Return to Audio Page

At close to midnight on October 18, 1962, President Kennedy went into the Oval Office to record his audio memo of events at the just completed meeting of his top foreign policy advisors. That meeting had not been secretly tape-recorded—as were almost all the other meetings—and Kennedy made his own personal recollections of what had transpired. Here is Kennedy at his most brilliant and dispassionate. (pp. 636-637)

Book Excerpt
Audio Clip 7, pp. 636-637

Now at the most important moment of his presidency and his public life, Kennedy was almost an observer of himself. The stakes were as high as they had ever been for an American president. His failure could lead to nuclear annihilation or, if he flinched from the Soviet challenge, to disgrace. Yet even now, after this tense, interminable day, he recorded the details of the meeting as if he were a reporter taking down events that involved someone else, and other lives.

"Secretary McNamara, Deputy Secretary Gilpatric, General Taylor, Attorney General, George Ball, Alexis Johnson," he began, running down the names of the participants. Kennedy had a superb memory, one of the essential attributes of most successful politicians. His memory served him not merely in remembering thousands of constituents' names, though he could do that, but in mastering details of legislation and policy and remembering promises made or half made. That evening he recorded the events of the meeting as if he had been there as the official secretary taking copious notes, not as the crucial figure in the room.

"Ed Martin, McGeorge Bundy, Ted Sorensen," the president continued. Kennedy had an even greater memory for human character, which is essentially a recording of a person's actions over time. He knew each one of these men as well as many others whom he was listening to outside this circle. He knew their institutional prejudices and their political passions or the lack of them. In these meetings and conversations he sometimes listened far more than he spoke. He sought and shaped consensus among his subordinates, not as a pathetic need to have his actions justified, but to summon the full moral force of these men and those who stood behind them, not the endless recriminations that had come with the Bay of Pigs. As he always did, he weighed character as much as he did words, and he pondered what would be his decision alone.

The president was speaking a midnight soliloquy into an unseen microphone, his words echoing through the room. He was not muttering about the burdens of power or the loneliness of leadership, but every sentence spoke to that point. "Dean Acheson, with whom I talked this afternoon, stated that while he was uncertain about any of the courses, he favored the first strike as…being most likely to achieve our results and less likely to cause an extreme Soviet reaction," Kennedy said. Acheson had been secretary of State under Truman, and he spoke with the authority of a leading architect of cold war policy. The courtly Acheson was a revered figure whose advice Kennedy believed had to be carefully weighed.

"When I saw Robert Lovett later, after talking to Gromyko, he was not convinced that any action was desirable," Kennedy then said. Lovett was equally one of Washington's wise men, an architect of postwar international policy, and his opinion was the opposite of Acheson's. "Bundy continued to argue against any action on the grounds that there would be inevitably a Soviet reprisal against Berlin," Kennedy went on. The president had immense confidence in Bundy's judgment, and his NSC adviser came down largely with Lovett, but they were in a minority. "Everyone else felt that for us to fail to respond would throw into question our willingness to respond over Berlin, would divide our allies and our country, " Kennedy said. "The consensus was that we should go ahead with the blockade beginning on Sunday night."

Kennedy reserved most of his boldness for his speeches, and here as usual he sought what he considered solid middle-high ground. He had plumbed the ideas of a score or more of his advisers, and then decided to do what most of them wanted him to do. But as he turned off the tape recorder and left the empty room, whatever decisions he made would not bear the names of some distinguished committee or panel, but his signature alone.