The Cuban Missile Crisis

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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 .

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

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...
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