When John Kennedy Stood Alone and Saved Us from Catastrophe

tags: JFK, Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedys

Mr. Stern, historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 1999, is the author of Averting 'The Final Failure': John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, recently published in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.

It is remarkable to see how documentary films about President Kennedy have changed over the last four decades. In 1966, the United States Information Agency released "John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums," which presented the stirring and emotional images of a courageous and brilliant young president, also a devoted husband and father, cut off in his prime. By 1992, when the Public Broadcasting Service released "The Kennedys," the pendulum had swung to the opposite extreme. This four-hour saga of an Irish-American family's drive for success and power transformed JFK into little more than an extension of his father's political ambition. The program raced through the Kennedy presidency, highlighting JFK's womanizing and the role of his father's money in his rise to power, and all but ignoring his impact on the presidency and the American people. This week, the History Channel's "JFK: A Presidency Revealed," provided a more balanced account of a man deeply flawed in his personal behavior but also capable of extraordinary leadership. He was slow, for example, to embrace civil rights, but eventually became the first president to publicly declare racial equality in America a moral issue. He was a seasoned Cold Warrior who approved plans to undermine communism in Cuba and eliminate Fidel Castro. But, when the ultimate crisis erupted between the nuclear superpowers in October 1962, he used his formidable political and intellectual skills to avert nuclear war, which he called, with stark eloquence, "the final failure."

The declassified tapes of the secret Cuban missile crisis meetings now make it possible for any historian, teacher or interested person to listen to these unique discussions (though they are difficult to decipher).*

As an historian trained in the turbulent 1960s and influenced by New Left historiography, I took for granted before hearing the tapes of the that Kennedy had been a tough and relentless Cold Warrior. JFK and his administration clearly bear significant responsibility for precipitating the missile crisis in the first place--because of the Bay of Pigs invasion, covert operations against Cuba and Castro, and "contingency" plans to reinvade Cuba. As a result, when I first listened to the recordings in the early 1980s JFK's prudence was a considerable surprise. The president consistently dug in his heels in the face of pressure to bomb the missile sites or invade Cuba. He also repeatedly acted to prevent, postpone, or at least question the advisability of potentially provocative measures. For example, he rejected the following: mining international waters around Cuba; extending the quarantine to Soviet aircraft flying to Cuba; resisting Russian efforts to inspect U.S. truck convoys entering Berlin; using needlessly belligerent language in an official proclamation; using the word "miscalculate" in a presidential letter because Khrushchev had misinterpreted this concept when translated into Russian at the Vienna summit; seizing a Soviet ship that had reversed course and was moving away from Cuba; risking an armed clash if the crew of a disabled ship resisted boarding; enforcing the quarantine by attacking a Soviet submarine; arming U.S. reconnaissance planes and returning Cuban ground fire; initiating night surveillance using flares; or immediately attacking the surface-to-air missile sites if a U-2 was shot down. JFK repeatedly tried to rise above the Cold War rhetoric he had exploited from the 1960 campaign through his October 22 speech announcing the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. And, as these recordings conclusively prove, he succeeded to a remarkable degree--although not without some "help" from Khrushchev and some genuine luck.

Top officials in the Kennedy administration clearly regarded the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba as a clear justification for invading the island. Defense secretary Robert McNamara declared on October 16 that the U.S. must be prepared to bomb the missile bases and follow up with a full air and sea invasion within a week. Robert Kennedy agreed, declaring that the U.S. had to accept Khrushchev's challenge by invading: "we should just get into it, and get it over with and take our losses." McNamara eventually endorsed the position of the Joint Chiefs: since all the missiles could not be destroyed in air attacks, "we consider nothing short of a full invasion as practicable military action." President Kennedy replied that, on the contrary, an invasion would put extreme military pressure on the U.S.S.R. and undermine the NATO alliance. The European allies, he admitted, regard Cuba "as a fixation of the United States and not a serious military threat. … they think that we're slightly demented on this subject. … a lot of people would regard this [invasion] as a mad act by the United States."

When the president met with the Joint Chiefs on October 19, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay ridiculed the blockade as "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich" and called for "direct military intervention, right now!" Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup agreed, "you'll have to invade the place [and] we must go in with plenty of insurance of a decisive success and as quick as possible." JFK held his ground, "Well, the logical argument is that we don't really have to invade Cuba. That's just one of the difficulties that we live with in life, like you live with the Soviet Union and China." He reminded the Chiefs that the U.S.S.R. could launch a devastating strike against American cities resulting in 80 to 100 million casualties, "you're talkin' about the destruction of a country!"

At the meeting with the leaders of Congress on October 22, Senator Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, angrily called for an invasion: "You have told 'em not to do this thing. They've done it. And I think that you should assemble as speedily as possible an adequate force and clean out that situation." President Kennedy resisted, "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… Is that really a gamble we should take?" J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, backed Russell: "I'm in favor on the basis of this information, of an invasion, and an all-out one, and as quickly as possible." The president explained to the former Rhodes Scholar that thousands of Russians would be killed in an invasion and the missiles might still be fired at the U.S.: "We are gonna have to shoot them up. And I think that it would be foolish to expect that the Russians would not regard that as a far more direct thrust . . . When you start talking about the invasion, it's infinitely more offensive." "I'll say this to Senator Fulbright," Kennedy finally concluded, "we don't know where we're gonna end up on this matter." He explained that former Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn Thompson, "felt very strongly" that Khrushchev would regard an attack on these missile bases "with the killing of four or five thousand Russians as a greater provocation than the stopping of their ships. Now, who knows that? ... We just tried to make good judgments about a matter on which everyone's uncertain."

In fact, mindful of the dismal failure of a much more limited operation at Cuba's Bay of Pigs in 1961, Kennedy had already decided against an invasion: "nobody knows what kind of a success we're gonna have with this invasion. Invasions are tough, hazardous. … thousands of Americans get killed in Cuba and I think you're in much more of a mess." In the end, convinced that an invasion "would be very, very difficult and very bloody," he rebuffed the essentially unanimous advice of the ExComm and decided on October 27 that Khrushchev's public offer to trade U.S. missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba could not be rejected: "I'm just thinking about what we're gonna have to do in a day or so, which is … an invasion, all because we wouldn't take missiles out of Turkey." Perhaps calling to mind his own experience in World War II, JFK continued, "And we all know how quickly everybody's courage goes when the blood starts to flow and that's what's gonna happen in NATO." After the U.S. attacks Cuba and the Soviets grab Berlin as a reprisal, "everybody's gonna say, 'Well, that [offer to trade the missiles in Turkey and Cuba] was a pretty good proposition.' Let's not kid ourselves. … Today it sounds great to reject it, but it's not going to after we do something [in Cuba]!"

Historical evidence does not have to fit together tidily or logically. History defines its own parameters and historical figures often defy our assumptions and expectations. Contradictions and inconsistencies, in short, are the rule rather than the exception in human affairs. The evidence from the missile crisis tapes is anomalous and even surprising, but no less true: John Kennedy often stood virtually alone against warlike counsel from ExComm, the Joint Chiefs and Congress during those historic thirteen days. Nonetheless, he never really abandoned efforts, even after the Cuban missile crisis, to undermine the Cuban regime and get rid of Fidel Castro.

*Readers may also be interested in my articles identifying serious errors in the 1997 and 2001 published missile crisis transcripts (Atlantic Monthly, May 2000; Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2000; Reviews in American History, December 2002).

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Steve BRody - 11/28/2003

Rg, I was in Sacramento on the day that Squeaky Fromme tried to kill Ford. The gun didn’t “fail”. Squeaky failed to charge the .45 cal pistol before the attempt. In essence, she pulled the trigger on an empty chamber. Two weeks later Sara Jane Moore actually got off a shot at Ford in San Francisco. Luckily, the shot went wild and missed.

John Hinckley used a .22 cal revolver and Reagan was very lucky. He also came much closer to dying than most people realize.

But your point is well made. “Lone gunmen” have come close to killing the President a number of times. Why do people have such a hard time believing that occasionally they might succeed?

rg - 11/28/2003

Squeaky Fromm walked up to Pres. Ford and opened fire. The gun failed. Pres. Reagan was shot point blank. Both of these happened AFTER Kennedy was shot. Yet no one is running around with all kind of ridiculous conspiracy theories. I can actually understand a sniper in a building getting a shot a whole lot easier than I can the Ford and Reagan attempts.

Cram - 11/25/2003

The issue boils down to 2 questions:
1) Is there any evidence that JFK was shot from the front, and
2) Is the line of tragectory consistant with the wounds sustained by Kennedy and Conelly?

I believe that the answers are no, and yes respectively. This proves to me that Oswald acted alone in the killing, and I have seen no evidence to suggest that someone else prompted him to do it. All the rest of the theories and evidence are irrelevant as far as I am concerned.

Steve Brody - 11/25/2003

“…Ruby's death before he could testify ..”

Dave, Ruby was tried and convicted for murdering Oswald. Melvin Belli, a lawyer of some note, defended him. The jury returned a conviction for pre-meditated murder on 3/14/64, after deliberating less than an hour. They later sentenced him to be executed for the crime.

The Warren Commission interviewed him on 6/7/64. The problem was that he had gone from being half a fruitcake to a full-blown fruitcake by then. The Commission also gave him a poly, which he passed, wherein he denied any involvement in a conspiracy or of knowing Oswald prior to killing him. The question of how accurate the polygraph is on someone so far gone is one for someone at a higher pay grade than I.

Of interest is that Ruby was granted a new trial in late 1966 because his post arrest statements were allowed at the trial even though they were taken absent a “Miranda” warning. Unfortunately, Ruby, who was suffering from cancer,died in January of 1967 of a blood clot.

Dennis Johnson - 11/24/2003

I agree with you that the Communist purge was only after General Suharto's coup. The ethnic Chinese were scapegoated as spies for the P.R.C. I know the Hakka Chinese communities were there for centuries, but they are still looked upon as foreigners. The end of the hostilites with the Dutch, however, gave the military generals more time to focus on domestic politics.

I read that in the 1950s, the US and British covertly supported the various break away movements in Sulawesi and other islands. So JFK siding with the Indonesians in their land grab for West Papua was a major policy shift.

Dave Livingston - 11/24/2003

It was bit later, as I recall, using a supposed planned Communist coup in the works Indonesian Moslems instigated a massacre of Indonesian Communists, many of whom were of Chinese extraction, and their families, some half million people altogether. The pogrom did effectively destroy the Communist party in Indonesia.

Dave Livingston - 11/24/2003

Although I suspect there was a conspiracy that led to J.F.K.'s assissantion, but strongly conservative (even so, a strong fan of J.F.K.) & certainly no fan of L.B.J. I cannot buy the notion that he was involved in the conspiracy. Nor do I accept the idea that any U.S. gov't agency was involved in the possible conspiracy. On the other hand, two reasons I'm tempted to accept the lone shooter theory are that a) the distance of the shots wasn't all that great, 88 yards, as I understand. That's only 264 feet & even I could hit a dinner plate or back then when my eyes were better, probably a saucer, b) Oswald was a Marine & the Marines teach their boys to shoot.

All that said, I remain very uncomfortable with the patness of Oswald's murder before he could testify, Ruby's death before he could testify & at the determined effort to dismiss out-of-hand any likelyhood of a conspiracy.

Too, I deeply resent the present-day attacks on J.F.K.'s reputation. It is ever so easy to attack a man was is dead & cannot defend himself. Worse, IMO, was Clinton's attempts to claim the mantle of J.F.K.--that besmirched J.F.K.'s legacy more than anything, IMHO.

It amuses me that J.F.K., the Liberal icon was not in many respects a Liberal, certainly not of the weasel Clinton style. For one thing, it was J.F.K. who established the Army's Special Forces, our premier counter-insurgency military force. For another, his adn=ministration was constantly at loggerheads with the Teamsters union, especially Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamster's boss.

For evidence of the good repute the Liberal icon, J.F.K., is held by the Aremy's Special Forces one might visit his tomb. One thing one one will discover there is that the Special Forces mount a twenty-four hour a day honor guard at the tomb reflecting their respect for and gratitude to him.

Even I a died-inthe-wool Conservative (in most respects) remember with deep fondness the classy Whitehouse we had when Jack, Jackie, Caroline & John-John occupied it. That was a wonderful time to be alive & an American.

Dennis Johnson - 11/24/2003

There is another cold war crisis during the Kennedy administration that hardly ever gets covered, but is very significant in Southeast Asian History. Indoneasian President Sukarno claimed that all former territory of the Dutch should be part of Indonesia. The Dutch still held West New Guinea (West Papua) and recently discovered oil there. In 1962 Sukarno sent Indonesian troops to war in West New Guinea.

The Kennedy adminstration feared the growing influence of the Soviet Union in the largest nation in Souteast Asia. The Soviets already sold arms to Indonesia and the Indonesian Communist Party gained political power during these wars against the Imperialist Dutch. The Domino theory fear was once Indonesia falls, then all of Southeast Asia would fall. Robert Kennedy was sent to Indonesia and US government pressured the Dutch to the negotiation table. In August 1962, the Netherlands and Indonesia concluded an agreement in New York. The Dutch were to leave West New Guinea and transfer sovereignty to UNTEA (the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority) until a national vote for either for independence or integration with Indonesia.

This greatly improved US relations with Indonesia and weakened the influece of the Soviet Union. On the downside for the Papuans, the Indonesians took over the administration from UNTEA. They held the UN sanctioned referendum in 1969, but handpicked the Papuan electors, who chose to "remain with Indonesia".

Cram - 11/22/2003

I have not heard about this, but have never seen a single piece of evidence that links LBJ to the murder of Kennedy.

Furthermore, even if such evidence did exist, and you could prove conclusively that LBJ killed Kennedy, your line about
"censorship controversy by the Democrats" goes much farther.

By saying "The Democrats," and not just Johnson, you are, in essence, accusing the entire party leadership of trying to cover up the murder of a President of their own party! This would baloon whose involved in the conpiracy to a large number of people,and would be akin to sayng that "the Republicans" were responsible for the Watergate breakin.

I assume you really didn't say "the Democrats" with that in mind (I should hope) and that the line was simply referring to "the Democrat" Johnson.

NYGuy - 11/22/2003

Heard on TV today that LBJ censored Walter Cronkite and CBS on a story they were going to air on the assassination.

Can anyone shed additional light on this censorship controversy by the Democrats?

Steve Brody - 11/21/2003

Ruby was a “police buff”, who was known to many in the DPD. He semi- masqueraded as a reporter to get into the basement garage. He also apparently was half a fruitcake with a nasty temper.

I gotta agree with Cram and the Crazy Bigot. No one has presented any serious evidence that anyone other than Oswald had anything to do with the JFK assassination. The History Channel presentation re: LBJ’s involvement was a travesty and an embarrassment.

Crazy Bigot - 11/21/2003

LBJ didn't do it. Probably was the commie symp, Oswald.

But, I do have to admit, some of this stuff is pretty weird. The Secret Service appeared to have fallen asleep. How in the hell did Jack Ruby get into the basement of the Dallas Police Dept.?

If it wasn't Oswald, it was probably the bigots, the bigots, the bigots. They do most everything, don't they?

Cram - 11/21/2003

Sorry folks,
but there is not a single piece of evidence that indicated that Oswold did NOT act alone. The forensic evidence, the physical evidence, and sheer logistical issues demonstrate time and time again that Oswold acted alone.

Of course, these conspiracy theories are going to exist forever, so it a rather useless debate, but I must say, of all of the theories I find the LEAST plausable, LBJ is certainly amung them.

Crazy Bigot - 11/21/2003

The History Channel show about LBJ and Kennedy relied on two impossibly duplicitous witnesses.

1. A crazy woman who concocted an affair with Lee Harvey Oswald. No evidence exists to support her contention.

2. A former law partner of the firm that represented LBJ. This attorney admits that he has a grudge against the deceased managing partner of that firm. He presents no evidence to support his theory except for hearsay conversations with other attorneys around the water cooler.

I enjoyed the show, but it was nonsense.

LBJ was one of the most fascinating and complex politicians in U.S. history. You can certainly say some very nasty things about him, but there is no evidence whatsoever that he was involved in the death of JFK.

Josh Greenland - 11/21/2003

"I, FIRMLY, believe that LBJ, one of the biggest criminals of last century, had a hand in the assassination of JFK."

So does the History Channel. They'll have hours of documentary programming every day this week about the JFK assassination. They explicitly put forward and support the thesis that the JFK assassination was a coup, with Johnson the direct beneficiary.

If you aren't able to watch any of this programming, you may be able to buy it from the History Channel in some recorded form. And they may re-show it in the future.

Cram - 11/21/2003

I am sorry for your experiencs, just as I am sorry that our nation ever decided to blindly believe everything our government told us about why we "had" to be in Vietnam. It is worth noting that just as Americans supported the war up until 1968, when most of the damage had been done, Americans today supported the war In Iraq. If the current trend continues, they will be against it soon. This is why the Founding Fathers thought that they were creating a government where the popular passions of the people could be held in check.

Dick Dettrey - 11/20/2003

Dear Mr. Stern,

I, FIRMLY, believe that LBJ, one of the biggest criminals of last century, had a hand in the assassination of JFK. I don't have the tangible proof, however. However, since his assassination on 22 Nov 63, I, a Vietnam veteran, KNOW that this country is a downward slope, and the present president is at the helm of a sinking ship. It is quite apparent, from this latest fiasco in Iraq, that the leaders of this once-great country haven't learned a thing from that Vietnam debacle. I'll have to quote what George Santayana said in his book, "The Life Of Reason," circa 1905: "Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." BTW. I am mildly traumatically brain injured, "thanks" to whatever was done to my brain in 1972, a little over 6 years since I got out of Vietnam. That "little" thing, plus being transformed into an epileptic, becoming permanently disabled, suffering a drastic personality change and it is STILL with me as I write this e-mail, etc. etc., make for a very pissed off individual, believe me!

Dick Dettrey

Dick Dettrey - 11/20/2003

Dear Mr. Stern,

This is an excellent article. Would you answer a question for me? What is "History Matters?" I never heard of it. It must have been some article that I posted, somewhere, and that's all I know!

Dick Dettrey, a historian manque