Robert Caro and the Mythical Cuban Missile Crisis

tags: Cuban Missile Crisis

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.

The editor-in-chief of HNN, Rick Shenkman, asked me recently if I would write a critique of the account of the Cuban missile crisis in Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, Volume 4 of his authoritative biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Shenkman felt that Caro had utilized “myths that you debunked years ago on HNN” -- and, unfortunately, he was right. Caro, whose interpretive skill, compelling writing, and command of detail (for example, his brilliant rendering of how LBJ brought electricity to the Texas hill country) has dazzled readers for decades, somehow dropped the ball on the Cuban missile crisis.

My latest book, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality, to be published in September, deals explicitly with the issue of what really happened in the White House in October 1962. Also, Fred Kaplan has written an excellent article on Slate detailing Caro’s distorted and misleading account of the missile crisis.

There are, however, several key points that deserve additional attention:

● Robert Kennedy and Moral Diplomacy

Caro claims (p. 210) that early in the first week of the crisis “the tone of ExComm’s discussions changed -- and the catalyst for that change was Robert Kennedy.” He likewise declares (p. 239) that RFK revealed himself to be “a master of compromise [and] of diplomacy with a moral element, of diplomacy that was, in fact, in some ways grounded in ‘the moral question’” that a sneak attack was not in the American tradition. Caro, unfortunately, seems to have taken his cue from Thirteen Days: “We spent more time,” Bobby Kennedy claimed, “on this moral question [whether a powerful nation like the U.S. should attack a small nation like Cuba without warning] during the first five days than on any other single matter.” However, the ExComm tapes demonstrate conclusively that RFK’s claim that the moral argument dominated the first week’s discussions is absolutely false -- it was not even one of the dominant themes in the discussions. And, in any case, this moral stand was the exception, not the rule, for RFK -- indeed, it was the only significant case in which he backed away from supporting military force in Cuba and a hard line against the Soviet Union.

On the first day, October 16, RFK warned against bombing the missile sites: “you’re droppin’ bombs all over Cuba if you do the [air strike]. ... You’re covering most of Cuba. You’re gonna kill an awful lot a people, and we’re gonna take an awful lot a heat on it.” This quote may sound “dovish;” but, Bobby Kennedy was actually arguing for more rather than less military force, insisting on a more all-encompassing option, “which is the invasion.” A full invasion was the only choice, he argued, that justified the military and political costs resulting from so much destruction and loss of life. (Ted Sorensen later claimed that Robert Kennedy had been “particularly good” during the first week of ExComm meetings: “Never stating a position of his own, he was persistent in trying ... to get people to agree” on alternatives and consequences. On the contrary, as demonstrated by the view cited above, RFK staked out his own very provocative positions from the very first day.)

Later that evening, RFK emphatically rejected the blockade option as well: “We’re gonna have to sink Russian ships,” he declared fervently. It was better to stand up to Khrushchev now and take the consequences: “We should just get into it, and get it over with and take our losses if he wants to get into a war over this. Hell, if it’s war that’s gonna come on this thing, you know, he sticks those kinds of missiles in after the warning, then hey, he’s gonna get into a war six months from now or a year from now.” RFK seemed unable to grasp that a decision to “get into it” would not necessarily “get it over with.” From these early remarks through the entire thirteen days of deliberations, RFK never seemed to connect the dots between U.S. military action against Cuba and the real possibility of escalation to full-scale nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

RFK, in short, was a hawk from the start. He also suggested using the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay to stage an incident that would justify military intervention: “You know, sink the Maine again or something!” This kind of proposal was not unusual for Robert Kennedy. In June 1961, after the assassination of the Dominican Republic’s brutal strongman Rafael Trujillo, RFK, still smarting from the Bay of Pigs disaster, pressed for American intervention to prevent a Castro-inspired communist takeover of the Dominican government. He had even suggested blowing up the U.S. consulate to create a pretext for sending in American troops. Now, in urging the president to invade Cuba, he argued that a blockade could become “a very slow death” over a period of months and would still require dangerous military steps such as “the examination of Russian ships, shooting down the Russian planes that try to land there. You have to do all those things.”

The facts are clear and indisputable. Bobby Kennedy’s hawkish views never really changed. On October 25, when McNamara assured the president, “We have a lot of harassing actions we could carry out, and incidents we can provoke if we’d wish to,” RFK interjected eagerly, “Exactly!” He also urged the president to revive the bombing option that had been discussed but rejected during the first week of meetings. The administration, he reasoned, should put the air strikes back on the table in order to demonstrate “that we’re not backing off and that we’re still being tough with Cuba. That’s really the point we have to make.”

Caro speculates that Vice President Lyndon Johnson was not invited to the decisive Oval Office meeting on the evening of October 27, at which the secret offer to trade Soviet missiles in Cuba for U.S. missiles in Turkey was agreed upon, because of “his complaints during the entire week (‘about our being weak’)” (p. 221). In fact, it was Bobby Kennedy who led the charge against the missile trade and urged keeping the pressure on the Soviets so that “[w]e don’t look like we’re weakening on the whole Turkey complex.” Indeed, sounding much like LBJ, he had warned that “The only weakness in my judgment, is the idea to the Russians that you know [we’re] backing off and that we’re weak.”

And finally, when McNamara demanded dramatic military escalation late on that final Saturday evening, RFK did not object. His last words on the tapes: “I’d like to take Cuba back. That would be nice.” -- are hardly the sentiments of a catalyst for moral-based compromise and diplomacy.

● JFK’s Presence at the ExComm Meetings

Caro asserts (p. 211) that “the President had not sat in on all ExComm’s meetings: he wanted to stay away from some of them, (emphasis added) his brother would explain, because he didn’t want the discussions to be ‘inhibited.’” “This was wise,” RFK concluded in Thirteen Days, “Personalities change when the President is present, and frequently even strong men make recommendations on the basis of what they believe the President wishes to hear.” Notwithstanding RFK’s perceptive behavioral insight, his assertion about President Kennedy’s presence at the ExComm meetings is demonstrably false. JFK attended all the sessions -- except when, in an effort to keep the crisis discussions secret during the first week, he left Washington to campaign in New England (Wednesday, October 17 ) and in the Midwest (Friday afternoon, October 19, to Saturday afternoon, October 20). The president did not deliberately stay away from any of the White House meetings when he was in Washington.

● Misrepresentations by ExComm Participants

The tapes also make it unmistakably clear that several ExComm participants decided after the fact to obscure, if not cover-up, their own hawkish advice during the crisis meetings. Robert McNamara, for example, one of the most strident ExComm hawks and RFK’s ally at the meetings, demanded on the final day that the U.S. should be “damned sure they [Cuba and the U.S.S.R.] understand it’s coming. In other words, you need to really escalate this.” Nonetheless, within a year, McNamara had already begun to finesse his role in the ExComm discussions. In the fall of 1963, he told JFK about a recent conversation with Admiral Hyman Rickover, in which the latter claimed that Admiral George Anderson, chief of naval operations in October 1962, had been “absolutely insubordinate” and had tried to subvert the president’s orders on the blockade.

However, McNamara himself had actively supported Robert Kennedy’s hard-line stance on enforcing the blockade. RFK had insisted that it would be “a hell of an advantage” to seize a ship (even one that had turned around to avoid the blockade and headed back to the U.S.S.R.) in order to examine and get photos of their nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, in his 1963 discussion with the president, McNamara ignored the fact that he had sided with RFK and referred disingenuously to “the instructions that you and I were giving relating to the quarantine and the limiting of action in relation to stopping the Russian ships” (emphasis added).

Caro likewise uncritically accepts RFK’s claim (p. 580) that his own views were essentially the same as those of JFK during the meetings -- citing Bobby’s declaration that Vice President Johnson “was against our policy on Cuba in October of ’62” (emphasis added). In fact, in sharp contrast to his brother, RFK was one of the most persistently hawkish members of the ExComm and his views were all but identical to those of LBJ on Black Saturday, October 27, 1962.

● The Flawed Conclusion of the 1976 House Select Committee on Assassinations

Finally, there is one additional point, unrelated to the Cuban missile crisis, that should be mentioned. Caro notes (p. 450) that “a House of Representatives Select Committee that was established in 1976 … concluded that John Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy.” He fails, however, to mention the fact that the committee’s conclusion was based on the sudden appearance of a Dallas police dictabelt that supposedly “proved” that four shots were fired in Dealey Plaza -- and everyone agreed that one gunman could not have fired all four shots. The dictabelt was subsequently analyzed by acoustic experts chosen by the National Research Council and conclusively shown to be worthless and immaterial; the alleged “fourth shot” was actually background noise and occurred a full minute after the fatal shots were fired. Readers should not be left with the impression that the committee’s supposition about a possible conspiracy still stands.

Fortunately, Robert Caro’s inexplicably inaccurate section on the missile crisis is the exception, albeit a major exception, in an otherwise outstanding and thoroughly engrossing book.


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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