Sheldon M. Stern: Robert Caro Gets Bobby Kennedy Wrong -- He Was a Hawk on Cuba

Roundup: Talking About History

Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000, Dr. Sheldon M. Stern is the author of "Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings" (2003) and "The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis" (2005), both in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.

Editor's Note: This article is an addendum to Sheldon Stern's earlier essay "Robert Caro and the Mythical Cuban Missile Crisis"

Near the end of The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro includes a poignant chapter, “Defeating Despair,” about Robert Kennedy -- LBJ’s bête noir. Caro’s argument, backed up by many citations and anecdotal examples, is hardly new -- namely, that RFK became a changed man in the wake of his brother’s assassination. (He does acknowledge that one part of “his old self” survived, his bottomless hatred of Lyndon Johnson.)

Caro then concludes: “Even to date the change in Kennedy to the assassination may be misleading. It had been during the Cuban Missile Crisis a year earlier that the men sitting around the Cabinet table had seen the once ‘simplistic’ Robert Kennedy behave ‘quite differently.’ But now, after the assassination, the evolution from Kennedy’s old Manichean ‘black and white’ view of life became, suddenly, much more noticeable. ‘It’s an impressive thing now how well he grasps the gray areas,’ an old ally said.” (p. 575)

It cannot be stressed strongly enough that this ubiquitous view of RFK’s role in the ExComm meetings is false -- essentially invented by Bobby Kennedy himself in the draft of Thirteen Days and enshrined in the 1969 published version edited and completed by Ted Sorensen.

One additional example should suffice to nail down this point. Khrushchev had agreed publicly on October 28 to remove the missiles from Cuba; on November 20, JFK was preparing to announce the lifting of the naval quarantine around Cuba. Hours before the statement to the nation, RFK urged his brother to resist giving any public assurances that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. With the quarantine removed, he argued, a potential invasion was the only remaining lever for putting pressure on Khrushchev. The president seemed uneasy: “Now how do we prevent this from looking too much like we’re welching” on the October 27 agreement with the Soviets? “We didn’t say we’re gonna give formal assurances,” Bobby Kennedy countered. “I don’t think that we owe anything as far as Khrushchev is concerned; nor does he expect it at the moment.” He did concede reluctantly that “maybe we wanna throw this in as a piece of cake.”

But, JFK continued to speculate about whether a U.S. noninvasion promise would also strengthen Khrushchev’s political position in the Kremlin and perhaps make it easier for him to eventually withdraw his conventional forces from Cuba as well. In the end, however, just as RFK had urged, the president agreed to toughen his stance: since on-site inspection and verification had not been implemented, as a result of Castro’s refusal to permit U.N. personnel to enter Cuba, JFK declared that the preconditions for the U.S. noninvasion pledge had not been met.

The ExComm tape recordings incontrovertibly contradict the persistent claims that Robert Kennedy had, as one historian recently declared, “matured from a kneejerk hawk to a wise and restrained diplomat” over the course of the Cuban missile crisis.

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