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The Myth That Screwed Up 50 Years of U.S. Foreign Policy

It's time to set the record straight about John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis.

CBS Via Getty Images
CBS Via Getty Images

U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s skillful management of the Cuban missile crisis, 50 years ago this autumn, has been elevated into the central myth of the Cold War. At its core is the tale that, by virtue of U.S. military superiority and his steely will, Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to capitulate and remove the nuclear missiles he had secretly deployed to Cuba. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk rhapsodized, America went "eyeball to eyeball," and the Soviets "just blinked." Mythologically, Khrushchev gave everything, and Kennedy gave nothing. Thus the crisis blossomed as an unabashed American triumph and unmitigated Soviet defeat.

Kennedy’s victory in the messy and inconclusive Cold War naturally came to dominate the politics of U.S. foreign policy. It deified military power and willpower and denigrated the give-and-take of diplomacy. It set a standard for toughness and risky dueling with bad guys that could not be matched — because it never happened in the first place.

Of course, Americans had a long-standing mania against compromising with devils, but compromise they did. President Harry Truman even went so far as to offer communist Moscow a place in the Marshall Plan. His secretary of state, Dean Acheson, later argued that you could deal with communists only by creating "situations of strength." And there matters more or less rested until the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK demonstrated the strength proposition in spades, elevating pressures on his successors to resist compromise with those devils.

What people came to understand about the Cuban missile crisis — that JFK succeeded without giving an inch — implanted itself in policy deliberations and political debate, spoken or unspoken. It’s there now, all these decades later, in worries over making any concessions to Iran over nuclear weapons or to the Taliban over their role in Afghanistan. American leaders don’t like to compromise, and a lingering misunderstanding of those 13 days in October 1962 has a lot to do with it.

In fact, the crisis concluded not with Moscow’s unconditional diplomatic whimper, but with mutual concessions. The Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba in return for U.S. pledges not to invade Fidel Castro’s island and to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey. For reasons that seem clear, the Kennedy clan kept the Jupiter part of the deal secret for nearly two decades and, even then, portrayed it as a trifle. For reasons that remain baffling, the Soviets also kept mum. Scholars like Harvard University’s Graham Allison set forth the truth over the years, but their efforts rarely suffused either public debates or White House meetings on how to stare down America’s foes.

FROM THE OUTSET, Kennedy’s people went out of their way to conceal the Jupiter concession. It started when the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, met Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on Oct. 27 to present the Jupiters-for-Soviet-missiles swap. He told Dobrynin: We’ll take the Jupiters out, but it’s not part of the deal, and you can never talk about it. The Soviets removed their missiles, the United States removed the Jupiters, and the secret held for 16 years, until a small paragraph in an Arthur Schlesinger book upon which few remarked.

Four years later, Kennedy’s key advisors wrote a Time article on the 20th anniversary of the crisis in which they admitted including the Jupiters in the agreement. They did so, however, in such a way as to diminish its importance, presenting the Jupiters almost as an afterthought while saying that JFK had already decided to remove them from Turkey. Then, they totally contradicted themselves, acknowledging that secrecy surrounding the Jupiter part of the deal was so important that a leak "would have had explosive and destructive effects on the security of the U.S. and its allies."

These Kennedy aides were so devoted to their triumphal myth that most of them continued to propagate it long after they themselves had turned against its very precepts. Most ended up opposing a Vietnam war that JFK had still been fighting when he was assassinated. They all grew skeptical about the value of military might and big-power confrontations, and they became formidable advocates of diplomatic compromise.

It was not until 1988, however, that one among them clearly and openly acknowledged his decades-long hypocrisy and its costs. In his book Danger and Survival, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security advisor, lamented: "Secrecy of this sort has its costs. By keeping to ourselves the assurance on the Jupiters, we misled our colleagues, our countrymen, our successors, and our allies" into concluding "that it had been enough to stand firm on that Saturday." It took 26 years, but there it was.

STUNNINGLY, THE RUSSIANS didn’t reveal the truth far earlier. A well-timed Soviet leak after the Jupiters were removed could have done two things for Moscow. First, the story of the swap would have sharply blunted accounts of their utter defeat. Never mind that JFK was planning to take out the Jupiters anyway and replace them with Polaris missile-firing subs.

Second, it would have caused great consternation in NATO, where the swap would have been portrayed as selling out Turkey. RFK even told Dobrynin that this fear was his major reason for keeping the deal secret. Dobrynin cabled Bobby’s words back to Moscow: "If such a decision were announced now, it would seriously tear apart NATO." Once the Jupiters had been removed, Moscow could have pounced. One would think the Soviets would have welcomed the opportunity.

Dobrynin fully grasped how the myth chilled U.S. willingness to compromise, something he told me about in the late 1970s when I was ensconced at the State Department. He didn’t say so publicly, however, until his memoirs came out in 1995. He wrote: "If Khrushchev had managed to arrange [a leak], the resolution of the crisis need not have been seen as such an inglorious retreat."

Why, then, didn’t the Soviets leak it? It’s quite possible, even likely, that Khrushchev and his Politburo never considered leaking because they had no idea how the crisis would be portrayed — how weak they would look. On the day the crisis was reaching a crescendo, before he knew that Kennedy would offer up the Jupiters, Khrushchev was ready to back down. He told his colleagues that the Soviet Union was "face to face with the danger of war and of nuclear catastrophe, with the possible result of destroying the human race." He wasn’t thinking about the Jupiters; he just wanted out and was determined to convince his colleagues that a U.S. pledge not to invade would be enough to protect Soviet power and pride.

To check this view, I contacted the three living people most likely to know: Sergei Khrushchev (son of Nikita), Anatoly Gromyko (son of Andrei, the Soviet foreign minister during the missile crisis), and Alexander "Sasha" Bessmertnykh (a Foreign Ministry official at the time of the crisis and later foreign minister). All backed this theory, though they acknowledged not knowing the details of Khrushchev’s thinking. Soviet leaders, they said, genuinely feared a U.S. invasion of Cuba. None was moved by my argument that by the time of the crisis, there was no likelihood of such an invasion. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, this idea was laughable in U.S. policy circles. None would grant that Moscow’s leaking of the swap was necessary to preserve Soviet honor. Yet as we spoke further, all eventually conceded that the image of Soviet power indeed would have fared far better had the swap become known.

In Moscow at a retrospective on the crisis in 1989, JFK speechwriter and confidant Ted Sorensen touted Bobby Kennedy’s Thirteen Days as the definitive account. Dobrynin interrupted to say that the book omitted the Jupiters, to which Sorensen replied that Dobrynin was correct, but at the time, the deal was still "secret." "So I took it upon myself to edit that out," he said.

Reporters covering the meeting took it upon themselves not to chronicle this exchange. Nor has foreign-policy chatter over the years made much reference to the Jupiters. Indeed, the compromise is mentioned so infrequently that journalist Fred Kaplan had to nail it to the wall at considerable length in a recent Slate review of Robert Caro’s latest volume on President Lyndon B. Johnson. Careful as he is, Caro relied on sources that extolled Kennedy’s resolve, and he ignored the Jupiters.

COMPROMISE IS NOT a word that generally makes political hearts flutter, and it is even less loved when it comes to the politics of U.S. foreign policy. The myth of the missile crisis strengthened the scorn. The myth, not the reality, became the measure for how to bargain with adversaries. Everyone feared becoming the next Adlai Stevenson, whom the Kennedys, their aides, and their foes discredited for proposing the Jupiter deal publicly.

It’s not that Washingtonians scurried about proclaiming their desire to emulate the missile-crisis myth, but it was very much a part of the city’s ether in columns and conversations with friends from the early 1960s to the 1990s. Few wanted to expose themselves by proposing even mild compromises with enemies. In the famous "A to Z" review of U.S. policy toward Vietnam, ordered by LBJ after the 1968 Tet Offensive, we (I was in the Pentagon at that time) weren’t even permitted to study possible compromises with Hanoi. And there’s no doubt that only a dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warrior like Richard Nixon finally could have withdrawn from Vietnam.

It took extraordinary courage to propose compromises in arms control talks with Moscow. Even treaties for trivial reductions in nuclear forces on both sides faced furious battles in Congress. Today, it is near political suicide to publicly suggest letting Iran enrich uranium up to an inconsequential 5 percent with strong inspections, though the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permits it. And while Barack Obama’s team is talking to the Taliban, its demands are so absolute — the Taliban must lay down their arms and accept the Kabul constitution — that any serious give-and-take is impossible. Were it at all serious, the White House would have to at least dangle the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban.

For too long, U.S. foreign-policy debates have lionized threats and confrontation and minimized realistic compromise. And yes, to be sure, compromise is not always the answer, and sometimes it’s precisely the wrong answer. But policymakers and politicians have to be able to examine it openly and without fear, and measure it against alternatives. Compromises do fail, and presidents can then ratchet up threats or even use force. But they need to remember that the ever steely-eyed JFK found a compromise solution to the Cuban missile crisis — and the compromise worked.

Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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