October 26, 1962: Adlai Stevenson’s Unsung Role in the Cuban Missile Crisis (Part Seven)

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 seventh in a series. Click HERE for previous installments. 

October 26: Adlai Stevenson Takes on the ExComm

On the morning of Friday, October 26, U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson had flown to Washington to attend the ExComm meeting and explain efforts by the Secretary General to find a negotiated solution to the crisis in Cuba. Stevenson had been enjoying a burst of national popularity after he had out maneuvered the Soviet UN ambassador at a televised session of the UN Security Council. The president soon asked Stevenson to “give us your thoughts.”

The U.N. ambassador surely sensed that the ExComm was stacked against him: McGeorge Bundy, Douglas Dillon, John McCloy and John McCone were Republicans; RFK had worked in Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign, but after becoming convinced that the Illinois governor was weak and indecisive had actually voted for Eisenhower; JFK himself, never forgave Stevenson’s quixotic effort to pull off a third presidential nomination at the 1960 Democratic convention. The ambassador himself had not forgotten being misled into showing falsified CIA photographs at the UN in a failed Kennedy administration effort to conceal the American role in the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion; the antagonism in the room directed toward Stevenson was almost palpable.


The ambassador, notwithstanding, intrepidly launched into an explanation and defense of the U.N. moratorium plan—which included a standstill on missile base construction in Cuba and a suspension of the U.S. naval blockade while negotiations take place. Dean Rusk demanded to know whether the standstill would include “the inoperability of the missiles.” “Well, that could not help,” Stevenson added softly. “I think it would be quite proper to attempt to keep them inoperable rather than to say that they should be rendered inoperable. “Well, when did they become inoperable?” McNamara bristled, “They’re operable now.” “Insurethat theyare inoperable!” Bundy demanded stridently. Even McCloy, who had been assigned to the UN to “assist” Stevenson in the negotiations (because of the Kennedys’ private doubts that the ambassador could really handle the Russians) demanded a much tougher stance because the missiles were aimed directly “at our hearts.”

The besieged U.N. ambassador, despite a chorus of hostile comments from around the table, then added that the Soviets would dismantle the bases and withdraw these weapons from the hemisphere, but “what they will want in return is, I anticipate, a new guarantee of the territorial integrity of Cuba. Indeed,” he argued audaciously, “that’s what they said these weapons were for—to defend the territorial integrity of Cuba” against another American-sponsored invasion—an argument that had been conspicuously if not glaringly missing from the ExComm discussions. Stevenson then dropped the other shoe: “It is also possible that the price that might be asked of us in the long-term negotiation might include dismantling bases of ours, such as Italy and Turkey.”

Stevenson had first suggested a possible missile trade when he had conferred with the president on October 17th—the second day of the crisis. But, in the entire 13 days of discussions, the UN ambassador was the only ExComm participant to raise Khrushchev’s central argument for the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba: that they were intended as a defensive effort to protect Castro and his government from the Kennedy administration’s secret war and a second attempt to invade Cuba. Stevenson soon left the meeting to take a phone call from an aide at the UN. (One can only imagine the mixed emotions experienced by the twice-defeated presidential candidate, who took the call alone in the Oval Office, perhaps sitting at the president’s desk.) With the ambassador out of the room, JFK bluntly declared that “nobody’s very much interested in” Stevenson’s proposal.

Robert Kennedy, in Thirteen Days, later claimed that JFK rejected Stevenson’s recommendation for a Cuba-Turkey missile swap. Ironically, that is exactly what the president did the very next day, over the objections of virtually the entire ExComm. Just weeks later, a magazine article, almost certainly the result of a leak from one or both of the Kennedys, charged that Stevenson had advocated “a Munich” at the October 26 ExComm meeting. The report squared perfectly with the emerging administration cover story that the president had rejected a Cuba-Turkey missile trade and had forced the Soviets to back down.

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