American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis
September 2016

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Robert Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Reinterpretation 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

[continue to the 2007 article]





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Reflection on
Robert Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis:
A Reinterpretation

by Mark White 

I was gratified to learn that my 2007 article on Robert Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis has been among the most widely read essays published in the American Diplomacy e-journal. I would like to introduce the reposting of this article by discussing the rationale behind it, and by reflecting on the arguments I made almost a decade ago.

My approach to the subject of Robert Kennedy and the missile crisis has been and is influenced by my response to the historical literature on the Kennedy administration. In the years immediately following John Kennedy’s assassination, authors such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Theodore Sorensen penned books that defined the Camelot school, which made the case that JFK, ably assisted by Robert Kennedy and others, provided a brand of exceptional leadership. In short, the Kennedy administration was one of the greatest in American history. In retrospect, that Camelot history of the Kennedy years was skewed. In addition to the successes of those years, major legislation on education and medical care for the aged failed to pass in Congress, the Bay of Pigs invasion was an ignominious failure, and JFK’s escalation in Vietnam—given how events in Southeast Asia unfolded later in the decade—could hardly be regarded as a success.

Since the 1970s the main thrust of scholarship on the Kennedy years has been to eradicate these myths and to present instead a warts-and-all history of that period. In doing so, one fears, historians at times have attempted to destroy the Camelot chimeras by constructing a new mythology no less extreme – one that portrays John Kennedy as a dangerously aggressive Cold Warrior, a reprobate in his private life, and a massively overrated leader. Thomas Reeves’s 1991 work A Question of Character and Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot (1996), for example, were savage in their criticisms. I am far more persuaded by the arguments made by Herbert Parmet in his JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1983) and James Giglio in The Presidency of John F Kennedy (1991). They don’t indulge in sentimental Camelot hyperbole, but blend praise with appropriate criticism in their measured accounts. It is in that spirit—wishing to examine the missile crisis and Robert Kennedy’s role in it with the sort of critical eye not evident in Camelot scholarship, but without making gratuitous, extravagant criticisms—that I have sought to approach the subject of Robert Kennedy and the missile crisis.

Re-reading my essay recently, I would happily endorse again the main arguments I made in 2007, that Robert Kennedy’s contribution to saving the peace has often been exaggerated, and that the successful management of the missile crisis should be viewed more as a collaborative effort with various officials, such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Undersecretary of State George Ball, making vital contributions.

Now I would emphasize, even more that I did in 2007, the importance of the role played by McNamara. As he was the official who on October 16, 1962, the opening day of the missile crisis, came up with the idea of the blockade, he transformed what had been an administration discussion of whether to carry out some sort of an air strike on or an invasion of Cuba to a debate over the merits of a blockade vis-à-vis these military options. By urging other US officials in the first week of the crisis to consider the probable consequences of an American strike on Cuba and the value of negotiations with the Russians, McNamara increased the likelihood that the administration and in particular the president would blockade rather than attack Cuba. That made a peaceful outcome to the missile crisis more likely.

As a point of fact, it was the CIA Deputy Director Marshall S. Carter, and not George Ball, who first used the Pearl Harbor analogy in the ExComm discussions, comparing a prospective US strike on missiles in Cuba to the Japanese attack in 1941—a comparison which served to discredit the hawks who supported an attack on Cuba in October 1962. George Ball, however, did make the Pearl Harbor analogy himself on other occasions, and was important in persuading Robert Kennedy to switch his support for military action to a blockade.

Finally, I would emphasize more the successful leadership displayed by John Kennedy during the missile crisis. He was hawkish at the start of the crisis, but provided prudent, adroit, and manifestly effective leadership thereafter. Moreover, his determination to end the missile crisis peacefully flowed into what turned out to a progressive final year of his presidency, a phase that included his American University speech, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the introduction of the 1963 civil rights bill.bluestar

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

Dr. Mark White, born in the United Kingdom, has taught history at universities in Britain and North America. He is currently a Reader in History at the University of London (Queen Mary). Among his six books is Missiles in Cuba (1997).

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