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Early on in the Cuban missile crisis, October 16, 1962, President Kennedy wrestles with the dilemma for the first time. Just how much do these missiles in Cuba change the balance of power? And what can he do to get the Russians to remove them. (pp. 631-632)

Book Excerpt
Audio Clip 5, pp. 631-632

Although Kennedy and his men often spoke in a kind of intellectual shorthand, these were not mere tactical meetings but discussions of political, philosophical, and moral complexity. "What is the strategic impact on the position of the United States of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Cuba?" McGeorge Bundy asked at the 6:30 P.M. meeting in the Cabinet Room. "How gravely does this change the strategic balance?"

"Mac, I asked the Chiefs that this afternoon, in effect," McNamara replied. "And they said, 'Substantially.' My personal view is, not at all."

"You may say it doesn't make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] flying from the Soviet Union or one that was ninety miles away," the president said a few minutes later. "Geography doesn't mean that much."

That perception was the darkest irony of the nuclear age. Russia and America were gigantic gladiators. America may have held a sharper sword, but the opponents were so well armed and so vicious that once they began fighting, not only were they both doomed, but in their death throes they would pull down the arena.

"Last month I said we weren't going to [accept it]" Kennedy stated, referring to Russian missiles in Cuba. "Last month I should have said that we don't care. But when we said we're not going to [accept it], and they go ahead and do it, and then we do nothing, then I would think that our risks increase. I agree. What difference does it make? They've got enough to blow us up now anyway."

This was in part a struggle over language. The president had not understood the extent to which his words were actions. Now he believed he could not back away. Beyond that, his language and the language of a thousand other politicians had created a climate in which judiciousness was considered a coward's calling, and anti-Communist jingoism a patriot's one true song. He and his administration had helped create this image of a monstrous Cuba that he was now compelled to slay or be considered less than a manly leader. The missiles may not have changed the strategic balance of power, but a failure to deal with them changed everything politically.

Some of these men expressed a moral dimension in their discourse that they had rarely sounded before. Around the table there were those for immediately raising swords, but of all people, it was one of the holders of those swords, the secretary of Defense, who first pondered the moral dimension. "I don't know now quite what kind of a world we live in after we've struck Cuba, and we've started it," McNamara said. "Now, after we've launched fifty to a hundred sorties, what kind of world do we live in?" That was an essential question, and it was not quickly brushed off the table.

"Why does he put these [missiles] in there, though?" Kennedy asked, wondering why the Soviets had made such a dramatic move.

"Soviet-controlled nuclear warheads," Bundy replied, ever the professor.

"That's right," Kennedy said, though that was not quite what he had asked. "But what is the advantage of that? It's just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that'd be goddamn dangerous, I would think."

"Well, we did, Mr. President," Bundy replied. That exchange, if Khrushchev could have heard it, would have richly vindicated his decision. The proximity of nuclear weapons aimed at them was precisely what he wanted Americans not simply to know but to feel.

From this day forward Bobby participated in all the important discussions. Bobby was for contemplating action, even staging an incident as a pretext for invasion. "Let me say, of course, one other thing is whether we should also think of whether there is some other way we can get involved in this," he said, "through Guantanamo Bay or something. Or whether there's some ship that…you know, sink the Maine or something."

"I think any military action does change the world," Bundy said later in the meeting. "And I think not taking action changes the world. And I think these are the two worlds that we need to look at."

By doing nothing, the whole nature of the geopolitical world would change almost as much as if they destroyed the Cuban missile bases and invaded the island.