The Real Cuban Missile Crisis

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Since 1997, scholars have had access to the recordings that Kennedy secretly made of meetings with his top advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “ExComm”), and so they know that the popular story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is misleading in many, many ways:

Reached through sober analysis, Stern’s conclusion that “John F. Kennedy and his administration, without question, bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis” would have shocked the American people in 1962, for the simple reason that Kennedy’s administration had misled them about the military imbalance between the superpowers and had concealed its campaign of threats, assassination plots, and sabotage designed to overthrow the government in Cuba — an effort well known to Soviet and Cuban officials.

In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy had cynically attacked Richard Nixon from the right, claiming that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow in the U.S.S.R.’s favor. But in fact, just as Eisenhower and Nixon had suggested — and just as the classified briefings that Kennedy received as a presidential candidate indicated — the missile gap, and the nuclear balance generally, was overwhelmingly to America’s advantage.


This included deploying, beginning in 1961, intermediate-range “Jupiter” nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey — adjacent to the Soviet Union. From there, the missiles could reach all of the western U.S.S.R., including Moscow and Leningrad (and that doesn’t count the nuclear-armed “Thor” missiles that the U.S. already had aimed at the Soviet Union from bases in Britain).

The Jupiter missiles were an exceptionally vexing component of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Because they sat above ground, were immobile, and required a long time to prepare for launch, they were extremely vulnerable. Of no value as a deterrent, they appeared to be weapons meant for a disarming first strike — and thus greatly undermined deterrence, because they encouraged a preemptive Soviet strike against them.

A commenter summarizes Red Heat, by Alex Von Tunzelmann, which gives its own account of how the crisis played out:

In Tunzelmann’s version, Kennedy was only a peripheral player, not the central character that the Atlantic article describes.

After the Bay of Pigs, Bobby Kennedy advocated for a full invasion of Cuba. Khrushchev committed to defend Cuba, against his advisors’ counsel. (How Cuba become a Soviet ally is an even more surprising story in Von Tunzelmann’s book.) The only way the Soviets could defend an island 90 miles off Florida was to put in nuclear missiles. Hundreds of missiles were installed, with a explosive power of 6,000 Hiroshimas, without the U.S. discovering their presence. The Atlantic’s assertion of “the effectiveness of America’s aerial and satellite reconnaissance” is nonsense.

The missiles were under the control of two thousand Soviet personnel. The Soviets enjoyed Cuba — tropical beaches, sexy women, plenty of rum — and they became fast friends with the Cuban military officers. And they were enamored of Fidel, who was far more charismatic than Khrushchev. Khrushchev began to realize that Fidel could likely talk the Soviet officers into giving him control of the missiles. And if not, the 2,000 Soviets were surrounded by 200,000 Cuban soldiers.

Then American U-2 flights brought back photos of missile sites under construction. Kennedy said that he would order bombing if missiles were installed, or if a U-2 were shot down. If the missile sites were bombed, Fidel might launch the missiles at the United States in retaliation, or to prevent an invasion.


Meanwhile, a U-2 flew over Cuba for more than two hours. It flew over the completed missile sites for the first time. Fidel realized that if he did nothing, the Americans would soon realize that Soviet missiles were installed and ready to launch. This would certainly cause Kennedy to order bombing. Fidel waited as long as he could, and then when the U-2 turned to return to the United States he ordered it shot down.

A few hours later Khrushchev received Fidel’s letter. He tried to make heads or tails of it — then came to the erroneous conclusion that Fidel was saying that he wanted to launch a first strike. Khrushchev realized that putting missiles in Cuba had been a huge mistake. He called Kennedy and said that he had ordered the removal of all missiles. The call came while Kennedy was in a meeting with the CIA, being told that a U-2 had failed to return and may have been shot down.

Thus the Cuban Missile Crisis ended. In this version of events, Kennedy plays almost no part, just as in American versions (including the Atlantic’s version) Fidel plays no role.

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