“There was a moment at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 when Soviet ships approached to within just a few miles of a U.S. naval blockade and then, at the last minute, turned back — prompting then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk to utter one of the most famous lines from the Cold War:  ‘We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.’”

— opening sentence of a column, “Putin Blinked,” by Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times, May 27, 2014

The Fact Checker does not normally assess the accuracy of claims of pundits, keeping our gaze generally on politicians and political ads. But we are going to make an exception in this case, in part because this is an interesting case brought to our attention by our old colleague Michael Dobbs, who first started The Fact Checker in 2007.

The issue is this: When new primary source documents demonstrate that a historical myth has been proved incorrect, shouldn’t people who repeat the discredited myth admit their error? An even odder element here is that the Times has previously publicized the fact that the myth was wrong, citing this very research, and yet it refuses to correct the error in Friedman’s column.

The Facts

The myth in question is the supposed “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation of U.S. and Soviet ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis — an event spun at the time by the Kennedy White House as a pivotal moment that demonstrated courage and coolness under fire.

But Dobbs, in his 2008 book “One Minute to Midnight,” demonstrated conclusively that there was no high seas engagement. Sixteen missile-carrying Soviet ships had already been turned around on the orders of Premier Nikita Khrushchev the day before. (Here’s an English translation of the minutes of a Soviet Communist Party presidium meeting ratifying the decision.)  The orders were issued early in the morning of Oct. 23, 1962.

Of course, President John F. Kennedy and his aides did not know that on the morning of Oct. 24 as they awaited a potential clash. An aircraft carrier group led by the USS Essex had orders to intercept the Kimovsk and her submarine escort. Kennedy nervously canceled the intercept, issuing an order to the Essex: “Secret. From Highest Authority. Do Not Stop And Board. Keep Under Surveillance.”

At the time, Dobbs concluded, Kimovsk was nearly 800 miles away from the Essex, not “just a few miles.” This was all eventually figured out by U.S. intelligence analysts — here are the CIA records obtained by Dobbs — but the White House failed to correct the historical record. After all, the eyeball to eyeball imagery was simply too good for political memoirs.

In the book, Dobbs printed a map showing the ship positions.

Courtesy of Michael Dobbs, “One Minute to Midnight.”

It’s worth noting that Dobbs’s book received a rave review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review from the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who praised it for revelations “that will change the views of experts and help inform a new generation of readers.”

Four years after Dobbs’s book was published, Robert Caro published the fourth volume of his history of Lyndon B. Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” and included a brief mention of Johnson’s role during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He repeated the myth about Russian ships being “within a few miles of the [quarantine] line.”  (Page 213.)

The Caro book is magnificent, with new and revelatory material about Johnson in the Kennedy White House and during the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination. But checking the source notes, it is clear that Caro did not rely on primary documents for this particular fact; in fact, no source is cited at all.

For these pages, Caro appeared to rely heavily on Robert F. Kennedy’s self-serving 1968 memoir of the crisis, “Thirteen Days.” Sheldon M. Stern, a former historian at the John F. Kennedy library who has listened to the secret tapes made of the crisis meetings, in 2012 wrote that RFK’s memoir “cannot be taken seriously as an historical account.” (A Caro representative did not respond to queries.)

Dobbs, in an article titled “The Price of a 50-Year Myth” that was published by the New York Times in 2012, highlighted Caro’s error and explained why the new research proves the high-seas moment never took place.

“Kennedy was certainly bracing for an ‘eyeball to eyeball’ moment, but it never happened,” Dobbs wrote. “There is now plenty of evidence that Kennedy — like Khrushchev — was a lot less steely-eyed than depicted in the initial accounts of the crisis, which were virtually dictated by the White House. Tape-recorded transcripts of White House debates and notes from participants show that Kennedy was prepared to make significant concessions, including a public trade of Soviet missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey and possibly the surrender of the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay.”

Surprisingly, when Dobbs pointed out that Friedman had repeated historical fiction in his column, the Times refused to correct the mistake.

Sewell Chan, deputy editor of Op-Ed/Sunday Review, even cited Caro’s book as example of the fact that the historical debate is not settled. “Your conclusion that the ships never got that close remains very interesting, but the distance from the blockade line hardly seems like a matter of settled historical fact, notwithstanding your commendable research,” Chan wrote to Dobbs. “Even if it were settled fact, frankly, Tom’s point was an anecdote surrounding Dean Rusk, not an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

One presumes that before running Dobbs’s article challenging Caro, the Times’s editors did due diligence on the underlying facts — which makes it very odd that Chan would now cite Caro as evidence there was still debate on the issue.

As we noted, Caro was not relying on primary documents for this fact. Chan willfully ignores the actual records of the CIA analysts tracking the ships — as well as Khrushchev’s order to turn around the ships the day before. None of that is in dispute, and it easily trumps official White House propaganda from a half-century ago (which simply asserted the ships were a few miles apart without providing documentation to back up that claim). Since 2008, other historians, such as David Coleman of the University of Virginia, have cited the same CIA data about the Kimovsk and other Soviet ships when writing about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Friedman, in an e-mail to The Fact Checker, said:

As my editors explained to Michael Dobbs, I used the Dean Rusk quote — “the other fellow just blinked” — in the context in which Dean Rusk made it — that he believed Soviet naval vessels had gotten very near our blockade in 1962 and turned around, averting a crisis. My column was not about either Rusk or the precise longitude and latitude of the Soviet ships per se. I was writing about another moment in history when our statesmen thought the leader in the Kremlin blinked. Obviously historians have different views on this, since Robert Caro, as Dobbs notes, used the same story in the 2012 edition of his giant biography of Lyndon Johnson. Michael disputes that and we printed his essay saying so. I have not done a survey of the historical literature to know whether all historians now agree on that fact. It was not what I was writing about. I was writing about what Rusk said and believed when he said it.

With all due respect to Friedman, this is simply a matter of reading the primary source documents. There is no historical debate. As far as we know, no historian has disputed what Dobbs uncovered; it is merely a matter of people such as Friedman still reciting the previously inaccurate account of what happened.

Friedman would be on stronger ground if, as he claims, he had actually made clear that he was depicting the scene as Rusk imagined it had happened. But that’s not the case. He states the “few miles” gap —and that the ships turned around at “the last minute” —as undisputed historical facts:

“There was a moment at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 when Soviet ships approached to within just a few miles of a U.S. naval blockade and then, at the last minute, turned back — prompting then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk to utter one of the most famous lines from the Cold War:  ‘We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.’”

The Pinocchio Test

We often knock politicians for refusing to admit error. But journalists appear equally reluctant to admit a mistake. It would not take much to correct the record, and one would think that historical accuracy would be important at a newspaper that prides itself on being the newspaper of record. Friedman, as a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for writing on foreign affairs, should be equally dedicated to making certain that readers know ground historical truth.

Some might argue this is an historical curiosity, but as Friedman’s column demonstrates, the image of a successful eyeball to eyeball confrontation continues to influence the conduct of American foreign policy. The difference between “a few miles” and “hundreds of miles” is too important to ignore.

Four Pinocchios

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