Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bobby Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis

Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Introductions by Robert S. McNamara and Harold Macmillan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1969.

At the beginning of Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy relates something of what it felt like when he and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and several other high officials of the U.S. government first heard the facts. On Tuesday, October 16, 1962, experts from the U.S. Intelligence Community revealed to the group that the Soviet Union was building a missile base on the island of Cuba, and that atomic weapons and large missiles were already there. During the weeks leading up to that meeting, Soviet representatives, including Chairman Nikita Khrushchev himself, had consistently assured American leaders that they had no intention of sending surface-to-surface missiles or offensive weapons to Cuba. Remembering the moment when the truth became clear, Kennedy writes: "Now, as the representatives of the CIA explained the U-2 photographs that morning, . . . we realized that it had all been lies, one gigantic fabric of lies." There at page 27, I was hooked and kept reading to the end. What a riveting story, told so well.

From there, Kennedy describes some of the initial deliberations of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the "Ex Comm"). He tells about the competing recommendations they offered, which invariably led to the excruciating decisions that finally only the President could make. The first major decision took up the question of an appropriate initial response. After President Kennedy rejected the plan of a military strike and adopted the idea of naval blockade of Cuba, there were other questions to answer. Many of these were related to the task of striking a balance. On the one hand, it was imperative that the U.S. forcefully confront Khrushshev over the treachery and provocation of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it was also necessary to leave room so that the Chairman could retain honor and respectability while backing down. As Kennedy describes it, this balancing act was performed by the President as he stood between the implicit threats from the Soviets on one side, and calls from U.S. military leaders and hawkish members of Congress for at least a strike, or even a full invasion of Cuba, on the other side.

Kennedy relates a number of nail-biting episodes as the crisis unfolded. He tells, for example, about the President meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko two days after U.S. officials became aware of the build up, and how Gromyko denied any such activity. He also reports how, at his brother's request, he made a visit to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin who, like Gromyko, held to the same official line: no long-range missiles had been delivered to Cuba, and the Soviet government had no intention of doing any such thing. Kennedy gives the reader a good sense of what it was like for the President to hear from the Ex-Comm about every possible contingency before making day-to-day and sometimes minute-to-minute decisions that brought with them huge consequences. Finally, Kennedy relates the official agreement according to which the Soviet Union would remove their weapons systems from Cuba and the United States would end the quarantine and pledge not to invade the island nation.

In addition to a sense of relief, I had several reactions as I finished this book. First, I was impressed at how well it is written. Throughout, Kennedy exhibits a crisp, easy-to-read style, the eloquence of precise and clear language.

Second, I was struck by the consistent humanity of this unique story. For example, if they go on long enough, even the most grave circumstances get interrupted by humor and the ridiculous. The Cuban Missile Crisis was no exception. Kennedy relates some of this. For example, upon realizing that something would have to be done in response to the aggression and deceit of the Soviets, Robert passed a note to his brother saying, "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor" (31). And I had to smile when reading the story of how, instead of traveling in a long line of limousines which would have tipped off the press, ten men crammed into Kennedy's car for a ride to the White House (43).

Third, I felt suspicious whenever I sensed that Kennedy's own presidential aspirations and his natural desire to preserve his brothers' dignity overwhelmed the narrative. For example, he chalks up the Bay of Pigs debacle to a failure to solicit a variety of competing opinions. That action was precipitated by a unanimity of thought, says Kennedy, which closed off the possibility of a better decision (112). It also seemed more than a coincidence that Kennedy never mentions his official title, U.S. Attorney General. From beginning to end, he casts himself primarily as the President's brother, close advisor and assistant. An uniformed reader might be forgiven for concluding that Robert was the Vice President, instead of Lyndon Johnson to whom the author grants nothing more than a cameo appearance.

Most of all, I was glad I had read this book. In it, Robert Kennedy accomplished exactly what he set out to do: to tell the incredible story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from his own singular perspective.

No comments: