Cold war crisis in Camelot

The Kennedy Tapes
January 16, 1998

The past does not repeat itself, said Mark Twain, but it rhymes. In October 1962, six days after the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy made a broadcast to the nation. "The 1930s taught us a clear lesson," he asserted: "Aggressive conduct, if allowed to grow unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word. Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere." In August 1990, six days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, President George Bush did likewise. "If history teaches us anything," he declared, "it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy our freedoms. Appeasement does not work."

The map of modern tragedy has certain place names inked indelibly upon it. No poetry after Auschwitz. No surrender after Munich. In the artificial blizzards of the media, and the inner circles of the state, analogies can be deployed quite as forcefully as armies. No rational argument served to marginalise Adlai Stevenson, the emollient United States ambassador to the United Nations during the missile crisis, as effectively as the smear of appeasement. "Adlai wanted a Munich," ran the scuttlebutt. No one was madly for Adlai again.

In similar vein, The Kennedy Tapes record a rivetting exchange between the president and the chief of staff of the air force, General Curtis E. LeMay, role model for the monstrous General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's film Dr Strangelove (1963). In life, as in art, the general is in favour of an immediate preventive strike. The president is not so sure. As a young man, Kennedy had contributed his mite to the rhetoric of anti-appeasement and what Abram Chayes has called the Munich stigma. Why England Slept (1940) was his Harvard senior thesis reworked into a slashing indictment of military unpreparedness and moral squeamishness with the aid of some judicious borrowing from the godfather of 20th-century strategic thinking, Basil Liddell Hart. Since then he had matured considerably, as he showed.

JFK: "Let me just say a little, first, about what the problem is, from my point of view. First, in general, I think we ought to think of why the Russians did this. Well, actually, it was a rather dangerous but rather useful play of theirs. We do nothing, they have a missile base there with all the pressure that brings to bear on the United States and damage to our prestige. If we attack Cuban missiles, or Cuba, in any way, it gives them a clear line to go ahead and take Berlin, as they were able to do in Hungary under the Anglo war in Egypt (the Suez crisis).I We would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin. We would have no support among our allies. We would affect the West Germans' attitude towards us. And (people would believe) that we let Berlin go because we didn't have the guts to endure a situation in Cuba. After all, Cuba is 5 or 6,000 miles from them. They don't give a damn about Cuba." LeMay: "Now, as for the Berlin situation, I don't share your view that if we knock off Cuba, they're going to knock off Berlin. We've got the Berlin problem staring us in the face anyway. If we don't do anything to Cuba, then they're going to push on Berlin and push real hard because they've got us on the run. If we take military action against Cuba, then I think that the -" JFK: "What do you think their reply would be?" LeMay: "I don't think they're going to make any reply if we tell them that the Berlin situation is just like it's always been. If they make a move, we're going to fight. I don't think it changes the Berlin situation at all, except you've got to make one more statement on it. So I see no other solution. This blockade and political action, I see leading into war. I don't see any other solution. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich."

In the transcript, this accusation is followed by a single, eloquent word: "(Pause.)" One would give a lot to have been present.

All in all, there are surprisingly few pauses in The Kennedy Tapes. The bulk of the book consists of transcripts of the meetings of ExComm, the executive committee of the National Security Council, in session almost continuously during the high-wire period October 16-29, 1962, recorded secretly by the president and now available for the first time in hard covers, annotated and explicated with discretion by the editors.

Attendance at ExComm varied according to the press of business, but the core membership comprised Dean Rusk (secretary of state), George Ball (under-secretary), Edwin Martin (assistant secretary for American republics affairs), Alexis Johnson (deputy under-secretary for political-military affairs), Llewellyn Thompson (recently ambassador in Munich), Robert McNamara (secretary of defence), Roswell Gilpatric (deputy secretary), Paul Nitze (assistant secretary for international security affairs), Maxwell Taylor (chairman of the joint chiefs of staff), John McCone (director of central intelligence), Douglas Dillon (secretary of the treasury), Robert Kennedy (attorney general), Theodore Sorenson (chief factotum and speechwriter), and McGeorge Bundy (Sancho Panza), together with the president and vice-president (Lyndon Johnson).

This was a formidable gathering - the group dynamics are a constant source of interest -and, in the circumstances, they sustain a remarkably high level of debate. Unedited transcripts, however, tend to find out even the most cogent, and the ExComm is no exception. The storyline never palls, but the dialogue sometimes stutters. Midway through day three, for example, the president tries to pull things together.

JFK: "Well, let me ask you this. Is there anyone here who doesn't think we ought to do something about this?" (Pause.) McNamara: "Well, we're not clear, however, which of these versions to follow." JFK: "Well, we've got so many different alternatives as far as military action. As I say, you have the blockade without a declaration of war. You've got a blockade with a declaration of war. We've got strikes, I, II and III. We've got invasion. We've got notification to Khrushchev and what that notification consists." RFK: "It's not really that bad, though. Because if you have the strike, you don't have to make up your mind about the invasion. That's not going to come for three or four days -" Unidentified: "In one sense you have to make up your mind because basically you have to.I" RFK: "So all you have, really, as Bob says, are the two courses of action (blockade or strike)."

Rusk: "Well, I think the real issue is: what do you do, if anything, before you strike?" Dillon: "When do you tell the press? Exactly what do you say to them?" RFK: "And when do you tell the American people? I think you should go back.I" JFK: "Well, militarily, you're not really in a position to do this strike until Monday (day seven), is that it?" Taylor: "That is correct." McNamara: "May I suggest, Max, that we still keep open the possibility of (unclear). I know that events have changed. We've got more targets and so on since then, Mr President. But I don't think this is actually critical, and I don't think we need to decide this morning." Taylor: "Unless we really need it." Unidentified: "We need it. We need it." JFK: "Well, now the only argument for going quicker than that, really, not only is the one that (the missiles) may leave (be moved) but also -" McCone: "Level of readiness." JFK: "I don't know, if there are two of them ready, whether that makes a hell of difference anyway. If they're going to fire nuclear missiles at us, then.I" The Cuban Missile Crisis may be the most fully documented and minutely inspected episode in international history. Of all the evidence in the public domain, these recordings are the crown jewels. They are essential to the study of that fevered passage, but they are not sufficient. The act and fact of recording has served to amplify the crisis, literally and metaphorically, and give it a recognisable shape and form - Thirteen Days, the title of Robert Kennedy's posthumously published memoir. In short, the Kennedy tapes dramatise. They also telescope and distort. "Thirteen Days" is the authorised US version, packaged in Camelot, the candy floss of the cold war. It is eyeball-to-eyeball, with the other fellow blinking first. The Russian version, to say nothing of the Cuban version, is rather different. So, too, is the thicker version of history. It involves a curious reversal. The unblinking JFK is now known to have pursued every possible avenue of compromise with his opposite number. It could be said that he sought and found accommodation with the aggressor. Appeasement or apocalypse?

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis

Editor - Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow
ISBN - 0 674 17926 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £23.50
Pages - 728

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