WASHINGTON, Oct. 25, 2012 – Fifty years after the United States stood on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, a historian spoke to a Pentagon audience about how President John F. Kennedy and other American leaders dealt with a still-dangerous situation immediately following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
David G. Coleman, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, delivered his lecture Oct. 23 as part of the History Speaker Series sponsored by the Defense Department's historical office. Coleman is chairman of the presidential recordings program at the university's Miller Center of Public Affairs, described on its website as a “nonpartisan institute that seeks to expand understanding of the presidency, policy, and political history, providing critical insights for the nation's governance challenges.”
Coleman employed secret recordings Kennedy made to provide glimpses into how the president dealt with difficult situations while consulting with leaders such as Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. Coleman used the recordings as a source for a new book titled “The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
The crisis was a 13-day standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union over Soviet missiles deployed to Cuba that were capable of carrying nuclear warheads and able to reach of the U.S. mainland. The event began Oct. 16, 1962, when Kennedy first received intelligence proving there were missile sites on Cuba. This led to a U.S. military quarantine of the Caribbean nation. The crisis is considered to have ended Oct. 28, 1962, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy promising that he would withdraw the missiles.
Coleman pointed out that the president and the United States still faced a slew of challenges on the 14th day and in the following weeks. Chief among the problems was how to deal with all the other Soviet assets on the island, Coleman said.
The historian pointed out that, in addition to 42 medium-range ballistic missiles in the communist island nation, there were also 42,000 Soviet troops, 98 tactical nuclear weapons, 42 IL-28 jet bombers and 24 SA-2 surface-to-air missile sites with 500 missiles, as well as torpedo boats, nuclear submarines and MiG-21 jet fighters.
“Cuba is still heavily armed on the 14th day; most of it is under Soviet control,” Coleman said. “This is not a crisis that simply evaporated. ... There was still a very serious situation on the ground, and the administration is uncertain how to deal with it.”
A big part of the problem lay with a deep distrust of the Soviets on the part of U.S. leaders, based on past dealings, the historian said.
“Significantly, the Soviets had lied directly to the Americans before, and this led to a major trust issue in the wake of the crisis. This is one of the things that really dominated the initial discussions,” Coleman said, noting that since Kennedy knew he couldn't trust the Soviets, he would have to find a way to verify that they followed up on their promise to remove the missiles.
This posed a challenge, as Cuban dictator Fidel Castro had said he wouldn't allow any inspectors into the country, and American surveillance aircraft potentially could be shot down.
“Anti-aircraft batteries were still firing on low-level U.S. surveillance planes. The thought was, in the White House and elsewhere, that the Soviets could probably be trusted not to shoot down another plane, but [with] the Cubans, all bets were off,” Coleman said.
The historian noted that the president had to make daily decisions about sending out surveillance planes and try to determine what the response would be if they were to be shot down. In fact, an American U-2 surveillance plane was shot down on Oct. 27, 1962, by a Soviet surface-to-air missile.
The plane's pilot, Air Force Maj. Rudolf Anderson Jr., was the only person killed during the crisis.
The United States had begun running low-level surveillance flights over Cuba on Oct. 23, 1962, which yielded intelligence indicating the Soviets had deployed four heavily armed combat brigades to Cuba, likely armed with tactical nuclear weapons. Kennedy received this information on Oct. 26, Coleman said, noting that the commander in chief now knew that if he sent troops into Cuba, he could be sending them into a nuclear battlefield.
Coleman said Kennedy thought it would be absurd for the Soviets to hand over nuclear weapons to the Cubans, though subsequent revelations indicate this was exactly what they had planned. They abandoned the idea because they started perceiving Castro as potentially unstable and capable of starting a nuclear war, the historian said.
But the issue wasn't just about removing the missiles. Coleman said the United States and the Soviets disagreed about what exactly constituted offensive weapons, and there were tense negotiations that lasted until Nov. 20, 1962, when the military quarantine of Cuba was formally ended, about removing the IL-28 bombers from the island.
Kennedy at first didn't believe the issue of removing the aircraft was worth jeopardizing the agreement with the Soviets, Coleman said, but he was reluctantly convinced by his defense secretary, secretary of state and national security advisor.
The historian played snippets of Kennedy's recordings to give the audience a look into the deliberative processes used by the president to work his way through these issues and arrive at courses of action and decisions. The audience listened as Kennedy essentially thought out loud, attempting to see things through Khrushchev's point of view while developing a strategy for dealing with the problems.
In the end, an agreement was reached in which the missiles and the bombers would have to be removed from Cuba, while some troops and tactical weapons were allowed to stay.
Coleman said the crisis and the period immediately afterward was a “pivot point” in the Kennedy administration in which the president stood firm on some things and compromised on others, while simultaneously struggling with how much information to release to the press and the American people. In the end, Kennedy is remembered as a hero for his handling of the situation, and Coleman noted that many consider the peaceful resolution of this crisis one of the high points of presidential accomplishments during the 20th century.
At the time, however, the outcome was far from certain, the historian said.
“We have learned since that neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev had any intention of getting into nuclear war over this,” Coleman said. “But, at the same time, we've also learned about how many other things could have gone wrong, since it was hard to control the events down on the ground.”
By John Valceanu
American Forces Press Service
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