes "to discover in the early stages of an 18 round contest that you are not even one of the contestants but only the prize money is not an easily forgotten experience for a sensitive young nation." He goes on, however, to predict a net result of long-term victory for Castro. At one of our dinners in Havana, I must admit late at night after multiple anejos, a Cuban colleague raised a glass to the investigation of the historical mystery of whether Cuba has suffered more from American aggression or Soviet friendship.
Washington, D.C.: Do the tapes reveal Bobby trying to angle his way into becoming Secretary of Defense in the second term?
Thomas S. Blanton: Nope. McNamara had JFK's confidence. Bobby was consigliere and enforcer rolled into one. When Bobby spoke, the listener knew you were hearing from the President, just -- as Richard Goodwin commented -- with much less charm.
Frederick, Md.: Hello Sir,
As close to war as has been said some have even suggested that we were even closer to nuclear war during the Reagan years. Any comments?
Thomas S. Blanton: There's mixed evidence on this, and I think the chances for accidential or delibate nuclear exchange were much less in 1983 than in 1962. Soviet files do show extraordinary paranoia in Moscow in the fall of 1983, due to President Reagan's rhetoric, the U.S. defense buildup, the KAL 007 shootdown and the vehement U.S. reaction, plus a NATO exercise that simulated command-and-control during a nuclear war. A CIA historian named Benjamin Fischer has written one of the best accounts of all this. It certainly wasn't Reagan's intention, and after he viewed the ABC movie about the aftermath of nuclear war, and found out more of Soviet paranoia, he shifted his Soviet policy pretty dramatically in early 1984. Of course, only in 1985 did Reagan find a producer on the Soviet side to make the movie RR always wanted to film on US-Soviet relations.
Kahnawake, Quebec,Canada: On NBC's "Today" show a 1962 Navy officer involved with the tracking and chase down one of several submerged Soviet diesel subs moving towards Cuba. Each sub, unknown to U.S. leaders carried one nuclear tipped torpedo AND the tactical option to use it. After 17 hours submerged the Soviet submarine being tracked by this author's captain launched a device thought immediately to be an attacking torpedo. It was instead a sonar disruptor/noise making device launched to allow its escape. Combat pressures being what they were, the next move was now in the mind of the U.S. ships captain. According to the author everyone knew that his next decision was key to their living or dying but as well whether humankind entered its last world war or continued to live.
When asked to recall were most responsible in preventing this final war he said without hesititation BOTH Soviet and American field commanders whose extra 20-30 seconds delay to re-think aside from their more familiar military training.
Why do the memoirs of the remote decision makers hold so much of the historical field and not these front-line stories about the Cuban Missle crisis? Does 40 years need to pass before the real heroes get some notice?
Thomas S. Blanton: At the conference table in Havana were U,S, Navy Capt. John Peterson, who had been dropping signaling depth charges on a Soviet sub on Oct. 27, and Capt. Vadim Orlov, who was on that sub. One reason the story hasn't been told until this year is that it was only in the last couple years that the Russian submariners have come forward -- no U.S. officer or policymaker knew about the nuclear-tipped torpedos before, and certainly not at the time in 1962. The real problem is that because of national security secrecy, the documents on these operations don't get released for years afterwards, sometimes 30 or even 40 years, while the eyewitnesses are dying off. I think of this as two crossing lines, a rising line of the supply of documents over time, and a falling line of veterans and eyewitnesses. Our whole historical effort is to move up the crossing of the two lines, closer to the events and closer to the present. We've been taking documents to Cuba since 1992 to persuade them to release their on. Likewise to Moscow since 1989. Then we bring back those East Bloc items and use them to convince the CIA for more declassification. A little openness anywhere then helps openness everywhere. But it's a constant struggle.
Portland, Ore.: How similar is the situation between India and Pakistan to the Cuban Missile Crisis? Is there any similarity?
Is there anything that India or Pakistan should learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Thomas S. Blanton: There's way too much similarity. Robert McNamara talked at the Havana conference about his trips to India, trying to convince them not to go nuclear. He told Castro he had told the Indians, you've got conventional superiority over the Pakistanis, if you go nuclear, they will too, and then you can each blow up each other's cities, and for what? The Indians and the Pakistanis have not yet had their Cuban missile crisis, they think they are exempt from these lessons, and the world is a much riskier place for it.
Penfield, N.Y.: We were there. The keys had unlocked the buttons and the guards were off the red buttons, and the buttons were ready to be pushed.
Was it blind luck that neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev pushed the button?
Thomas S. Blanton: McNamara said in Havana he used to think the crisis was the best managed foreign policy crisis of the last 50 years, but now that he's gone through these conferences and learned so much that he didn't know at the time, he believes we escaped nuclear war largely by luck. Good decisions, in the sense of the caution by both Kennedy and Khrushchev there at the end of October, but luck. Dino Brugioni, the CIA analyst who helped spot the missiles on the U-2 photographs, went through the incredible number of nuclear weapons that were on alert DEFCON 2 just short of war on Oct. 27, 1962, something like 2,952 nukes on ICBMs, Polaris subs, and SAC bombers, all ready to go. Brugioni says it was "divine providence" that kept us from going over the brink. The commander of the Norfolk navy base told TV reporters last week he wasn't so worried that the Soviet sub commanders would have launched their torpedos, because they were professionals and would await direct orders from Moscow, but given the record over the years of accidents involving torpedoes (including the Kursk disaster only two years ago), the change of accidental nuclear launch was all too great. The bottom line is that it wasn't luck that Kennedy and Khrushchev avoided pushing the button, because both were committed not to push it, but it sure was luck that nobody else pushed the multiple buttons that were scattered all over Cuba and at the quarantine line.
Vienna, Va.: Has Castro ever discussed the immense social and economic problems he faced dealing with the aftermath of the Batista regime? Do you think he will write a book? Was he educated in the United States?
Thomas S. Blanton: President Castro has discussed these problems at length, and claims a great deal of credit for Cuba's rather remarkable levels of literacy (high) and infant mortality (low), as Robert McNamara remarked at the conference. In reply, Castro said his economy was neither socialist nor capitalist, but handmade! Castro said various New York publishers have approached him for a memoir, but they were interested in a volume, while he envisions ten! For anybody who has seen Castro in action, the phrase by Kevin Sullivan in the Washington Post rings true, "he still spoke in rambling circles he could not seem to close in less than an hour."
Herndon, Va.: Could you elaborate on the USAF's "nuclear air-to-air missiles?" I haven't heard of those until now.
Thomas S. Blanton: What I'm drawing on here is the work by Professor Scott Sagan of Stanford University, his book called The Limits of Safety, which details a wave of events getting out of control on Oct. 26 and 27. One of them was this group of USAF planes scrambling to prevent a possible MIG interception of the straying U-2 over Siberia. The USAF planes because of the DEFCON 2 alert were all armed with nuclear-tipped missiles meant for air combat. You have to remember that these were the days when the military tried to arm every possible platform with nuclear capability, nukes were seen by many military folks as just big cannon, and apparently in their deployment to Cuba the Soviets saw it the same way, sending 100 tactical nuclear warheads there.
Long Beach, Calif.: Who exactly called off the air strikes at the Bay of Pigs? McBundy is listed as the guy, but was it with a direct order from JFK?
Thomas S. Blanton: JFK called off the strikes, but the CIA's Richard Bissell went along with it. Bissell's ops chief, Jake Esterline, tried to resign over the issue. Apparently, Bissell thought the Mafia he was paying would actually assassinate Castro just before the invasion, a magic bullet so to speak. But the overall plan was tremendously flawed, and the air strikes were only one part. The whole idea that you can invade a foreign country and keep it quiet is absurd. The CIA's own devastating critique of the plan can be found in Peter Kornbluh's book, Bay of Pigs Declassified, out in paperback from New Press/Norton. Peter's book also has Esterline's commentary and that of Jack Hawkins, the Marine amphibious expert who handled the military planning.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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