The Cuban missile crisis was a defining event of the Cold War, and the study and analysis of how it was managed and resolved quickly became a staple of graduate courses dealing with American diplomacy. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy has been credited with a preponderant voice among the President's advisers in devising a solution to the crisis that avoided war with the USSR; but this essay, drawing on meeting transcripts and other contemporary documentation, argues that his role was more nuanced, and that credit for the successful outcome should be more broadly shared. Ed .
As the most dangerous episode in the history of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis has inevitably attracted the attention of many diplomatic historians. With the two superpowers teetering on the brink of war, and possibly a nuclear war at that, the issue of how to remove Russian missiles from Cuba in October 1962, while maintaining the peace, represented the greatest challenge of John F. Kennedy's presidency. With ever increasing quantities of documentation declassified, including transcribed tapes of many key meetings between John Kennedy and other senior officials, historians in recent years have been able to provide more precise, nuanced accounts of the missile crisis.1
This article seeks to clarify one issue: the role played by JFK's brother and closest adviser, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. This is a subject that has generated a literature of considerable proportions. In addition to the various monographs and articles on the missile crisis, numerous books on Robert Kennedy have been published since the 1990s, adding to what had hitherto been a rather slim historiography, one dominated by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s adoring 1978 biography.2
To a significant extent, an heroic interpretation of Robert Kennedy's contribution to American policy-making and diplomacy during the missile crisis still permeates the literature, as it has done for nearly four decades. This panegyrical view is rooted in the brief history of the October 1962 crisis provided by Robert Kennedy himself in his posthumous memoir, Thirteen Days, a work which we now know was put together with the assistance of his friend and JFK's speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen. In summary, Robert Kennedy claimed that in ExComm, the group established by the president at the start of the crisis to furnish him with advice, he had unwaveringly led those officials who supported the idea of blockading Cuba against those more reckless advisers who favored some form of military action against the island. By comparing a U.S. attack on Cuba with the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, the attorney general was able to discredit the hawks in ExComm, ensuring that his brother opted for the safer, more prudent approach of a naval blockade. Moreover, on October 27, when the crisis was at its most intense, it was Robert Kennedy who cleverly devised the plan that ended the superpower confrontation: he advised JFK to write to Nikita S. Khrushchev accepting the terms offered in the Soviet leader's October 26 letter (removal of Russian missiles from Cuba in return for a U.S. promise not to invade the island), while essentially ignoring his October 27 message (which also demanded the withdrawal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey). This, coupled with a pledge conveyed in person by Robert Kennedy to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that the Jupiter missiles would be removed anon but that this must remain a secret component of the settlement, resulted in Khrushchev backing down. In short, Robert Kennedy's contribution had been vitally important in ensuring peace.3
Early historians of the missile crisis tended to echo this account of the attorney general's performance coming, as it were, from the horse's mouth. With the subsequent declassification of documents, there have been intermittent attempts to modify this rose-tinted interpretation of Robert Kennedy's role. But the extent to which his contribution has been oversimplified and exaggerated, and the influence of other officials underestimated, has not been generally appreciated. The successful American handling of the Cuban missile crisis was very much a team effort; and that is one of the salient themes of this article.
When National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy told John Kennedy on the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 1962, that the CIA had identified Soviet missile bases in Cuba, the president wasted little time informing Robert Kennedy. As attorney general, Bobby Kennedy's focus was supposed to be legal issues. But ever since the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961, JFK had brought him into discussions on foreign policy. Robert Kennedy went on to play a key role in Operation Mongoose, the program approved by the president in November 1961 to use covert pressure to topple Fidel Castro. Confronted with a crisis over Cuba in mid-October 1962, therefore, it was no surprise that John Kennedy should turn quickly to his brother for assistance.4
In the two ExComm meetings that took place on October 16 between JFK and his advisers, Robert Kennedy was surprisingly quiet. His most famous comment came when he passed on to the president a note which read: I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor. This has often been taken as an ironic comment, lampooning those belligerent advisers who were calling for an air strike on or an invasion of Cuba.5
When the verbal comments made by Robert Kennedy in those two ExComm meetings on October 16 are taken on board, however, his note to JFK appears to have been meant literally; for they suggest that his initial policy preference was not for a blockade of Cuba, but for an invasion of the island. In the first ExComm session, as his brother was listing the options for his administration, Robert Kennedy interjected that invasion was an alternative. During the second ExComm meeting, he made the case that carrying out an air strike was a short-sighted approach because, assuming the strike was successful, there would be nothing to prevent Khrushchev from deploying more missiles in Cuba a few months later. For that reason, a U.S. invasion of Cuba would be preferable: whether it wouldn't be the argument, if you're going to get into it at all, whether we should just get into it, and get it over with, and take our losses. Looking for pretexts which his brother could use to attack Cuba, he cast his mind back to the 1898 war with Spain, wondering whether there is some other way we can get involved in this, through Guantanamo Bay or something .whether there's some ship that you know, sink the Maine again or something.6
On the opening day of the missile crisis, then, Robert Kennedy did not argue for the blockade. Rather he clearly favored an invasion of Cuba. In the ExComm discussions that day, it was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who introduced the idea of blockading the island. And it was Under Secretary of State George Ball who first drew a parallel between a U.S. strike on Cuba and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This coming in there, a Pearl Harbor, Ball told his ExComm colleagues, just frightens the hell out of me as to what goes beyond .You go in there with a surprise attack. You put out all the missiles. This isn't the end. This is the beginning, I think. 7
The hard-line approach adopted by Robert Kennedy in ExComm was also evident in a meeting on Operation Mongoose that he chaired on the afternoon of October 16. He complained at the operation's lack of progress, mentioning the failure to carry out regularly and successfully acts of sabotage in Cuba. Significantly, he asked his colleagues what percentage of Cubans would fight for Castro should the island be invaded. This adds weight to the argument that the attorney general's comments in ExComm about invasion were meant seriously.8
Robert Kennedy's prior involvement in Mongoose may explain in part his initial stance during the missile crisis. For the past year he had been accustomed to thinking in terms of destabilizing the Castro government in preparation for a U.S. attack on the island. Once the news arrived that there were missiles in Cuba, the attorney general dwelt, as he had before October 1962, on the use of force as a solution to the Cuban problem. Another factor contributing to RFK's hawkishness was his emotional state: he felt angry, as he had at the time of the Bay of Pigs disaster, consumed by a desire for revenge against what he perceived to be the humiliation inflicted upon his brother. There is evidence of the fury felt by Robert Kennedy on October 16: having inspected the photographs of the Soviet missile sites, he erupted: Oh shit! Shit! Shit! Those sons of bitches Russians. The fact that earlier in the fall Moscow had offered assurances to Washington that no missiles were being sent to Cuba could only have magnified Bobby Kennedy's sense that his brother had been stabbed in the back. 9
By the following day, October 17, the attorney general, having reflected no doubt on the dangers of the situation, no longer spoke of invasion. On the other hand, he did not yet appear to be the leading champion of the blockade. In Thirteen Days he explained how he had responded to former Secretary of State Dean Acheson's insistence that the president should initiate military action by making a heartfelt plea for moderation and for the blockade. CIA Director John McCone's minutes of the meeting, however, highlight the role played by former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn E. Thompson, not Robert Kennedy, in challenging Acheson by making the case for a blockade.10
On October 18 Bobby Kennedy began to adopt the sorts of positions on the missile crisis with which he is usually associated. By his own admission George Ball, who had compared an American assault on Cuba to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, influenced the shift in his perspective. In the 11:00 a.m. ExComm meeting that day, he told the president that George Ball has a hell of a good point .it's the whole question of, you know, assuming that you do survive all this, the fact that we're not what kind of a country we are. This business of carrying the mark of Cain on your brow for the rest of your life, interjected Ball. We did this against Cuba, Robert Kennedy continued. We've fought for 15 years with Russia to prevent a first strike against us Now, in the interest of time, we do that to a small country. I think it's a hell of a burden to carry. At one point in the same meeting he expressed some equivocation over the merits of a blockade (or quarantine as it became known), and later in the same ExComm session he agreed with McNamara that the two main options for the president were military action and the blockade. Outside of ExComm, though, Robert Kennedy made clear in a discussion with JFK that his preference was now for the quarantine. 11
Even though the attorney general had come by the third day of the missile crisis to back the blockade, to portray him as the leader of the group of officials who supported the quarantine at this point would be to slight the contribution of others. Often it was McNamara, not Robert Kennedy, who was the dominant figure in this ExComm discussion. And in this same meeting it was not Bobby Kennedy but Llewellyn Thompson who came across as the leading advocate of the quarantine, and who drew JFK into a deeper consideration of the merits of that approach. Presciently, Thompson argued that a blockade would lead to a period of negotiations that could defuse the crisis.12
Rather than conceptualizing the ExComm debate in terms of Robert Kennedy spearheading the efforts of the doves against the hawks, it is sounder to portray the doves' campaign as a genuine team effort. To be sure, Robert Kennedy was closer to JFK than any other ExComm official, and hence his recommendations were more significant in the sense that they were more likely to be heeded by the president than those of any other adviser. Nevertheless, the leadership on the blockade was provided alternately by McNamara and Thompson, as well as by Robert Kennedy; and it was Ball who made the crucial conceptual contribution by introducing the Pearl Harbor analogy.
At the 11:00 a.m. ExComm meeting on October 19, the fourth day of the crisis, Robert Kennedy finally began to play the sort of role he had claimed for himself in Thirteen Days: urgently, passionately exhorting his colleagues to reflect on the moral dimension of the policy choices facing them, equating a U.S. strike on Cuba with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, and championing the blockade. In opposition to a group of advisers, including McGeorge Bundy, Acheson, and McCone, who had spoken in favor of an air strike on Cuba, the attorney general argued that:
The consensus in ExComm had been shifting since the previous day away from the military options and toward the blockade; and John Kennedy had likewise changed his initial belief that an air strike must be carried out to a conviction that the quarantine was the better alternative. Robert Kennedy's comments in ExComm on October 19 helped solidify that consensus.13
Despite backing the blockade option so strongly on the nineteenth, the following day the attorney general expressed views in ExComm that were less clear-cut. He now believed that:
Robert Kennedy was again recommending a blockade, but qualifying this by saying an air strike should be ordered if, after a brief period of time following the establishment of the quarantine, the Soviets had not ceased work on the missile sites. If in the second week of the missile crisis JFK had followed this advice, he might well have carried out military action.14
On October 21 Robert Kennedy once again modified his position. During a discussion with the president and a few other officials, he reiterated his support for the blockade on the grounds that it was preferable to a Pearl Harbor-style attack on Cuba that would cause the Soviet Union to respond militarily, thus making nuclear war a possibility. Elaborating, he said we should start with the initiation of the blockade and thereafter 'play for the breaks.' The day before he had said the quarantine should be followed shortly afterwards by an air strike, if the Russians did not halt work on the missile sites. Now he was suggesting that the administration should keep its options open once the blockade had been implemented. Even after promoting the quarantine so ardently on October 19, therefore, there were elements of vacillation in his position thereafter.15
On the evening of October 22 the missile crisis became a matter of concern to the American people and the international community when John Kennedy delivered a televised address announcing the existence of Soviet missile bases in Cuba and his decision to respond with a naval blockade of the island. During the next few days Robert Kennedy focused, as did the rest of his ExComm colleagues, on such issues as the implementation of the blockade and how best to deal with the press. In addition, at the behest of his brother he played the role of secret envoy, meeting on the evening of October 23 with Dobrynin in the Russian embassy. The Soviet ambassador insisted that there were no missiles in Cuba. He was not deliberately lying it was simply the case that Khrushchev had not bothered to brief him. When Robert Kennedy asked whether Soviet ships heading for Cuba would respect the U.S. blockade or attempt to go through to the island, Dobrynin indicated the latter. That did not bode well for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.16
On the same day that he met with Dobrynin, Bobby Kennedy was involved in generating further superpower dialogue at the covert level by taking advantage of a relationship he had developed with Washington-based Soviet military intelligence officer, Georgi Bolshakov. He sent Charles Bartlett, a journalist with whom he and his brother were on friendly terms, to relay to Bolshakov the administration's anger over Khrushchev's duplicity over the missile deployment in Cuba, while stressing JFK's desire to avoid a U.S. invasion of the island, and to work through the UN to secure a resolution of the crisis. It seems possible that Robert Kennedy was behind another initiative that day when New York Daily News correspondent Frank Holeman told Bolshakov that officials in the Justice Department were interested in the idea of removing U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy in return for the withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba. Someone other than the attorney general in the Justice Department might have asked Holeman to pass this on to Bolshakov, but it is certainly not implausible that it was Robert Kennedy who sent Holeman.17
By October 25 John Kennedy was thinking in terms of extending the blockade so that petroleum, oil, and lubricants, as well as Soviet military equipment, were prevented from reaching Cuba. Robert Kennedy's views, however, were by this point less moderate. When he reflected in the ExComm meeting on the afternoon of the twenty-fifth on the next major step the administration should take, assuming Khrushchev did not suddenly remove Russian missiles from Cuba, the attorney general said that rather than intensifying the naval blockade, which could result in a clash on the seas, it might be better if you knock out their missile base. That's the first step .we tell them [the Soviets] to get out of that vicinity in 10 minutes, and then we go through and hit the base. Such military action, he explained, would not have to be carried out for another few days, whereas pressuring the Russians at sea might cause a more immediate confrontation with them.18
In the ExComm meeting the following morning, Bobby Kennedy again articulated concerns that ran counter to his image, created in Thirteen Days, as an apostle of peace. In discussing a Brazilian proposal for the denuclearisation of Latin America, a plan which included the provision that the territorial integrity of all nations in the region be respected (and hence Cuba could not be invaded), Bobby Kennedy asked whether the United States would be free to [unclear from the tape of the meeting], for instance if there is an uprising in Cuba? What he appeared to be saying was that a problem with the Brazilian plan was that it would prohibit U.S. military intervention in Cuba in support of an anti-Castro rebellion the scenario that the planners of Operation Mongoose, including Robert Kennedy, hoped would bring about Castro's downfall. Even in the midst of the missile crisis, the attorney general kept in mind his pre-crisis objective of ousting Castro, despite the pressing need to focus exclusively on the removal of the missiles.19
By the morning of October 27, ExComm officials were in a quandary. The previous evening a ray of light had appeared as Khrushchev dispatched to Kennedy a long, emotional letter in which he suggested a way out of the crisis: the withdrawal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Cuba in exchange for a promise from JFK that he would not invade the island. Before the president was able to reply, however, he received the next morning another message from Khrushchev, this one broadcast publicly that altered the proposed terms of settlement: in addition to the no-invasion pledge, Kennedy would have to agree to remove America's Jupiter missiles from Turkey. How to devise an effective response to these different sets of proposals was thus the business of the day for ExComm officials on October 27.20
There is a traditional account, furnished by Robert Kennedy himself, of how that response was fashioned. Not surprisingly, it highlights his own role. In Thirteen Days he wrote: I suggested, and was supported by Ted Sorensen and others, that we ignore the latest Khrushchev letter and respond to his earlier letter's proposal, namely the removal of Russian missiles to be reciprocated by a U.S. no-invasion pledge. This, together with the clandestine conveyance by Robert Kennedy to Khrushchev via Ambassador Dobrynin of the assurance from JFK that the Jupiters would be withdrawn in due course, proved to be the strategy that ended the missile crisis. In Thirteen Days, then, Robert Kennedy claimed no little credit for defusing the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War.21
A close reading of the transcript of the tape of the ExComm meeting on the morning of October 27 reveals how misleading his account is, slighting the role played by other officials and exaggerating his own. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze stated early in the meeting that the president should say that we're prepared only to discuss Cuba at this time. After the Cuban thing is settled we can thereafter be prepared to discuss anything. The implication of Nitze's comment was that JFK should respond to Khrushchev's October 26 letter but ignore his message of the twenty-seventh. McGeorge Bundy's advice to the president was the same: I would answer back saying that 'I would prefer to deal with your interesting proposals of last night.' Ted Sorensen sang from the same hymn sheet: As between the two [Khrushchev letters], I think it's clear that practically everyone here would favor the private proposal [of the twenty-sixth]. United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, away in New York at the UN, contacted John Kennedy during this ExComm meeting to propose a public statement, announcing that the United States could certainly assure Moscow it would not attack Cuba, but making no response to Khrushchev's request that the Jupiters be removed.22
All of these comments were made before Robert Kennedy said anything at that morning's ExComm meeting. Hence the idea that he devised the plan that ended the missile crisis and saved the peace is a chimera. It was very much a team effort, one in which Robert Kennedy's contribution at the start of that ExComm meeting was slight. Of course the attorney general did come to support the plan recommended by Nitze, Bundy, et al of JFK responding enthusiastically to Khrushchev's first message but ignoring his second and this was important, given the closeness of the brothers, in convincing the president to opt for this approach. Yet, as with the first week of the crisis when one wonders whether Robert Kennedy would have made Pearl Harbor the moralistic focus of his arguments had George Ball not made the analogy, the possibility cannot be disregarded that Bobby Kennedy would not have adopted this position had such a weight of opinion in favor of it not come to the fore in ExComm. The attorney general proved himself adept during the missile crisis at seizing on a cogent argument or a powerful metaphor when introduced by a colleague; he was less impressive when it came to originating such winning arguments or striking metaphors himself.
Robert Kennedy's work on October 27 was not yet done. In the evening, at the request of his brother, he arranged a meeting with Dobrynin in which he informed the Soviet ambassador that U.S. Jupiter missiles would be withdrawn from Turkey, but that this had to remain a secret component of the settlement to the crisis. The thinking behind this ploy was that this additional concession would increase the likelihood that Khrushchev would back down, but that its clandestinity would prevent the American public or the nation's allies from viewing this as a case of John Kennedy appeasing the Russians.23
The following morning, October 28, Robert Kennedy, his brother, and other ExComm officials breathed a sigh of relief as a message arrived from Khrushchev apprising JFK that he had issued an order for the removal of Russian missiles from Cuba in return for the president's commitment that there would be no attack on Cuba. Though tensions between Washington and Moscow over the issue of missiles in Cuba would continue for a time, the essentials of the settlement had been established that morning and the prospect of a superpower war had receded.24
Robert Kennedy did make a significant contribution to the peaceful resolution of the missile crisis. He helped convince the president that the blockade, rather than military action, was the wisest first step to take; and that the strategy of ignoring Khrushchev's October 27 message but replying affirmatively to his letter of October 26 would prove effective. He also played a valuable diplomatic role by dealing personally with Dobrynin at important moments in the crisis. At the same time, however, the limits of Robert Kennedy's contribution should be noted. He did not come up with the idea of blockading Cuba; McNamara did. He was not the first official to use the Pearl Harbor analogy; Ball was. At the start of the crisis he favored an invasion of Cuba. He was not always the leader of the blockade supporters. At times McNamara provided that leadership, and at times Thompson did. After he came to back the blockade, Bobby Kennedy expressed intermittently a belief that a more forceful U.S. approach might soon be required. He did not devise the strategy used successfully at the denouement of the crisis in responding to Khrushchev's messages of October 26 and 27.
To glorify Robert Kennedy's role in the handling of the missile crisis and the saving of the peace is unjustified: his role was important, but he did not call consistently for a restrained approach during the crisis, and the contributions he did make were frequently inspired by other ExComm officials. Stripping away this layer of Camelot mythology leads to a more credible view of U.S. decision-making and diplomacy during the Cuban missile crisis one that acknowledges the overall value of Robert Kennedy's role, but does so in a measured, nuanced, and cogent way.
1. For the transcribed tapes of the ExComm meetings, see Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997). This source will be cited as Kennedy Tapes.