The scholarly and journalistic literature on the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 is immense and continues to grow. Though the majority of those now on campuses or in newsrooms are too young to remember it, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over Soviet missiles based in Cuba brought the world to the brink of nuclear war and ranks with the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the most traumatic single events (as opposed to prolonged ones such as the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement) experienced by this country since the end of World War II. The 50th anniversary of the crisis is about to be observed; that it continues to fascinate us, including those who have no memory of it, should come as no surprise.

As David Coleman points out in the preface to “The Fourteenth Day,” the episode “is famously remembered as a thirteen-day crisis,” in large part because “Robert Kennedy chose ‘Thirteen Days’ for [his] memoir of the crisis” and because “much later, there was a Hollywood movie of the same name.” But contrary to received wisdom, the confrontation did not end in resounding triumph for the United States when, on Oct. 28, Premier Nikita Khrushchev caved and agreed to pull his missiles out of Cuba. Instead, as Coleman demonstrates, “Khrushchev’s capitulation had not brought the finality to the crisis that many had hoped for. A year after the crisis, just days before his assassination, Kennedy was still referring publicly to ‘unfinished business’ from the Cuban missile crisis.”

Coleman, who teaches history at the University of Virginia, adds little to our knowledge of the period following Khrushchev’s decision, but he adds nuances to our understanding of it because, as director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center in Charlottesville and Washington, he has intimate knowledge of the tapes that Kennedy made, “most likely in anticipation of one day writing a memoir,” in the Cabinet Room of the White House between July 1962 and November 1963. At Kennedy’s place at the conference table in that room there was, “attached to the table, a discreet button . . . [that] allowed Kennedy to stop and start the reel-to-reel tape recorder that was downstairs in a basement room used for filed storage.” Apparently the only people who knew about this system were his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln; “the Secret Service agents who installed and maintained the system”; aide Kenneth O’Donnell; and Robert Kennedy and his secretary.

In all, Kennedy “compiled approximately 260 hours of recordings.” Most of these have already been released and have caused far less stir than might have been expected; three volumes of them were published in 2001 under the title “The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy,” but the ones that Coleman uses in “The Fourteenth Day” were not released by the Kennedy library until early this year. Their quality is poor by today’s standards, and it must have required keen ears and patience to transcribe them, but their historical value needs no explanation: These are the voices of John and Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk, and all the other members of “ExComm” (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council) as they charted the country’s way through and beyond one of the most dangerous moments in its history.

Precisely what inspired Khrushchev “to put Soviet nuclear missiles just ninety miles off the continental United States” is not known and probably never will be, but we do know that he had humiliated Kennedy at their summit meeting in Vienna in 1961. Probably he felt he had the upper hand; probably he wanted to bolster the position of Fidel Castro in Cuba; probably he wanted “to retaliate for American-made NATO missiles deployed close to the borders of the Soviet Union” in Turkey. Whatever the reasoning of this “mercurial and stubborn” man, the result was a challenge that Kennedy had no choice but to accept and that, on the whole, he handled coolly and imaginatively.

‘The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis: The Secret White House Tapes’ by David G. Coleman (W. W. Norton)

A principal difficulty for Kennedy and his advisers was that “the Soviets — and especially those sent abroad to lie for their country — simply could not be trusted.” This was an issue before and during the crisis, and it remained one afterward as the United States tried to determine whether the Soviets were living up to their promise to withdraw the missiles:

“The problem Kennedy confronted came down to deciding what constituted long-term reasonable assurance. It was a benchmark he referred to repeatedly in the days following the crisis. Whether the issue was American surveillance overflights, sending weapons inspectors to Cuba to conduct on-the-ground inspections, or having the Red Cross inspect Soviet ships leaving Cuba, it reverted to the same basic problem. As he put it, ‘how many do you have to — as a practical matter — after the first week, how many do you have to check, under what circumstances, to give you reasonable assurance.’ Since they could not have trust, they must have proof. But how much proof was enough? And how were they going to get it?”

Thus the acting secretary general of the United Nations, U Thant, volunteered to go to Cuba and inspect the missile sites himself. “It was all very well for U Thant to be able to offer his assurances that the Soviets had stopped, Kennedy said, but ‘he doesn’t know what the hell to look for, any more than I would.’ ” The United States could attempt to survey activities in Cuba through high-altitude U-2 spy planes or through low-level, very high-speed surveillance flights, but both entailed serious risks. There also were problems involving the IL-28 planes that the Soviets had sent to Cuba; they were cumbersome aircraft that probably posed little actual risk to the mainland United States, but they had high symbolic value as evidence of the continuing Soviet presence in Cuba, and Kennedy knew that their removal was important to reassuring the American people that the threat had dissipated.

By late November these and other issues had been reduced to acceptable compromises, but as John McCone, director of the CIA, made plain, “the United States was always going to have a ‘missiles in Cuba’ problem,” in the sense that Soviet-Cuban relations were going to pose challenges to the United States, no matter what form they took. The greatest problem Kennedy faced, though, was not in Cuba but in West Berlin, which, as an enclave in the middle of deeply hostile East Germany, posed innumerable complications for Kennedy and his somewhat unreliable European allies. After the Cuban crisis, though, he felt that “we now have a hostage in this hemisphere just as the Russians have had one in Berlin for several years” — that, in effect, as Coleman says, the Berlin problem “was suddenly neutralized.” And:

“Despite some halfhearted public hints to the contrary, Khrushchev had apparently privately decided that the time for pushing for final resolution of the Berlin problem had passed. He had played his hand and it had failed. The Cuban missile crisis had been a graphic reminder of the dangers of a nuclear crisis, and provoking another over West Berlin would be reckless. . . . It was a central element in the shifts of the cold war in 1963 that culminated in early moves toward detente. The neutralization of the Berlin problem was not the only development that made detente possible, but it was a crucial one. It cleared the way for initiatives that could make the cold war less dangerous, for reducing the threat of nuclear war, and for improving relations between East and West.”


JFK and the Aftermath of
the Cuban Missile Crisis

By David G. Coleman

Norton. 256 pp. $25.95