Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Week the World Stood Still

Stern, Sheldon M. The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

From 1977 to 1999, Sheldon M. Stern served as Historian of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. In 2003, Stern published Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press). The author describes that book as a “full-length” account based primarily on tape recordings of meetings that were held in the Cabinet Room and Oval Office of the White House during the crisis. Two years later, in 2005, Stern published The Week the World Stood Still, the book under review. In his “Acknowledgments,” he explains that this later work is a “revised and condensed version of Averting ‘The Final Failure’,” designed especially for “students and general readers.”

In Chapter One, “The JFK Cuban Missile Crisis Tapes,” Stern describes both the delight and the frustration of listening to the recordings of the meetings. He relates the tedium of using the tapes, often incomplete and sometimes poor in quality, in order to identify who was speaking and what each person said. He also tells some of the story behind the production of the tapes: of JFK’s request for a recording system in the White House, the system itself and how it worked, etc. Finally, he disputes the notion that because only President Kennedy and his brother Robert knew that they were being recorded, the tapes fail to capture honest dialogue, but instead record the Kennedys posturing for posterity. In defense of his assertion, the author notes that a freewheeling conversation among fifteen bright people would be impossible to manipulate. Besides, like Richard M. Nixon a decade later, President Kennedy never imagined that anyone else would ever have access to his tapes. Above all, Stern reminds the reader that at the time of the crisis, as the meetings were being recorded, no one knew for sure how it would all turn out.

In Chapter Two, “The Making of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” the author sets the stage with a short, well-written, and helpful overview of the historical realities leading up to the crisis. Stern describes the Cold War and U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and with Cuba. He also tells us, with remarkable insight, about John F. Kennedy. Stern quotes letters written by JFK when he was a junior naval officer serving in the Pacific during World War II. Here, the reader gets to listen in as the unsuspecting future President candidly talks about the unspeakable ugliness of war and the comic ineptness of at least some military leaders. Stern closes the chapter with something that I found especially helpful: a brief, professional biography of each of the “Key Members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council.”

Chapter Three, “The Secret Meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council,” makes up more than three-quarters of the book. Here Stern recounts the significant events and meetings of each day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, beginning with Tuesday, October 16, 1962, and continuing through Monday, October 29. Throughout, the author weaves together description and direct quotation in order to produce a continuous narrative. Without hearing the tapes themselves, the reader gains a strong sense of how the meetings went, the personalities involved, the attitudes of the participants, who spoke most frequently, and the specific decisions that President Kennedy had to make while under incredible pressure.

Stern’s account provides plenty of high drama. A good example comes from JFK’s meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday morning, October19. A few days into the crisis by this point, the deliberations of the Executive Committee had convinced the president of the terrible hazards and possibly-tragic consequences of a full-scale attack and invasion of Cuba. Kennedy favored something less drastic, a naval blockade of Cuba. But the JCS stoutly opposed him:

General LeMay, giving no indication that he had understood the dangers raised by the president, turned JFK’s Berlin argument on its head: “I don’t share your view that if we knock off Cuba they’re gonna knock off Berlin.” The Soviets “are gonna push on Berlin and push real hard” if the U.S. fails to take military action against Cuba, since they would feel “they’ve got us on the run.” Kennedy interrupted to ask about Soviet reprisals after a U.S. attack on Cuba. There would be no reprisals, LeMay asserted confidently, as long as you tell Khrushchev again, “If they make a move [in Berlin], we’re gonna fight.” The self-assured general moved in for the verbal kill: “This blockade and political action I see leading into war. . . . This is almost as bad as the appeasement in Munich. . . . I just don’t see any other solution except direct military intervention, right now” (pp. 67-68).
Passages like that one typify Stern’s account. From beginning to end, the reader is able to perceive the emotional ebb and flow of the meetings, as well as the political, military, and diplomatic questions that the president had to answer. The chapter ends not long after Nikita Khrushchev made his surprise announcement, on Saturday, October 27, that the Soviets would dismantle and remove their offensive weapons from Cuba.

“Epilogue: The November Post-Crisis” describes the tentative character of the agreement that the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. had reached. There were still many loose ends to tie up.

In his “Conclusion,” Stern reflects on the ways in which his experience with the tapes radically changed his perspective on the president and the crisis. Like most everyone else during the late 1960s, Stern says that he took it for granted “that John Kennedy had been a tough and relentless Cold Warrior.” However, in spite of his hard public rhetoric and his desire to see Castro eliminated, during the crisis Kennedy "repeatedly acted to prevent, postpone, or at least question the wisdom of” more than a dozen “potentially provocative measures” (216). In doing so, he “often stood virtually alone against warlike counsel from the ExComm, the JCS, and the leaders of Congress during those historic 13 days” (217). It seems clear that the author continues to esteem John F. Kennedy as a hero. Only now, he has different reasons.

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