On The Brink

The original hawks and doves

The original hawks and doves

For Cuban missile crisis fans, there is a lot of interesting new material in the Robert F. Kennedy records that were partially opened today after a decades-long ownership dispute between the family and the National Archives. The newly-released material includes the clearest breakdown I have yet seen of the split in the White House between “the hawks” and “the doves” — those who wanted to bomb Cuba right away, and those who preferred a negotiated solution the crisis.

The document below is a note jotted down by RFK on October 16, 1962, the day President Kennedy learned that the Soviets had secretly deployed dozens of nuclear missiles to Cuba. JFK responded to the crisis by setting up an informal group of wise men that came to be known as the ExComm, or executive committee. As you can see, the ExComm immediately split into a group favoring a naval “blockade” on Cuba (left-hand column) and those favoring an air “strike” to take out the missile sites (right-hand column).

The doves include: Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and his deputy, Roswell Gilpatric, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and his assistants, George Ball,  Alexis Johnson, and Edwin Martin, Soviet experts Llewellyn Thompson and Chip Bohlen, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, Undersecretary of State and former Defense Secretary Robert Lovett,  and presidential speech writer Ted Sorensen. 

The hawks were led by National Security Adviser Mac Bundy, and included former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon, CIA Director John McCone, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze (a question mark originally, but then put into the “strike” column). The Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by General Maxwell Taylor, all favored an air strike.

In other words, the diplomats nearly all favored the softer option of a blockade that would allow for diplomatic negotiations. (RFK puts a minus next to Adlai Stevenson to indicate that he was not all that keen on a blockade, but willing to go along with the decision.) The uniformed military, including the legendary Air Force chief Curtis LeMay, were hawks to a man. (Probably not the case today with Iran.) 

Everybody expected an air strike to be followed, within a few days, by a full-scale invasion of Cuba. What nobody knew at the time was that the Russians had 98 tactical nuclear weapons on the island that could have been used to wipe out an American invading force. That, in turn, could easily have escalated to full-scale nuclear war.

Like his brother, the president, RFK originally favored an air strike against Cuba. But they both quickly changed their minds and came down on the side of the blockade option outlined by McNamara.

The term “doves and hawks” can be traced back to the missile crisis. When it was all over, the leader of the hawks, Mac Bundy, had the grace to concede that the doves had got the better of the argument. 

“Everybody knows who were the hawks and who were the doves,” Bundy told the ExComm on the morning of October 28, after Khrushchev announced that he was withdrawing his missiles. “Today was the day of the doves.”