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
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,
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
“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.
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
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.
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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