The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited

Why It Matters Who Blinked

DIPLOMACY, NOT DERRING-DO
James A. Nathan

Graham Allison ("The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50," July/August 2012) seems to believe that U.S. President John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis was an unalloyed success. He also contends that the Kennedy administration's response to the crisis forms a template for the kind of steadfast resolve that U.S. policymakers should adopt today, specifically with regard to Iran and North Korea. But the Cuban missile crisis was hardly a triumph of presidential fortitude. At the core of Kennedy's strategy was a deal: the United States pledged to remove its missiles from Turkey within six months in exchange for the Soviet Union's withdrawal of its nuclear forces from Cuba.

The Soviet side of the bargain was public, but the central U.S. concession was kept secret. The Kennedy administration feared that it would appear weak if its agreement on the missiles in Turkey came to light. But the missile swap was hardly a mere "sweetener," as Allison claims; it was the main reason the Cuban missile crisis ended peacefully.

The facts of the compromise were long veiled. It was not until 1989 that Kennedy's former speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, confessed that he had edited out the details of the missile swap from the published version of Attorney General Robert Kennedy's diary. It is now clear that President Kennedy engaged in two sets of negotiations: one with Moscow and the other with his ad hoc team of high-ranking advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). And in his negotiations with the latter, Kennedy made sure that only his few most trusted advisers were privy to the crucial missile concession.

The ExComm barely contemplated a diplomatic solution to the Cuban missile crisis, putting forward a series of military plans ranging from a blockade to a preemptive strike. Unbeknownst to many other members of the ExComm, however, the president, Robert Kennedy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk were striving for a deal involving the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. The president even authorized Rusk to announce the missile swap at the United Nations if the Soviets would not accept a secret agreement. To Kennedy's relief, Moscow agreed to keep the understanding secret.

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