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Thirteen Days

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Thirteen Days

  Thirteen Days


  Thirteen Days


  BY Robert F. Kennedy

  Foreword by

  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

  W. W. Norton & Company

  New York • London

  Copyright © 1971, 1969 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

  Copyright © 1968 by McCall Corporation

  All rights reserved

  Foreword copyright © 1999 by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

  Reissued in Norton paperback with a new foreword 1999

  Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 73-141589

  ISBN-13: 978-0-393-31834-0

  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

  500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110

  W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.

  Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London WIT 3QT



  “Tuesday morning, October 16, 1962…”

  “The President…knew he would have to act.”

  “A majority opinion…for a blockade…”

  “It was now up to one single man.”

  “The important meeting of the OAS…”

  “I met with Dobrynin…”

  “The danger was anything but over.”

  “There were almost daily communications with Khrushchev.”

  “Expect very heavy casualties in an invasion.”

  “This would mean war.”

  “Those hours in the Cabinet Room…”

  “The President ordered the Ex Comm…”

  “Some of the things we learned…”

  “The importance of placing ourselves in the other country’s shoes.”








  NOW THAT THE COLD WAR has disappeared into history, we can say authoritatively that the world came closest to blowing itself up during thirteen days in October 1962. Two superpowers overarmed with nuclear weapons challenged each other in what could have spiraled so easily into the ultimate catastrophe. How the world escaped oblivion is the subject of this book. Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days has become a minor classic in its laconic, spare, compelling evocation by a participant of the shifting moods and maneuvers of the most dangerous moment in human history.

  Just how dangerous it was I didn’t fully understand until I attended a conference on the missile crisis in Havana in January 1992. James G. Blight of Brown University had the idea of enriching the historical record by bringing people recently in mortal contention together with scholars prepared to interrogate them. The Havana conference was the fifth in a series of conferences on the missile crisis. What began as an all-American affair next acquired Russian participants. Cubans complained that everyone called it the Cuban missile crisis but no one had ever asked them: hence the Havana meeting, in which Fidel Castro took an active part.

  My belief when I went to Havana was that we had over-dramatized the danger. After all, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was well aware that the United States had conventional superiority in the Caribbean and nuclear superiority overall. As a rational man, he would never have launched a suicidal war. This complacent view did not survive the conference. Going to war is not necessarily a rational process.

  The most arresting moment came when General Anatoly Gribkov, who had been in Cuba during the thirteen days, described the Soviet military deployment. There were, he said, 43,000 Soviet troops on the island. (The Central Intelligence Agency had estimated 10,000.) The Soviet forces were equipped with nuclear warheads. (The CIA was never sure whether warheads had actually arrived.) These included warheads for short-range as well as for long-range missiles. (No one in Washington dreamed that the Soviet soldiers might be equipped with tactical nukes.) Most alarming: in the event that the communications link with Moscow might be severed, Soviet field commanders were authorized to use tactical nukes against an American invasion.

  This last observations startled, and appalled, the Americans present. I was sitting next to Robert McNamara, our Secretary of Defense during the crisis, and he almost fell out of his chair. The American Joint Chiefs of Staff (not McNamara, however) had been all-out for invasion. Had their advice prevailed, as McNamara later said, nuclear war would have begun on the beaches of Cuba and might have ended in a global holocaust.

  How did we Americans get ourselves and the world into this fix? By 1962 Castro’s Cuba was well established as a designated enemy of the United States. Two years earlier the Eisenhower administration had hired members of the Mafia to assassinate Castro and had begun training anti-Castro Cuban exiles for an invasion of their homeland. The Kennedy administration inherited the project that led to the Bay of Pigs. After this misbegotten affair, the Kennedy administration sponsored a CIA campaign of harassment and sabotage. In Havana and in Moscow Operation Mongoose was taken, not unreasonably, as preparation for invasion by U.S. forces.

  Castro, again not unreasonably, turned to the Soviet Union as Cuba’s protector. He hoped, through a proclamation or an alliance or Soviet conventional military aid, to deter American aggression. He did not request, nor did he want, nuclear missiles. This was Khrushchev’s idea. “When Castro and I talked about the problem,” Khrushchev recalled in his memoirs, “we argued and argued. Our argument was very heated. But, in the end, Fidel agreed with me.”1

  Castro reluctantly accepted nuclear missiles, as he later said, “not in order to ensure our own defense, but primarily to strengthen socialism on the international plane.” He then asked Khrushchev to go public when he delivered the missiles. “Why do it secretly—as if we had no right to do it?” After all, the Soviet Union had every right under international law to send the missiles and Cuba had every right to receive them. “I warned Nikita that secrecy would hand the imperialists the advantage.”2

  Fortunately for the imperialists Khrushchev did not follow Castro’s advice. Had he done so, it would have been far harder to force the missiles out. Khrushchev’s secrecy played into Kennedy’s hands.

  We know a surprising amount today about the inner history of the missile crisis. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, editors, 1997) supplies verbatim transcripts of deliberations within the American government. Alexander Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964 (1997) draws on hitherto secret Soviet documents. James G. Blight’s volumes of “critical oral history”—especially On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (with David A. Welch, 1990) and Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse (with Bruce J. Allyn and David A. Welch, 1993)—contain the witness of American, Soviet, and Cuban participants.

  This abundance of new testimony supplements and reinforces Robert Kennedy’s account in Thirteen Days. The President was determined to get the nuclear missiles out of Cuba. American acquiescence in their deployment, Kennedy understood, would demonstrate the Soviet ability to act with impunity in the very heart of the American zone of vital interest. Soviet missiles in Cuba might not upset the strategic balance, but they would certainly upset the political balance and have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the world power equilibrium—not to mention their impact on domestic politics, never far from any presidential mind.

  Kennedy, as his brother emphasized in Thirteen Days, was equally determined to get the missiles out peaceably. There is the theory that Jo
hn and Robert Kennedy were “obsessed” with Castro and out to destroy him. If this had been the case, the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba would have provided a heaven-sent pretext—one that would have been accepted around the world—to invade Cuba and smash Castro forever. Instead Robert Kennedy led the fight against military intervention, and John Kennedy made the decision against it. Some obsession.

  The President’s purpose was to stop the delivery of further missiles through the naval “quarantine” of Cuba and to effect the removal of missiles already in Cuba through diplomacy. He took his negotiating credo from the British military analyst Basil Liddell Hart (whose book Deterrent or Defense he had reviewed in 1960): “Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save his face. Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil—nothing is so self-blinding.”3

  Throughout the American deliberations Kennedy called on his advisers—the so-called Ex Comm—to put themselves in Khrushchev’s shoes: “I think we ought to think why the Russians did this.” When advisers urged a surprise air strike on the bases, Kennedy commented that our allies would regard it “as a mad act by the United States.” He did not think Khrushchev would initiate a nuclear war he was bound to lose. He sought to make it as easy as possible for him to back down.

  But the President worried insistently that the situation might meanwhile spin out of control through miscalculation, accident, stupidity, insanity, something going terribly wrong down the line (cf. General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove). He had not read in vain The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s account of the way the nations of Europe stumbled into the First World War. Thus he took the greatest care to keep the armed forces on the tightest leash, much to their ill-concealed irritation.

  Kennedy was not impressed by military objections. The Bay of Pigs had taught the President to distrust the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The first advice I’m going to give my successor,” he once said to his journalist friend Ben Bradlee, “is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”4 During the missile crisis Kennedy courteously and consistently rejected the Joint Chiefs’ bellicose recommendations. “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor,” he said. “If we…do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”5

  He did not know that Soviet tactical nukes were lying in wait for an American invasion. But he feared the awful unpredictability of escalation. Once the escalatory spiral took off, who knows where it would end? That is why the President resisted a sneak air attack, even when a majority of the Ex Comm favored it. That is why he prepared to enlist the United Nations in fallback plans in case bilateral negotiation faltered. That is why from an early point he saw a trade of American missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba as a possible way out.

  And that is why he sent Robert Kennedy on a secret mission to Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to arrange the trade. It was a deal most of his advisers opposed. This is an episode only lightly touched on in Thirteen Days. Secrecy was deemed essential lest disclosure of the trade anger NATO allies abroad and hard-liners at home. The deal remained secret until I came across the relevant documents in Robert Kennedy’s papers and published them in Robert Kennedy and His Times in 1978.

  Khrushchev, whose gambler’s throw precipitated the crisis, proved an equal partner in resolving it. As the American military objected to the rejection of an invasion, the Soviet military objected to the withdrawal of the missiles. When Khrushchev asked whether his brass hats would guarantee that keeping the missiles in Cuba would not bring about nuclear war, they looked at him, he later told Norman Cousins of the Saturday Review, an informal emissary between Kennedy and Khrushchev, “as though I were out of my mind or, what was worse, a traitor. So I said to myself, ‘To hell with these maniacs.’”6

  Recent scholarship confirms the portrait of John F. Kennedy sketched by his brother in Thirteen Days: a remarkably cool, thoughtful, nonhysterical, self-possessed leader, aware of the weight of decision, incisive in his questions, firm in his judgment, always in charge, steering his advisers perseveringly in the direction he wanted to go. “We are only now coming to understand the role he played in it,” writes John Lewis Gaddis, the premier historian of the Cold War.

  Far from neglecting the dangers of nuclear war, he had a keen sense of what they were. Far from opposing a compromise, he pushed for one more strongly than anyone else in his administration. Far from relying on the Ex Comm he bypassed it at the most critical moments, and may have seen it as more useful for consensus-building than for decision-making. Far from placing the nation and the world at risk to protect his own reputation for toughness, he probably would have backed down, in public if necessary, whatever the domestic political damage might have been. There may be, in short, room here for a new profile in courage—but it would be courage of a different kind from what many people presumed that term to mean throughout much of the Cold War.7

  Had the Soviet missiles remained in Cuba, the 1960s would have been a most dangerous decade. Instead, so long as Kennedy lived and Khrushchev stayed in power, there was steady movement toward the relaxation of tension—the American University speech, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the establishment of the “hotline” between the White House and the Kremlin.

  “One of the ironic things,” Kennedy observed to Norman Cousins in the spring of 1963, “…is that Mr. Khrushchev and I occupy approximately the same political positions inside our governments. He would like to prevent a nuclear war but is under severe pressure from his hard-line crowd, which interprets every move in that direction as appeasement. I’ve got similar problems…. The hard-liners in the Soviet Union and the United States feed on one another.”8

  Having stared down the nuclear abyss together, the two leaders were determined that the world would never again suffer such a crisis. As for the alleged Kennedy obsession with Fidel Castro, a year after the missile crisis Kennedy was exploring the possibility of normalizing relations with Castro’s Cuba.

  In November 1962, while the thirteen days were still fresh in his mind, Robert Kennedy dictated a memorandum to himself. “The 10 or 12 people who had participated in all these discussions,” he said, “were bright and energetic people. We had perhaps amongst the most able in the country and if any one of half a dozen of them were President the world would have been very likely plunged into catastrophic war.”9

  It was a narrow escape from oblivion.

  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

  April 1999


  N. S. Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (Boston, 1974), 511.

  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “Four Days with Fidel: A Havana Diary,” New York Review of Books, 26 March 1992.

  John F. Kennedy, review of Deterrent or Defense by B. H. Liddell Hart, Saturday Review, 3 September 1960. (The quote is from Liddell Hart.)

  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Foreword to Pierre Salinger, John F. Kennedy: Commander in Chief (New York, 1997), vii–viii.

  Kenneth O’Donnell and David F. Powers, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye” (Boston, 1974), 318.

  Norman Cousins, editorial, Saturday Review, 10 October 1977, quoted in James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse (New York, 1993), 359.

  John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York, 1997), 272.

  Norman Cousins, The Improbable Triumvirate (New York, 1972), 114.

  Robert F. Kennedy, memorandum, 30 November 1962, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston, 1978), 525.

  Thirteen Days


  “Tuesday morning, October 16, 1962…”

  ON TUESDAY MORNING, October 16, 1962, shortly after 9:00, President Kennedy called and
asked me to come to the White House. He said only that we were facing great trouble. Shortly afterward, in his office, he told me that a U-2 had just finished a photographic mission and that the Intelligence Community had become convinced that Russia was placing missiles and atomic weapons in Cuba.

  That was the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis—a confrontation between the two giant atomic nations, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., which brought the world to the abyss of nuclear destruction and the end of mankind. From that moment in President Kennedy’s office until Sunday morning, October 28, that was my life—and for Americans and Russians, for the whole world, it was their life as well.

  At 11:45 that same morning, in the Cabinet Room, a formal presentation was made by the Central Intelligence Agency to a number of high officials of the government. Photographs were shown to us. Experts arrived with their charts and their pointers and told us that if we looked carefully, we could see there was a missile base being constructed in a field near San Cristobal, Cuba. I, for one, had to take their word for it. I examined the pictures carefully, and what I saw appeared to be no more than the clearing of a field for a farm or the basement of a house. I was relieved to hear later that this was the same reaction of virtually everyone at the meeting, including President Kennedy. Even a few days later, when more work had taken place on the site, he remarked that it looked like a football field.

  The dominant feeling at the meeting was stunned surprise. No one had expected or anticipated that the Russians would deploy surface-to-surface ballistic missiles in Cuba. I thought back to my meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in my office some weeks before. He came to tell me that the Russians were prepared to sign an atmospheric-test-ban treaty if we could make certain agreements on underground testing. I told him I would transmit this message and the accompanying documents to President Kennedy.

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