When JFK took world to brink of nuclear war


Caroline Kennedy was six weeks short of her fifth birthday, as she frolicked with her father in the Oval Office of the White House before midday on Tuesday, October 16th, 1962, writes Vincent Browne

There were at least 10 others present, including Lyndon Johnson, the vice- president, Robert Kennedy, her uncle and the then attorney general, Dean Rush, the secretary of state, Robert McNamara, the defence secretary, and Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

The conversation in the Oval Office that morning was recorded by secret recorders, just as Richard Nixon secretly recorded White House conversations when he was president 10 years later. The transcripts of that conversation on October 16th, 1962, have since become public but the transcripts of the exchanges involving Caroline Kennedy, as well as some security material, have been withheld.

She probably has no memory of that Oval Office encounter but it was the first of several crucial meetings, quite the most critical in the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 40 years ago next Saturday. And it was his handling of the crisis that unfolded then and over the following days that are most central to any evaluation of his presidency.

Earlier that day it had become known from aerial photographs that the Soviet Union was placing intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, in apparently direct contravention of undertakings given over the previous few months about not placing such weaponry there. The meeting that Tuesday morning discussed what the appropriate response to this provocation should be.

The transcript of this conversation and of several other such conversations over the following few days hardly enhance Kennedy's reputation. He was inarticulate, confused and surprisingly ill-informed, leaving leadership on the issue to two people in particular, Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, a special assistant to the president.

The conversation veered around in several directions. Various strategies were considered and at this first meeting the consensus drifted towards a major military response, involving air strikes followed by an invasion. The meeting ended inconclusively just before 1 p.m.

A further meeting took place at 6.30 p.m. that evening, lasting almost 1½ hours. At that meeting an extraordinary exchange occurred. McGeorge Bundy inquired of Robert McNamara: "What is the strategic impact on the position of the United States of MRBM [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Cuba? How does this change the strategic balance?"

McNamara replied: "Mac, I asked the chiefs [of staff of the armed forces] that this afternoon, in effect. And they said, substantially. My own personal view is, not at all."

Shortly after this exchange President Kennedy himself said: "They [the Soviet Union] have got enough to blow us up anyway. I think it is just a question of - after all, this is a political struggle as much as military."

A little later on in the conversation President Kennedy wondered why the Soviet leader, Nikita Kruschev, opted to place missiles in Cuba. He said: "It's just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that would be goddamn dangerous, I would think." To which McGeorge Bundy replied: "Well, we did, Mr President [the US had done precisely that, they put medium range ballistic missiles in Turkey]".

At that second meeting on October 16th, 1962, Robert McNamara directed conversation towards a blockade rather than an air strike followed by invasion of Cuba, because the consequence of an air strike, followed by an invasion, would be unknowable. McNamara repeated his view: "I don't think there is a military problem here [arising from the deployment of missiles in Cuba] . . . this is a domestic political problem."

On the following day, the US ambassador at the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, sent a memo to President Kennedy.

Stevenson had defeated Kennedy for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency in 1956 and had unsuccessfully challenged Kennedy for the nomination in 1960.

There was little love lost between them.

Stevenson argued against a military response, pointing to the confusion that would arise around the world over Soviet missiles in Cuba when the US had such missiles in Turkey.

He urged that the US should make it clear in the confrontation to come that it was ready to negotiate about the elimination of bases. Kennedy subsequently expressed contempt for Stevenson's wimpishness.

The confrontation went ahead with the imposition of the blockade of Cuba without any announced possible quid pro quo involving the removal of the bases in Turkey.

The world was brought to the verge of nuclear war, averted by the caution of Kruschev, not because of any real threat to the security of the United States but to domestic political perceptions. And the resolution of the conflict ultimately involved precisely the compromise advocated by Adlai Stevenson - removal of the bases in both Cuba and Turkey.

It was a piece of recklessness the world never previously knew or has known since then.

No other world leader has brought the world to the verge of extinction on the basis of such flimsy pretext as was at stake in the Cuban missile crisis.

It overshadows everything else John F. Kennedy did, and even his charisma and glamour.