Of Myths and Missiles

What Les Gelb gets wrong about the Cuban missile crisis.

STF/AFP/Getty Images
STF/AFP/Getty Images

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Is there a better measure of an international crisis than how long we keep arguing about it? This month, umpteen retrospectives will remind us that it has been 50 years since the United States and the Soviet Union were "eyeball to eyeball" over nuclear weapons in Cuba. The basic facts have been known for a long time, yet the arguments about this legendary confrontation go on and on.

The latest entrant in the wars over the Cuban missile crisis is Leslie Gelb, whose article "The Myth That Screwed Up 50 Years of U.S. Foreign Policy" appears in Foreign Policy‘s November 2012 issue. Gelb is one of the most stimulating and provocative interpreters of American diplomacy, and he has an interesting story to tell. John F. Kennedy and his advisors, he says, falsely claimed to have given nothing away in getting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back down in Cuba. By keeping secret their promise to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey, they made "toughness and risky dueling with bad guys" the default mode of U.S. foreign policy.

"American leaders don’t like to compromise," Gelb explains, "and a lingering misunderstanding of those 13 days in October 1962 has a lot to do with it." For him, what we really need to remember about the missile crisis is that the key to resolving it was flexibility, not rigidity. The same flexibility, he suggests, might enable the United States to make headway with Tehran, the Taliban, and others.

A bold reading like this shows how much new juice can be squeezed out of events half a century in the past. But there are two problems with it. First, Kennedy actually did make a public compromise offer to Khrushchev to resolve the crisis, pledging (as Gelb himself notes) not to invade Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn. Both leaders, moreover, pointed to this formula as proof of success. Khrushchev claimed — not totally convincingly — that it was only the risk of a U.S. invasion that had led him to deploy the missiles in the first place. As for Kennedy, his boosters have always treated the non-invasion offer as one crucial part of a masterful diplomatic performance.

The second problem with Gelb’s reading is more important. American concessions were simply not the key to resolving the crisis. It’s obviously inconvenient for anyone who favors a calm, compromising approach to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, but the truth is that what softened Khrushchev up — unhinged him, really — was the threat of U.S. military action. From the messages the Soviet leader sent Kennedy at the peak of the crisis, Maxwell Taylor, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that he was "half drunk, or distraught, or both." As Gelb acknowledges, we now know that Khrushchev told his colleagues he was going to back down before he heard about the secret Turkish missile offer.

His reason was simple and statesmanlike: He wanted to avoid blowing up the world. If humiliating retreat was necessary to prevent calamitous defeat, so be it. American strategists had long wondered whether a threat by one superpower to attack the other side’s military forces could be credible, given the horrible consequences likely to ensue. Yet Khrushchev clearly believed Kennedy would act. Publicly, the U.S. president conveyed grim determination throughout the crisis. As much as Gelb may lament the lessons that have been drawn from Kennedy’s resolve, there is no denying his achievement. In the most dangerous showdown of the Cold War, he got the other guy to blink.

Had Khrushchev been privy to discussions inside the White House, of course, he would have found out how divided the Americans were. The president and a small group of advisors known as the "ExComm" (for executive committee) deliberated around the clock, bouncing from one position to another. They changed their minds from one day to the next, many of them more than once. Even when they agreed on what to do, their reasons often differed.

Yet Khrushchev would also have learned that most ExComm members agreed on one big thing — that the crisis was unlikely to be resolved by negotiation. Foremost in this camp, at least at the beginning, was Kennedy himself. He repeatedly overruled advisors who favored diplomatic give-and-take. When he found that Ted Sorensen, his speechwriter, had drafted a speech inviting Khrushchev to an emergency summit, he personally vetoed the idea. Such a proposal, the president thought, would suggest that the U.S. government was in a "state of panic."

Kennedy also overrode his secretaries of state and defense, both of whom thought Moscow was more likely to yield if the United States were a little less rigid. For Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, insisting that all the missiles be removed increased the chance that the United States would have to invade. Secretary of State Dean Rusk also tried to chip away at his boss’s resolve, suggesting that the Soviets might more easily agree to freeze construction of their bases in Cuba than to dismantle them outright. Kennedy disagreed with both men. America, he believed, had to get the missiles out — quickly. Khrushchev should hear no hint that compromise was acceptable.

So how did this bellicose Kennedy become the one who secretly promised to withdraw American missiles from Turkey? As the confrontation mounted, the president came to the conclusion that Khrushchev could not be pushed any further. The Soviet leader had made his demand about the Turkish missiles in a public letter, rolling back his earlier suggestion that the crisis would be over if the United States promised not to invade. Kennedy believed that Khrushchev would not be able to walk away from this public stance. Even when his advisors suggested a clever way around the problem — just ignore the tough new letter, they said, and accept the more reasonable earlier one — the president said their gambit wouldn’t work. "We might as well realize that," he told them.

At the most decisive moment of the entire crisis, then, one man — John F. Kennedy, virtually alone — thought the United States was driving too hard a bargain. To get the missiles out of Cuba, he predicted, "We’re going to have to take our weapons out of Turkey." It did not matter to him that the other members of the ExComm disagreed. Llewellyn Thompson, the senior Soviet expert present and the American who knew Khrushchev best, argued that the non-invasion pledge offered the Soviet leader the precise face-saving concession he had asked for. There was no need to go further. Even Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, cautioned his brother. The American position was a good one, he said. "I don’t think we should abandon it."

None of this convinced the president. Khrushchev would reject the deal, he said — "I’m certain." Out of his certainty came a concession that was almost surely unnecessary to end the crisis.

Kennedy assumed Khrushchev was as boxed in by his public statements as a U.S. politician would have been. But there was more to his miscalculation than this. He had been so sure military force would be needed to remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba that when muscular diplomacy began to do the job instead, he was unable — unwilling, it seemed — to recognize his own success. He was convinced that a satisfactory resolution of the crisis could be achieved only at a higher price and insisted on paying it even when others told him he was wrong.

This — not the pure machismo that Gelb excoriates — was the Kennedy administration’s diplomatic signature. It combined sustained activism and protracted indecision, public threats and private backtracking, blustery overcommitment and quiet scrutiny of available exit routes. McNamara later offered a famous summary of the lessons that he and his colleagues drew from the crisis: "There is no longer any such thing as strategy, only crisis management." The United States, he suggested, was so strong that it didn’t have to have clear and consistent doctrines. Improvisational fine-tuning would do.

In the Cuban missile crisis, it proved to be enough. But the victory had its cost. The president and his advisors had kept the peace, while confusing themselves as to the reason why. They played down the sheer bellicosity of American policy and played up their own skillful manipulation of the other side. They grew confident that they could bend adversaries to their will through the careful application of pressures and inducements. The next test of this idea was, of course, Vietnam. Even without an anniversary to remind us, we know how that turned out.

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