David Gibson on the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

This month marks the fiftieth year anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, when the United States discovered that, contrary to promises from Khrushchev, the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba. In this exclusive essay, leading conversational analyst David Gibson, author of Talk at the Brink, takes a fascinating look at deliberation and how decisions were made during that historic standoff.  Read on for an analysis of Kennedy’s response to the Cuban missile crisis that departs sharply from previous scholarship:

from David Gibson:

Many histories of the Cuban missile crisis have been written and they almost all run like this: Kennedy took a strong stand in demanding the removal of the missiles but, not wanting war, managed to bring the crisis to a peaceful conclusion through the exercise of judicious moderation. But this is history in retrospect, colored by the happy outcome. A closer look at the process reveals that Kennedy consistently made decisions about which he had serious misgivings—thanks to the influence exercised by his advisers in hours of meetings that the president secretly taped.

Kennedy’s first major decision was to impose a naval blockade, in spite of the pressures applied by the “hawks” to immediately bomb the missile sites. No one believed that the blockade would force Khrushchev to remove the missiles already on the island, so in order to make this choice, Kennedy needed to be able to (at least faintly) hope that a later air strike would be feasible were it needed. The danger, repeatedly stated by Secretary of Defense McNamara, was that some missiles would be operational by then, and might be fired—perhaps by accident or without authorization—in the midst of an attack.

Kennedy only chose the blockade once McNamara stopped warning about this danger, allowing others to muse about a later attack without having to contend with this damning objection. This meant making a choice that he had good reason to fear, and indeed after he made it, he fretted aloud to anyone who would listen that he risked a nuclear way if he later ordered an attack. So determined was Kennedy to get the missiles out, in other words, that he made a decision that, in his own estimation, risked nuclear war, though this was surely the worst outcome from anyone’s perspective.

Kennedy’s second key decision was to not intercept the Bucharest—the next Soviet ship expect to arrive in Cuba once those carrying additional weapons were turned back by the Kremlin on the twenty-third. Kennedy’s advisers mostly urged him to let it past on the grounds that it was only a tanker and could not be carrying missile technology. Kennedy pushed back, worrying that by failing to intercept the ship he would appear weak and irresolute.

Contrary to most accounts, by the end of the morning meeting of the twenty-fifth, Kennedy was distinctly leaning toward intercepting the ship, but put off a final decision until the meeting planned for later in the day. Before that meeting could take place, however, word leaked that the Bucharest had already been allowed through the blockade line. It had, but only because it turned up that morning before a decision had been made of what to do with it; the navy was trailing it and was poised to intercept. But the leak was embarrassing enough that the Pentagon hastily announced, in a press briefing, that the U.S. had decided not to intercept the tanker upon ascertaining that its cargo was benign. Thus Kennedy “decided” not to intercept the ship, though all indications are that he intended to do exactly that.

Kennedy’s third main decision, or pair of decisions, concerned the deal that ended the crisis. Late on October 26, Khrushchev offered, in a private letter to Kennedy, to remove the missiles from Cuba in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade the island. Before the ExComm could properly discuss the offer, however, Khrushchev sent another, now publicly, demanding the removal of NATO Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Dumbfounded, Kennedy’s advisers urged him to simply accept the first offer and ignore the second one. The president, however, was certain that Khrushchev would never settle for a deal based on his Friday offer, having set his sights on something more. But his advisers were relentless, and eventually Kennedy approved a letter to Khrushchev promising that the U.S. would not invade Cuba, and merely hinting at the possibility of negotiations over “other armaments” later.

Kennedy fully expected Khrushchev to reject these terms, so once again was acting contrary to his personal beliefs. For this reason, he commissioned his brother Robert with promising, through a back channel, that the Jupiters would be removed within a few months of the resolution of the crisis, on the condition that Khrushchev kept that part of the deal secret. While this has been taken as evidence that Kennedy had become independent of the ExComm’s guidance, it is more accurate to say that he was trying to have it both ways, acting on his conscience as well as his council, even at the risk that by forbidding Khrushchev from bragging about the Turkish missiles the deal would fall apart.

President Kennedy’s performance during this crisis was remarkable: he was cool and deliberate, and did an admirable job in extracting opposing arguments and weighing their merits. But we need to resist the impulse to read backwards through time and attribute to the wisdom and temperance of one man outcomes that had as much to do with luck and the vicissitudes of group deliberation. Our current president, too, is given to protracted consultations, and we are likely to forget their role, as well, in years to come. Perhaps that is as it should be for, as President George W. Bush once observed, the president stands alone in his capacity as “decider.”