President John F. Kennedy's skillful management of the Cuban missile
crisis, 50 years ago this autumn, has been elevated into the central myth of
the Cold War. At its core is the tale that, by virtue of U.S. military
superiority and his steely will, Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita
Khrushchev to capitulate and remove the nuclear missiles he had secretly
deployed to Cuba. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk rhapsodized, America went "eyeball
to eyeball," and the Soviets "just blinked." Mythologically, Khrushchev gave
everything, and Kennedy gave nothing. Thus the crisis blossomed as an unabashed
American triumph and unmitigated Soviet defeat.
Kennedy's victory in the messy and inconclusive Cold War
naturally came to dominate the politics of U.S. foreign policy. It deified
military power and willpower and denigrated the give-and-take of diplomacy. It
set a standard for toughness and risky dueling with bad guys that could not be
matched — because it never happened in the first place.
Of course, Americans had a long-standing mania against compromising
with devils, but compromise they did. President Harry Truman even went so far
as to offer communist Moscow a place in the Marshall Plan. His secretary of
state, Dean Acheson, later argued that you could deal with communists only by
creating "situations of strength." And
there matters more or less rested until the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK demonstrated the strength
proposition in spades, elevating pressures on his successors to resist
compromise with those devils.
What people came to
understand about the Cuban missile crisis — that JFK
succeeded without giving an inch — implanted itself in policy deliberations and
political debate, spoken or unspoken. It's there now, all these decades later,
in worries over making any concessions to Iran over nuclear weapons or to the
Taliban over their role in Afghanistan. American leaders don't like to
compromise, and a lingering misunderstanding of those 13 days in October 1962
has a lot to do with it.
In fact, the crisis
concluded not with Moscow's unconditional diplomatic whimper, but with mutual
concessions. The Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba in return for U.S.
pledges not to invade Fidel Castro's island and to remove Jupiter missiles from
Turkey. For reasons that seem clear, the Kennedy clan kept the Jupiter part of
the deal secret for nearly two decades and, even then, portrayed it as a
trifle. For reasons that remain baffling, the Soviets also kept mum. Scholars
like Harvard University's Graham Allison set forth the truth over the years,
but their efforts rarely suffused either public debates or White House meetings
on how to stare down America's foes.
FROM THE OUTSET, Kennedy's people went out of their way to conceal the
Jupiter concession. It started when the president's brother, Attorney General
Robert F. Kennedy, met Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on Oct. 27 to present
the Jupiters-for-Soviet-missiles swap. He told Dobrynin: We'll take the Jupiters out, but it's not part of the deal, and you
can never talk about it. The Soviets removed their missiles, the United States
removed the Jupiters, and the secret held for 16 years, until a small paragraph in an Arthur Schlesinger book upon which few remarked.
Four years later,
Kennedy's key advisors wrote a Time article on the 20th anniversary of the crisis in which
they admitted including the Jupiters in the agreement. They did so, however, in
such a way as to diminish its importance, presenting the Jupiters almost as an
afterthought while saying that JFK
had already decided to remove them from Turkey. Then, they totally contradicted
themselves, acknowledging that secrecy surrounding the Jupiter part of the deal
was so important that a leak "would have had explosive and destructive effects
on the security of the U.S. and its allies."
These Kennedy aides were
so devoted to their triumphal myth that most of them continued to propagate it
long after they themselves had turned against its very precepts. Most ended up
opposing a Vietnam war that JFK
had still been fighting when he was assassinated. They all grew skeptical about
the value of military might and big-power confrontations, and they became formidable advocates of diplomatic
It was not until 1988,
however, that one among them clearly and openly acknowledged his decades-long
hypocrisy and its costs. In his book Danger and Survival,
McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security advisor, lamented: "Secrecy of this sort has its costs.
By keeping to ourselves the assurance on the Jupiters, we misled our colleagues,
our countrymen, our successors, and our allies" into concluding "that it had been enough to stand
firm on that Saturday." It took 26 years, but there it was.
STUNNINGLY, THE RUSSIANS didn't reveal the truth far earlier. A well-timed Soviet leak after the Jupiters were removed could
have done two things for Moscow. First, the story of the swap would have
sharply blunted accounts of their utter defeat. Never mind that JFK was planning to take out the
Jupiters anyway and replace them with Polaris missile-firing subs.
Second, it would have
caused great consternation in NATO,
where the swap would have been portrayed as selling out Turkey. RFK even told Dobrynin that this fear
was his major reason for keeping the deal secret. Dobrynin cabled Bobby's words
back to Moscow: "If such a decision were announced now, it would seriously tear
apart NATO." Once the Jupiters had
been removed, Moscow could have pounced. One would think the Soviets would have
welcomed the opportunity.
Dobrynin fully grasped how
the myth chilled U.S. willingness to compromise, something he told me about in
the late 1970s when I was ensconced at the State Department. He didn't say so
publicly, however, until his memoirs came
out in 1995. He wrote: "If Khrushchev had
managed to arrange [a leak], the resolution of the crisis need not have been
seen as such an inglorious retreat."
Why, then, didn't the
Soviets leak it? It's quite possible, even likely, that Khrushchev and his
Politburo never considered leaking because they had no idea how the crisis
would be portrayed — how weak they would look. On the day the crisis was reaching
a crescendo, before he knew that Kennedy would offer up the Jupiters,
Khrushchev was ready to back down. He told his colleagues that the Soviet Union
was "face to face with the danger of war and of nuclear catastrophe, with the
possible result of destroying the human race." He wasn't thinking about the
Jupiters; he just wanted out and was determined to convince his colleagues that
a U.S. pledge not to invade would be enough to protect Soviet power and pride.
To check this view, I
contacted the three living people most likely to know: Sergei Khrushchev (son
of Nikita), Anatoly Gromyko (son of Andrei, the Soviet foreign minister during
the missile crisis), and Alexander "Sasha" Bessmertnykh (a Foreign Ministry
official at the time of the crisis and later foreign minister). All backed this
theory, though they acknowledged not knowing the details of Khrushchev's thinking. Soviet leaders,
they said, genuinely feared a U.S. invasion of Cuba. None was moved by my
argument that by the time of the crisis, there was no likelihood of such an
invasion. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, this idea was laughable in U.S. policy
circles. None would grant that Moscow's leaking of the swap was necessary to
preserve Soviet honor. Yet as we spoke further, all eventually conceded that
the image of Soviet power indeed would have fared far better had the swap
In Moscow at a retrospective on the crisis in 1989, JFK speechwriter and confidant Ted
Sorensen touted Bobby Kennedy's Thirteen Days as the
definitive account. Dobrynin interrupted to say that the book omitted the
Jupiters, to which Sorensen replied that Dobrynin was correct, but at the time,
the deal was still "secret." "So I took it upon myself to edit that out," he said.
covering the meeting took it upon themselves not to chronicle this exchange.
Nor has foreign-policy chatter over the years made much reference to the
Jupiters. Indeed, the compromise is mentioned so infrequently that journalist
Fred Kaplan had to nail it to the wall at considerable length in a recent Slate review of Robert
Caro's latest volume on President Lyndon
B. Johnson. Careful as he is, Caro relied on sources that extolled Kennedy's
resolve, and he ignored the Jupiters.
COMPROMISE IS NOT a word that generally makes political hearts
flutter, and it is even less loved when it comes to the politics of U.S.
foreign policy. The myth of the missile crisis strengthened the scorn. The
myth, not the reality, became the measure for how to bargain with adversaries.
Everyone feared becoming the next Adlai Stevenson, whom the Kennedys, their
aides, and their foes discredited for proposing the Jupiter deal publicly.
It's not that
Washingtonians scurried about proclaiming their desire to emulate the
missile-crisis myth, but it was very much a part of the city's ether in columns
and conversations with friends from the early 1960s to the 1990s. Few wanted to
expose themselves by proposing even mild compromises with enemies. In the
famous "A to Z" review of U.S. policy
toward Vietnam, ordered by LBJ after the 1968 Tet Offensive, we (I was in the Pentagon at that time) weren't
even permitted to study possible compromises with Hanoi. And there's no doubt
that only a dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warrior like Richard Nixon finally could have
withdrawn from Vietnam.
It took extraordinary
courage to propose compromises in arms control talks with Moscow. Even treaties
for trivial reductions in nuclear forces on both sides faced furious battles in
Congress. Today, it is near political suicide to publicly suggest letting Iran
enrich uranium up to an inconsequential 5 percent with strong inspections,
though the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permits it. And while Barack
Obama's team is talking to the Taliban, its demands are so absolute — the Taliban
must lay down their arms and accept the Kabul constitution — that any serious
give-and-take is impossible. Were it at all serious, the White House would have
to at least dangle the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement with the
For too long, U.S.
foreign-policy debates have lionized threats and confrontation and minimized
realistic compromise. And yes, to be sure, compromise is not always the answer,
and sometimes it's precisely the wrong answer. But policymakers and politicians
have to be able to examine it openly and without fear, and measure it against
alternatives. Compromises do fail, and presidents can then ratchet up threats
or even use force. But they need to remember that the ever steely-eyed JFK found a compromise solution to the
Cuban missile crisis — and the compromise worked.