The Cuban Missile Crisis ExComm Meetings: Getting it Right After 50 Years

tags: JFK, Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedys

A historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000, Sheldon M. Stern is the author of "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 versus Reality,” all in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.

JFK, Dean Rusk, and Robert McNamara at an ExComm meeting. Not pictured: Robert Kennedy. Credit: White House.

It is just over thirty years since, as historian at the JFK Library, I listened for the first time to the then classified recordings of the Cuban missile crisis White House meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). I was the first non-member of the ExComm to hear these tapes; but, I assumed that the conventional accounts of the meetings -- especially in Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days -- were fundamentally accurate and reliable.

That assumption was shaken immediately by the recordings of the first meeting on Tuesday, October 16. I had recently reread the section on the missile crisis in Arthur Schlesinger’s 1978 biography of Robert Kennedy. Schlesinger, who had been granted special access to RFK’s papers by Ethel Kennedy, was unequivocal: “Robert Kennedy was the indispensible partner. Without him, John Kennedy would have found it far more difficult to overcome the demand for military action. ... It was Robert Kennedy ... who stopped the air strike madness in its tracks. ... Within the closed meetings of the so-called Executive Committee of the National Security Council, Robert Kennedy was a dove from the start.” (1)

Schlesinger backed up this judgment with a quote he found in the RFK papers from that October 16 meeting: “‘If you bomb the missile sites and the airports,’ he [RFK] said on the first day, ‘you are covering most of Cuba. You are going to kill an awful lot of people and take an awful lot of heat on it.’” The attorney general also warned that the Soviets would respond to U.S. bombing of the missile sites by simply sending in more missiles and by doing “the same thing [bombing U.S. missiles] in Turkey.”

In fact, this ostensibly dovish quote from RFK’s private papers was profoundly misleading, if not out-and-out deceptive. Bobby Kennedy was actually arguing that bombing the missile sites was a weak and inadequate response; he was instead demanding nothing less than a full-scale invasion of Cuba. Even Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Maxwell Taylor had cautioned against an invasion only minutes before when he warned the president “as to whether we invade or not. I think that’s the hardest question militarily in the whole business and one that we should look at very closely before we get our feet in that deep mud of Cuba.” (2) (Of course, readers must remember that before the opening of the ExComm tapes, Schlesinger could not have known the full context of RFK’s words).

The quote cited above underscores the possibility that Bobby Kennedy may have used the tapes selectively to shape and manipulate his place in the historical record. The draft manuscript of Thirteen Days, which likely had initially been intended for release in time for the president’s 1964 reelection campaign, was so tightly held within the Kennedy inner circle that many senior White House officials did not even know about its existence. JFK’s special assistant and confidant Kenneth O’Donnell, commenting on a version he read about six months after the president’s assassination, remarked to RFK, “I thought your brother was president during the missile crisis.” Bobby is said to have replied, “He’s not running, and I am.” (RFK ran successfully for a U.S. Senate seat from New York that year.) (3) Another version has RFK replying, “Jack wouldn’t mind.”

However, the misleading quote cited above was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It turned out, as the tapes incontrovertibly revealed, that Robert Kennedy had created a largely fictional account of the ExComm meetings -- an account that has never been out of print since its publication in 1969 and has become the conventional template for virtually all discussions of the missile crisis.

Fifteen years after the release of the ExComm tapes, the mythical, dovish Robert Kennedy, as crafted in Thirteen Days, continues to exert an inexplicable influence over historians. Michael Dobbs, in an otherwise exemplary book, concludes that the younger Kennedy “was a chastened man” by October 27. (4) Robert Caro, the masterful biographer of Lyndon Johnson, claims 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,” who revealed himself to be “a master of compromise [and] of diplomacy.” In fact, the tapes demonstrate that Robert Kennedy was confrontational and hawkish from day one through day thirteen -- and even beyond into the November post-crisis. (5)

Indeed, the RFK papers released this week by the JFK Library, include a memo to the president, written by RFK at the 9:00 p.m. meeting on Saturday, October 27, after his secret meeting with Ambassador Dobrynin, asserting that “No sense in going in against only A.A. [anti-aircraft] -- if we go in we go in hard.” He also notes that air-reserve planes had already been called up and urges “calling up ships tomorrow.” (6)

It is now clear as well that many of RFK’s own most important and still widely accepted contentions in Thirteen Days contradict the incontrovertible evidence on the ExComm tapes. (7) For example, RFK claimed that:

  • Some members of the ExComm, “because of the pressure of events, even appeared to lose their judgment and stability.” There is absolutely nothing on the tapes to support this contentious claim.
  • “Secretary McNamara, by Wednesday [October 18], became the blockade’s strongest advocate.” On the contrary, McNamara continued to call for “nothing short of a full invasion,” strenuously opposed the Cuba-Turkey compromise, and on that final Saturday evening demanded that we “need to really escalate this.”
  • “I supported McNamara’s position in favor of a blockade.” RFK actually continued to press for an invasion after October 18 as “the last chance we will have to destroy Castro.” Indeed, late in the second week of deliberations, he revived the dormant bombing option by declaring, “rather than have a confrontation with the Russians at sea ... it might be better to knock out their missile base as the first step” after warning “Soviet personnel to get out of that vicinity in ten minutes.” His last words on the tapes were: “I’d like to take Cuba back. That would be nice.”
  • “We spent more time 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.” RFK did express concern about the impact of a Pearl Harbor-type attack on Cuba on “our moral position at home and around the globe”; but his claim that this ethical argument dominated the first week’s discussions is completely untrue.
  • “We all spoke as equals. There was no rank, and, in fact, we did not even have a chairman. Dean Rusk -- who, as Secretary of State, might have assumed that position -- had other duties during this period of time and frequently could not attend our meetings.” In fact, Rusk was one of the ExComm’s most regular attendees (19 out of 20 recorded meetings) and contributors, and was the only participant to openly challenge, sometimes rather patronizingly, RFK’s confrontational and hawkish positions.
  • President Kennedy “had asked the State Department to conduct negotiations” for the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey, “and he had ordered their removal some time ago.” JFK had discussed removing the Jupiter missiles but never made a formal decision or issued a presidential order. He actually decided to go ahead with the activation of the missiles in Turkey, and one site had even been scheduled to be turned over to Turkish control during the very month of the missile crisis. That activation of the Jupiter missiles was, in fact, a key reason for Khrushchev’s decision to send nuclear missiles to Cuba.
  • During the first weekend of discussions, U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson proposed “that we make it clear to the Soviet Union that if it withdrew its missiles from Cuba, we would be willing to withdraw our missiles from Turkey.” RFK asserted that President Kennedy “rejected Stevenson’s suggestion” because “this was not the appropriate time to suggest this action.” In fact, the president had already raised that possibility earlier that week and that is exactly what he finally did.
  • ◦“I suggested, and was supported by Ted Sorensen and others,” that they ignore Khrushchev’s October 27 letter demanding a Turkey-Cuba missile trade and respond instead to the October 26 message in which he had offered to remove the missiles in return for an American pledge not to invade Cuba. This myth, which came to be called the Trollope ploy, was originally intended to conceal the fact that the administration had compromised and struck a deal with the Soviets to secretly remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey within a few months. In fact, the president rejected virtually unanimous pressure from his advisers to turn down the missile trade offer (which was accepted secretly).
  • Former ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn Thompson’s “advice on the Russians and predictions as to what they would do were uncannily accurate.” Thompson’s advice was actually erratic, inconsistent, and contradictory; he was also one of the most persistent opponents of the Cuba-Turkey missile trade.

  • In addition, many other critical aspects of the ExComm meetings are all but ignored or obfuscated in Thirteen Days. These distortions extend well beyond RFK’s personal role in the discussions. In fact, in and of itself, Thirteen Days is an enormous, if inadvertent and unintended, testament to the validity of the secret ExComm tapes as a uniquely objective historical source.

    * * * * *

    (1) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1978, 507, 537.

    (2) Sheldon M. Stern, Averting ‘the Final Failure”: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003, 67-68.

    (3) Conversation with Dan H. Fenn Jr., a member of the Kennedy White House staff and founding director of the JFK Library, June 18, 2011.

    (4) Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, New York: Knopf, 2008, 151 .

    (5) Sheldon M. Stern, “Robert Caro and the Mythical Cuban Missile Crisis,” History News Network, June 13, 2012.

    (6) This handwritten note was found in an October 16th file in the RFK papers; however, the indicated meeting time (“Night meeting, 9 P.M.”) and the content of the note suggest otherwise. It was at the Saturday, October 27th 9 P.M. meeting that Robert McNamara recommended calling up air reserve squadrons (JFK agreed) and naval troop transports for an invasion of Cuba (JFK urged a delay because “what we’re tryin’ to do is get a settlement of this”). This context almost certainly places the memo on the late evening of Black Saturday. (Stern, Averting ‘the Final Failure,” 374-75)

    (7) For a full discussion of Robert Kennedy’s role in the ExComm meetings, see Sheldon M. Stern, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012, chapters 2-3.

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