Review by Amb. (Ret.) Cresencio Arcos
The Cuban Missile Crisis In American Memory: Myths Versus Reality by Sheldon M. Stern, Stanford University Press: Palo Alto, CA, ISBN-13: 978-0804783774, 2012, pp. 208, $24.96.
In his The Cuban Missile Crisis In American Memory: Myths Versus Reality Sheldon Stern has written the ultimate example of why “reality is classified.” His carefully constructed book on JFK's management of the terrifying Cuban Missile Crisis sets the record straight on several historical facts. More importantly, it reveals John F. Kennedy not only as a singular leader but also as a savior of humankind. Stern relies on recently released secret White House tape-recordings of the ghastly thirteen days in October 1962 when the world faced imminent thermonuclear annihilation. The recordings are of President Kennedy's Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). Stern's investigation of this new evidence seriously questions the historical reliability of many of the ExComm members' own memoirs, including those of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, as well as Presidential Advisor McGeorge Bundy and longtime Security Advisor Paul Nitze. Their recollections of these events invariably contradict this newly uncovered reality as documented in the tape recordings. In each of their respective memoirs they portrayed themselves as individual peacemakers. However, the historical data revealed in Stern's book clearly points out that; virtually all of the ExComm members were inclined to start a nuclear exchange with the former Soviet Union.
The Soviet deployment of nuclear warheads in Cuba seemed to provoke an almost glandular reaction from Kennedy's security mandarins, who deemed war to be inevitable under those circumstances. President John F. Kennedy's unquestionable leadership, during these challenging days, provides an insight into his serenity and undeterred concern for humanity's survival. As JFK sought advice and counsel from “his best” of “the best and the brightest” he was indeed seized by the insensitive attitude displayed among his inner circle over the potential consequences of serving up millions of American lives, as well as huge population centers in Europe. Most striking is the exchange between President Kennedy and his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, who confronts the President by virtually accusing him of appeasement; to which President Kennedy responds with unflappable aplomb and wisdom by raising the dire potential of losing millions of lives. Indeed these seem to have been the loneliest days of JFK's presidency. The Cuban Missile Crisis In American Memory: Myths Versus Reality is a key tool in the study of recent American foreign policy making. It is a blend of the significant importance of effective and timely leadership, and a close study of the human dimension in the interagency process. Stern's contribution is invaluable not only for foreign policy practitioners but to any American interested in the innermost workings of the highest level of the American security system in the course of a harrowing crisis.