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No one among Kennedy’s aides had the president’s wide-ranging political mind. On October 19, 1962 Kennedy brilliantly outlined the problem that he was faced with. General Curtis LeMay, the air force chief of staff, came close to confronting the president and called for military action. (pp. 637-638)

Book Excerpt
Audio Clip 8 pp. 637-638

"Let me just say a little, first, about what the problem is, from my point of view," Kennedy replied, subtly deferring the military's presentation. In Washington those who set the agenda usually win. Until now the president had not dominated these sessions. His role had been to listen and to weigh. But this meeting had become potentially the crucial decision making moment, and now the president defined the problem. He had a lawyer-like ability to take a myriad of contradictory contributions and prune them away into a succinct, muscular presentation of the harsh choices that lay before them.

At his best, Kennedy was profoundly realistic and intellectually fearless about facing the foibles, weaknesses, and self-interests of men and nations. "First, I think we ought to think of why the Russians did this," he said, stepping back to admire the skillful way Khrushchev had attempted to checkmate the Americans. "Well, actually, it was a rather dangerous but rather useful play of theirs. We do nothing; they have a missile base there with all the pressure that brings to bear on the United States and damage to our prestige. If we attack Cuba, missiles or Cuba, in any way, it gives them a clear line to take Berlin."

Kennedy gave to Khrushchev his own rational mind, finding in the Soviet actions a brilliantly multilayered strategic logic that may not have been there. The president and his advisers discussed almost everything but the one overwhelming reality of the entire crisis. The United States so threatened Castro that Khrushchev was not lying when he called this murderous arsenal "defensive." Whatever grand strategic role they played, these weapons were in Cuba militarily to defend the island country against an American invasion. And as everyone in the room knew, if many of these men had their way, that possibility was not Communist propaganda but a reasonable prospect. The best way to get the missiles out of Cuba would be to convince Khrushchev that the United States would not violate the territorial integrity of Cuba.

"We would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin," the president went on, spinning his tale far beyond the borders of the Caribbean. "We would have no support among our allies… They don't give a damn about Cuba." There was the president's dark realism on full display. Nations, like people, watched out for themselves; if you wanted them to help you, you had better be prepared to pay in one currency or another.

As the president talked, there were no tremors in his voice, no irritability at the endless imponderable, no hint of ill temper. He was in an emotional zone all his own, holding the others in the room steady by the sheer magnitude of his dispassion. The situation was a conundrum, and it was a measure of Kennedy's leadership that he did not pretend otherwise.

Kennedy set forth all the impalpable, difficult alternatives. He could go in and take out the missiles, but that would surely set off the Russians somewhere else. "Which leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons-which is a hell of an alternative-and begin a nuclear exchange, with all this happening." He could start a blockade, but then the Russians would probably blockade Berlin and the European allies would blame the Americans. "On the other hand, we've got to do something," Kennedy concluded. "We're going to have this knife stuck right in our guts in about two months [Kennedy probably meant two weeks when the midrange would be operations], so we better do something."