JFK: "The Most Dangerous Moment in Human History"
written by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick…
In October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union girded for war with nuclear missiles pointed at each other’s military installations and population centers. The world would come closer to nuclear obliteration than most people realize. For decades, the public has been told that John F. Kennedy’s statesmanship and resolved, abetted by Nikita Khrushchev’s sober realism, averted a holocaust. The leaders of the planet’s two most powerful nations endeavored to resolve the Cuban missile crisis peacefully, but their power to control events was severely limited as the world careened toward disaster. The lessons the two leaders drew from this harrowing encounter convinced them that life on earth might not survive a continuing Cold War. Their efforts to end that dangerous and wasteful conflict may have spelled doom for both of them, but it may also, in the process, have opened up some breathing space for the rest of a threatened humanity.
Nikita Khrushchev actually had a lot in common with Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. Both had humble upbringings. Ike’s fifth-grade class photo in Abilene, Kansas, shows him wearing overalls while everyone else wore Sunday clothes. Khrushchev, the grandson of serfs and son of peasants, worked in his youth as a shepherd, coal miner, and machinist. Though brutal as party czar in Ukraine during the 1930s and 1940s and in his harsh suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, he could also be funny, charming, earthy, and ingratiating. He yearned to set a new course for the Soviet Union. At the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956, he accused Stalin of having conducted a dictatorial reign of “suspicion, fear, and terror.” He decried Stalin’s cult of personality and began a desperately needed process of de-Stalinization. Like Eisenhower, he had seen World War II up close and developed a deep abhorrence of war. But he believed as deeply in the superiority of the Soviet system as Eisenhower did in the capitalist system. To prove socialism’s superiority over capitalism, he set out to sharply reduce military spending so he could devote greater resources to improving the Soviet people’s standard of living, which had long been sacrificed to the exigencies of national defense and self-preservation against seemingly implacable foes.
In August 1957, the Soviet Union successfully tested the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. For the Soviet Union, ICBMs could potentially offset the enormous military advantage the United States derived from bombers housed at NATO bases in Europe. Less than two months later, on October 4, 1957, while the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, dominated American news and Leave It to Beaver made its television debut, a Soviet R-7 ICBM launched the first artificial satellite into orbit around the earth. Sputnik Zemlya, meaning “companion of Earth” or “fellow traveler,” weighed 184 pounds and was 22.8 inches in diameter. It orbited the earth once every ninety-sic minutes and seventeen seconds, transmitting a series of beeps to listeners below. Soviet officials crowed about the triumph of Soviet science and technology, which, they claimed, proved the overall superiority of the Soviet Union’s new socialist society.
The Soviets had indeed punctured the belief that the United States’ technological sophistication and the Soviet Union’s backwardness would guarantee U.S. victory in the Cold War. Writer John Gunther noted, “for a generation it had been part of the American folklore that the Russians were hardly capable of operating a tractor.” Radio Cairo declared that Sputnik would “make countries think twice before tying themselves to the imperialist policy led by the United States.” Khrushchev taunted, “any idiot can see…they might as well put bombers and fighter in the museum.” Drawing attention to both the Soviet achievement and U.S. radical problems, Radio Moscow pointedly announced every time Sputnik passed over Little Rock.
Some Americans panicked, speculating that the Soviet Union must now have ICBMs with nuclear warheads poised to attack U.S. targets. That fear was fueled by the Soviet Union’s announcement, three days after Sputnik’s launch, that it had successfully tested a new ballistic-missile-compatible thermonuclear warhead. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson warned that the Soviets would soon “be dropping bombs on us from space like little kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.” Edward Teller bemoaned the fact that the United States had lost “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor.” One satirist cracked, “General LeMay is planning to send a fleet of bombers around the world to impress the Russians; I’m sure it will – if they bother to look down.”
The Soviets beating the United States into space tore deep cracks in the fragile façade of American confidence – a confidence that had already been shaken by the Korean War and the domestic and foreign policy crises of the first half of the 1950s. Critics decried the shallow materialism and purposelessness of American life and enumerated the shortcomings of the educational system. Republican Senator Styles Bridges urged Americans to “be less concerned with the depth of the pile on the new broadloom rug or the height of the tailfin on the new car and to be more prepared to shed blood, sweat, and tears if this country and the free world are to survive.” Esteemed Soviet space scientist Leonid Sedov commented to a German-American counterpart, “You Americans have a better standard of living than we have. But the American loves his car, his refrigerator, his house. He does not, as we Russians do, love his country.” Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce described Sputnik’s beep from space as “an intercontinental outer-space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our national superiority.”
The administration deliberately downplayed the threat posed by the Soviet achievement in an effort to reassure the public. “The satellite…does not rouse my apprehension,” Eisenhower said, “not one iota. I can see nothing…that is significant…they have put one small ball in the air.” To drive the point home, Ike played five rounds of gold that week. He could not disclose the reason for his lack of concern. Highly secret U-2 reconnaissance planes, flying about 70,000 feet, had been crossing Soviet airspace for more than a year and taking photos revealing that the Soviets were lagging behind in the arms race. The American people were kept in the dark about those illegal and provocative missions, but the Soviet Union launched a formal protest in July 1957. Allen Dulles later chortled, “I was able to get a look at every glade of grass in the Soviet Union,” but it would still be a few years before this was true.
On November 3, the Soviets launched Sputnik II – a massive six-ton satellite carrying a live dog names Laika. The Soviets reveled in their victory. But Khrushchev used the occasion to reach out to U.S. leaders by calling for peaceful space competition and an end to the Cold War:
Our satellites are…waiting for the American and other satellites to join them and to form a commonwealth of satellites. A commonwealth of this kind…would be much better than competition in the race manufacture lethal weapons. … We would like a high-level meeting of representatives of capitalist and Socialist countries…so as to reach an agreement based on…the exclusion of war as a method of settling international problems, to stop the cold war and the armaments race and to establish relations among states on the basis of coexistence, to settle disputes…by means of peaceful competition in the culture and in the best satisfaction of human requirements and needs.
Now on the defensive, Eisenhower ignored Khrushchev’s overture, instead highlighting the United States’ vast military superiority and its intention to stay far ahead in the arms race:
Our nation has…enough power in its strategic retaliatory forces to bring near annihilation to the war-making capabilities of any other country. Atomic submarines have been developed. … A number of huge naval carriers are in operation, supplied with the most powerful nuclear weapons and bombers of great range to deliver them. Construction has started and soon will produce a carrier to be driven by atomic power. … In numbers, our stock of nuclear weapons is so large and so rapidly growing that …we are well ahead of the Soviets…both in quantity and in quality. We intend to stay ahead.
Eisenhower knew that words would not suffice. Determined to beat the Soviets at their own game, on December 6 the United States attempted to launch a satellite with a Vanguard rocket. It stayed aloft for only two seconds. Newspapers scornfully dubbed the grapefruit-sized sphere “Kaputnik,” “Flopnik,” and “Stayputnik.” Eisenhower finally unleashed the former Nazi rocketeer Wernher von Braun and his army Redstone team to put something up in the air. By January 31, they had successfully orbited a thirty-one-pound Explorer satellite.
The United States even contemplated detonating a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb on the moon to restore its prestige. The resulting dust cloud would have been widely visible from Earth. The study was conducted from May 1958 to January 1959 by a ten-person staff that included the young astronomer Carl Sagan, who worked for the Air Force Special Weapons Center in Albuquerque. Finally, the scientists joined with others in convincing authorities that “there was no point in ruining the pristine environment of the moon.”
Later in the decade, the air force devised even more grandiose schemes. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in February 1958, Lieutenant General Donald Putt disclosed plans for missile bases on the moon. Putt explained, “Warheads could be catapulted from shafts sunk deep into the moon’s surface,” providing “a retaliation base of considerable advantage over earthbound nations” if the United States were militarily destroyed. An enemy wanting to take out those bases prior to attacking on earth would “have to launch an overwhelming nuclear strike against those bases one to two days prior to attacking the continental United States,” clearly signaling that such an attack was coming. Air Force Assistant Secretary Richard Horner later testified that such bases could break a nuclear stalemate on earth and restore the United States’ first-strike capability. Putt added that if the Soviets established their own moon bases to neutralize the United States’ advantage, the United States could erect bases on more distant planets from which it could retaliate against both the Soviet Union and its moon bases. In assessing those plans, independent journalist I. F. Stone astutely noted that the Latin word for “moon” is luna and suggested that the military establish a fourth branch for space warfare and call it the Department of Lunacy.
Propelled by irrational fear of being overtaken by the Soviets, intelligence officials advanced preposterous estimates of Soviet military strength. In December 1957, a National Intelligence Estimate projected a potential Soviet arsenal of a hundred operational ICBMs in the next two years and projected a worst-case scenario of five hundred Soviet ICBMs in 1960.
Eisenhower commissioned a top-secret security review headed by H. Rowan Gaither of the Ford Foundation. The report predicted that by 1959 the “USSR may be able to launch an attack with ICBMs carrying megaton warheads, against which SAC will be almost completely vulnerable under present programs.” It recommended commencing a massive U.S. military buildup to counter the growing missile gap, increasing the number of Titan and Atlas IDBMs to be deployed in 1959 from 80 to 600, and increasing the number of Thor and Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles to be placed in Europe from 60 to 240. It also called for a $25 billion national fallout shelter program. When the report was leaked to the press, the Washington Post painted a dire picture:
The still top-secret Gaither Report portrays a United States in the gravest danger in its history. It pictures the Nation moving in frightening course to the status of a second-class power. It shows an America exposed to an almost immediate threat from the missile-bristling Soviet Union. It finds America’s long-term prospect one of cataclysmic peril in the face of rocketing Soviet military might and of a powerful, growing Soviet economy and technology. … To prevent what otherwise appears to be an inevitable catastrophe, the Gaither Report urgently calls for an enormous increase in military spending – from now through 1970.
Sputnik provided Democrats a tremendous political opening. A legislative aide informed Lyndon Johnson that “the issue…if properly handled, would blast the Republicans out of the water,…and elect you president.” Taking the cue, the Senate launched an inquiry into Eisenhower’s defense programs.
Among those who jumped enthusiastically on this “missile gap” bandwagon was the junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. By late 1957, Kennedy was warning that the United States might be several years behind the Soviets in intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles. Egged on by his friend, the columnist Joseph Alsop, he adopted an even more alarmist tone the following year. Alsop had accused the Eisenhower administration of “gross untruth” regarding U.S. national defense. He detailed the scope of the projected missile gap. In 1959, the United States would have 0 ICBMs, the Soviets 100. In succeeding years, the ratio would be 30 U.S. to 500 Soviet in 1940, 70 t 1,000 in 1961, 130 to 1,500 in 1062, and 130 to 2,000 in 1963.
Relying largely on Alsop’s information, Kennedy rose up in the Senate to decry the U.S. “missile-lag,” which would soon produce “a peril more deadly than any wartime danger we have ever known,” increasing the possibility of a Soviet attack and making nuclear disarmament more urgent than ever. Eisenhower, whose U-2 surveillance planes had failed to identify a single deployed ICBM, had little patience for Washington insiders who tried to exploit the missile gap to advance their own careers. He dismissed them as “sanctimonious hypocritical bastards.”
U.S. interests and prestige were dealt another devastating blow when revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, toppled Cuba’s U.S.-friendly dictator, Fulgencio Batista, on New Year’s Day 1959. American corporations had dominated the island since 1898. In 1959, they controlled more than 80 percent of Cuba’s mines, cattle ranches, utilities, and oil refineries, 50 percent of the railroads, and 40 percent of the sugar industry. The United States still retained its naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Castro quickly set about reforming the education system and redistributing land. The government seized more than a million acres from United Fruit and two other American companies. When the United States tried to strangle the new regime economically, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for aid. On March 17, 1960, Eisenhower instructed the CIA to organize a “paramilitary force’ of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro.
During the coming months, the United States, with Eisenhower’s authorization, would also be involved in an effort to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected prime minister of resource-rich Congo, whom Allen Dulles characterized as an African Fidel Castro. Lumumba was indeed assassinated the following January, but the Congo’s former colonial rulers – the Belgians – deserve the lion’s share of the blame. The CIA backed Joseph Mobutu to succeed Lumumba. After several years of struggle, Mobutu managed to consolidate his control. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner assessed Mobutu’s reign: “He ruled for three decades as one of the world’s most brutal and corrupt dictators, stealing billions of dollars in revenues from the nation’s enormous deposits of diamonds, minerals, and strategic metals, slaughtering multitudes to preserve his power.” During that time, he was the CIA’s most trusted ally in Africa.
Eisenhower’s embrace of third-world dictators, indefensible as it was, paled in comparison to the most disturbing and potentially lethal aspect of his presidency, his buildup of nuclear weapons and dangerous reliance upon nuclear blackmail to gain advantage in the Cold War. He had deliberately blurred the line between conventional and nuclear weapons and was in the process of adding terrifyingly powerful thermonuclear weapons to the arsenal.
No document condemned this policy more powerfully than the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955. Initiated by philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell and enthusiastically supported by Albert Einstein, whose signature arrived in the last letter he wrote before his death, the manifesto was signed by eleven of the world’s most prominent scientists, nine of whom were Nobel laureates. Drafted by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Joseph Rotblat, it pleaded with passion and urgency, “We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent or creed but as human beings, members of the species man, whose continued existence is in doubt.” The signers urged readers to think of themselves “only as members of a biological species which has had a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire.” They explained, “All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it.” They expressed concern that most people still thought in terms of “obliteration of cities.” Demolition of cities in an H-bomb war, they warned, “is one of the minor disasters that would have to be faced. If everybody in London, New York, and Moscow were exterminated the world might, in the course of a few centuries, recover from the blow.” But now, with the capability of building bombs 2,500 times as powerful as the one used on Hiroshima and the new knowledge of the widespread dispersal of “lethal radioactive particles,” “the best authorities are unanimous in saying that a war with H-bombs might quite possibly put an end to the human race. It is feared that if many H-bombs are used there will be universal death – sudden only for a minority, but for the majority a slow torture of disease and disintegration.” The signers asked, “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?” They concluded with the words, “We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”
Less than one week later, scientists meeting in Lindau, Germany, released the Mainau Declaration, signed by eighteen Nobel laureates. Reaching out once again to “all men everywhere,” the declaration warned that “in all-out war the earth can be made so radioactive that whole nations will be destroyed.” Nations would either have to “renounce force” or “they will cease to exist.”
Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles Begged to differ, defying the opinion of most of humanity and insisting that recklessly brandishing nuclear threats was not only defensible, it worked. An early-January 1956 interview in Life magazine quoted Dulles as saying that the Eisenhower administration had “walked to the brink” of nuclear war on three recent occasions and forced the Communists to back down. U.S. resolve, he argued, had thwarted Communist aggression in Korea, Indochina, and the Formosa Strait.
Dulles’ penchant for playing nuclear “chicken” produced a firestorm of controversy. Democratic Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn deplored Dulles’ “pitiful performance.” Adlai Stevenson accused Dulles of playing “Russian roulette with the life of our Nation.” India’s Hindustan Standard newspaper charged that Dulles’ brinksmanship “condemns millions of men to live in a state of perpetual fear and misery.” Twelve leading Protestant clergymen and editors of important religious journals wrote to Eisenhower, complaining that they were “deeply shocked” by Dulles’ “reckless and irresponsible policies.” “It remained for Mr. Dulles to tell a world aghast that the United States government three times came near the ‘brink’ of annihilating the human race in an atomic Armageddon.”
As historian Richard Immerman has shown, Dulles’ private views were more complicated. He understood the dangers posed by the increasing destructiveness of nuclear weapons, the challenges of Soviet nuclear parity, the growing international outcry against a policy that threatened human annihilation, and, as he told Eisenhower in April 1958, reliance on a strategy of massive retaliation that “invoked massive nuclear attack in the event of any clash anywhere of U.S. with Soviet forces.” But that did not stop the administration from again threatening China with nuclear attack in the second conflict over the disputed islands Quemoy and Matsu in 1958, as it had in the 1955 conflict, or from threatening the Soviet Union with nuclear retaliation during the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Israel, Britain, and France invaded Egypt following Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. Vice President Richard Nixon drew dangerous lessons from the success of that strategy against the Soviets over Suez: “In 1956 we considered using the Bomb in Suez, and we did use it diplomatically. … Eisenhower…got Al Gruenther, the NATO commander, to hold a press conference, and Gruenther said that if Khrushchev carried out his threat to use rockets against the British Isles, Moscow would be destroyed ‘as surely as day follows night.’ From that time on, the U.S. has played the dominant role in the Mideast.” Nixon tried to repeat that performance during the 1970 Jordanian civil war, in which the U.S.-allied King Hussein drove the Palestinian Liberation Organization out of Jordan.
Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson emphasized the growing nuclear threat in his 1956 presidential campaign, insisting that he could not “accept the apparent Administration position that we are powerless to do anything to stop this headlong race for extinction” and calling Eisenhower’s nuclear buildup “madness.” He pledged to push for an agreement to stop testing as his “first order of business if elected.” British, U.S. and Soviet tests in spring 1957 aroused international ire. Indian Prime Minister Nehru demanded an end to all nuclear tests, fearing that they “might put an end to human life as we see its.” The New York Times reported a “world-wide concern that the continuation of tests poses a threat to the future existence of all living things on earth.”
In November 1957, following a new round of tests, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy placed an ad, written largely by Norman Cousins, in the New York Times. Signed by forty-eight prominent citizens, it called for an end to nuclear testing as the first step toward arms control. The unexpected public response to the ad sparked the formation of a major national antinuclear organization, popularly known as SANE.
SANE was only one of several initiatives launched in 1957. The first Pugwash Conference was held in Nova Scotia in July. Participating scientists from all over the world, including five from the United States and three from the USSR, called for abolishing war, ending the arms race, and halting nuclear testing.
Reacting to the public outcry, Eisenhower began a campaign at home and abroad to promote what he called “the peaceful atom,” building on the momentum generated by his December 1953 UN address. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) marketed nuclear power not only as a protector against godless communism but as a magic elixir that would power transportation vehicles, feed the hungry, light the cities, heal the sick, and excavate the planet. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp celebrating “Atoms for Peace: To Find the Way by Which the Inventiveness of Man Shall Be Consecrated to New Life.”
In late April 1955, Eisenhower unveiled plans for an atomic-powered merchant ship that would visit ports all over the world to show the United States’ commitment to a “just and lasting peace.” In July, the United States generated its first commercial nuclear power. In October 1956, Eisenhower announced that Atoms for Peace was succeeding. The United States had agreements with Japan and thirty-six other nations to build atomic reactors and was negotiating with fourteen more. Meanwhile, the United States was proceeding with the development of an atomic plane, but a proposed $60 million atomic-powered Coast Guard icebreaker proved too costly and Eisenhower vetoed it.
By 1958, the United States was becoming almost giddy with the prospect of something even more ambitious, grandiose, and absurd: planetary excavation under the AEC’s Project Plowshare. In September 1957, the AEC detonated a 2-kiloton bomb inside a mountain in Nevada. Willard Libby, who had replaced the independent-minded Henry Smyth as the only scientist on the AEC in 1954, reported in December that radioactive fallout from the Rainier test had been entirely contained within the mountain, making possible a broad range of peaceful uses for atomic explosions. Libby exulted, “I’ve not seen anything in years so exciting.” AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss understood the real purpose of the program. In February, he admitted that Plowshare had been intended to “highlight the peaceful applications of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests.”
The New York Times reported on its front page on March 14 that “atomic explosions up to ten times the power of the World War II Hiroshima bomb may be within a couple of years an everyday occurrence almost anywhere in the country under a program being pressed by scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission.” In June, the AEC announced Project Chariot, a plan to create a three-hundred-foot harbor in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle with four hydrogen bombs. Officials anticipated that the bombs would be used to free inaccessible oil deposits trapped in both tar sand and shale formations. Similar explosions could also create huge underground reservoirs, produce steam, desalinize water, crack copper and other impenetrable ores, and produce radioactive isotopes for use in medicine, biology, agriculture, and industry.
Experts wanted to blast a new, bigger, and better Panama Canal. Some wanted to alter weather patterns. Jack Reed of the Sandia Laboratory in Albuquerque proposed exploding a 20-megaton bomb alongside the eye of a hurricane to reverse its course. He was confident that any resulting radioactivity would fall harmlessly. A U.S. Weather Bureau scientist, Harry Wexler, proposed a plan to accelerate melting of the polar icecaps by detonating ten 10-megaton bombs near the Arctic Circle, which he calculated would warm the polar area by approximately 10 degrees F.
The AEC doubled the Plowshare budget for 1960. Almost a hundred staff members at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were slated to work on the project. Physicist Edward Teller, who directed the lab, was extremely enthusiastic about the prospects. But the project hit a snag. In September 1958, Eisenhower had yielded to domestic and international pressure and announced that the United States would go along with a Soviet-initiated nuclear test moratorium. To continue the project, Eisenhower would have had to defy the moratorium. He pressed the Soviets for an agreement allowing for peaceful tests. When it looked as though the Soviets might be yielding, he approved plans for a 10-kiloton explosion deep in a salt bed near Carlsbad, New Mexico, in summer 1959. Project Gnome, as it was called, would explore the feasibility of creating an underground reservoir of heat that would remain trapped in melted salt and could be used to produce electricity. The blast would also yield valuable radioisotopes that the United States would attempt to recover for medical purposes. A spokesman for the Interior Department, whose National Park Service ran the nearby Carlsbad Cavern National Park, reported that the department was “completely flabbergasted” by the announcement.
Project Chariot was to follow in the summer of 1960. Some citizens even came up with their own suggestions for worthy projects as part of Plowshare. One woman suggested that the AEC use hydrogen bombs to kill all the snakes in Africa.
Despite the administration’s aggressive effort to promote the peaceful atom, public awareness of the dangers of nuclear testing was increasing rapidly. In April, 1957, Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer added his voice to the growing international chorus of people demanding the cessation of nuclear testing. Schweitzer broadcast his “Declaration of Conscience” to approximately fifty countries. The New York Times reported “world-wide concern that the continuation of tests poses a threat to the future existence of all living things on earth.” A May Gallup Poll showed that 63 percent of Americans favored an international halt to bomb tests, more than double the 27 percent who opposed such a move. Just the previous fall, only 24 percent had supported Stevenson’s call for a test ban.
The publication, a few months later, of Nevil Shute’s riveting novel On the Beach, which was serialized in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and other papers, added fuel to the fire. The novel described the aftermath of a thirty-seven-day nuclear war in which four thousand cobalt bombs were exploded, tracing the final days of the last surviving pocket of humans in Melbourne, Australia, as the radioactive cloud was descending them. Earle Brown’s review in the Washington Post, titled “The Facing of Certain Death,” with a heading above it, “Atomic Armageddon of 1960s,” began, “Nevil Shute has written the most important and dramatic novel of the atomic age, and if you read only one book a year, this should be the one.” Brown concluded, “I hope Nevil Shute’s book will go into a few cornerstone or time capsules, so that if an atomic Armageddon ever comes, future civilizations may realize that this generation went down the road to destruction with its eyes wide open. It should be required reading – on both side of the curtain.”
Winston Churchill was attending a party at Lord Beaverbook’s villa in Cap d’Ail, France, in September 1957 when guests began discussing Shute’s chilling novel. Churchill announced plans to send a copy to Khrushchev. Someone asked if he was also planning to send one to Eisenhower, to which Churchill replied, “It would be a waste of money. He is so muddle-headed now. … I think the earth will soon be destroyed. … And if I were the Almighty I would not recreate it in case they destroyed him, too, the next time.”
Stanley Kramer’s film version premiered simultaneously in all major capitals in the world in December 1959 to unprecedented international fanfare. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther concluded his glowing assessment of the film with the observation: “The great merit of this picture, aside from its entertainment qualities, is the fact that it carries a passionate conviction that man is worth saving, after all.” Eisenhower’s cabinet discussed ways to counter the film’s powerful nuclear abolitionist message. Officials in the cabinet, AEC, and State Department, attempted to discredit the film by alleging that it contained serious errors that invalidated its central premises. The US. Information Agency created a file titled “Possible Questions and Suggested Answers on the Film ‘On the Beach.’” But the numerous filmgoers, many of whom left the theatres in tears, were probably more impressed with the simple, straightforward repudiation of deterrence theory offered by Julian, the scientist ably played by Fred Astaire, who was asked who he thought started the war. He responded, “Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of [the] earth?” When his questioner persisted, Julian explained”
The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use without committing suicide. Every had an atomic bomb. And counter bombs. And counter-counter bombs. The devices outgrew us. We couldn’t control them. I know. I helped build them. God help me. Somewhere some poor bloke probably looked at the radar screen and though he saw something. Knew if he hesitated 1/1000th of a second his own country would be wiped off the map so…So, he pushed the button and the world went crazy. And, and…
The film’s details might have been wrong, but its understanding of the world Eisenhower had helped create was not. One could certainly paint a more benign portrait of Eisenhower’s nuclear policies. After all, he resisted the Joint Chiefs’ pressure to use nuclear weapons. He limited civil defense expenditures and restrained the growth of overall defense spending. He worked to enact a test ban. He resisted pressure for a massive buildup after Sputnik. He confronted the powerful and sometimes hostile Soviet Union while trying to hold the NATO alliance together. And he was often a voice of moderation in the midst of far more hawkish and extreme advisors.
Yet, under Eisenhower, the United States went from having a little more than 1,000 nuclear weapons to approximately 22,000, aimed at 2,500 targets in the Soviet Union. But even the 22,000 figure is misleading. Procurements authorized by Eisenhower continued into the 1960s, making Eisenhower responsible for more than 30,000 nuclear weapons during the Kennedy administration. Between 1959 and 1961, the United States added 19,500 nuclear weapons to its arsenal. The United States was producing new weapons at the rate of 75 per day, and doing so at bargain-basement prices. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes notes, “Nuclear warheads cost the United States about $250,000 each: less than a fighter-bomber, less than a missile, less than a patrol boat, less than a tank.” Total megatonnage increased sixty-five-fold in five years, reaching 20,491 megatons in 1960. In pure megatonnage, that was the equivalent of 1,360,000 Hiroshima bombs. Although the total megatonnage began to drop in 1961, as 950 10-megaton B36 bombs were retired, the bombs’ destructive capability actually increased as the introduction of ballistic missiles made targeting more accurate. Doubling the accuracy of delivery allows for an eight-fold reduction in yield without sacrificing the bombs’ destructive capacity.
What is little known is that Eisenhower had delegated to theater commanders and other specified commanders, including the Strategic Air Command and NORAD, the authority to launch a nuclear attack if they believed it was mandated by circumstances and were out of communication with the president, or if the president had been incapacitated. With Eisenhower’s approval, some of the theater commanders had in turn delegated this authority to lower commanders under similar circumstances. This sub-delegation included commanders of numbered air forces, fleets, and navies. Thus, there were dozens of fingers on the triggers, if not more. According to RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who had discovered the dangerous circumstances surrounding delegation and sub-delegation during his studies of nuclear command and control for the Pentagon, “It was a doomsday machine on a hair trigger with delegation.” And given the fact that there were no locks on nuclear weapons, many more people had the actual power, if not the authority, to launch a nuclear attack, including pilots, squadron leaders, base commanders, and carrier commanders. During the next decade, locks were put on nuclear weapons in Europe and then on tactical nuclear weapons. Locks on SAC bombers came much later. No locks were put on submarine missiles until the 1980s, meaning that any submarine commander still had the power to wipe out the USSR.
In August, 1960, President Eisenhower approved the preparation of a National Strategic Target List and Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). The country’s first SIOP detailed a plan to deploy the country’s strategic nuclear forces in a simultaneous strike against the Sino-Soviet bloc within the first twenty-four hours of war. Its goal was maximum destruction. Eisenhower admitted to his naval aide, Captain E. P. Aurand, that it “frighten[ed] the devil out of me.” As well it should have. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were subsequently asked to estimate the death toll from such an attack. The numbers were shocking: 325 million dead in the Soviet Union and China, another 100 million in Eastern Europe, a similar number in Western Europe from fallout, and up to another 100 million from fallout in bordering countries including Finland, Sweden, Austria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Japan. Those figures did not include the deaths caused by Soviet nuclear weapons or by U.S. tactical weapons. Nor did they include the then-unknown fact that an attack of this magnitude would almost certainly have triggered a nuclear winter, raising the possibility of extinction. Though horrified by the prospects of millions dying if the SIOP were enacted, Eisenhower passed the plan, unaltered, on to the new administration.
Having justified this precarious – some might say insane – nuclear buildup as the price of keeping defense spending down, Eisenhower’s FY 1960 federal budget had increased by only 20 percent over his first budget despite a nearly 25 percent in GNP over that time period.
The Eisenhower years were relatively peaceful and prosperous, but many Americans feared that the country was stagnating and hungered for a new dynamism. Democrats turned to the youthful Bostonian John F. Kennedy. Kennedy hailed from a prominent and politically ambitious family. His father, the controversial Joseph Kennedy, was a successful Wall Street speculator and major financial backer of Franklin Roosevelt. His stint as ambassador to Great Britain was cut short because of his appeasement policy toward Hitler and his open pessimism about Great Britain’s prospects in the war.
Elected to the Senate in 1952, John Kennedy’s congressional career offered little indication of the heights wo which he would later rise. A Cold War liberal, he supported Richard Nixon’s Red-baiting congressional campaign against the progressive Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas. Illness enabled him to miss the December 1954 Senate vote of censure against Joseph McCarthy, an old family friend, whom he had avoided criticizing. Alluding to the title of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, Eleanor Roosevelt said she wished that Kennedy “had a little less profile and a little more courage.” His brother, Robert, had even served on McCarthy’s staff. Kennedy tried to win the support of the Eleanor Roosevelt-Adlai Stevenson liberal wing of the party but never gained its trust. His opportunistic, though politically astute, choice of Lyndon Johnson as running mate confirmed the liberals’ mistrust of him.
Kennedy defeated Nixon by the narrowest of margins in 1960. Nixon had touted his vice-presidential experience and strong contribution to the Eisenhower administration. But when a reporter asked Eisenhower to name an important decision Nixon had participated in, Eisenhower said that if you gave him a week he might think of one.
Kennedy positioned himself as the candidate of change. But not all the changes he promised were positive ones. Running as a hawk, he criticized the Eisenhower-Nixon administration for tolerating Castro’s takeover of Cuba and for allowing a dangerous missile gap to develop.
On some level, Eisenhower understood the potentially cataclysmic situation he had created and regretted the virtual doomsday machine he had bequeathed to his successor. He was deeply disappointed that pressure from hawkish scientists and military advisors had thwarted his efforts to conclude a test ban treaty before leaving office. With that in mind, he delivered an extraordinary farewell address whose warning about the rise of an increasingly powerful and threatening “military-industrial-complex” not only flew in the face of his actual track record as president but described a phenomenon whose growth Eisenhower had personally masterminded.
This speech, the best remembered of Eisenhower’s presidency, originated in conversations between the president’s chief speechwriter, Malcom Moos, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, and Ralph Williams, a retired navy captain who was also on the speechwriting staff. Moos and Williams met on October 31, 1960, to discuss ideas for the farewell address and agreed that it was necessary to expose the “problem of militarism.” Williams’ memo spelled out their concern very clearly:
…for the first time in its history, the United States has a permanent war-based economy. … Not only that, but flag and general officers retiring at an early age take pension in a war-based industrial complex shaping its decisions and guiding the directions of its tremendous trust. This creates a danger that what the Communists have always said about us may become true. We must be careful to ensure that the “merchants of death do not come to dictate national policy.”
The specific phrase “military-industrial-complex,” which the speech immortalized, was apparently suggested by physicist Herbert York, the former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In 1971, while working for the summer at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), York told a younger American colleague that he had been the one to suggest the precise wording to President Eisenhower for insertion into the speech. Eisenhower agreed and sounded the tocsin:
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal Government. … we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial-complex. … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. … Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
For most Americans, the significance would not be understood for a long time. But there were some notable exceptions. Walter Lippmann astutely compared Eisenhower’s farewell address with George Washington’s. As Washington had warned about the foreign “menace to civilian power,” Eisenhower warned about the domestic military menace. Eisenhower considered Washington his “hero.” In At Ease, Eisenhower shared the fact that Washington’s “farewell address…exemplified the human qualities I frankly idolized.”
The New York Times’ Jack Raymond provided a full-page analysis of the military-industrial-complex, replete with graphs detailing the exorbitance of U.S. defense spending, which accounted for 59 percent of the nearly $81 billion national budget. In addition to spending half the federal budget, he noted, the Pentagon also controlled $32 billion worth of real estate, including air bases and weapons arsenal. Raymond explained how the military and industry worked hand in glove to achieve this. The United States excessive militarism, he added, was hurting the nation’s image abroad: “in carrying a big stick, the United States appears to have forgotten the other part of Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum to ‘speak softly,’”
Kennedy’s close advisor and biographer Theodore Sorenson later mused, “I think that the principal reason Kennedy ran for the presidency was he thought the Eisenhower-Dulles policy of massive retaliation and all that was heading the country toward nuclear war. He felt the policy of massive retaliation – in which we supposedly kept the peace by saying if you step one foot over the line in West Berlin or somewhere else, we will respond by annihilating you with nuclear weapons – he felt that was mad.” But little in the 1960 presidential campaign would have led observers to believe that Kennedy was going to reduce the risk of nuclear war or that the new administration would do anything other than fuel U.S. militarism. Kennedy attacked Eisenhower’s “willingness to place fiscal security ahead of national security,” especially at a time with the Soviets would soon be able to out-produce the United States “two or three to one” in missiles. During the campaign, Kennedy acknowledged that he didn’t expect the Soviets to “use that lead to threaten or launch an attack upon the United States,” but he wouldn’t take any chances. Calling for increased defense spending, he declared, “those who oppose these expenditures are taking a chance on our very survival as a nation.”
Kennedy’s inauguration was resplendent with symbolism. Eighty-six-year-old Robert Frost became the first poet ever to participate in a presidential inauguration. Marian Anderson, the talented singer whom the Daughters of the American Revolution had once barred from Constitution Hall because of her race, sang the National Anthem. And Kennedy delivered a ringing inaugural address that both reached out to the Soviet Union in hopes of building friendship “before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity” and welcomed the fact that this generation had been granted the opportunity “to defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger” and would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” in order to do so.
The new administration recruited establishment insiders from the leading foundations, corporations, and Wall Street firms, and leavened them with a sprinkling of progressives in secondary positions. David Halberstam labeled them “the best and the brightest,” chronicling how their intelligence, achievements, and can-do spirit combined with hubris and profound moral blindness to land the United States in Vietnam. They were typified by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard, who had been the first applicant to get perfect scores on all three Yale entrance exams, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who was renowned for his computer-like mind and managerial brilliance. During a CINPAC meeting on materials in the pipeline to Vietnam, McNamara stopped the projected and accurately complained that the data in slide 869 contradicted what had been presented seven hours earlier in slide 11. The intelligence of Kennedy’s advisors was never questioned. Their judgement, however, was. John Kenneth Galbraith, who served as Kennedy’s ambassador to India, regretted that “foreign policy was still with the Council on Foreign Relations people. We knew their expertise was nothing. … All they knew was the difference between a Communist and an anti-Communist…they had this mystique and it still worked and those of us who doubted it…were like Indians firing occasional arrows in the campsite from the outside.” As a result of this odd mix of arrogance and ignorance, the new administration blundered badly in foreign policy right from the start.
Kennedy proceeded with Eisenhower’s plan to have the CIA secretly train an invading force of 1,500 Cuban exiles in Guatemala. When he initially expressed doubts about the wisdom of such a scheme, Allen Dulles assured him that the invasion would inspire anti-Castro Cubans to rise up and overthrow the government. Administration officials Chester Bowles, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Goodwin took sharp issue with the plan, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair J. William Fulbright urged Kennedy to abandon it entirely. But the new and inexperienced president feared blocking an operation backed by Eisenhower and the Joint Chiefs. Three days before the operation was set to begin, eight B-26 bombers destroyed or incapacitated half of Castro’s air force. The invading force arrived at the Bay of Pigs in seven ships, two of which belonged to the United Fruit Company. The Cuban army easily subdued the invaders, who begged for direct U.S. military assistance.
The promised popular uprising never materialized. Bundy, Rusk, and Kennedy himself had repeatedly made it clear to CIA officials that no air support would be forthcoming. They knew that such action would damage the United States’ image abroad and invite a Soviet move against West Berlin. Shortly before midnight on April 18, Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk met in the White House with General Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Navy Admiral Arleigh Burke, and the CIA’s chief of clandestine services, Richard Bissell. Burke and Bissel spent three hours trying to persuade Kennedy to send ground and air support. They had known all along that that was their only hope of success and fully expected that Kennedy would cave in to their pressure. Kennedy said, “They were sure I’d give in to them and send the go-ahead order.” “It was inconceivable to them,” Kennedy’s advisor Walt Rostow later wrote, “that the president would let it openly fail when he had all this American power.” Lemnitzer charged that “pulling out the rug” was “unbelievable…absolutely reprehensible, almost criminal.” But Kennedy stood strong. As he explained to an old friend, “We’re not going to plunge into an irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in the country puts so-called national pride above national reason.” One hundred fourteen men were killed, 1,189 captured. Among the casualties were four U.S. pilots under contract to the CIA from the Alabama National Guard.
The postmortems started quickly. The Chicago Tribune put it succinctly: “The main results of the supposed Cuban ‘invasion’ are that the Castro dictatorship is more firmly installed than ever, the communists have made hay all over the world, and the United States has taken a dreadful kick in the teeth.” The Wall Street Journal declared that “the U.S. finds itself in a sorry mess. … This country is reviled around the world. … But we suspect that the deeper feeling, especially in the capitals of international Communism, is one of astonishment at U.S. weakness.” The New York Times fretted that U.S. “hegemony…in the Western Hemisphere is threatened for the first time in a century” as the Cuban Revolution offered a “model” for the rest of Latin America.
The world was indeed shocked by the United States’ ineptitude and misjudgment. Dean Acheson reported from Europe that the fiasco “shattered the Europeans,” who saw it as “a completely unthought out, irresponsible thing to do. They had tremendously high expectations of the new administration, and…they just fell miles down with a crash.” Bowles wrote in his diary, “The Cuban fiasco demonstrates how far astray a man as brilliant and well intentioned as Kennedy can go who lacks a basic moral reference point.” Bowles would soon be unceremoniously ushered out of the State Department. Kennedy took full responsibility for the botched invasion but vowed to redouble his efforts to combat Communism:
We dare not fail to see the insidious nature of this new and deeper struggle. We dare not fail to grasp the new concepts, the new tools, the new sense of urgency we will need to combat it, whether in Cuba or South Vietnam. … The message of Cuba, of Laos, of the rising din of Communist voices in Asia and Latin America – these messages are all the same. The complacent, the self-indulgent, the soft societies are to be swept away with the debris of history. … Let me then make clear as President of the United States that I am determined upon our system’s survival and success regardless of the cost and regardless of the peril.
Democratic Senator Al Gore, Sr., who was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for “a shake-up of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All the members should be replaced by new, wiser and abler men. The New York Times placed the lion’s share of blame on the CIA and called for the agency’s “thorough reorganization.”
Cuban exiles blamed the mission’s failure on Kennedy’s refusal to provide air support. Most of them would never forgive him. But despite the broad-based criticism of his handling of the affair, Kennedy’s overall approval ratings jumped to the highest level of his presidency, leading him to comment, “Its just like Eisenhower. The worse I do the more popular I get.”
The entire sordid affair had a profound effect on the inexperienced president. Kennedy developed a healthy skepticism toward military advisors and intelligence officials. He explained to Schlesinger, “If someone comes to tell me this or that about the minimum wage bill, I have no hesitation overruling them. But your always assume that the military and the intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals.” Kennedy told journalist Ben Bradlee, “The first advice I’m going to give to my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.” Kennedy’s post-invasion remarks seemed to reveal the first flickering of understanding of Eisenhower’s poignant warning. But his learning curve would need to be a steep one for him to escape the steel trap of Cold War thinking.
Following the botched invasion, Kennedy decided to shake up the Joint Chiefs “sons of bitches” and “those CIA bastards.” He threatened to “shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces, and scatter it to the winds.” He named General Maxwell Taylor to replace Lemnitzer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs but, hoping to placate hawkish critics, chose Curtis LeMay as air force chief of staff – a decision he would come to regret. At the CIA, he replaced Dulles with conservative Republican businessman John McCone. He also forced the resignation of Deputy Director Richard Bissell, and Deputy Director General Charles Cabell. He placed all CIA agents and other overseas U.S. personnel under the local ambassador and took steps to cut the CIA budget, shooting for a 20 percent reduction by 1966.
Kennedy put his brother Robert in charge of a significant portion of covert operations. The new responsibility kept the youthful attorney general very busy. Under his watch, the CIA launched 163 covert operations in three years, only seven fewer than had been conducted under Eisenhower in eight years.
Before assuming his new position, General Taylor conducted an inquiry into what went wrong in the Cuban operations. General Walter Bedell Smith testified, “A democracy cannot wage war. When you go to war, you pass a law giving extraordinary powers to the President. The people of the country assume when the emergency is over, the rights and powers that were temporarily delegated to the Chief Executive will be returned to the states, counties and to the people.” Smith thought that the CIA’s usefulness might have come to an end and a new covert agency was needed. He remarked, “It’s time we take the bucket of slop and put another cover over it.”
Kennedy’s growing mistrust of his military and intelligence advisors made it easier to rebuff their pressure to send troops to Laos, something that Eisenhower had warned him might be necessary to defeat the Communist Pathet Lao. If not for the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy told Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., it would probably have happened. The Joint Chiefs insisted that Kennedy give prior commitment to a large-scale invading force and approval for taking the war to China if necessary, even if it meant using nuclear weapons. Kennedy resisted such demands and angered the generals by opting for a neutralist solution. “After the Bay of Pigs,” Schlesinger told David Talbot, “Kennedy had contempt for the Joint Chiefs. … He dismissed them as a bunch of old men. He thought Lemnitzer was a dope.”
Still reeling from the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy prepared meticulously for his June meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna. Khrushchev had earlier reached out to the new president, hoping to ease tensions and reach an accord on nuclear testing, Laos, and Berlin. But now the mood has darkened. During the summit, the Soviet premier bristled with accusations. Khrushchev berated the young president for the United States’ global imperialism. He declared that U.S.-Soviet relations hinged on resolution of the German question and deplored Germany’s remilitarization and prominence in NATO. He demanded a treaty recognizing two separate Germanys by the end of the year. Berlin would function as a “free demilitarized city” under East Germany’s jurisdiction, with guaranteed access from the west. Kennedy’s parting comment to Khrushchev was “I see it’s going to be a very cold winter.” He told one reporter, “If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt, it’s all over.” George Kennan thought that Kennedy was “strangely tongue-tied” during the summit. The brow-beaten president sat down afterward with James Reston, who asked, “Pretty rough?” Kennedy responded, “Roughest thing in my life.” He explained:
I’ve got two problems. First, to figure out why he did it, and in such a hostile way. And second, to figure out what we can do about it. I think…he did it because of the Bay of Pigs…he thought that anyone who was so young and inexperienced as to get into that mess could be taken, and anyone who got into it, and didn’t see it through, had no guts. So he just beat the hell out of me. So I’ve got a terrible problems…in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.
It would have been easier for Kennedy to comprehend Khrushchev’s belligerence if he had understood the depth of Soviet concerns about Germany. These went well beyond the placement of U.S.-controlled intermediate-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on German soil and beyond the flood of East Germans escaping through West Berlin. What really terrified Khrushchev was the prospect of Germany getting control over its own nuclear weapons. He threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany and cut off British, French and U.S. access to West Berlin. Khrushchev explained to an American journalist:
I can understand how Americans look at Germany somewhat differently that the way we do. … We have a much longer history with Germany. We have seen how quickly governments in Germany can change and how easy it is for Germany to become an instrument of mass murder. It is hard for us even to count the number of our people who were killed by Germany in the last war. … We have a saying here: “Give a German a gun; sooner or later he will point it at Russians.” This is not just my feeling. I don’t think there’s anything the Russian people feel more strongly about than the question of the rearmament of Germany. You may think in the United States that we have no public opinion. Don’t be too sure about this. On the matter of Germany our people have very strong ideas. I don’t think that any government here could survive if it tried to go against it. I told this to one of your American governors and he said he was surprised that the Soviet Union, with all its atomic bombs and missiles, would fear Germany. I told your governor that he misses the point. Of course we could crush Germany. We could crush Germany in a few minutes. But what we fear is the ability of an armed Germany to commit the United States to its own actions. We fear the ability of Germany to start a world atomic war. What puzzles me more than anything else is that the American don’t realize that there’s a large group in Germany that is eager to destroy the Soviet Union. How many times do you have to burned before you respect fire?
The failure to bridge differences over key matters in Vienna made for one of the tensest summers in the Cold War. Dean Acheson, who prepared the background papers on Germany for the summit, advised Kennedy to take a strong, uncompromising stand on Berlin and avoid negotiations. He felt that nuclear war was worth the risk. In the event of a confrontation, the United States planned to send a few brigades to Berlin. If the Warsaw Pact resisted militarily, the United States was ready to launch an all-out nuclear attack. As Bundy explained to Kennedy, “The current plan calls for shooting off everything we have in one shot, and it is so constructed as to make any more flexible course very difficult.”
At a special meeting on July 20, Lemnitzer and other military officials briefed Kennedy on plans for, and consequences of, nuclear war. Lemnitzer reviewed a report detailing a “surprise attack” on the Soviet Union for late 1963. Kennedy asked what would happen if the attack were launched in late 1962. Allen Dulles responded that the United States would not have enough missiles available until December 1963. Kennedy asked how long, if war occurred, would U.S. citizens have to remain in fall-out shelters. Two weeks, he was told. He ordered that no present even disclose the subject of the meeting. Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatrick reported that Lemnitzer gave the briefing “as though it were for a kindergarten class. … Finally, Kennedy got up and walked right out in the middle of it, and that was the end of it.”
In his memoirs, Dean Rusk described Kennedy’s reaction: “President Kennedy clearly understood what nuclear war meant and was appalled by it. In our many talks together, he never worried about the threat of assassination, but he occasionally brooded over whether it would be his fate to push the nuclear button.” In September, Lemnitzer briefed Kennedy, McNamara, and Rusk on SIOP-62, including the option for a full-scaled preemptive attack against the Soviet Union. After, Kennedy disgustedly said to Rusk, “And we call ourselves the human race.”
Despite his reservations, Kennedy intensified the crisis. On July 25, he addressed the nation:
The immediate threat to free men is in West Berlin. But that isolated outpost is not an isolated problem. The threat is world-wid. … We do not want to fight – but we have fought before. And others in earlier times have made the same dangerous mistake of assuming that the West was too selfish and too soft and too divided. … The source of world trouble and tension is Moscow, not Berlin. And if war begins, it will have begun in Moscow and not Berlin.
Kennedy announced an additional $3.45 billion for defense, and increase in draft calls to make possible a 25 percent expansion in the size of the army, activation of select reserve and National Guard units, and a national program to construct fallout shelters, both public and private. He emphasized the need to be prepared for nuclear war and reminded citizens, “Now in the thermonuclear age any misjudgments on either side about the intensions of the other could rain more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human history.”
The Warsaw Pact nations responded in dramatic fashion, implementing changes that had been under discussion for months. On August 13, East German troops began erecting barbed-wire barricades and roadblock to shut off the stream of escaping East German citizens. Construction workers soon replaced the barbed wire with concrete. Kennedy sent 1,500 U.S. troops by road from West Germany to West Berlin, where they were met by Vice President Johnson. The world teetered nervously on the brink of war. Eighteen-year-old James Carrol waited at the Pentagon to pick up his father, Joseph Carroll, who had just been appointed the director of the newly created Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll, who would later win the National Book Award for his powerful memoir An American requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us, vividly recalled his father’s unsettling words. “Tonight Dad is in a somber mood,” he wrote.
…He is smoking, flicking ashes out the window. He has said nothing. Finally crushes the cigarette in the dashboard ashtray and turns to me. “Son, I want to say something to you. I’m only going to say it once, and I don’t want you asking me any question. Okay? You read the papers. You know what’s going on. Berlin. The bomber they shot down last week. I many not come home one of these nights. I might have to go somewhere else. The whole Air Staff would go. If that happens, I’m going to depend on you to take my place with Mom and the boys.” “What do you mean?” “Mom will know. But you should know too. I’ll want you to get everybody in the car. I’ll want you to drive south. Get on Route One. Head to Richmond. Go past it. Go as far as you can before you stop.” He didn’t say anything else…neither did I. We must have driven the rest of the way home in silence. I do remember very distinctly…what I felt…fear. … Despite all the talk of war, I had believed that my father and the others like him – Curtis LeMay, Tommy White, Pearre Cabell, Butch Blanchard, our neighbors on Generals’ Row – would protect us from it. Now I saw that Dad himself no longer thought they could. I felt my father’s fear, which until then I’d thought impossible. I began to be afraid that night and I stayed afraid for many years, first of what our enemy would do, later of what we would do.
When recounting the story more than four decades later at a conference on the nuclear threat in Washington, D.C., Carroll concluded with the words, “And I have been driving south ever since.”
The Berlin Wall defused the immediate danger, enabling Khrushchev to back off his threat to sign the provocative treaty with East Germany. Kennedy confided to aides, “it’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” Khrushchev understood the West’s vulnerability in Berlin, which he viewed as “the testicle of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream,” he said, “I squeeze on Berlin.”
Khrushchev found another way to make Kennedy scream in August 1961: he resumed nuclear testing. When Kennedy learned it would soon happen, he erupted, “Fucked again!” His advisors urged him to hold off responding in kind so that they could score a propaganda victory, but Kennedy brushed them off, exclaiming, “What are you? Peaceniks? They just kicked me in the nuts. I’m supposed to say that’s okay?”
Kennedy’s warning during the Berlin crisis infused the debate over fallout shelters with a new sense of urgency. Recommendations to build shelters during the 1950s had largely fallen on deaf ears. In March 1960, Representative Chet Holifield, who chaired the Government Operations Subcommittee, declared civil defense to be in a “deplorable shape” with only 1,565 home fallout shelters having been built in thirty-five states. Few people could afford or were willing to spend the several thousand dollars it cost to have shelters installed in their homes. Nobel Prize-winning UCLA nuclear expert Willard Libby, a former member of the Atomic Energy Commission, proposed a solution. To much fanfare, he built a shelter at his Bel Ari, California, home for $30 and lectured, “If your life is worth $30, then you can afford a fallout shelter such as this.” Libby dug a five-foot-wide, five-foot-deep, seven-foot-long hole into the side of a hill. He lined the sides, top, and entrance with a hundred dirt-filled burlap bags. He made the roof from sixteen eight-foot-long railroad ties. Unfortunately for the Libby’s, a fire swept through the Santa Monica mountains in February 1961, destroying their home. Mrs. Libby had time to salvage only two items: her husband’s Nobel Prize and a mink coat. After initial reports that the fallout shelter had survived intact, the Washington Post sadly reported, “Fire Wrecks Libby’s Bel Air Fallout Shelter.” The timing was regrettable. Newspapers were currently running Libby’s multipart series titled “You Can Survive Atomic Attack.” Physicist Leo Szilard comment that this “proves not only that there is a God but that he has a sense of humor.”
To an outside observer, it might have seemed that Americans had taken leave of their senses in the summer and fall of 1961 as the nation conducted an extended conversation about the ethics of killing friends and neighbors in order to protect the sanctity, security, and limited resources in one’s home fallout shelter. In August, Time magazine published an article titled “Gun Thy Neighbor,” which quoted one Chicago suburbanite as saying, “When I get my shelter finished, I’m going mount a machine gun at the hatch to keep the neighbors out if the bomb falls. I’m deadly serious about this. If the stupid American public will not do what they have to do to save themselves, I’m not going to run the risk of not able to use the shelter and I’ve taken the trouble to provide to save my own family.”
At public meetings, neighbors with shelters told nextdoor neighbors and best friends that they would shoot them if necessary. Clergy weighed in on both sides of the issues. Rev. L. C. McHugh, a former professor of ethics at Georgetown, fueled the controversy when he wrote in the Jesuit magazine America: “Think twice before you rashly give your family shelter space to friends and neighbors or to the passing stranger…others try[ing] to break in…may be…repelled with whatever means will effectively deter their assault. … Does prudence also dictate that you have some ‘protective devices’ in your survival kit, e.g. a revolver for breaking up traffic jams at your shelter door? That’s for you to decide, the light of your personal circumstances.”
Right Reverend Angus Dun, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., denounced the every-family-for-itself approach as “immoral, unjust and contrary to the national interest.” He averred that the kind of person who would be “most desperately needed in a post-attack world is least likely to dig himself a private mole-hole that has no room for his neighbor.”
Many people took sad note of the ways that the Cold War and threat of annihilation had warped the American conscience. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor Eugene Rabinowitch called home fallout shelters “pathetic” and viewed discussions of killing one’s neighbors and “demonstrations of human depravity.” Historian Gabriel Kolko said that government neutrality on the gun-thy-neighbor debate suggested that it would not “complain when shelterless neighbors remove their armed neighbors’ filters, or slip a plastic bag over the air intake.” The New York Times reported on one satirical cabaret skit in which shelter owners were encourage to shoot their neighbors now rather than wait until they tried to break into their shelters. Bob Dylan recorded a song intended for his The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album titled “Let Me Die in My Footsteps.” The unreleased song began, “I will not go down under the ground/’Cause somebody tells me that death’s coming ‘round./And I will not carry myself down to die/When I go to my grave my head will be high.” For the chorus, Dylan sang, “Let me die in my footsteps/Before I go down under the ground.” In perhaps the most creative response, one protester showed up at the Jesuit publication’s office with an umbrella labeled “Portable Fallout Shelter.” An arrow pointed to the end opposite the handle read, “For stabbing shelterless neighbors.” Despite government pressure, surprisingly few Americans actually built fallout shelters, apparently recognizing that shelters would offer scant protection in the event of nuclear war or that such a war might not be worth surviving.
Still, the chilling specter of nuclear war hung over the first two years of the Kennedy presidency. Having won the election in part by exploiting the fear of a missile gap, once in office Kennedy asked McNamara to quickly ascertain just how big the gap was. It took only three weeks to confirm that a gap did exist, but was in the United States’ favor.
Kennedy wanted to keep that information from the public. He intended to exploit the apocryphal missile gap to justify a robust increase in defense spending. But on February 6, his politically inexperienced secretary of defense shocked reporters by announcing “There’s no missile gap.” McNamara offered to resign over his faux pas. Kennedy explained that all such judgements were “premature,” and the issue faded quickly.
But in October 1961, Kennedy decided to come clean over the striking disparity between U.S. and Soviet military strength. He authorized Gilpatrick to publicly flaunt the United States’ superiority in a speech to the Business Council in Hot Springs, Virginia. The speech was carefully crafted by young RAND consultant Daniel Ellsberg. Gilpatrick announced that the United States “has a nuclear force retaliatory force of such lethal power that an enemy move would be an act of self-destruction. … The total number of our nuclear delivery vehicles, tactical as well as strategic, in the tens of thousands.” McNamara publicly confirmed that the United States possessed “nuclear power several times that of the Soviet Union.” Several times was an understatement. The United States had approximately forty-five ICBMs. The Soviet had only four, and those were very vulnerable to a U.S. attack. The United States had more than 3,4000 deliverable nuclear warheads on submarines and bombers. The United States had more than 1,500 heavy bombers to the Soviets 192. The United States also had some 120 IRBMs stationed in Turkey, Britain, and Italy, 1,000 tactical fighter bombers with range of the USSR, and nuclear missiles on Polaris subs. Overall, the United States had approximately 25,000 nuclear weapons; the Soviets had one-tenth that number.
SAC Commander General Thomas Power was not pleased by this revelation, having based his enormous funding requests on the contention that the United States faced a dire crisis. Refusing to go quietly, he began spotting Soviet missile sites everywhere, disguised as grain silos, monastery towers, and even a Crimean War Memorial. Power, a LeMay protégé who led the firebombing attack on Tokyo in World War II, opposed all efforts to constrain SAC. In December 1960, when briefed by RAND’s William Kaufman on the need to avoid targeting civilians, Power exploded, “Why do you want us to restrain ourselves? Restraint! Why are you so concerned about saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards!” He added, “Look. At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!” Exasperated, Kaufman responded, “Well, you better make sure that they’re a man and a woman.”
Despite the fact that the United States’ nuclear superiority was vast and growing, the air force wanted to increase the number of missiles to 3,000. SAC wanted 10,000. McNamara’s studies showed that the United States did not need more than 400 but settled on 1,000 as the lowest number they could get away with under the circumstances.
Soviet Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky interpreted Gilpatrick’s October statement to mean that “the imperialists are planning…a surprise attack the on USSR and the socialist countries.” The Soviets, who had chosen not to exploit their advantage in the one area in which they were ahead of the United States – missile technology – responded by detonating a 30-megaton bomb, the biggest yet exploded, two days later. The next week, they tested a 50-plus-megaton bomb which they could have made 100 megatons, but they decided to leave off the third stage. McNamara later acknowledged that a surprise first strike was indeed on of the options under the SIOP – an option General LeMay was openly discussing. LeMay had reportedly advocated building a single bomb big enough to destroy the entire Soviet Union.
War seemed terrifyingly close in the fall of 1961. Robert Lowell wrote: “All autumn, the chafe and jar/of nuclear war; we have talked our extinction to death.”
Kennedy’s unwavering commitment to overthrowing the revolutionary Cuban government further inflamed tension with the Soviet Union. Robert Kennedy told CIA head John McCone in January 1962 that overthrowing Castro was “the top priority of the United States’ Government.” Two months earlier, the Kennedy’s unleashed Operation Mongoose, a terror campaign against Cuba under CIA auspices. Robert Kennedy outlined the policy: “My idea is to stir things up…with espionage, sabotage, general disorder, run and operated by Cubans themselves.” The objective was to wreck the Cuban economy and assassinate Castro. Kennedy put master counterinsurgent and dirty-tricks expert Edward Lansdale in charge. The CIA assembled an enormous intelligence operation that included 600 CIA officers in South Florida, nearly five thousand contractors, and the third largest navy in the Caribbean. In March, Lansdale asked the Joint Chiefs for a “description of pretexts” to justify “US military intervention in Cuba.” Brigadier General William Craig, the Operation Mongoose Program Officer, quickly produced an astounding list, which was approved by the Joint Chiefs and actively promoted by Chairman Lemnitzer.
Craig had recently suggested that if John Glenn’s upcoming Mercury orbital flight failed, the United States should manufacture evidence blaming Cuban electronic interference. He appropriately named this Operation Dirty Trick. His new suggestions for Lansdale were code-named Operation Northwood. They included a “Remember the Maine” incident modeled on the ship sinking that had triggered the Spanish-American war; a “terror campaign” against Cuban refugees, including sinking a boatload of Cubans escaping to Florida; hijacking attempts against U.S. aircraft that would be pinned on the Cuban government; staging a Cuban government shootdown of a civilian airliner (“the passengers could be a group of college students off on a holiday”); “an incident which will make it appear that Communist Cuban MIGs have destroyed a USAF aircraft over international waters in an unprovoked attack”; and “as series of well-coordinated incidents…in and around Guantanamo to give genuine appearance of being done by hostile Cuban forces.” These would later include blowing up ammunition inside the base, starting fires, burning aircraft on the base, lobbing mortar shells, inciting riots and sabotaging ships.
U.S. actions throughout 1962 convinced the Soviets that such an invasion was imminent. In January, the United States coerced Latin American countries to suspend Cuba’s membership in the OAS. In April, 40,000 U.S. troops engaged in a two-week exercise culminating in an invasion of a Caribbean Island. Two smaller exercises followed in May. During the summer and fall, the United States intensified its contingency planning for an invasion. In October 1962, the U.S. announced Operation Ortsac, a large exercise including a mock invasion by 7,500 marines of a Caribbean island replete with the overthrow of its government. The message was clear; Ortsac was Castro spelled backward. Scheduled to begin on October 15, the unfolding crisis would force Ortsac’s cancellation.
Kennedy was also intent upon standing up to the Communists in Vietnam, despite understanding the difficulties the United States faced there. After visiting Vietnam in 1951, he had advised against aiding the French colonialists and later spoke more broadly of needing to win the support of Arabs, Africans, and Asians who “hated…the white man who bled them, beat them, exploited them, and ruled them.” He pointed out the contradiction in opposing the Soviets in Hungary and Poland while supporting the French in Vietnam, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. But he was soon defending Diem’s cancellation of elections and urging U.S. support for the South Vietnamese government. The United States’ “prestige in Asia” was at stake. “Vietnam,” he now insisted, “represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the red tide of Communism flowed into Vietnam.”
In the late 1950s, Diem’s repressive rule had sparked armed resistance in the South. In December 1960, with Hanoi’s blessing, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) came into being as a broad coalition united around opposition to Diem. Its ten-point program called for the ouster of U.S. advisors, steps toward peaceful reunification of the country, and radical social reforms. Diem ignored U.S. pressure to democratize, choosing instead to ban public assembly, public dancing, and political parties. Instead of using this as an excuse to reduce U.S. involvement, Kennedy increased the number of U.S. military personnel in the country in a conscious contravention of the Geneva Accords and vastly expanded U.S. support for counterinsurgency programs.
In Mya 1961, Kennedy sent Vice President Johnson to Vietnam to demonstrate the United States’ resolve. Johnson anointed Diem the “Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia” and urged Americans to dig in their heels. In October, Kennedy sent Maxwell Taylor, who was then his personal military advisor, and Walt Rostow, the deputy assistant for National Security Affairs. They painted a bleak picture and pressed for a much larger U.S. involvement. Taylor was part of a growing chorus of Kennedy advisors who pushed for deployment of U.S. combat troops. McNamara and the Joint Chiefs agreed with Taylor’s assessment that only U.S. combat troops could possibly forestall a Communist victory. Like Taylor, they acknowledged that an initial troop deployment would increase pressure to send more troops, possibly vast numbers of them. Kennedy understood this dynamic all too well and resisted. He explained to Schlesinger, “The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.”
Kennedy did approve Taylor’s other recommendations and expanded U.S. involvement. The number of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam jumped from 800 when Kennedy took office to over 16,000 in 1963. The United States began resettling villagers at gunpoint behind barbed-wire-enclosed compounds guarded by government troops and using herbicides to defoliate the areas where guerrillas operated. The long-term environmental and health effects would prove disastrous for Vietnamese and Americans alike.
But it was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1963 that really impressed upon Kennedy the potentially disastrous repercussions of his hard-line Cold War policies. On Sunday, October 14, a U-2 surveillance plane brought back startling photos from Cuba. The next day, photoanalysts determined that the Soviets had placed SS-4 medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) on the island that were capable of delivering 1-megaton warheads to the United States.
Kennedy was in a bind. Leading Republicans and his own CIA director had warned that the Soviets would one day put offensive weapons on Cuba. Kennedy had repeatedly assured critics that if the Soviets did so, he would act decisively.
The last thing the Soviets wanted in 1962 was a direct military confrontation with the United States. With little more than ten ICBMs that could reliably reach U.S. soil and fewer than 300 nuclear warheads, they stood no chance against the United States’ 5,000 nuclear bombs and nearly 2,000 ICBMs and bombers. Fearing a U.S. first strike, the Soviets gambled that placing missiles in Cuba could deter both an attack on themselves and protect Cuba against an anticipated U.S. invasion. Khrushchev also saw this as an inexpensive way to placate Kremlin hawks. Having deliberately misled Kennedy with promises that no offensive weapons would be placed in Cuba, he said he wanted to give the Americans “a little bit of their own medicine” and show them that “it’s been a long time since you could spank us like a little boy – now we can swat your ass.” Khrushchev equated Soviet missiles in Cuba with U.S. missiles on the Soviet Union’s border in Turkey and in Western Europe. He had intended to announce their presence on November 7 at the forty-fifth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
On October 16, Kennedy pondered Soviet motives. “What is the advantage of” putting ballistic missiles in Cuba, he asked his advisors. “It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamn dangerous, I would think.” The room fell silent until Bundy replied, “Well, we did it, Mr. President.”
Kennedy hoped to stop the Soviets before the missiles had been fully installed. He conferred with his advisors to determine his options. On October 19, he met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The majority, led by LeMay, favored an air strike to destroy the missiles. LeMay advised, “The Russian bear has always been eager to stick his paw in Latin American waters. Now we’ve got him in a trap, let’s take his leg off right up to his testicles. On second thought, let’s take off his testicles, too.” LeMay assured Kennedy that the Soviets would not respond to an attack on the missiles in Cuba. Kennedy replied that they would have to respond – if not in Cuba, then in Berlin. LeMay welcomed that scenario, believing that the time was ripe not only to overthrow Castro but to wipe out the Soviet Union. Kennedy was shaken by LeMay’s cavalier attitude toward the possibility of nuclear war. After the meeting, he remarked to his aide Kenneth O’Donnell, “Can you imagine LeMay saying a thing like that? These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”
Most of the chiefs and several of the other advisors wanted the strike to be followed by an invasion. Those less ready to risk war preferred a blockade. McNamara contended that the presence of Soviet missiles did not change the strategic balance. Kennedy agreed but believed that allowing the missiles to stay would have devastating political consequences abroad, especially in Latin America. Kennedy confided to his brother that if he didn’t take strong action, he would be impeached. But in the coming days, he rejected the advice of his military leaders, of the civilian hard-liners Acheson and Nitze, and of former President Eisenhower, and opted for the blockade, which he referred to as a “quarantine” to downplay the fact that this too was an act of war. LeMay was furious. “This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” he charged at the October 19 meeting. On October 22, the president solemnly informed the American people of what had transpired. “The purpose of these bases,” he noted “can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” In words that could hardly have been comforting, he declared, “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the course of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be face.”
Tensions heightened daily as the crisis dragged on. On October 25, Soviet leaders decided they would have to remove the missiles, but they wanted to secure the best terms they could before doing so. They hoped to trade Soviet missiles in Cuba for U.S. Jupiters in Turkey. But before they could act on that decision, Khrushchev received word that the U.S. invasion was about to begin. He sent Kennedy what McNamara described as “the most extraordinary diplomatic message I have ever seen.” Khrushchev warned that the United States and USSR were heading inexorably toward war: “if war should indeed break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it…war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.”
In that letter, Khrushchev asked simply for a promise not to invade Cuba. Even ignoring the faulty information about the invasion beginning, Khrushchev had abundant reason to worry. A series of “incidents” occurred, any one of which could have triggered the nuclear holocaust that he and Kennedy desperately sought to avoid. A SAC test missile was launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base toward the Marshall Islands, and U.S. officials mistakenly reported that Tampa and Minnesota were under attack.
On October 22, SAC went to DEFCON 3. At 10:30 A.M on October 24, for the first time in history, SAC was placed on DEFCON 2 and prepared to strike targets in the Soviet Union. The decision to go to the precipice of nuclear war was made by General Power on his own authority without consulting the president. To make matters worse, instead of putting out this order in code, as would be expected, he sent it out in the clear to make sure that the Soviets would pick it up. Thereafter, the SAC fleet remained airborne, refueled by aerial tankers and getting ready to attack with close to three thousand nuclear weapons, expected to kill hundreds of millions of people.
Tensions continued to ratchet up. On October 27, an incident occurred that Schlesinger accurately described as “not only the most dangerous moment in the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.” A navy group led by the carrier USS Randolph began dropping depth charges near a Soviet B-59 submarine sent to protect the other Soviets ships approaching Cuba. Those inside the U.S. destroyers were unaware that the Soviet sub was carrying nuclear weapons. Soviet signals officer Vadim Orlov described the scene: “The [depth charges] exploded right next to the hull. It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer. The situation was quite unusual, if not say shocking – for the crew.”
The temperature rose sharply, especially inside the submarine’s engine room. The ship went dark, with only emergency lights continuing to function. Carbon dioxide in the air reached near-lethal levels. People could barely breathe. “One of the duty officers fainted and fell down. Then another one followed, then the third one. … They were falling like dominoes. But we were still holding on, trying to escape. We were suffering like this for about four hours.” Then “the Americans hit us with something stronger. … We thought – that’s it – the end.”
Panic ensued. Commander Valentin Savitsky tried unsuccessfully to reach the general staff. He then ordered the officer in charge of the nuclear torpedo to prepare it for battle and shouted, “Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here. We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not disgrace our Navy.” Savitsky turned to the other two officers aboard for their approval. One agreed, but political officer Vasili Arkhipov refused to launch, single-handedly preventing nuclear war.
In the midst of this harrowing confrontation, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council received work that a U-2 plane had been shot down over Cuba. The Joint Chiefs, believing that the Soviets were trying to blind the United States, demanded that Kennedy authorize an air strike and invasion. With reconnaissance missions also drawing fire, reports came in that Soviet missiles were being placed on launchers. Kennedy acknowledged that “time was running out.” The United States completed its preparations. Two hundred fifty thousand troops were mobilized and ready to invade. Plans were in place to install a new Cuban governments. Two thousand bombing sorties were readied. The invasion seemed imminent.
Predicting a U.S. strike in twenty-four to seventy-two hours, Castro urged Khrushchev to respond by launching a nuclear strike against the U.S. imperialists before the United States attacked the Soviet Union. Kennedy, meanwhile, received a second letter from Khrushchev that further complicated the situation. Unlike the first, which had been highly personal, this one sounded as though it had been written by a committee. Some suspected that a military coup had taken place and Khrushchev had been ousted. The letter demanded both the pledge not to invade Cuba and the removal of NATO missiles inn Turkey. Undersecretary of State George Ball and Adlai Stevenson had already suggested swapping Turkish missiles for Cuban ones, and Kennedy, prior to the current crisis, had himself twice endorse U.S. removal of the obsolete Jupiters from Turkey. Now, however, Kennedy rejected a missile swap, fearing that yielding to Soviet demands under those circumstances could alienate Turkey and destroy NATO.
Kennedy decided to respond only to the first letter, offering a pledge not to invade Cuba. At the height of the crisis, a U-2 plan “accidentally” strayed over Soviet territory protected by jets armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles, and, unbeknown to the Americans, a Soviet missile battery was moved to fifteen miles from the U.S. base at Guantanamo, ready to blow it to smithereens. War drew closer by the second. In a last-ditch effort, Robert Kennedy met with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on Saturday, October 27, and told him the United States was about to attack unless it received an immediate Soviet commitment to remove its bases from Cuba. He promised to withdraw the Jupiter missiles from Turkey within four to five months but only if Soviet leaders never publicly disclosed this secret agreement. While waiting anxiously for the Soviet response, a distraught President Kennedy admitted revealingly to a young female companion, “I’d rather my children be red than dead.” Fortunately for all, such heresy departed profoundly from the then more conventional views of Eisenhower, who once told the British Ambassador that he “would rather be atomized than communized.” Going to bed, McNamara thought that he might not live to see another Saturday night. Fortunately for everyone, Khrushchev, who had been unable to sleep for several days when he was first briefed on nuclear weapons in 1953, decided that it was not worth the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people or more to save face. The next morning, the Soviets announced that they would withdraw the missiles. In his 1970 memoirs, Khrushchev claimed that Robert Kennedy’s message was even more desperate. “Even though the President himself is very much against starting a war over Cuba, an irreversible chain of events could occur against his will,” he warned. “…If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power. The American army could get out of control.”
The crisis was over. Or was it? Although people everywhere breathed a huge sigh of relief, the crisis actually continued for three more weeks. Kennedy also demanded that the Soviets remove their Il-28 bombers from Cuba on the grounds that they could potentially carry nuclear weapons and that they cut the number of their military personnel on the island down to 3,000. For Khrushchev, acceding to this demand was complicated by the fact that the planes now belonged to Cuba. On November 11, Khrushchev made an offer similar to the one Robert Kennedy made to Dobrynin: he offered his “gentlemen’s word” that he would remove the Il-28s at some later date. Kennedy turned him down flat, demanding that he publicly announce their immediate withdrawal. The United States remained on DEFCON 2 throughout this ordeal. The crisis finally ended on November 20, when the Soviets complied with U.S. demands.
The United States had come within a hairsbreadth of invading Cuba. U.S. officials, it turned out, had little idea of what they were about to encounter had they done so. Reconnaissance flights had succeeded in photographing only thirty-three of the forty-two SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles and never found the nuclear warheads that were also present. SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which could travel 2,200 miles and hit most of the continental United States, had also been shipped. The United States remained completely ignorant of the fact that the Soviets had also placed a hundred battlefield nuclear weapons in Cuba to repel a U.S. invading force. They included eighty FKR cruise missiles armed with 12-kiloton warheads, twelve Luna ground-to-ground rockets with 2-kiloton warheads, and six 12-kiloton bombs for Il-28 bombers with a range of 750 miles. Anticipating that U.S. forces would confront 10,000 Soviet military personnel and 100,000 armed Cubans, the United States expected to suffer 18,000 total casualties and 4,500 dead in an invasion. When McNamara later learned that there were actually 43,000 Soviet military personnel and 270,000 armed Cubans, he raised the estimate of U.S. deaths to 25,000. Thirty years after the crisis, in 1992, McNamara discovered that the battlefield nuclear weapons were in place and would likely have been used against U.S. invaders. He blanched and responded that in that case, 100,000 Americans would have died and the United States would have responded by wiping our Cuba with a “high risk” of nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. Hundreds of millions of people might have perished – possibly all mankind. It has also recently been discovered that on the island of Okinawa, a large force of Mace missiles with 1.1 megaton nuclear warheads and F-100 fighter bombers armed with hydrogen bombs was preparing for action. Their likely target was not the Soviet Union, but China.
As Daniel Ellsberg has astutely pointed out, Khrushchev made a blunder of epic proportions by not divulging the fact that the warheads had arrived before the blockade went into effect and then, even more bafflingly, not announcing that he had delivered tactical cruise and ballistic missiles along with their nuclear warheads. By keeping these facts secret, he had undercut the missiles’ deterrent effect. Had U.S. policymakers known for sure of the warheads’ arrival for the MRBMs, they would have hesitated to strike and risk a retaliatory launching. Similarly, had they known that tactical missiles with nuclear warheads might be fired at U.S. troops, they would likely have forsworn an invasion. In fact, the Kremlin had initially given local Soviet commanders authority to launch the tactical missiles at their own discretion if the U.S. invaded. Such authorization was later withdrawn, but that did not preclude the possibility of an unauthorized launching. Although the details were different, this frightening scenario of deterrence gone awry with cataclysmic consequences hauntingly similar to the one that Stanley Kubrick presented little more than a year later in his satirical masterpiece Dr. Strangelove.
U.S. military leaders were furious when the crisis ended without an attack on Cuba. On several occasions, they had as much as accused Kennedy of cowardice for resisting their recommendations. McNamara recalled their bitterness at a meeting with Kennedy the day after the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles: “The President invited the chiefs in to thank them for their support during the crisis, and there was one hell of a scene. Curtis LeMay came out saying, ‘We lost. We ought to just go in there today and knock them off!’” Kennedy viewed the outcome differently. He privately boasted that he had “cut [Khrushchev’s] balls off.” Khrushchev was vilified for his restraint. The Chinese charged him with cowardice for caving in to U.S. demands. Some Soviet officials agreed and spread the word that Khrushchev had “shitted his pants.” Many U.S. officials, believing that the United States’ willingness to go to war had forced the Soviets to back down, decided that superior force would also work elsewhere, including Vietnam. The Soviets drew the opposite lesson: determined to never again be so humiliated and forced to capitulate from weakness, they began a massive buildup of nuclear weapons to achieve parity with the United States. Weakened by the crisis, Khrushchev would be forced out of power the following year.
Shaken by how close the world had come to a nuclear holocaust, Khrushchev wrote Kennedy another long letter on October 30. “Evil has brought some good,” he reflected. “The good is that now people have felt more tangibly the breathing of the burning flames of thermonuclear war and have a more clear realization of the threat looming over them if the arms race is not stopped.” He guessed that Americans “felt as much anxiety as all other peoples, expecting that thermonuclear war would break out at any moment.” In light of this, he made a series of bold proposals for eliminating “everything in our relations capable of generating a new crisis.” He suggested a nonaggression treaty between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations. Even better, he said, why not “disband all military bloc?” He wanted to move quickly to finalize a treaty for cessation of all nuclear weapons testing – in the atmosphere, in outer space, under water, and also underground, seeing it as transitional to complete disarmament. He proposed a formula for resolving the ever-dangerous German question: formal acceptance of two Germanys based on the existing borders. He urged the United States to recognize China and let it assume its legitimate place in the United Nations. He encouraged Kennedy to offer his own counterproposals so that together they could move toward peaceful resolution of the problems threatening mankind. But Kennedy’s tepid response and insistence on additional on-site inspections before signing a comprehensive test ban treaty frustrated Khrushchev.
Saturday Review editor and antinuclear activist Norman Cousins helped to break the impasse. Khrushchev had invited Cousins, who often attended Soviet-American conferences, to visit him in early December 1962. Prior to leaving, Kennedy asked Cousins to do what he could to convince Khrushchev that Kennedy was sincere about wanting to improve relations and conclude a test ban treaty. In a meeting that lasted more than three hours, Khrushchev told Cousins, “Peace is the most important goal in the world. If we don’t have peace and the nuclear bombs start to fall, what difference will it make whether we are Communists or Catholics or Capitalists or Chinese or Russians or Americans? Who could tell us apart? Who will be left to tell us apart?”
Khrushchev confirmed his eagerness to conclude a test ban treaty and was confident that it was possible “for both our countries to agree on the kind of inspection that will satisfy you that we’re not cheating and that will satisfy us you’re not spying.” The prospects for a treaty looked good until negotiations hit a snag when Kennedy, under pressure from U.S. hawks, more than doubled the number of on-site inspections the United States would require. Hoping to salvage an agreement, Cousins returned to the Soviet Union in April 1963 and met with the Soviet premier for six hours. Khrushchev described the pressure he was under from Kremlin hawks. When Cousins briefed Kennedy on Khrushchev’s predicament, the president observed, “One of the ironic things about this entire situation is that Mr. Khrushchev and I occupy approximately the same political positions inside our governments. He would like to prevent a nuclear war but is under severe pressure from his hard-line crowd, which interprets every move in that direction as appeasement. I’ve got similar problems.” That April, Undersecretary of State Averill Harriman, the former ambassador, also spoke with Khrushchev and cabled to Kennedy that Khrushchev “meant what he was saying about peaceful coexistence.” Harriman and Khrushchev interrupted their meetings to attend a track meet at Lenin Stadium between an Amateur Athletic Union team from the United States and a Soviet team. When the runners from the two nations that had so recently been on the brink of nuclear war marched onto the field arm in arm, the crowd went wild. Harriman and Khrushchev rose to a huge ovation. Harriman said he saw tears in Khrushchev’s eyes.
After his two visits with Khrushchev, Cousins reported to Kennedy that the Soviet leader sincerely sought a new relationship with the United States but felt bitter at Kennedy’s unresponsiveness. Kennedy asked Cousins what he could do to break th stalemate. Cousins suggested a presidential address offering “a breathtaking new approach toward the Russian people, calling for an end to the Cold War and a fresh start in American-Russian relations.” Cousins even submitted a draft speech, much of which Ted Sorensen incorporated into the final version of Kennedy’s historic American University commencement address. Albeit a little more hesitantly at first than his Soviet counterpart, Kennedy began demonstrating that he too was ready for a fundamental restructuring of relations between the capitalist and Communist worlds.
Kennedy saw Vietnam as one place to step back from confrontation, but he knew it would not be easy. Among the earliest administration officials to question U.S. involvement in Vietnam was Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith. After reading Galbraith’s report in early 1962, Kennedy instructed Harriman and NSC staffer Michael Forrestal to “seize upon any favorable moment to reduce our commitment.” The Joint Chiefs emphatically rejected Galbraith’s suggestions. McNamara asked General Paul Harkins for a plan to complete training South Vietnamese troops and withdraw U.S. forces by the end of 1965. It is important to note that in McNamara’s mind, the withdrawal should occur whether victory was attained or not. He stated in his oral history for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, “I believed that to the extent we could train those forces, we should do so, and having done it, we should get out. To the extent those trained forces could not handle the problem – the subversion by North Vietnam – I believed we should not introduce our military forces in support of the South Vietnamese, even if they were going to be defeated.”
Kennedy started voicing doubts a little bit later. In late 1962, he asked Senator Mike Mansfield to visit Vietnam and evaluate the situation. Mansfield returned with a very pessimistic assessment and recommended that the United States withdraw its forces. O’Donnell described Kennedy’s reaction: “The president was too disturbed by the senator’s unexpected argument to reply to it. He said to me later when we talked about the discussion, ‘I got angry with Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely, and I got angry with myself because I found myself agreeing with him.’” In April 1963, Kennedy told journalist Charles Bartlett, “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. We don’t have a prayer of prevailing there. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our tails out of there at almost any point. But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the American people to reelect me.”
McNamara, meanwhile, began pressing the resistant Joint Chiefs for a plan for phased withdrawal. Kennedy approved the plan in May 1963. The first 1,000 men were set to depart at the end of the year. In September, Kennedy sent McNamara and Taylor on a ten-day fact-finding expedition to Vietnam. They gave the president their final report on October 2. It called for beginning withdrawal before the end of 1963 and completing it by the end of 1965. Kennedy insisted that the withdrawal dates be included in the statement released to the press. He formalized this commitment in NSAM 263, which he signed on October 11, 1963.
The debate over Kennedy’s true intentions in Vietnam has at times been quite acrimonious. Kennedy’s own contradictory statements and mixed signals have added to the confusion. Clearly, Kennedy was under enormous pressure to stay the course in Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs issued shrill warnings that the loss of South Vietnam would bring Communist domination of all Southeast Asia and beyond and pushed for the introduction of ground forces. Kenned went out of his way to convince the American people that he believed it essential for the United States to prevail. In July 1963, he told a news conference that “for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam but Southeast Asia.” The fact that when he did discuss withdrawal, he made it contingent upon being able to depart victoriously, also fed the belief that he had no intention of changing course.
Kennedy’s determination to pull out U.S. forces was made clear in private conversations with several of his closest advisors and confidants. But political considerations drove his decision to postpone action until after the 1964 elections. In several cases, such considerations also convinced his friends to sit on that knowledge long past the time when having divulged it might have helped prevent the nightmare that was to ensue. Kennedy explained the political calculations behind his regrettable delaying tactics to O’Donnell: “If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m reelected.”
Among those who later came forward with confirmation of Kennedy’s intention to withdraw were Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Ted Sorensen, Mike Mansfield, Tip O’Neill, and Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman. When Daniel Ellsberg interviewed Robert Kennedy in 1967, prior to the Tet Offensive and the shift in public opinion on the war, Kennedy explained that his brother had been “absolutely determined not to send ground units.” Ellsberg asked if the president would have been willing, as a result, to accept defeat at the hands of the Communists, and Kennedy replied, “We would have fuzzed it up. We would have gotten a government in that asked us out or that would have negotiated with the other side. We would have handled it like Laos.” In response to Ellsberg’s question as to why the president was so smart when most of his senior advisors were still committed to prevailing, Kennedy responded so sharply that Ellsberg jumped in his chair, “Because we were there! We were there, in 1951. We saw what was happening to the French. We saw it. My brother determined, determined, never to let that happen to us.” President Kennedy even told Wayne Morse, the most outspoken war critic in Congress, that Morse was “absolutely right” in his criticism of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. “I’ve decided to get out. Definitely!” he assured him.
Kennedy’s most emphatic response to Khrushchev’s peace overtures came in his June 1963 American University address. He and his closest advisors had drafted the speech without input from the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, or the State Department. It may be the most enlightened speech made by any president in the twentieth century:
I have…chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived – yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace. What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. … I am talking about genuine peace – the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living – the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women – not merely peace in our time but peace for all time. I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all of the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by the wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations unborn. … Second: let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union…it is sad to…realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also…a warning to the American people not to…see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodations as impossible and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats. … Today, should total war ever break out again…All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours. … In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. … And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal. Third: let us re-examine our attitude toward the Cold War…we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on – not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.
McNamara was convinced that Kennedy was about to change the course of history. The secretary of defense told an interviewer, “The American University speech laid out exactly what Kennedy’s intentions were. If he had lived, the world would have been different. I feel quite confident of that.”
Nowhere was Kennedy’s speech more appreciated or more widely circulated than in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev considered it the best speech by a U.S. president since Roosevelt. Encouraged by what he heard, he publicly supported an atmospheric test ban treaty for the first time. On July 25, U.S., Soviet, and British representatives initialed the historic treaty. It was the first nuclear arms control agreement in history.
Passage by the U.S. Senate, however, was far from certain. The Joint Chiefs argued in April 1963 that “only through the energetic test program in all environments can the United Sates achieve or maintain superiority in all areas of nuclear weapons technology.” The public seemed to concur. Congressional mail was running fifteen to one against the treaty.
Kennedy feared a future in which nuclear weapons might proliferate widely. He foresaw “the possibility in the 1970s…of the United States having to face a world in which 15 or 20 or 25 nations may have these weapons. I regard that, he told repiorters at a March press conference, “as the greatest possible danger and hazard.” In order to avert that, he fought doggedly for passage, assuring aides that he would “gladly” forfeit reelection if that were the cost of passing the treaty.
His efforts were rewarded. The Senate passed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on September 24 by a vote of 80 – 19. Ted Sorensen believed that “no other accomplishment in the White House ever gave Kennedy greater satisfaction.” The treaty was ratified on October 7, 1963 – Henry Wallace’s seventy-fifth birthday. In recognition of this monumental achievement, the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock back to twelve minutes before midnight.
Kennedy wanted to eradicate all the long-standing sources of tension between the two nations. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko visited New York for the General Assembly meetings in September 1963, and Dean Rusk went to see him. As Gromyko recalled:
He said, “The President wants to find ways of improving relations with the Soviet Union and reducing tension.” He went on: “Could we go for a right out of town and carry on our conversation.” I realized something serious was afoot, and of course accepted. We drove beyond the city limits, where Rusk reported the President’s message: “Kennedy is thinking of reducing the number of US forces in Europe.” We discussed this walking along the side of the road. It seemed to me that common sense about this issue had at last gained the upper hand in Washington. The question had been present, visibly or invisibly, at almost every Soviet-US meeting since the war, whenever NATO policy and the remilitarization of West Germany were discussed. The Soviet view was that US forces and bases in western Europe represented an obstacle to peace. Kennedy’s idea therefore seized our attention. I reported what Rush had told me to Khrushchev, and said: “If the President has the political strength to carry out his idea, he’ll be doing a great thing for Europe, for the world and for the USA. Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.” Sadly, however, the President’s days were numbered.
Believing that he and Khrushchev could actually end the Cold War, he confided in two friends that he planned to conclude another arms control agreement and then become the first sitting U.S president to visit the Soviet Union. The Soviet people, he was sure, would give him a hero’s welcome.
Kennedy even announced that he was ready to call off the space race with the Soviet Union and replace competition with cooperation. That was another stunning reversal. During the 1960 campaign, he had emphasized how badly Soviet space triumphs had diminished the United States’ stature abroad:
The people of the world respect achievement. For most of the 20th century they admired American science and American education, which was second to none. But they are not at all certain about which way the future lies. The first vehicle in outer space was called Sputnik, not Vanguard. The first country to place its national emblem on the moon was the Soviet Union, not the United States. The first canine passengers in space who safely returned were named Strelka and Belka, not Rover or Fido, or even Checkers.
The Soviets had reaped a political windfall from those triumphs. On April 12, 1961, five days before the Bay of Pigs invasion, Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. Flying over Africa, he sent greetings to Africans below who were struggling against colonialism. Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight three weeks later paled by comparison. After the flight, 40 percent of Western Europeans believed that the Soviets were ahead in total military strength and overall scientific achievement. Worried that U.S. prestige was at stake, Kennedy called a rare joint session of Congress and announced that “if we are to win the battle…between freedom and tyranny,…this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Almost a year later, in February 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Though his three-orbit flight almost ended in disaster, it boosted American spirits. But in August, the Soviets launched Vostok III, which circled the earth seventeen times and was joined the next day by Vostok IV. The following June, they captured the world’s attention with a weeklong mission that included Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
Kennedy had gambled so much of his own and the country’s prestige on winning the race to the moon that his sudden about-face in September 1963 came a complete surprise. He stated:
Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity – in the field of space – there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon. Space offers no problems of sovereignty; by resolution of this Assembly, the members of the United Nations have foresworn any claim to territorial rights in outer space on celestial bodies, and declared that international law and the United Nations Charter will apply. Why, therefore, should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries – indeed of all the world – cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representative of a single nation, but the representatives of all our countries.
During the remarkable last few months of his life, Kennedy even contemplated a course reversal when it came to relations with Castro’s Cuba – a relationship in which he was personally deeply invested and in which his policies were consistently wrongheaded. But just as he clung to the hope of victory in Vietnam while taking steps toward withdrawal, he endorsed a new round of CIA sabotage in Cuba while holding out hope for friendship and reconciliation with Fidel Castro. His ambivalence toward Castro represented, in microcosm, his lingering ambivalence in dealing with all of Latin America, where he spoke of democracy and reform yet continued aiding repressive dictators and supported a military coup in Guatemala as late as March 1963.
But even in Latin America, he began showing signs of rethinking U.S. policy. ABC News correspondent Lisa Howard interviewed Castro in April 1963 and reported that he had expressed his willingness to normalize relations if the United States was interested in doing so. U.S. intelligence officials were fully aware that Castro had become disillusioned with the Soviet Union after its capitulation during the missile crisis and was seeking to reduce dependence on his erstwhile ally. In September 1963, Kennedy asked journalist and diplomat William Attwood to explore with Cuban leaders the possibility of a rapprochement. Although UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson authorized Attwood “to make discreet contact” with Cuba’s UN Ambassador, Carlos Lechuga, to determine whether dialogue with Castro was possible, Stevenson added regretfully that “the CIA is still in charge of Cuba” so not much was expected of this overture.
Attwood and Lechuga had several productive discussions, but Attwood’s request for a meeting with Castro was rejected on the grounds that such talks would not be “useful at this time.” Kennedy decided to try another avenue of approach. French journalist Jean Daniel, an old friend of Attwood’s, was about to go to Cuba to interview Castro. Attwood arranged for him to interview Kennedy before meeting with Castro. In that interview, Kennedy offered an extraordinarily sympathetic portrait of the Cuban Revolution:
I believe that there is no country in the world, including all the African regions, including any and all of the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. … I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will go even further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.
Daniel spent three weeks touring Cuba but made no headway in his efforts to interview Castro. As Daniel’s departure from Cuba drew near, Castro showed up unexpectedly at Daniel’s hotel. During the six-hour conversation, he wanted to hear every detail of Daniel’s interview with Kennedy. Although Castro expressed as much criticism of Kennedy’s behavior as Kennedy had of his, he, too, held out hope for a new departure, stating, just two days before Kennedy’s assassination:
I cannot help but hoping that a leader will come to the fore in North America (why not Kennedy, there are things in his favor!), who will be willing to brace unpopularity, fight the trusts, tell the truth and, most important, let the various nations act as they see fit. Kennedy could still be this man. He still has the possibility of becoming, in the eyes of history, the greatest President of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas. He would then be an even greater President than Lincoln.
In little more than a year since the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jack Kennedy, the erstwhile Cold Warrior, had undergone a remarkable transformation. He and Nikita Khrushchev had taken steps to ease Cold War tensions that in October 1962 or at any point in the previous sixteen years would have seemed unimaginable. Both had made enemies who were ready to pounce. On November 7, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller launched his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. For the next two weeks, he kept up a steady assault on Kennedy’s policies. Kennedy, he charged, was soft on communism. He naively believed that Soviet leaders were “reasonable, amenable to compromise, and desirous of reaching a fundamental settlement with the west.” As a result, “the foundations of our safety are being sapped.” He hadn’t stopped Communist aggression in Laos. He had failed to provide air support during the Bay of Pigs invasion and stood “idly by while the wall was being built in Berlin.” And the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty had caused “profound shock” among the United States’ European allies.
But Rockefeller’s wrath was nothing compared to that of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which Kennedy had repeatedly provoked since the start of his presidency. In the summer of 1962, Kennedy read an advance copy of the soon-to-be-best-selling novel Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, in which a military coup occurs in the United States. Knebel had gotten the idea when interviewing General Curtis LeMay. Kennedy told a friend:
It’s possible. It could happen in this country. … If, for example, the country had a young president, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back, but this would be written off as the usual military dissatisfaction with civilian control. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, “Is he too young and inexperienced?” The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation, and only God knows just what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment. Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs, it could happen.
In the minds of some leaders in the military and intelligence community, Kennedy was guilty of far more than three betrayals: he was guilty of not following through in the Bay of Pigs, disempowering the CIA and firing its leaders, resisting involvement and opting for a neutralist solution in Laos, concluding the atmospheric test ban treaty, planning to disengage from Vietnam, flirting with ending the Cold War, abandoning the space race, encouraging third-world nationalism, and, perhaps most damningly, accepting a negotiated settlement in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On November 22, 1963, before the young president had a chance to realize the dreams he and Khrushchev shared for refashioning the world, bullets from one more assassins cut Kennedy down in the streets of Dallas. We may never know who was responsible or what the motive was. The Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. Commission member John McCloy insisted that the report be unanimous even though four of the seven members – Richard Russell, Hale Boggs, John Sherman Cooper, and McCloy himself – harbored serious doubts about the lone-gunman and magic-bullet theories. Lyndon Johnson, Governor John Connally, who had also been wounded, and Robert Kennedy also questioned the findings. The public found the report unconvincing.
We do know that Kennedy had many enemies who deplored the progressive change just as fervently as did those who blocked Henry Wallace in 1944 when he was trying to lead the United States and the world down a similar path of peace and prosperity. Kennedy bravely defied the powerful forces who would have pushed the United States into a war with the Soviet Union. His courage was more than matched by Khrushchev’s. Future generations owe an enormous debt and possibly their very existence to the fact that those two men stared into the abyss and recoiled from what they saw. And they owned a special debt to an obscure Soviet submarine commander who single-handedly blocked the start of nuclear war. In his inaugural address, Kennedy said that the torch had been passed to a new generation. With Kennedy’s death, the torch was passed back to an old generation – the generation of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan – leaders who, though not much older, would systematically destroy the promise of the Kennedy years as they returned the country to war and repression.