Most of What You Know about the Cuban Missile Crisis Is Wrong

Article excerpt

I'm a month or so late in seeing this, but if you have the time I highly commend this book review from the January-February issue of Atlantic about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It will not only revise some of what you think you know about the crisis, but also serves as a reminder of how hard it is to bravely follow your thoughts and questions where they lead instead of always tacking back to the safety of groupthink.

Although the 50th anniversary of the missile crisis was last fall, it hasn't exactly been in the news much. Still, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is very likely the closest we (and by "we" I mean the world) have ever been to a straight-on war between nuclear superpowers. Maybe we all know just enough about it to be dangerous.

The Atlantic piece and the book it reviews are based on the complete transcript of the deliberations of the special ExComm (executive committee) of top Kennedy administration officials that met during the famed "13 Days" of the crisis.

It turns out that a huge portion of the received version of the story that we were all raised on is a lie. Bobby Kennedy's book, titled "13 Days," was the main source for the lies, but there are many more sources. Even the recent treatment of the crisis in the great Robert Caro series on LBJ follows the conventional mythology and ducks the really hard questions.

The new book is titled "The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory; Myths versus Reality." Its author, Sheldon M. Stern, worked as a historian at the Kennedy Library in Boston from 1977 to 2000, and was the first person who was not an ExComm member to have access to the full set of tapes made of the ExComm meetings. He had read, and accepted, the fundamental accuracy of "13 Days" before he listened to the tapes and discovered falsehood after omission after distortion.

Distorting RFK's role

The biggest distortion was the role of RFK himself. The received version, which relies on RFK's own book and on the testimony of Kennedy loyalists, generally portrays RFK as a cool-headed voice of reason. Stern found that the tapes revealed Bobby Kennedy as "confrontational and hawkish from day one through day thirteen -- and even beyond into the November post-crisis."

(In this piece, for the History News Network, Stern summarizes nine strong, clear contradictions between the "13 Days" version and the evidence of the tapes.)

The Atlantic book review that got me started on this post, written by the magazine's national editor Benjamin Schwartz, takes a somewhat different tack. Schwartz seizes the occasion to work through elements of the heroic version of the tale that clearly have bothered him for years. He challenges fundamental elements of the tale, starting with the argument that it was worth risking a nuclear confrontation to keep those missiles out of Cuba in the first place.

For example, the United States had nuclear missiles positioned in Turkey, close to the Soviet Union. The Soviets weren't happy about that and Schwartz surmises that this fact absolutely contributed to Nikita Khrushchev's decision to put Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The Soviets had ICBM's on their own territory that could reach the United States (just as we did, only we had more and better missiles) and missiles on submarines that could rise up out of the ocean and nuke us from close range (just as we did) so the fact that missiles in Cuba could reach the U.S. quickly was of no real consequence. The Soviets weren't violating any international laws by installing missiles on the territory of a willing ally (any more than the Turks were in allowing our missiles) but the U.S. decision to blockade Cuba actually was an illegal act of war.

The tapes indicate clearly that JFK, RFK and the ExComm generally realized that the Cuban missiles would not have significantly altered the real military balance of power which greatly favored the United States and would have continued to do so. …