How the world escaped nemesis

The Kennedys and Cuba

August 11, 2000

Among the unexpected results of that greatest of unexpected events, the end of the cold war, is our increasing inability to remember what the post-1945 era looked like and what it felt like to those living through it.We have the information, but the hurry of events since the destruction of the Berlin Wall makes it hard to retain our understanding of it; and the generation now leaving school does not even have a memory (however treacherous) to help. Though so much has changed, much is still the same. For instance, the exact form of the nuclear danger that shaped the Cuban missiles crisis is a thing of the past; but there are still nukes in the world, and we are fools not to worry about them. A successful study of "the missiles of October" then serves two purposes: it reminds us of just how dangerous the world is, and it shows us what forces brought it to such a pass and threaten to keep it there. The missiles crisis is a current event; only there remains the difficulty that it is veiled from us by the actual lapse of time.

Mark White's book is well designed to meet our present needs. It plunges us right into the heart of past events. It is a collection of documents, helpfully if tersely annotated, illustrating US policy towards Cuba during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the missiles crisis, with its causes, course, and resolution, holding centre stage. It is bound to be of great interest to teachers and students, for White has chosen his documents well.He has had to operate within certain constraints, of which the most important was length, or rather brevity. He has had to be ruthlessly selective, especially in matters of background. No one would gather from his pages that American foreign policy between May 1961 (and indeed earlier) and September 1962 was dominated by anxiety about the future of Berlin, an anxiety that greatly helped to determine the outcome of the missiles crisis itself. This is not a book for the entirely uninstructed. Its readers should be familiar with the outline of the story it illustrates. If they are, they will find The Kennedys and Cuba easy going.

In one respect, its editor has miscalculated. Four years ago Ernest May and Philip Zelikow published The Kennedy Tapes , transcripts of recordings of the White House deliberations during the missiles crisis. None of these transcripts is reproduced here, or even alluded to. Instead, we are given what is presumably the official summary of each meeting (another regrettable omission is that the origin of each document is not made clear).

These summaries are interesting, but compared with the tapes, they are somewhat misleading. They make the debates seem much more orderly and incisive than they were. To read the transcripts is like entering the mind of the presidency. A group of deeply worried men talk for hour after hour, in broken phrases, repetitiously, barely (to the outsider) intelligibly; yet from this foggy process emerge the great decisions, later conveyed to the world in the crisp language of President Kennedy's television broadcasts and communications to Nikita Khrushchev. The process is deeply instructive in itself, and it explains certain odd features of the aftermath: how both Robert Kennedy and McGeorge Bundy, for instance, claimed the credit for a crucial suggestion as to how the two inconsistent messages that Khrushchev sent on October 26 and 1962 should be handled. Both claims could have been made in good faith, but the transcripts show that the suggestion was a collective one: it simply emerged from the discussion. The mind of the presidency did it.

The title of the book, and to some extent the editor's introduction, are misleading. This, it may almost be said, is not a book about the Kennedys. The president is certainly the star of the missiles crisis, but in the chapters describing American policy between the Bay of Pigs and October 1962, he is mostly absent; even Bobby Kennedy, forever cheering on the anti-Castro planners charged with carrying out Operation Mongoose (as it was called) is not very conspicuous. As for the dotty conspirators of Mongoose, they disappear from the story entirely, for it is not really about the melodrama of Cuban politics, or the bitter farce of Yankee interventions, but about the dramatic confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. The role of the heavy is played by Khrushchev, not by Castro. He does not earn any applause. The outrageous lies that he and his foreign minister used to cover up their reckless adventure are sickening (and upset John F. Kennedy more than anything else), and his verbose, almost incoherent letters are in painful contrast to Kennedy's businesslike language. The world was in danger of nuclear destruction because Khrushchev was an amateur in diplomacy. No wonder his colleagues got rid of him.

Not that American policy was faultless. The missiles crisis is a notorious example of how easy yet dangerous it is to miscalculate in matters nuclear. Unlike White, I do not think that Operation Mongoose, a programme of sabotage and subversion directed against Castro from Washington, was the essential cause of the crisis, but it made a big contribution, and the American obsession with the dangers posed by a communist Cuba was a serious impediment to a rational settlement. The encouragement given to anti-Castro Cuban refugees has created huge problems, as the sad affair of Eli n Gonz lez illustrated all too painfully. But the many imbecile documents printed by White exemplify, perhaps unexpectedly, a quite different point. They show how much grotesquely bad advice poured in on the president and other policy-makers, and to my mind demonstrate not only the origins of the Bay of Pigs affair (admirably treated by the author) but the origins of that far worse calamity, the intervention in Vietnam.

Indeed, had the Bay of Pigs gone as planned, the US might have found itself with a problem a la Vietnam 90 miles from Florida. As planners later realised, Castro could not be overthrown by anything short of a full-scale invasion by US forces; and even then he would not have been defeated easily. Luckily for Kennedy, everything went wrong at an early stage; but the Pentagon remained full of officers telling their superiors whatever these wanted to hear, and eager to execute any orders, however idiotic. It is usual to blame the CIA for whatever goes wrong; but these documents show it as, on the whole, a highly competent agency. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were another matter.

The merit of White's compilation is that it brings back to life an epoch that we forget only at our peril. For this, it may be warmly recommended.

Hugh Brogan is research professor in history, University of Essex.

The Kennedys and Cuba: The Declassified Documentary History

Editor - Mark J. White
ISBN - 1 56663 265 X
Publisher - Ivan R. Dee
Price - £20.99
Pages - 356

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