Magazine article The Spectator

Eyeball to Eyeball

Magazine article The Spectator

Eyeball to Eyeball

Article excerpt

THE KENNEDY TAPES

edited by Ernest R May and Philip D. Zelikow

Harvard University Press, L23.50, pp. 728

Thirty-five years after the near cataclysmic event, one which even in distant retrospect raises an unwelcome frisson, we now have in The Kennedy Tapes the raw, white-knuckle, `expletives undeleted' record of American decision-making at the highest level during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. American decision-making during the crisis was centred in the White House with its `sophisticated, voiceactivated taping system', its existence known only to President Kennedy and possibly his brother Robert. Others were ignorant of it. As records of `frank deliberation in a time of crisis', the distinguished editors justifiably class them as unparalleled.

Their publication is also coincidentally most opportune, coming, as it does, after the two major conferences on the crisis held in Moscow in 1989 and Havana in 1992, plus a virtual drip-feed of Russian disclosures and 'revelations' from Soviet archives. The latter include Colonel Dokuchaev's analysis of Operation ANADYR (the Soviet code-name for the Cuban operation) in Krasnaya zvezda, Colonel-General Gribkov's Operation ANADYR published in 1994, preceded by his Russian version, Karibskii krizis in Voenno-istoricheskii Zhumal, Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali using KGB files on the `Scali-Feklisov channel'. One of the volatile by-products of this material has been the controversy over discrepancies between Russian oral testimony and documentary evidence, not least with respect to the existence and command and control of tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba. No such dubiety or equivocation attends this secretly taped evidence.

Khrushchev's menacing comments in the late summer of 1962 led Washington to believe that the focus of an impending crisis would be Berlin. Khrushchev promised no action until after the American Congressional elections in November, but afterwards `we shall see whether you bring us to the brink of war'. The discovery on 14 October 1962 of missiles in Cuba larger than SAMs (surface to air missiles), Soviet medium-range missiles (SS-4s), drastically, dramatically, unexpectedly shifted the eye of the anticipated storm to Cuba.

Observing Kennedy from this distance and in the context of these exchanges he emerges as astonishingly cool in his reactions, a probing questioner, sifting information, apparently immune to impulsiveness. On Saturday, 20 October, 'doves' and 'hawks' had been sharply differentiated, the former advocating a blockade, the latter an air strike. Taylor and Bundy proposed an air strike. Robert Kennedy, Dillon, McCone, argued for beginning with a blockade with overtone of an ultimatum, hinting at a possible air strike. Dean Rusk suggested opening with a blockade to halt Soviet activity, the next step to be decided. McNamara and Adlai Stevenson also lighted on a blockade, using it as a means to open negotiations, offering a summit meeting as a forum to discuss trade-offs for the removal of the Soviet missiles. President Kennedy decided for himself. The blockade became 'a quarantine'. For the moment no negotiations. Blockade, or 'quarantine', would go hand in hand with a demand to Khrushchev that the missiles be removed, with a limited air strike should he fail to respond. …

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