How the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was resolved

One thing that we should all know by now is to never believe the accounts given by political leaders about major events. They always embellish and even flat out lie to put themselves in the best possible light. You have to wait until the actual records are revealed much later to find out what really happened.The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is one such event which is often portrayed as the time when the world got closest to nuclear war.

In much of the re-telling of those events in the US, we are told that president John F. Kennedy, aided by a team of brilliant advisors led by his brother, the attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, provided him with carefully reasoned advice that enabled him to stare down the USSR’s Nikita Khruschev and get him to withdraw the nuclear missiles that had been placed in Cuba, thus averting a nuclear catastrophe. Much of this narrative comes from a memoir published by RFK titled Thirteen Days that purports to give an insider view of the deliberations within the advisory body that he led known as ExComm, that also included Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

But in a review of a book Gambling With Armageddon by Martin Sherwin that appears in the October 12, 2020 issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert says that that story is bogus. We know this because JFK had secretly installed recording devices within the ExComm room and those discussions later revealed that the advice he was given by this body during the crisis, rather than being level-headed and high-minded as described by RFK, was mostly lousy and could even be described as ‘loony’, with RFK frequently losing his cool and the body recommending actions that could well have led to war.

Fortunately JFK did not take their advice. The reason for JFK’s skepticism about ExComm’s advice was because he had already been burned by them. He felt that they were responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco of April 17, 1961 when JFK allowed a hare-brained plan that had been hatched by president Eisenhower to go through. The plan was to land people on Cuba to trigger a general uprising that would overthrow Fidel Castro, and it was a total debacle, with the invaders rounded up in a couple of days. Following that, some of the advisors on ExComm, as such people are wont to do, tried to escape responsibility for that disaster by falsely claiming that they had opposed the plan all along.

These brazenly self-serving actions enraged JFK and may have been the reason that he secretly installed the recording device in the ExComm meeting room, and why he was skeptical of their advice in the following year’s missile crisis that he felt might lead to war with the USSR. Instead he took the advice of his former rival for the presidential nomination nomination and now ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson, who was not a member of ExComm, who urged him to explore all the possibilities of a peaceful solution before considering the ExComm’s aggressive measures.

And that is what happened. JFK ordered RFK to open up secret negotiations with Anatoly Dobrynin, the foreign minister of the USSR, and the two sides agreed that in exchange for a guarantee that the US would not invade Cuba and that they would remove US missiles that had earlier been placed in Turkey right on the Russian border (a provocation that was partly responsible for the Soviet decision to put missiles in Cuba), the USSR would remove their own missiles from Cuba. Interestingly, as part of the deal, the US insisted that the part involving the withdrawal of US missiles from Turkey had to be kept secret, making the deal look much more favorable to the US in the US public’s eye than it really was and thus easier to sell to the the US public and the chattering classes.

There is a lot of mythology about the short-lived JFK presidency, no doubt fueled by the fact that he and his wife were a young and glamorous couple and his subsequent tragic death. But one of the lessons that we can learn from that presidency is that recruiting people from the top echelons of business and the most exclusive Ivy League colleges to staff an administration, as he did, is by no means a guarantee that the policies, advice, and decisions that they came up with would be particularly good. These people often think they are smarter and can make better decisions than the career people in government who have often studied the issues in great detail but are ignored or overlooked. In the case of Vietnam, for example, David Halberstam’s classic book The Best and the Brightest shows how those ‘brilliant’ minds came up with policies that defied common sense and resulted in massive death and destruction of the Vietnamese people and a humiliating defeat for the much-vaunted US military.

In the Trump presidency, we have the opposite, a president who thinks that he knows everything, is so insecure about his own intellect that he cannot tolerate anyone who is a real expert, and puts into positions of power people who are corrupt and incompetent. But he does share with the JFK administration a contempt for the career people in government who could provide him with the advice he needs. In his case, he has gone even further than JFK. He is actively at war with the career people, accusing them of being part of a deep state plotting to undermine him.

What the country needs may be a mediocre president who at least realizes that they do not have all the answers and is not above looking to real expertise to help arrive at fairly reasonable decisions.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    On George W. Bush’s short list of accomplishments: he was a venal idiot who surrounded himself with other venal idiots, but at least he knew his own limitations and listened to them.
    I guess the bar for presidential accomplishments is pretty low these days.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … a mediocre president who at least realizes that they do not have all the answers and is now above looking to real expertise to help arrive at fairly reasonable decisions.

    These days, even that would amount to a wildly improbable best possible scenario.

  3. Bruce says

    What the country needs may be a mediocre president who at least realizes that they do not have all the answers and is *** NOT *** above looking to real expertise to help arrive at fairly reasonable decisions.

    [Thanks! I corrected it. -- Mano]

  4. raven says

    … and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

    That is a name from the past.
    McNamara was one of the key designers of the war in Vietnam. The one that killed a few people I knew while growing up.

    I cheered when he died.
    The Vietnam war was dreamed up partly by people from Harvard, which tells you a lot about who actually runs this country.

  5. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    European historians always mention the Turkish missiles (only 15minutes away from Moscow) as the reason for the crisis. The only way for Soviets to react was to set up their own missiles as close to Washington, and that meant Cuba.

    When USA declared the embargo, Cuba became economically dependent on communist countries. Before the crisis, they could balance between Moscow and Peking, but after it, the Soviet troops stayed, and Cuba became a Soviet satellite. A nice own goal by USA.

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