October 22: The President Makes Certain that His Orders Have Been Carried Out (Part 5)

tags: JFK, Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962

Dr. Stern is the author of numerous articles and “Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings” (2003), “The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis” (2005), and “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality”(2012), all in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000.  This is the fourth in a series.  Part 1.  Part 2Part 3. Part 4.

"Jupiter on its launch pad". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons 

A few hours before he was to speak to the nation and announce the naval blockade of Cuba, President Kennedy met with the Berlin Planning Group. Two days before, JFK had explicitly told Paul Nitze, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, to make certain that the Joint Chiefs issued new orders to American personnel on the Jupiter bases in Turkey; they were to be instructed not to fire their missiles at the U.S.S.R., even if attacked in response to American military action in Cuba, without a direct, personal, presidential authorization. The President asked Nitze if he had followed through on this order and the assistant secretary replied confidently that “the Chiefs came back with a paper saying that those instructions are already out.”

JFK was obviously not satisfied: “Well, why don’t we reinforce ’em because, as I say, we may be attacking the Cubans and a reprisal may come on these. We don’t want them firing [the nuclear missiles] without our knowing about it. . . . Can we take care of that then, Paul? We need a new instruction out.” Nitze muttered a sullen and barely audible reply: “All right. I’ll go back and tell them.” “They object to sending a new one out?” JFK asked, and Nitze reiterated that the Chiefs objected to a new order because “to their view, it compromises their standing instructions.”

He then revealed that the JCS had also made another point in their response—a very startling point: “NATO strategic contact [a nuclear attack from the U.S.S.R.] requires the immediate execution of EDP in such events.” “What’s EDP?” Kennedy asked. “The European Defense Plan,” Nitze answered chillingly, “which is nuclear war.” “Now that’s why,” the president interjected vigorously, “we want to get on that, you see.” Nitze tried yet again to explain, “No, they said the orders are that nothing can go without the presidential order.”

The commander in chief’s reservations about the military were obvious in his reply. “They don’t realize there isa chance there will be a [Soviet] spot reprisal [in Turkey], and what we gotta do is make sure these fellows [at the Jupiter sites] do know, so that they don’t fire ’em off and think the United States is under attack. I don’t think,” he asserted categorically, “we ought to accept the Chiefs’ word on that one, Paul.” “All right,” Nitze mumbled grudgingly.

But Nitze tried yet again to defend the JCS position: “But surely these fellows are thoroughly indoctrinated not to fire,” he bristled, banging on the table. Kennedy cut him off with a firm order: “Well, let’s do it again, Paul.” The president’s response was clear: his orders would be carried out, regardless of JCS rules and procedures. “I’ve got your point, we’ll do it again,” Nitze finally agreed. Some strained laughter broke out around the table, and Bundy relieved the tension in the room by telling Nitze, in a tongue-in-cheek tone, “Send me the documents, and I will show them to a doubting master.” The laughter briefly grew even louder.

Within an hour, JCS chairman General Taylor sent an urgent message to the NATO commander: “Make certain that the Jupiters in Turkey and Italy will not be fired without specific authorization from the President. In the event of an attack, nuclear or non-nuclear . . . U.S. custodians are to destroy or make inoperable the weapons if any attempt is made to fire them.”

Paul Nitze did not mention this extraordinary exchange with President Kennedy in his later published memoirs.

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