Cuban Missile Crisis, October 22: The Day Kennedy Stood Up to the Titans of the Senate (Part 6)

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 sixth in a series. Click here for previous installments.

October 22: the President Meets with the Bipartisan Leaders of Congress Just Before his Speech to the Nation Revealing the Presence of Soviet Nuclear Missiles in Cuba

“If we invade Cuba,” Kennedy stressed, “we have a chance that these missiles will be fired—on us.” Khrushchev will likely seize Berlin, and the unity of NATO would be shattered because “Europe will regard Berlin’s loss . . . as having been the fault of the United States by acting in a precipitous way.” The president then announced his decision: “In order notto give Mr. Khrushchev the justification for imposing a complete blockade on Berlin, we’re going to start with a limited naval blockade on the shipment of offensive weapons into Cuba.” Planning for an invasion, he revealed, was still going forward. But, he explained, “if we invade Cuba, there’s a chance these weapons will be fired at the United States.” And “if we attempt to strike them from the air, then we will not get ’em all because they’re mobile. . . . So after a good deal of searching, we decided this was the place to start.” But, he candidly admitted, “I don’t know what their response will be. . . . If there’s any strong disagreements with what at least we’ve set out to do, I want to hear it.”

Richard Russell of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suddenly lashed out: “Mr. President, I could not stay silent under these circumstances and live with myself. I think that our responsibilities to our people demand some stronger steps than that.” The U.S., he maintained, would never be stronger or in a better position: “It seems to me that we’re at the crossroads. We’re either a first-class power or we’re not.” The Georgian tried to hoist the president on his own petard:

You have warned these people time and again, in the most eloquent speeches I have read since Woodrow Wilson, as to what would happen if there was an offensive capability created in Cuba. . . . And you have told ’em not to do this thing. They’ve done it. And I think that we should assemble as speedily as possible an adequate force and clean out that situation. The time’s gonna come, Mr. President, when we’re gonna have to take this gamble . . . for the nuclear war. I don’t know whether Khrushchev will launch a nuclear war over Cuba or not. I don’t believe he will. But I think that the more that we temporize, the more surely he is to convince himself that we are afraid to . . . fight.

Defense secretary McNamara tried to explain how the blockade would be enforced, but Russell became even more agitated: “Mr. President, I don’t wanna make a nuisance of myself, but I would like to complete my statement. My position is that these people have been warned.” Delaying an invasion, he contended, would give the Soviet fighter planes in Cuba a chance “to attack our shipping or to drop a few bombs around Miami or some other place,” and when we do invade, “we’ll lose a great many more men than we would right now.”

“But Senator,” JFK countered, “we can’t invade Cuba,” because it would take several days to assemble and deploy the ninety thousand-plus men required for an invasion. “Well, we can assemble ’em,” Russell retorted sharply. “So that’s what we’re doing now,” Kennedy replied with increasing impatience. But the Georgian would not relent: “This blockade is gonna put them on the alert” and divide and weaken our forces, he sputtered, “around the whole periphery of the free world.”

President Kennedy, perhaps hoping to isolate Russell by appealing for support from the other congressional leaders, laid out the choices on the table: “If we go into Cuba, we have to all realize that we are taking a chance that these missiles, which are ready to fire, won’t be fired. So is that really a gamble we should take? In any case, we’re preparing to take it. I think, fact is, that is one hellof agamble.” JFK’s appeal seemed to make Senator Russell even more combative: “We’ve got to take a chance somewhere, sometime, if we’re gonna retain our position as a great world power.” Russell finally backed off: “I’m through. Excuse me. I wouldn’t have been honest with myself if I hadn’t. . . . So I hope you forgive me, but you asked for opinions.”

“Well, I forgive you,” Kennedy broke in defensively, obviously trying to control his exasperation, “but it’s a very difficult problem we’re faced with. I’ll just tell you that. It’s a very difficult choice that we’re facing together.” “Oh, my God! I know that,” Russell exclaimed, not even letting the president finish. “Our authority and the world’s destiny will hinge on this decision. But it’s comin’ someday, Mr. President. Will it ever be under more auspicious circumstances? . . . I assume this blockade will be effective for a while ‘til they make up their minds to try to force their way through.” JFK attempted a reply, but Russell cut him off again: “You know, the right of self-defense is pretty elemental, and you relied on that in that very telling statement you made. You relied on that, the right of self-defense, and that’s what we’d be doin’.”

Suddenly, another influential southern Democrat, J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, weighed in against the president’s chosen course of action. Kennedy had seriously considered asking Fulbright to serve as secretary of state but decided against it because the Arkansas senator had signed the “Southern Manifesto” opposing the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 ruling on school desegregation. Fulbright contended that an invasion was less risky than a blockade: “I mean legally. I mean it’s just between us and Cuba. I think a blockade is the worst of the alternatives because if you’re confronted with a Russian ship, you are actually confronting Russia.” An invasion against Cuba “is not actually an affront to Russia. . . . They’re [Cuba] not part of the Warsaw Pact.”

The president tried again to raise the specter of the “immediate seizure of Berlin,” but Fulbright persisted that it would be better to try for a solution at the U.N. or to invade Cuba: “A blockade seems to me the worst alternative.” McNamara intervened to remind the Arkansas senator that the missile sites were occupied by Russians; an invasion would first require two thousand air sorties directly against some eight thousand Soviet military personnel. Finally, his patience clearly strained, JFK asked, “What are you in favor of, Bill?” “I’m in favor,” Fulbright asserted, “on the basis of this information, of an invasion, and an all-out one, and as quickly as possible.”

“You can’t have a more [dangerous] confrontation than invasion of Cuba,” JFK objected. But the senator pressed on: “They’re Cuban sites. They’re not Russian sites,” and “firingagainst Cuba is not the same as firing against Russia. I don’t think a blockade is the right way at all. . . . An attack on a Russian ship,” he reiterated, “is really an act of war against Russia. It is not an act of war against Russia to attack Cuba.”

The president reminded the senator that the Soviet missiles in Cuba might be fired at the U.S. in response to an invasion; American forces would be directly attacking eight thousand Russians: “We are gonna have to shoot them up. And I think that it would be foolish,” JFK challenged the former Rhodes Scholar, “to expect that the Russians would not regard that as a far more direct thrust. . . . And I think that the inevitable result will be immediately the seizure of Berlin. . . . But I think that if we’re talkin’ about nuclear war, then escalation ought to be at least with some degree of control.” Of course, JFK acknowledged, it was offensive to the Russians to have their ships stopped, but “When you start talking about the invasion, it’s infinitely more offensive.” “But not to the Russians, it seems to me,” Fulbright persisted doggedly. “They have no right to say that you’ve had an attack on Russia.”

“I don’t know where Khrushchev wants to take us,” the president admitted: “Some people would say, ‘well, let’s go in with an air strike.’ You’d have those bombs [nuclear warheads] go off and blow up fifteen cities in the United States. And they would have been wrong. . . . The people who are the best off,” he reflected fatalistically, “are the people whose advice is not taken because whatever we do is filled with hazards.” “I’ll say this to Senator Fulbright: we don’t know where we’re gonna end up on this matter. . . . We just tried to make good judgments about a matter on which everyone’s uncertain. And I quite agree with Senator Russell, Khrushchev’s gonna make the strongest statements, which we’re gonna have to just ignore, about everything: if we stop one Russian ship, it means war! If we invade Cuba, it means war! I know all the threats are gonna be made.” “Now just wait, Mr. President,” Senator Russell interjected again, “the nettle is gonna sting anyway.” “That’s correct,” Kennedy acknowledged. “Now I just think at least we starthere, then we see where we go. . . . I gotta go and make this speech.”

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