JOHN SHATTUCK: Good morning and thank you all for coming. I’m John Shattuck, the CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation. And on behalf of myself, Tom Putnam, the Director of the Library, and all of our colleagues here, let me say what a thrilling moment this is for us. Apart from the terrible disaster last night in Cleveland, we’re here to celebrate a very important moment in history. And I just want to direct everyone to the White House diary that is now on the Kennedy Library website for October 17th, 1962. A day that really seemed to have nothing special going on. The President met with the German foreign minister, and later attended a national day of prayer commemoration at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral. And went to a luncheon at the Libyan Embassy.
But our distinguished speaker tells us really what was going on that day in his monumental biography of President Kennedy. And he says, “Around 9:00 AM Tuesday morning, the day before, October 16th,” he was afraid I was going to get the date wrong. You can see how closely he’s watching all these introductions. “Having first received a detailed briefing from top CIA officials, McGeorge Bundy broke the news to the President as he scanned the morning papers in his bedroom. Kennedy, though angry at Khrushchev’s efforts to deceive him and immediately aware of their significance, took the news calmly but with an expression of surprise. He had not expected the Soviets to attempt so reckless and risky an action in a place like Cuba, and he had accepted, perhaps too readily, in retrospect, the judgment of the experts that such a deployment of nuclear weapons would be wholly inconsistent with Soviet policy.” And so began the Cuban Missile Crisis, the event that, probably more than any other event, defined the character and greatness of President Kennedy and certainly defined the way in which the Cold War was proceeding and perhaps defined how to survive it.
By his very presence, I think we would all agree, Ted Sorensen links the legacy of President Kennedy to today and beyond. For a decade, Ted served as policy advisor, legal council, and speechwriter to Senator and then President Kennedy. He was deeply involved in every presidential decision on all the greatest issues of the day, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the framing of the nation’s civil rights legislation to the decision to go to the moon. And he worked tirelessly at President Kennedy’s side through all of those moments at that brief, complex, and shining time. And when it was over, he wrote the monumental biography from which I just read, which became an international best seller and remains the standard against which other studies of the Kennedy presidency are often measured.
Our moderator this morning is my friend and former colleague, Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, the Director of the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Graham served as Dean at the Kennedy School. And in the first term of the Clinton administration, he and I were colleagues in the administration when he served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for policy and plans, coordinating the Department of Defense strategy toward Russia. And his essence of decision, explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, was recently rereleased and updated and revised the edition and ranks among the all time best sellers of political science books, not noted normally for their best selling quality, with more than 350,000 copies in print. So please join me in welcoming Ted Sorensen and Graham Allison to the Kennedy Library.
GRAHAM ALLISON: I think our plan is to have Ted make some introductory comments. Then I’ll put a few questions to him or engage him a bit in conversation, and then we’re going to have an opportunity for people from the audience to put their questions. John reminds me that this is being recorded for rebroadcast by WBUR, so we have just short of an hour, and we’ll all try to make good use of the time. So Ted, do you want to start off with some-- Do you want to stand at the podium or sit here?
TED SORENSEN: Don’t worry about my eyesight, folks. I have more vision than the President of the United States.
I’ve been at this podium, or at least in this building, so many times. And I’m sure many of you have. And if you hear from me something you’ve heard before, don’t signify your boredom by snoring too loudly. I’ll try to keep it interesting. But I do want to get some thank yous out of the way. First to John Shattuck for his service here as well as his service to the public throughout his career, but also for that very generous introduction. I asked him to make it factual, fair, and funny. He did two out of three. That’s not bad. And also it’s wonderful to see my friend Graham Allison again.
But most of all, I want to thank those of you who are teachers. Not so long ago, I had the sad duty of speaking at the memorial service for my friend and colleague, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. And I summed up his remarkable career. Distinguished professor, distinguished historian, distinguished author, political activist. So many roles he played. How, I said, could it be summed up? And I recalled my favorite play, Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, in which the fatuous Richard Rich says to Sir Thomas Moore, “Get me a position! Get me any position!” And Sir Thomas, who would later be Saint Thomas, Sir Thomas said, “You could be a teacher.” And Richard says, “Teacher? Who would know if I were a teacher?” And Sir Thomas says, “You would know. Your students would know. Your friends would know. God would know.” Not a bad audience. And I then went on to say that Arthur Schlesinger, in all of his roles, was a teacher and had that same broad audience. And so to all of you in this assembly today who are teachers, thank you for playing that most important role in public service. But remember you also have quite an audience.
The Missile Crisis began, and Arthur and other historians have later called it the thirteen most dangerous days in the history of mankind, because mankind’s survival was at stake. It began yesterday-- well, that is, 45 years ago yesterday. Sorry. And as John said, the President called me in as I recounted in my book and told me what had happened. And I can best explain the decisions that faced him… Graham’s title of his first book, though he didn’t know the whole story at that time, was correct. Essence of Decision. That is where John F. Kennedy shone. I’ve been out on the Obama campaign recently, and I’ve said to audiences, “Years and years and years of experience aren’t what matters.” Obama’s 46, John F. Kennedy was 45 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. John F. Kennedy was also a first term senator when he began running. But, I’ve said to them, what counts most is judgment. And John F. Kennedy had superb judgment.
So the decisions could be, as any newspaper man or media representative in the audience can tell you, boils down to five questions: who, when, what, why, how. I’ll probably forget those before I get through but let me just pause on each one of those for a moment. Who? When Kennedy called me in that morning and told me of the Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, he said that he was calling a meeting not of the National Security Council, whose attendance was decided by statute. Everybody who thinks he’s important in Washington wants to attend the National Security Council meeting and prove he’s important by bringing his deputy, and the deputy has to bring an assistant. And pretty soon it’s such a large group that it’s too large a group to make the kind of crisp decision that John F. Kennedy wanted to make, and too large to keep a secret. And for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, he wanted to keep the fact that we were meeting a secret.
And so instead, he was calling together those dozen or so advisors in the government, whether “national security” or “defense” or “foreign policy” was officially in their title or portfolio or not, whose recommendation he wanted. He wasn’t calling together the people who had experience in nuclear confrontations. There had never been a nuclear confrontation. And so he included in that group the Attorney General, his brother, the Secretary of the Treasury, a conservative republican, and me. None of us had membership in the National Security Council or official foreign policy duties, but he wanted our recommendations. And that group which met day and night throughout the thirteen days of the Crisis later was given a name, because it had no official status. It was called the name invented by McGeorge Bundy, the Executive Committee of the National Security, or EXCOM.
Beyond that, Kennedy wanted advice and assistance and participation from the rest of the world. He was not a man for unilateral pre-emptive invasions. He was a man who believed in the United Nations, and he wanted our Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, to take this matter to the Security Council, as you have probably seen in the movie “Thirteen Days.” Pretty good movie. Pretty accurate movie. As my wife says, too bad Warren Beatty wasn’t available to me.
Then I would come to, who? Kennedy also wanted to make sure that our top allies were briefed. The British Ambassador to Washington was one of his best friends, and they talked about it over dinner. And he personally called British Prime Minister McMillan. And he sent top people to brief German Chancellor Adenauer, who would be suspicious of anything the US might do behind their back. And the NATO counsel. And above all, our most difficult ally, Charles de Gaulle, the President of France.
For that formidable assignment, he selected our most distinguished diplomat, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. And Acheson walked in and presented, in effect, President Kennedy’s speech, which I’ll come to in a minute also, and when he finished, he said, “Mr. President, I have out in your waiting room an Air Force Colonel who has the pictures of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Just so you will know. And he will come in here and he will point out exactly what they are, what they represent, and so on.” And de Gaulle waved him off, said, “No. The word of the President of the United States is good enough for me.” Times change, don’t they?
And he didn’t stop at the UN and our allies. He wanted to make sure that world opinion was on our side. Which turned out to make a difference because in his speech of October 22nd, he appealed to world opinion and to international law. And later in the week that followed, one of the least reported developments in the Crisis, the Soviet Union decided to get around our blockade, or quarantine as we called it, by sending a cargo plane to Cuba. To this day we don’t know what was in it. I think there were one, maybe two, large Soviet cargo planes. Who knows? Maybe nuclear warheads, maybe further nuclear equipment.
But in those days, those planes had to stop in West Africa for landing and refueling, and two West African countries that were not particularly close to the United States, Senegal and Guinea, impressed by Kennedy’s case, refused those cargo planes landing and refueling rights, and that was the first time that Khrushchev got a message that what he would call his reckless gamble was not paying off.
And then the State Department urged that we go one step further. And that is to go to the little hemispheric United Nations, the Organization of American States, which nobody paid much attention to. But wonderful Harvard Professor of Law, no longer with us, Abe Chayes, pointed out that in the United Nations charter, and Kennedy wanted to make sure we observed the United Nations charter, there was a special arrangement for regional security arrangements.
And so our State Department made the case to the OAS, which by practically unanimous vote not only endorsed the quarantine, but adopted it as their own. And many of the countries participated by sending planes or ships to help us. And that converted it into a regional security arrangement, which strengthened our case in international law. So Kennedy answered that question, who? in a broad, unique way, and that made all the difference.
So we come to the next question, when? I don’t want to be captious or partisan by saying Kennedy did not say, “You fellas take care of this while I go to the ranch for a couple months and cut some brush.” No. No. When I stood in his office at the beginning of that morning, he said, “We’re going to meet at 11 or 11:30 this morning.” The same morning! He wanted immediate action. And in that first meeting, he said to us, “I want to have an answer to this. We’ve got to have an answer to this in a week. We don’t have much more time than that. Secrets don’t last in Washington.” His confidence that it would last a week would not possibly be replicated today.
But he felt that we had an advantage in the fact that the Soviets did not know that we knew. They had rushed under cover of deception and secrecy these missiles into Cuba. Not knowing we had these superb U2 airplanes that could photograph from 50,000 feet up. And he thought, “Once they know, who knows what steps they might take or what pressure they might bring or what additional acts they might start.” Moreover, during this week, we don’t have a lot of pressure from Congress, from the public, from our own press. We can try to formulate the best answer that we can.
So he said, “I want everybody to keep this absolutely quiet. Don’t tell your spouses, don’t tell your secretaries, don’t tell your deputies, and I don’t want a lot of limousines parked in the back of the White House where people can spot them and conclude there must be some emergency meeting going on. And I want everybody to fulfill his regular schedule, his other commitments. Even campaign commitments.” He himself on either Wednesday or Thursday kept a campaign commitment in Connecticut, and at the end of the week in Chicago, because he felt that we must respond within a week, but we didn’t have more than a week. So that’s the answer to the question, when?
Then came the all important question, what? What to do during the week. There’s no precedence for this. No pattern that we could follow. But at that first meeting, the President wanted those of us seated around the table to come up with every possible option we could think of. What could he do? Military, diplomatic, combination military and diplomatic, unilateral, multilateral, negotiate? And he even wanted to include on the list nothing. Take it. He said, “Our European allies are accustomed to living on the Soviet nuclear bull’s eye. They’ve gotten used to it. Maybe we’ll have to get used to it.” He wanted the pros and cons of each one of those.
And over that week, various possibilities rose and fell. Initially, that first day, everybody’s idea was what the Air Force called a surgical air strike. It sounded so simple and easy. Plane swoops in, bombs the Soviet nuclear missile site, flies away, presto, you’ve just reset the status quo. No you haven’t. And the surgical air strike turned out to be not all that surgical. The President’s best quality as a leader and decision maker was asking tough questions. And the first one he asked, “Are you sure you’ll get them all? I don’t want any missiles that are loaded and ready to go, and then we don’t get them, and they’re fired and wipe out hundreds or thousands or millions of people.” “Well,” said the Air Force, “pretty good. We think we can get 4/5ths of them.”
Well that’s not very good. There would still be unbelievable numbers, thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of lives lost. That was the best we could do. “And,” said the Air Force, “we aren’t going to send our planes over Cuba unless we also bomb the surface to air missiles that could knock our planes down. And unless we also bomb the Soviet air fields that could send up their MiGs to fight and shoot down our planes. And unless we also knock out the Cuban air fields, lest their bombers, while we’re busy, fly over and bomb Florida.” And pretty soon they had a map covering the length and breadth of Cuba where bombing would be necessary. “And after that, of course,” the military said, “we’d have to invade to restore order on the island of Cuba.” Some surgical strike.
And Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General, in one of our meetings the following day, said, “Wait a minute. If we have a surprise air strike, it’s almost certain to kill some Cuban or Russian civilians working there at the site. Innocents. And it sounds an awful lot like Pearl Harbor. A small island being attacked with a surprise air raid.” He said, “I think there ought to be some kind of notification in advance.” The Air Force said, “We don’t notify our targets, and if we do, they’ll simply take the missiles and hide them in caves or camouflage them in the jungles, woods of Cuba.”
And so finally it was decided that I should draft a message. A note that would be handed by a very high level emissary to Khrushchev himself in the Kremlin, which would notify him that we knew about the nuclear missiles in Cuba and were determined to take them out. Then, having received the assignment, I began to receive from everybody around the table instructions. Conditions. “Don’t make it an ultimatum! Superpowers don’t respond to ultimatums. And don’t make it too complicated. Khrushchev will just negotiate for weeks while the missile sites are completed and ready to fire. And don’t make it too onesided. Posterity, if there is any, will blame us for precipitating mankind’s final war.”
I went back to my office and tried to draft a note that complied with all those conditions, but of course it was impossible. I came up with something that I didn’t feel met those conditions at all, and I so reported to the EXCOM. And they pretty much gave up on the high level note idea. And at that point, support for the air strike faded, and more support turned toward the other leading alternative that McNamara, Secretary of Defense, had suggested fairly early in our liberations. And that was a blockade. A blockade around the island of Cuba to prevent any more nuclear weapons or equipment or supplies from reaching the island.
And that blockade went through many different gradations and evolution. We were not going to make it a traditional blockade that keeps out food and medicine, oil, gas, petroleum, which would bring the Cuban economy to a halt, because Cuba was not our chief enemy, as the President pointed out. And again with the suggestion from Abe Chayes, we called it a quarantine. A quarantine against offensive weapons. And the President, again, began asking a lot of questions. “What does a destroyer do if a Soviet ship approaches the blockade? Does it shoot? Does it shoot to sink or to disable? Does it board? What if there’s resistance to American sailors from the destroyer boarding a Soviet vessel?” And all those tough questions were asked, and ultimately the decision was made, as I’ll come to in a minute, to take the blockade approach.
So what was my next question, why or how? Well, let’s say why, because that was the speech. We were divided by then into two groups. We didn’t use terms like hawks and doves. That was a press term that came later. But the two groups were those that wanted the air strike military attack followed by invasion, and the other group favored the blockade as being a more passive, restrained way of notifying Khrushchev that we were not going to take this lying down. That we wanted those missiles out of there but we didn’t want to precipitate a war to get them out.
And again, I went back to my office, because those of us in the blockade group agreed that the President would want a speech to the nation and the world. And in order to make the case for the blockade, we might as well draw up that speech. The movie says that I was also supposed to draw up the speech for the air strike and invasion, and could not do it. That’s partly right. Such a speech ultimately was drawn up, and I don’t know by whom. Perhaps Bundy, based in part on that note I had tried to draft. The high level note. Based in part on the speech I did draft for justifying the blockade.
In any event, the President had already-- well there’s so many stories. The whole episode is rich in examples of John F. Kennedy’s leadership and strength. When he returned from Chicago, because Bobby called him and said, “We think we’re ready with a consensus on the blockade,” I gave him a one page memo in which I tried to make, in just a few lines, the best case for the blockade and the best case against the air strike and the invasion.
And the meeting was then held, interestingly enough, I’ll never know why, in the residence rather than in the Cabinet Room where we’d always met before. Too bad because the taping system, which none of us knew existed, was in the Cabinet Room, not over in the residence. So that particular meeting is lost to history. But on Monday, the President, after a fiery meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff who did not like the blockade idea. They wanted something more powerful. They wanted air strikes and invasion. And a rather unpleasant meeting with the Congressional leaders, who thought the blockade was the wrong approach also.
The President went on national television. Gave the speech. He had many, many audiences in mind. He had the hawks in mind, making clear that if this didn’t work, we would go further. He had the American voters in mind, making clear we weren’t caught at the switch. We had been maintaining our surveillance and we had a full and well considered answer. He had the UN in mind, as I’ve already indicated. We were following international law. He had our nervous allies in mind, indicating that we weren’t obsessed with Cuba. This was the Soviet Union. He even had the Cubans in mind because a part of the speech was translated into Spanish and broadcast directly to Cuba, saying to the Cuban people, “You’re not our enemy. It’s the Soviet Union who put these missiles there.” And with those multiple audiences, that speech, in a printed version of the speech, was taken by our ambassador in every country of the world to the head of government to whom he was accredited. So “why” was made very clear to all the world.
So then we come to how. How to end it, because as those days after the speech wore on and the OAS, as I told you, gave us some good news in endorsing and adopting it. But Khrushchev was not withdrawing the missiles. He was rebuffing attempts by UN Secretary General U Thant to mediate the crisis.
And we finally come to the denouement on the evening of Friday the 26th. The only time in my life I could tell you which day of the week which event happened. The speech was Monday, October 22nd. On Friday, October 26th, a letter came in from Khrushchev. It came through a back channel, which is another whole subject for discussion. It came personally from Khrushchev. And that back channel between the two leaders had existed for a year. Unfortunately, it had been used earlier to deceive Kennedy about what was going on in Cuba. But this time, the letter from Khrushchev, the secret letter, it’s been described and ill described so many times in so many books that I hardly know where to begin, except to put in a plug for my book, which will be out next May. And you’ll hear a lot about that correspondence.
It was late, but it was an important letter leading toward the solution. But believe me, it was not a peaceful letter. It was a disorganized letter. Bob McNamara, the businessman and former head of Ford Motor Company, said, “Hell, that’s not an agreement. If you sign that, you wouldn’t know what you’d agreed to.” The letter was full of threats that if we did anything, the same would be done to us, only more so. It was full of denials. Khrushchev said, “We don’t have any offensive weapons in Cuba. The weapons I’ve put there, I put them there for defensive reasons. That makes them defensive weapons,” even though they could reach any part of the United States.
But, in addition to those threats and denials, there were the seeds of a possible deal in which, if we would withdraw our blockade, which Khrushchev said was high seas piracy, then perhaps they would assure us that there were no offensive weapons in the ships approaching the blockade. And if we then agreed that we would never invade Cuba, they could reconsider the question of what he called “our specialists in Cuba,” by which he meant missile specialists.
But then on Saturday, all bad news started coming in, which we can talk about in a moment. But a second letter came in. This one was broadcast in public. Khrushchev’s a shrewd fellow, and he was making what he thought was a reasonable offer, which JFK, with his sense of history, thought would appear to the world and to the future as a reasonable offer. Take his weapons out of Cuba if we would take NATO missiles out of Turkey, even though he knew the United States unilaterally or quickly. And if we ever did it at the point of a gun, what other ally would ever trust us to protect them in the future?
So EXCOM, which had spent much of the morning of Saturday, October 27th debating how to answer the first letter, was now in the quandary of what do we do about the second letter? Which letter do we answer? How do we answer it? And finally our best, most knowledgeable expert on the Soviet Union, Tommy Thompson, the State Department Counselor, said, “Answer the first letter, ignore the second letter. Defer that.” And Bobby and I both joined in supporting that, and finally the President said, “Okay, go draft the reply.” And Bobby and I went down to my office, which was only steps away from the Cabinet Room, and began drafting the most difficult, fateful letter I’d ever written in my life.
So I don’t know if I’ve gone through all five of the questions yet or not, but I now want to tell you a little bit more about the man who was making these decisions, John F. Kennedy. How, at that young age, was he so wise? Number one, because he had a sense of history and perspective. Number two, because he had a sense of humor. And number three, because he had a sense of modesty. The history and perspective came from his own readings of history, in which he’d been interested all his life. And he knew a lot about the history of war and diplomacy and the world.
And that, I think, was enormously important. He knew more about it than so many of his successors in the Oval Office. He even read to us at one point from Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, in which the Germans, after the war, were saying how? One is saying to the other, “How did it all happen?” And the other one says, “Oh, if only one knew.” He said, “I don’t want that happening around here this time.”
I said he had a sense of humor. On that terrible Saturday, October 27th, when the second letter had us all gloomy, the CIA briefing that the missile sites were almost finished had us all gloomy. Another CIA report that there were submarines accompanying the ships coming towards the blockade. What were they going to do? Shoot their way through this time? Our U2 plane had been shot down. First time. And we depended on those U2 planes to let us know what was going on. And the military had extracted a promise that, because reconnaissance was so important, any time a U2 plane was shot down, we were going to retaliate by knocking out the Soviet surface to air missile. Had knocked it down. And the President said, “Let’s wait and see how this correspondence turns out.” Then our reconnaissance planes were also shot down.
All this bad news was happening. And everybody’s gloomy and desperate. A message is handed in. An Air Force plane, which had been sent out to sample the air in order to find out if the Soviets were testing their nuclear weapons, which frankly, we were doing that week. We were testing our nuclear weapons. And that plane, from flying over the North Pole, there’s only one direction to go from the North Pole, but he had his navigational controls fail, and he flew out over Siberia. A US Air Force plane, at the most tense moment, was flying over Soviet territory. It was dead silence when that message was read, broken by the President saying, “There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the message.” He had that wonderful sense of humor at all times.
I won’t repeat the entire history that you know. Well, but as you know, when I woke up the next morning and switched on my radio, there was the news that Khrushchev, in another openly broadcast letter, had agreed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba under United Nations inspection. I immediately telephoned McGeorge Bundy. I said, “Is this possibly true?” He said, “It is.” And he said, “The eleven of the meeting, the ten or eleven, whichever it is, had been postponed for an hour, so the President and Mrs. Kennedy can go to church. And he advised us that the rest of us do the same.”
I stood outside the Cabinet Room before that postponed meeting began. And the President was there. We were talking. And one of Bundy’s most able deputies and one of my best friends, who, to my embarrassment denies it happened there, but nevertheless. He says it happened over in the residence. But I remember it happening outside the Cabinet Room. But anyway. Carl Kaysen, wonderful man, still with us, came up and he said, “Now, Mr. President, you can intervene and settle the China-India border dispute!”, which had broken out a week before. We thought perhaps it was part of some kind of global conspiracy. And the President shook his head. Talk about modesty. He shook his head and he said, “No, I don’t think either one of them would be interested in hearing from us on that.” And Carl said, “But Mr. President, today you’re ten feet tall.” The President said, “That’ll last a couple of weeks.” It’s lasted 45 years, which is why I’m here today. Thank you.
GRAHAM ALLISON: What an extraordinary treat for all of us to have Ted recollect on these events in such personal terms, but also so analytically. In case you didn’t notice, he was not reading from any notes either. For myself, as a political scientist and historian who has studied this for many years… Even for me, and certainly for many of the people in the audience, including the teachers, whom you referred to earlier, whom I had a chance to meet with this morning. As they try to communicate to their students how this fellow, John Kennedy, who by now seems a little bit like an icon. Yes, we know that there was a president named John Kennedy, and here at the Library you can see pictures, and you can see him doing a tape and otherwise.
But I think as you talked at the end about the combination of humor, history, and modesty, give us a little bit more sense for the human being as it related to the judgments that were made during the Missile Crisis, because you couldn’t deal with everything. But where does this combination of history, humor, and modesty lead to a judgment in the Missile Crisis that most presidents or many presidents might not have taken? So just connect for a little bit these--
TED SORENSEN: Did you have a chance to hear my remarks?
GRAHAM ALLISON: I did, I did! I did. But I’d like you to drill down on an item, you could do blockade versus air strike, to connect it to these characteristics, because I think--
TED SORENSEN: Well, one reason is that John F. Kennedy was a man of peace. John F. Kennedy was a man of peace. That came in part from his religious upbringing. It also came from his knowledge of history. And it came from the fact that he had served in World War II and lost two of his best friends in that war, as well as his brother. And he would say, in his American University speech the following June-- and there’s almost a direct line between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the American University speech-- he said, “The world knows,” and bear in mind this was a long time ago, “the world knows that America will never start a war. This generation of Americans has seen enough of war.” He was talking about himself when he said that.
And in the Berlin Crisis, when the Berlin Wall went up, lots of people wanted war. Lots of people wanted the US to invade. Lots of people wanted combat troop divisions to be sent to Cambodia and later to Vietnam. And John F. Kennedy never did. And I think those were superb judgments.
Another part of it, I think, came from the fact that, as a young man, when his father was Ambassador to England, he had spent a fair amount of time living abroad as well as traveling abroad. The travels abroad he kept up all his life. But living abroad gives you a unique perspective on the United States. What it’s like, what it means with all its power and glory to the rest of the world. And Kennedy had that, and I don’t know any other president or presidential candidate, except for one today, who has.
GRAHAM ALLISON: Good. Let me take you back to Arthur Schlesinger’s comment that I mentioned earlier this morning. I think most historians studying these thirteen days agree that these were the most dangerous moment in the history of mankind. So how close to something catastrophic do you believe, as you think about it in retrospect, we were, and how could something catastrophic have happened? And was it a personal thing for you as you went home at night and talked to your wife and said-- I remember McNamara likes to recall vividly thinking, “This is my last Saturday.”
TED SORENSEN: Sunset. Yes. Well, first of all, I’ve often been asked since then, was I scared? I was too busy to be scared. We were just working. When I went home at night, I would lay awake for a while, wondering what possible answer is there? What can we possibly do? Because no one had an answer; we had tried with notes. We had tried what little, few tricks we had in our bag. Nothing seemed to work. When I sat down to draft that letter, I knew that, if the letter provoked Khrushchev, that could be the end of it all. If he was angry that we ignored his second letter, that could end it all.
In those days, the Cabinet Room, unlike today, in those days the Cabinet Room was not a re-enforced concrete bunker. And if the Soviets had guided missiles as accurate as ours, I’m sure one could’ve found its way to the Cabinet Room. Well, I should also say that, when I speak on this subject, on more than one occasion, men about your young age, Graham, have come up to me and thanked me for making President Kennedy’s report to the country on the night of Monday, October 22nd as scary as it was, because it enabled them to convince their girlfriends it was their last night on earth.
GRAHAM ALLISON: Ted, I had just arrived at Oxford, where I was a Marshall Scholar, and heard the speech. And will not comment on that.
TED SORENSEN: I might had that what we did not know-- we had heard rumors, but we did not know that the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba. And we learned later, their local commanders had authority to use those tactical nuclear weapons if the Americans struck. Let’s face it. It was a crazy time. The doctrine was called Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD. It was mad. If they used tactical nuclear weapons on us, the so-called rules of engagement would’ve required us to respond with at least tactical nuclear weapons. Then they might’ve responded with strategic. Then we would’ve responded with strategic. And you keep going up that escalator until nothing is left of either country, and nuclear fallout, radioactive fallout, is carried by wind and water to the far reaches of the earth. And we have what’s called a nuclear desert instead of a planet.
But during that first week, when we were trying to formulate a response, Dean Acheson, who I’ve already mentioned, was called in as an outside advisor. What to do. Because he was an expert on the Soviet Union. And I still see it in my mind’s eye, sitting at the edge of the table there where Dean, former Secretary Acheson was speaking. And he recommended the air strike. And a voice behind me, I think it might’ve been Maxwell Taylor, our commander, head of the Joint Chiefs. And by the way, “Thirteen Days” paints Maxwell Taylor as being just like all the other chiefs. No, not at all. True, he was a so-called hawk who favored the air strike, but he was a very intelligent, very articulate, very reasonable man. He was not like General LeMay.
So he asks Acheson, “If we strike those Soviet missiles, what will they do?” And Acheson says, “Well, I know the Soviets pretty well. We will have bombed their ally. They will feel it’s necessary to maybe bomb our missiles in Turkey and bomb Turkey.” “Well then, what will we do?” “Well, under the NATO alliance, if our ally gets bombed, then we’ll have to send missiles against Soviet territory and blow them up.” Max keeps asking questions. “Then what will they do?” There was a pause, and he said, “Well, by then we hope things will cool down.” I can assure you it was very cool in that room when he said that.
Years later, he was interviewed or wrote an article for, I’m not sure which, Esquire magazine, in which, despite the fact that he had written a glowing note, I hope the Library has it, from Dean Acheson to President Kennedy about how he had handled the Crisis. Despite having written that note, he said in this Esquire article that Kennedy’s-- they prevailed in the Missile Crisis just through dumb luck. So a reporter called me up and said did I have a comment on that. I thought for a while, and I said, “Yes. They were lucky. Lucky they didn’t take Acheson’s advice.”
GRAHAM ALLISON: Let me push you one further on this, Ted. So if we think about lessons of the Missile Crisis and how they relate to nuclear danger in the period thereafter... You may have missed an event, but at Harvard this past week, the historic inauguration of a new president, a woman named Drew Faust. And one of the more interesting comments in her excellent inaugural address was she tells about opening an envelope that was written by President Conant of Harvard in 1951 to his successor in the 21st century, if there is one. So she received this envelope. And this envelope says, “My dear sir,” what a surprise. And then he writes with a sense of imminent nuclear danger, he says, fearing an impending World War III, that would make, quote, “The destruction of our cities, including Cambridge.”
TED SORENSEN: Quite possible.
GRAHAM ALLISON: You can see the Harvard point of view. He says, “We all wonder how the free world is going to get through the next 50 years.” But then he goes on, “But if we do, and if you receive this, I have a few things to say.” So how was the performance in the Missile Crisis relevant to the fact that, actually, now, today, not many people would feel much-- I mean nobody would write a letter. If Drew Faust was writing a letter for her successor 50 years from today, she would not say, “I have an imminent fear of nuclear destruction. If you receive this.” So how did the Missile Crisis contribute to where we are now?
TED SORENSEN: Number one, President Kennedy’s resolution of the Missile Crisis without firing a shot is why we’re here now. Because I think there would’ve been a nuclear desert. And I noticed in the newspaper accounts of President Faust’s remarks that she said universities must not focus only on the present, but on the past. And there are many lessons from the Missile Crisis 45 years past, which are very relevant to today. I’m not as quite assured about the situation today as you are.
The United States and open society, which I hope will remain as open as it possibly can, has gone out of its way to antagonize 1.3 billion members of the Islamic faith who believe in the weapon of personal suicide. Bombing. We have no defense against that. We have no real defense against that. And to antagonize that many by conducting a war and an occupation, which had no justification, no legality under international law.
Hussein was an evil dictator, but he had no weapons of mass destruction. He had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attack on us. In fact, he was on Osama bin Laden’s hit list. We did Osama bin Laden a great favor by getting rid of Saddam Hussein, which he had hoped to do himself.
So these are dangerous times for the United States. I hope it won’t be nuclear destruction, but you’re an expert on so-called loose nukes and how they can too easily fall into the hands of terrorists, criminals, rogue states, or others. So the danger of nuclear destruction has by no means disappeared. But the main thing to remember is that John F. Kennedy did not start out by bombing those missile sites and triggering a nuclear response.
Oh, by the way, another thing we learned. One of those unions, and you had something to do with those unions too, was that at least one of those submarines accompanying the Soviet ships that final day, Saturday the 27th, had nuclear torpedoes. At the time we had never heard of nuclear torpedoes. We didn’t know there was such a weapon. And that one of these, I think it was the last one, a few years ago in Havana… You were there, I can’t remember. The commander of that ship was there. He was either there or he was at the movie screening that I mentioned to you when we were in the other room.
And it happened that as they approached the quarantine, the blockade, one of our destroyers through sonar or otherwise detected the fact that there was a submarine down there. And started dropping depth charges. And I have no first hand knowledge of this, but I’m told that to be in a submarine when depth charges are falling even nearby is like being in a tin can in a tornado. And this commander told us that, in good old Soviet bureaucracy, for him to give the order to fire the nuclear torpedoes, three signatures were required. And the first was his, the second was his deputies, and the third was the political officer on board. It was a Soviet submarine. Of course it had to have a political officer.
And the crew, being shaken and thinking they were about to be blown up, pleaded with him, “Sign the paper! Give the order.” And he said he would. And the deputy commander, when his captain said he would, he said, “I will too.” But the political officer, being a good Soviet bureaucrat, said, “Not until we hear from Moscow.” They’re in a submarine under the Caribbean, they can’t surface with a US destroyer nearby. There’s no way they can get word from Moscow. So thanks to that stickler for bureaucracy, the world was saved. That’s how close we came.
GRAHAM ALLISON: Well, unfortunately Tom and John say we have to come to the witching hour here. Let me say again what a pleasure it has been to share the podium with Ted Sorensen, and let me remind you that Ted has written a book that’s going to come out in May, the title of which he insists upon keeping a secret. But John Shattuck mentioned that there’ll be an event here, upon the publication of the book, here at the Library, which will basically pick up from some of the conversation we’ve had here and go off in many different directions. I’ve heard a number of things about the book, and I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation. So thank you very much.