50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

October 14, 2012

Panel One

DAVID FERRIERO:  Good afternoon. I’m David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, and it’s a pleasure to welcome you to the National Archives and the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. I also want to welcome all of those watching on C-Span and to express our deep appreciation to C-Span for broadcasting this conference to a national audience.

Today, we’re gathered to examine and relive one of the most important moments not only in John F. Kennedy’s Presidency, but also in the history of humankind. During the Cuban Missile Crisis a half century ago this month, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. In fact, on this day 50 years ago, the first U-2 flight over Cuba captured the photographs. Had the missiles the Soviets were installing in Cuba been fired, it was clear that both sides would’ve experienced incomparable loss of life and destruction of our planet. During 13 tense days in October of 1962, President Kennedy and his advisers deliberated and disagreed. The President listened and weighed the differed advice he was given, and we can hear those conversations thanks to the taping system installed by the President.

President Kennedy also communicated directly with the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, who had ordered the missiles placed in Cuba. Together, the two men found a way to untie the knot and just a few months later they negotiated the first nuclear test ban treaty. This afternoon, we will hear from a number of distinguished scholars, historians, journalists, academics, former government officials, on the impact of the crisis then and today. They will discuss what the public knew and didn’t know; what we found out later; the respective goals and strategies of President Kennedy, Chairman Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro; and what lessons can be learned a half century later and applied to the challenges of our time?

Before we go any further, I’d like to acknowledge that this afternoon’s proceedings are being made possible with the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation. The Carnegie Corporation has a long history of supporting programs sponsored by the National Archives, including a Presidential library conference three years ago on the presidency in the nuclear age.

The discovery of missiles being installed in Cuba, with the capability of reaching many of the largest population areas, raised the specter of another world war just a decade and a half after World War II had ended. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was a senior in high school, about 20 miles up the coast in Beverly. I have vivid memories of grammar school duck-andcover drills, of hiding under my desk, or heading to the basement of the school to await an allclear signal, and civil war defense preparedness advisories, home basement fall-out shelters, and survival supplies of biscuits and crackers.  So when October 1962 rolled around, I was certainly remembering those drills and disappointed we had no family shelter or supplies. Was I frightened?  I don’t think so. I was certainly concerned, but confident in the knowledge that a guy from my home state, whom I trusted, was in the White House and would do the right thing.

To commemorate this singular event in our nation’s history, we opened on Friday a special exhibit, “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” at the main National Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. It was created by our staffs here in Boston and in Washington and features documents, artifacts, photographs, and audio recordings that will take you back to those tense days just 50 years ago. This is the kind of exhibit that only the National Archives can do, drawing on the records of the JFK Library, the Department of State, CIA, and personal collections.

The exhibit will close in Washington on February 4th and open here a few weeks later. As you may know, the Kennedy Library and the National Archives also recently opened seven boxes of materials from the Robert F. Kennedy collection related to the Cuban Missile Crisis. These materials will, I know, inform part of today’s proceedings. We appreciate the support of Robert Kennedy’s family in making these materials available to the public. I want to thank all of you for attending and want to recognize two individuals in particular, who will make remarks later in the program: Dr. Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and currently a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, [applause] and joining us soon, Jack Schlossberg, the grandson of President Kennedy and currently a sophomore at Yale University.

The nation stood still that night on October 22nd, 1962, when President Kennedy addressed the nation and outlined the steps we were taking to force the Soviets to remove missiles and other armaments from Cuba. He closed with words that are as true today as they were then: “Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.”

Now, please join me in welcoming our first panel of distinguished historians, moderated by Adriana Bosch. 

ADRIANA BOSCH:  Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us here. I was six years old, five or six – I won’t tell – when the Missile Crisis first disrupted. I remember I was spending the summer at my grandmother’s farm in Artemisa, just a few miles away from San Antonio de Los Banos, which is where the missile sites were constructed. I do recall vividly seeing these long trucks going by in front of the house, and they were all covered by olive green tarps. And as a child, that seemed a very ominous thing, though in Cuba we were so used to seeing military trucks and mobilizations and crisis that I don’t think anyone really had a true understanding of what was at stake – certainly not as much as I later learned, that all of you or most of you who were then children and lived through it had. For us, it was kind of a time of excitement where something was happening. We didn’t quite know what, or I didn’t quite know what.

That being said, I just want to tell you we are joined today by a very, very distinguished panel. They have reconstructed the story, the narrative, the memory of the Missile Crisis painstakingly, one document, one tape, one conference, one bit of information at a time. When you have a crisis of the magnitude and the height in terms of how it was handled, like the Missile Crisis, even if you were doing one set of documents, one decision-making, it would take years to unravel the truth and get to the bottom of what people said, what people did, and what transpired. In this case, we had three actors, three players, three high-level decision-making points in the crisis, and each one of them has had to be looked at in detail, to put together, I think, one of the most fascinating puzzles in our history.

Professor Stern here was at the Library at the time when the first tapes became available. Peter Kornbluh, who is the head of the National Security Archives of the Cuban Documentation Project, has probably revealed and declassified more documents than anyone else in the universe about US policy toward Cuba. Professor Dominguez -- Provost Dominguez -- is an eminent professor at Harvard University and has been for many years a student of US-Cuban relations and a participant in many of the conferences that finally began to look at and reveal what had happened in other places about the time of the Missile Crisis. And, finally, is Svetlana Savranskaya – I learned to pronounce Russian as a child in Cuba, in good Spanish – she has been involved in a book that has revealed the secrets and the inner works of the Kremlin at the time of the Missile Crisis. So what you have here is a collective knowledge that has built over time about the crisis, one step at a time, at four key moments in our understanding of the history.

What surprised me most when I began personally to learn about their work is how recent, really, the scholarship is. In some ways, it really begins with you, in 1987, when you run into the tapes at the Kennedy Library. Why don’t we start with you? Of course, the first pass in history is always done by journalists. In this case, it was not different from that, except here there was a wealth of information that you became familiar with early on, in 1987, quite a while after the crisis was resolved.

SHELDON STERN:  Well, I think the thing to me that is most important to remember is that for the first 25 years, from ’62 to roughly ’87, all the information on the Missile Crisis really came from American sources and thus there was a decided American tilt to the understanding of the event and of course, obviously, to the documentation. Three things have changed in the subsequent 25 years, not necessarily in order of importance: first, the conferences that were held, particularly those in Moscow in 1989 through to the one in Havana in 1992 and then followed up in 2002; the documents from the former Soviet Union that have been released over the last 20 years; and, finally, the one that I was directly involved in, which was the once-secret tape recordings.

When I first started to listen to them in 1981, I think I assumed that the story as we knew it then was accurate. But it became apparent almost immediately, right on the very, very first day when Bobby Kennedy vehemently opposed the blockade and demanded an invasion of Cuba, and when I then looked back and I saw that that very quote was in Arthur Schlesinger’s biography of Robert Kennedy, and that he had taken it as a rejection of the use of force. He had completely gotten it completely wrong. The only question was how was that document found in the papers and whether or not he had been deliberately misled. That is unclear to this day.

But once that happened -- and I realized as I began to listen that Robert Kennedy was not a dove but a hawk, from Day 1 through Day 13 and beyond, as David Coleman will demonstrate this afternoon -- I realized that the whole narrative of the Cuban Missile Crisis was simply, had to be rethought. And the tapes, of course, provided the ultimate answer. 

I don’t want to take too much time, but let me just say one more thing, which is that the single most important thing about the tapes is that they finally explain the great issue of what happened on the 27th, when the EXCOMM convened in the morning intending to discuss the letter that had been received that previous evening, Friday the 26th, from Chairman Khrushchev, essentially offering to remove the missiles in exchange for an America pledge not to invade Cuba. When they convened that’s what they expected to be talking about. And within minutes, Pierre Salinger, the press secretary, came in and there was confusion for a while, because apparently there was a new message and it took a while before they realized that it was a completely new message, that it hadn’t been received through diplomatic channels but instead had been announced over Moscow radio. In that offer, Chairman Khrushchev asked, or said, “We will remove our missiles from Cuba if you remove your missiles from Turkey.”

What happened then for the rest of the day, they continued to meet from 9 a.m. past 9 p.m. There were some breaks, but it’s incredible just to listen and hear how exhausted they were – physically, emotionally exhausted – by the end of that day. But the absolutely essential thing to understand is that once it became clear that Khrushchev had moved beyond the Friday night offer to the Saturday offer, the room had divided into two sides:  those who were in favor of accepting the offer and those who were against accepting the offer.  And the fact is that the two sides were President Kennedy on one side and everybody else on the other. That is simply the truth. Everybody – Robert Kennedy, McNamara, Bundy, Rusk, go down the list, Ambassador Thompson – they all opposed it. They all said it should be rejected, that it would make us look weak, that it would compromise NATO and our position with our European allies. And from the first minute, the President says, “It’s a public offer. He was very shrewd to make it publicly. We cannot turn it down.” 

In the end, of course, the President makes the decision and after those 12 hours, that’s what happened.  The notion that the EXCOMM deliberated and gave President Kennedy advice on that Saturday which he followed is simply wrong. The fact is that he overrode the EXCOMM and made the decision despite the resistance of every single person in that room. The rest of it …

Well, if I get more time I’ll tell you a little bit more.

ADRIANA BOSCH:  Peter, you came to this Library around that time, right? And you came with your own Xerox machine. There was nothing public that you could sink your teeth into as you were beginning to look at telling another story, a deeper story, of what happened during that time that in some ways went away a little bit from that inside decision-making at the White House. Tell us about your experience in unveiling – and you’re an archaeologist in a way – tell us about the archeology of your work and what you discovered and how you went about it.

PETER KORNBLUH:  Well, I like to refer to us as forensic historians. And the National Security Archives, where I work, had recently been created and one of our first major projects was pushing the history forward, unearthing the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was part of a team that included Scott Armstrong and Janet Lang and Jim Blight, then of Harvard, and David Welch and a few other people, who were dedicated to going beyond the memoirs that existed from Kennedy’s aides and getting the broader picture. That was in 1987, about 25 years or so after the crisis. Now we’re 50 years after the crisis, and we have finally arrived at what my boss, Tom Blanton, calls “a multinational, multi-archival collection of materials,” that give us a better sense of the Missile Crisis and what really happened.

When I came to this Library as a young man in 1987, I got special permission to bring in my own Xerox machine, which you could never do today, right?  There were only a few thousand pages to be xeroxed on the Missile Crisis. As Sheldon Stern knows, there were no tapes available to listen to. There were parts of transcripts of two of the meetings and that was it. I xeroxed everything, took it back to the office, Jim and Janet started this work on critical oral history, bringing all the people, the players, from the three countries together over the years. 

We’ve now arrived at a situation where we’ve learned so much more. We’ve learned so much more about the danger of the crisis and we’ve learned so much more about the diplomacy of the crisis. On the danger side, we’ve learned about the confrontation on the high seas between US destroyers and Soviet submarines that were armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes. We’ve learned through Svetlana’s work more about the Soviet tactical missiles that were in Cuba. We’ve learned from the work of Michael Dobbs and others about how those missiles were positioned targeting Guantanamo Bay, waiting for a US attack. 

We’ve also learned about the secret diplomacy that Kennedy was dedicated to, that you hinted at, which is back channels to the United Nations, back channels to Fidel Castro, and really, with this historiography and the evolution of this historiography, we’ve moved from an image of a resolute President that stood firm against the Soviets and the Soviets backed down to the truer image of a resolution President, a President dedicated to using diplomacy to save the world from a nuclear holocaust.  That is a fundamental lesson of the Missile Crisis and the current historiography of the Missile Crisis that is immediately relevant to today’s world. 

ADRIANA BOSCH:  Thank you. Professor Dominguez, you went to those early conferences in the ‘90s, ’92 – I think there were earlier ones. But essentially you have done a lot of work looking at Cuban foreign relations, American foreign relations, Soviet-Cuban, American-Soviet relations, so you had a body of knowledge going into these conferences about the Missile Crisis and about diplomacy. What did you come in with? What was your sort of fundamental assumption that was challenged by those meetings, first with the Russians, then with the Cubans?

Talk to us about that. How did that change the scholarship of the Missile Crisis?

JORGE DOMINGUEZ:  So, as you indicated and as Peter just noted, there had been a series of conferences building on this archival research that was underway. And the conference to which you – I’m going to look this way, to the audience – the conference to which you’ve referred, that was in many ways noteworthy both as high drama and also as a source of information, was in Havana in 1992. It was high drama because it was the first time that you had significant decision-makers from three countries that were ready to go to war, were ready to blow up the world, and they had not gathered in the same room before.

Hosted by President Fidel Castro, you had senior leaders of the Kennedy Administration, you had Sergei Khrushchev, who was there both as a scholar and speaking on behalf of the work that he had done with this father, you had high military officers from the then already former Soviet Union. Part of the drama it was how they would relate to each other?  So one of the perspectives about which I think I knew something intellectually, but it was striking to see it there, was the affection that the former Soviet generals, high command, had for Fidel Castro. He was their leader, not just the leader of another country. And that sense that they were part of one team is one of the key lessons to me of that conference and the Missile Crisis.

But the other element of it that I knew something about -- but the perspective of the meeting made it deeper and more lasting -- is what was it that Fidel Castro wanted those of us who had come to this meeting to understand? One way to put it, in the context of the conference we’re having here with you and with those who are watching us, is that it was not about 13 days – it was not about 13 days – and, yes, it was about Cuba. It was not just about US-Soviet relations. One way to signal that it is not about 13 days is that the way the crisis was discussed in Cuba is the “October crisis.” So you can have the “August crisis,” and the “November crisis,” and the “April crisis.” It was just one more admittedly high event along a sketch.

Or take the way Adriana introduced herself as a 6-year-old girl in the town of Artemisa. It didn’t look very different. There were military trucks moving around, the country had been at war with the United States. That was Fidel Castro’s message. By the end of 1962, the way he countered it, he had been at war with the United States at a minimum since 1960 and perhaps since the fall of 1959. And he could regale us at considerable length by the standards to which we were accustomed -- at great brevity by the standards to which he was accustomed -- he could regale us with the highlights of this ever-growing and deepening escalation. “They’ve tried to assassinate me again and again, and again.” 

Best known of these programs was called Operation Mongoose, but it really was an array of different programs. They didn’t succeed, to be sure, we now know. But he knew and his state security knew and that, from his perspective, was bad enough. But the US sponsored an invasion of Cuba in April, 1961 – known more colloquially as the Bay of Pigs invasion or Playa Giron in Cuba. That’s another element of this crisis.

The United States had been engaged before the October 1962 crisis and would continue to be engaged in the time that would follow not only in attempted assassinations, but also in targeting

Cuba’s civilian economy in assisting blowing up petroleum refineries and the burning of sugar canes, a set of acts, a number of which actually builds support for the Cuban government instead of weakening it, because there were people who thought those acts were wrong.

The United States had imposed -- this was the third consecutive year -- a very comprehensive embargo that went well beyond trade that had global dimensions. Embargoes are always difficult policy instruments. They’re particularly difficult if you sustain them for a long time. By this time, it’s been sustained for about three years and one political problem is that it makes the innocent as vulnerable as the guilty – that it punished regime opponents as much as it punished regime supporters – and to some extent helped build support.

In that context, “War in effect for three years and you’re trying to assassinate me,” that is how he wanted us to understand his response to these events. Of course he said “yes” when the Soviet Union proposed the deployment of missiles in Cuba. “How will we defend ourselves?” Of course he wanted the placement of the missiles to be public, and that was one of his early disagreements with the Soviet Union: because it is public, you can deter. You’re more likely to prevent the actual attack on Cuba. And because he really did think that war was about to break out, it is why at a key moment in the crisis, he writes a letter to Nikita Khrushchev and he says in the event -- that he considered highly likely -- that the United States invades Cuba with conventional weapons, “I recommend that the Soviet Union should launch a first strike nuclear weapons attack on mainland United States.” Militarily, politically, but all the more emotionally, we now know this was a turning point, that it had an enormous impact on Prime Minister Khrushchev, and that it is one of the reasons the crisis moves in the direction that it did.

But just to make it clear -- because I know that you’re going to ask Svetlana -- it also is one reason why Fidel Castro opposed what he thought was the Soviet surrender in the face of US aggression and why he tried to make it as difficult as possible for the Soviet Union to comply with the terms of the agreement and all the subtlety, nuance and semi-secrecy that had been reached with the United States, and why it took the Soviet leadership, in a very different moment following what the US thought was a settlement, then needed a Soviet-Cuban settlement. That’s the work that Svetlana has done. It happened mainly in the month of November, but it would have consequences for the future because it is then and only then that the Soviet Union begins sending weapons free of charge to Cuba, to compensate for accommodating the United States. It is then and only then that significant Soviet economic support for Cuba takes off, to compensate for what had not been done before. So it was a crisis that not only was not 13 days, but to some extent, from the Cuban government’s perspective, has not yet ended. 

ADRIANA BOSCH:  Thank you. Okay, well, I’m going to ask you now the next question.  In what ways – obviously the Cubans and the Soviets agreed on the idea of sending missiles for the defense of Cuba, but there were many disagreements that new research has discovered as we began to get access to the Russian archives. But just how difficult was it to get access to those archives and how hard was your work of forensic history in the Soviet Union, even in Russia, at a recent time? Let us know, how difficult was it to do that?

SVETLANA SAVRANSKAYA:  I’ve been working on the Cuban Missile Crisis since 1992, since that amazing conference where for the first time it was revealed that the tactical nuclear weapons were there. But for the last three years I’ve been really living with the documents from the personal archive of Sergo Mikoyan. Sergo Mikoyan, unfortunately, he passed away. He was the son of the Russian deputy prime minister and Nikita Khrushchev’s right hand, especially on Cuba, Anastas Mikoyan. 

To your question of the difficulties in the Russian archives, there was a window of opportunity in the early 1990s where a lot of documents were being released. Especially, we had very productive cooperation in preparation for those conferences in 1992 and 2002 with the Russian archives. So we got some documents through that channel. However, recently the situation in the Russian archives is becoming very difficult and most, if not all, the documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis unfortunately are not available. That is why I think this personal archive that Sergo Mikoyan donated to the National Security Archive is probably the most important cache of Soviet documents that have been released in the last many years, and we’re publishing the whole set of those documents in a book called “The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Because what we don’t know and we didn’t know for a long time -- although as Jorge pointed out, participants at those conferences got a glimpse of it -- the Soviets had their own missile crisis. They had their own crisis after Kennedy declared that the crisis was over and after the American public thought that everything was resolved and nuclear weapons left Cuba.

Well, the Soviets knew they had a problem because Fidel felt betrayed and abandoned and not consulted at all. He felt that the Soviets did a bad job of camouflaging the missiles, with resolving the crisis with him. So Khrushchev sends Mikoyan to Cuba to try to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it is not an easy task because Americans don’t know that there are about 100 tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba at the time. Castro refuses to allow any inspections on the island. So the task that Mikoyan was faced with is somehow to mollify, pacify Castro, to persuade him to allow some inspections and to figure out a way to get those weapons out.

Now, the story becomes even more interesting because what these documents show -- and these are, again, verbatim conversations between Mikoyan and all the top Cuban leadership – Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara – it’s every word of Mikoyan’s correspondence with Khrushchev and Khrushchev back to him about all these issues – they show how dramatic and how emotional the Cubans were, and how actually disagreeable they were and rightly so. The Soviets treated them as children without consulting them, just giving them orders and they didn’t take those orders.

So, initially, the Soviet plan was to build a big military base in Cuba – in fact, that base would be the most powerful one of all the socialist countries – and leave the tactical nuclear weapons there. In fact, leave all the weapons there except for the strategic missiles. Then, in the middle of the crisis, as Mikoyan is facing a lot of tension with his Cuban hosts, the Soviets decide that they probably should not have that military base on Cuba, because there will be a lot of taking responsibility and a lot of tensions with the Cubans.  So they decide to transfer tactical nuclear weapons to the Cubans and to train the Cuban officers to use those weapons. 

However, during the Mikoyan’s conversations in Cuba, he gradually comes to the realization that to leave tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, in the hands of the Cubans, would be too dangerous, especially in that situation. He cables Moscow suggesting that we should take all tactical nuclear weapons out. And the most dramatic part of these documents that we found – well, they were donated to us – is the conversation where Mikoyan has to tell Castro that now all these weapons will be withdrawn. It’s a high drama moment where Castro is desperate to keep those weapons in Cuba, and he tries to persuade Mikoyan this way and that way. He actually comes back to the same issue four times. 

But Mikoyan stands firm. He says, “We’re taking these weapons out, not because of American demands, but because of our own will. The Americans don’t know anything about them.” He even makes up an existence of a law. He says, “We have an unpublished law in the Soviet Union that prohibits us from transferring those weapons.” There is no such law. He just makes it up. But then it serves as a precedent, and the Soviets indeed never transfer nuclear weapons to any of their allies after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So these are just the major findings. One last finding that I would like to stress -- and I hope we can talk a little bit later about it -- in the American historiography, we always heard that the reason that the Soviets put the missiles in Cuba was a) to put pressure on Berlin and b) to redress the huge strategic imbalance. When you look into the Soviet record, really internal conversations, you can see that the main motivation, the main preoccupation that the Soviet leadership had at the time was to defend Cuba. What’s interesting -- if you look at Sergei

Khrushchev’s work -- he’s always been saying, “This was the main motivation.”  Yes, they also were bothered by the missiles in Turkey; yes, strategic balance was a consideration, but the main motivation was to protect Cuba. So these documents show again that weighing all other factors, the Soviets were concerned mainly about defending Cuba. So I would like to conclude by saying that the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- the history of the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- is really fascinating and it’s changing. I would like to draw your attention, my boss, Tom Blanton, just published an essay on the history of the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is coming out in a massive 800 page selection of the Cold War International History Project that Jim would present here. Thank you.

ADRIANA BOSCH:  Thank you. That was fascinating. I want to ask Peter for one moment about Mongoose and Operation Mongoose, and the kind of threats that Castro was feeling, how much pressure there was, and how much did the Soviets really know about what kind of pressure Cuba was under? And why did they care so much about defending the Cuban Revolution? Why risk nuclear war to go to the defense of Cuba?

PETER KORNBLUH:   Well, Operation Mongoose was one of the largest covert and multilayered operations against Cuba that had ever been launched, or had ever been launched anywhere in the world against any country. It involved covert operations; it involved assassination plots; it involved propaganda operations; it involved economic pressures; it involved diplomacy with other countries to isolate Cuba and squeeze Cuba. We knew a little bit about it, because it had been written in the famous church committee report on the CIA in the mid-1970s, but there weren’t very many documents, and this was a great declassification story.

I was talking to, interviewing, a former participant of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ray Garthoff, and I said, “Do you have any documents from the Missile Crisis in your garage or your attic? I’d happily come and clean it out for you.” And he said, “Well, the Johnson Administration asked me to give all the documents I had to the State Department in the mid-‘60s.  I think I have a storage list they sent me.” And he opens his drawer and he pulls out this 10 page list, which lists every box, 40 boxes, banker’s boxes, of Cuban Missile Crisis and other Cuba-related documents, and every file folder title in those boxes, and the number of the room in the State Department where they’re stored.

This became a golden road map for our Freedom of Information Act work. We asked for every file and every box in the room number for these documents. We eventually went to court and won on the Mongoose documents. I should say that one of the files was the KennedyKhrushchev letters, which we eventually worked very hard to get declassified also. That necessitated a trip to the Soviet Union to talk to them, the former Soviet Union to talk to Russians about whether they’d agree for those letters to come out. But the Mongoose files were there, and we got the vast majority of them declassified. And they really shed light on this massive operation, which truly was the catalyst for, as Jorge said, the Russians’ decision to put the missiles there. They were going to Castro and saying, “We have all this intelligence on assassination plots against you. We think that Mongoose is going to result in another Bay of Pigs invasion, and this time the United States is going to go in full force.”

And Castro’s own decision to say, “Yes, I think that next invasion is coming, as well.” And, in fact, Mongoose did have, at the end, a hypothetical date for an invasion of Cuba. Its goal was to create an uprising in Cuba and work towards kind of planning that uprising, and then be ready to send in the Marines, gunboat diplomacy, to back that uprising and overthrow the Cuban Revolution.

I think there was actually a personal relationship developing between Khrushchev and Castro. I think the Soviets saw the opportunity to have a radical revolution as an ally in an effort to spread the doctrine of communism through Latin America, although the Cubans and the Soviets had very different approaches to how to foment revolution in Latin America. And I think Castro, as he told us at the conference both in 1992 and in 2002, he felt a commitment to the socialist bloc. He, in the middle of the Bay of Pigs invasion, had declared Cuba a socialist nation in order to become part of the socialist bloc and get that umbrella of a defense deterrent that he hoped would deter what he saw as an imperial United States hell-bent on overthrowing his revolution. 

ADRIANA BOSCH:  We’ve heard a lot about Khrushchev being so daring and being so reckless putting those missiles in Cuba, taking the world to the brink. Why take that chance over Cuba? How important was Cuba at that moment? What I’m trying to think about is, how does the strategic issue of the bilateral relationship and the defense of Cuba, per se, join together as a motivation for the Soviet Union?

JORGE DOMINGUEZ:  The Soviet Union came late to the Cuban Revolution. Among the things that we do know is that, particularly through the memoirs of who would be the first Soviet envoy and then ambassador to Cuba, Alexander Alekseyev, is that the Soviet Communist Party did not know very much about Cuba. The Soviet Communist Party, the Soviet leadership, had not played a significant role in the rebellion against Batista, and therefore the events before January of 1959. The old Cuban Communist Party had played a very modest role as well, and it was through the Communist Party, the local Cuban Communist Party, that the Soviet Union tried to make sense of Cuba and that was not a particularly effective pattern at the beginning. The Cuban government refused to give a visa the first time the Soviet government asked for the possibility of sending an envoy and Alekseyev, therefore, arrives in Havana not at the start of the revolutionary government in January of ’59, but really toward the end of the year, the last quarter of the year. The key moments for Alekseyev’s mission are in October of ’59. 

It’s not as if they thought this was something they had thought about, they’d been engaged in.

They were very slow. Once they begin to develop, and Mikoyan’s visit to Havana in February of 1960 is one of these moments of enormous insight. It turns out that he and the Soviet delegation was received very warmly, a variety of important agreements were signed, and above all it was an opportunity for many Soviets, not just Alekseyev, to say, “These guys are for real. They are looking for a deeper, sustained and all-encompassing relationship with the Soviet Union.” 

Part of what develops is the joint discovery of two things. One is that Cuba is a rare event in the experience of Soviet leaders at that time: a communist revolution that they did not have to bring to the country on the back of Soviet tanks; a communist revolution that had happened all by itself. And that was enormously impressive for leaders whom we now know – I don’t think it was well appreciated during the Cold War – really did care about Marxism, Leninism. It was their own ideas. One may criticize them in various ways, but they did care about ideological concerns, and that’s part of the discovery.

They also come to like Cubans. There are wonderful photographs, as you know from your work on television, of Mikoyan with funny-looking hats and music and dances. There is an enjoyment and a pleasure in having an ally who is fun. [laughter] And then, yes, it’s a stationary aircraft carrier just off the southern boundary of the United States so it is that, as well. And it’s the combination, it’s the ensemble, that brings it together, and it is – just to underline the point – it is the Soviets who take the lead to say, “We care about you.” This is Svetlana’s point. “We are prepared to deploy our weapons,” and the Cubans, thinking of themselves as allies, equal to equal – this is one of the reasons they were so angry when the Soviets pull out – thinking that they were equal to equal said, “Well, yes, just as you, the Soviet Union, is responsible for the defense of the USSR and your allies facing the United States, we play our part. We too are responsible. We are co-responsible with you.” The Soviets did not impose any of this on the Cuban government. The Cuban government was a willing ally and the Soviet Union cared for a willing ally that embraced them, and did not resent them. These are not Poles; these are Cubans.

ADRIANA BOSCH:  Let me take the story back to EXCOMM, to the Executive Committee, and to the White House, and to the changes that have surfaced in our own vision and our own understanding of all these personalities that were there, who really are American icons, historical icons. And how did you, your research and your findings through the tapes and through all that, changed, or have changed, the perspective that we had of those leaders as the years have gone by?

SHELDON STERN:  Okay. Well, first, let me respond to something that Svetlana said. I think it’s really interesting when you think about the question of motives and what were the people in EXCOMM thinking about why the Russians were doing this? And that starts immediately at the very, very first meeting, the very first thing to talk about is what are these things and what are they capable of doing? And then they start talking about why? Why are the Russians doing this?

And the thing that’s so striking is that the real answer is the one that never comes up. Well, there’s one exception I’ll get to in a moment. From the beginning, it’s Berlin; they’re trying to pressure us to get us out of Berlin, the nuclear balance of power, et cetera, down the line. It’s not until Friday morning the 26th -- the second week -- the 12th of the 13 days that Adlai Stevenson, the UN ambassador, flies down to attend the meeting in the wake of his performance at the UN.

And Stevenson says, “Well, I mean, the reason they put these missiles in Cuba was to protect the regime, to protect Castro.” And they jump all over him. I mean, they nearly skin him alive for saying that. And that’s the only time it ever comes up. So, I mean, talk about Cold War perspective and lack of people understanding what other people are doing.

One other thing, before I get to your question, which I just want to be very sure that everybody in the room understands what a tactical nuclear weapon is, because I think there might be some confusion about that. When you’re talking about tactical nuclear weapons, you’re not talking about the MRBMs or IRBMs, or for that matter ICBMs, which can go huge distances and cause enormous destruction. A tactical nuclear weapon is much smaller and they have very limited range, and they’re thought of as battlefield nuclear weapons. I know many people think that’s insane. I personally agree with that. But, nonetheless, the notion that you can use a nuclear weapon on the battlefield when your own people are so close, the whole idea is just insane. But, nonetheless, that’s what they were.

And, of course, since Michael Dobbs demonstrated in 2008 that some of those weapons were aimed specifically at Guantanamo Naval Base, I mean, no matter how hard both sides, Khrushchev and Kennedy, were trying to avoid nuclear war, if those weapons had been fired, as McNamara said in 1992, “Oh, my God, can you imagine what would have happened?” 

Now, as to your question about the individuals, it’s a very important question because, unfortunately, the memoirs of most of these individuals are not very accurate, starting with Robert Kennedy’s “Thirteen Days,” going through Dean Rusk’s memoir, McNamara, which is primarily in the film, “The Fog of War,” where everything he says at the beginning about the Missile Crisis and Ambassador Thompson is completely wrong, and Bundy’s book, published not long before he died. It’s a very interesting question about this closed group of people. And of course not only was it a closed group, but it was, by the nature of things, a steadily smaller group as time went on.  Until a few years ago there was just McNamara and Sorensen left, and of course they’re both gone now, too.

And they definitely resisted a lot of the findings on the tapes, which contradicted their own accounts. I had a personal experience with this with Ted Sorensen in 2007, where I got up and gave a talk and then Ted got up and said, “That’s very interesting but I was there, and he’s wrong.” And it was kind of a mindboggling experience. I’m saying to myself, “Should I get up and say, ‘No, you’re wrong’?” But I finally decided that he was a celebrity and people lined up to talk to him at the end of the conference, not a single person asked me a question and that’s the way it is.  So it was at that point, and largely as a result of an idea that my son gave me, was to write a third book, once and for all, deconstructing “Thirteen Days,” and the myths in “Thirteen Days.”

PETER KORNBLUH:  Let me just say that as historians, thank God for Kennedy’s secret taping system.

SHELDON STERN:  Oh, without question, without question.

ADRIANA BOSCH:  You had a comment about tactical weapons.

SVETLANA SAVRANSKAYA:  Yes, on the tactical weapons and why the November crisis was so dangerous, and we don’t know anything about it. The Soviet military on Cuba were not informed at all about any negotiations. They’re sitting there, expecting an invasion. There is a debate on whether they had the authority delegated to them to use those tactical nuclear weapons. I think the answer is no, but when they were deployed a lot of the officers got oral instructions that in the case of invasion, if there are no communications with Moscow, to repel an American invasion you can use those tactical nuclear weapons.

Khrushchev had to cable them twice during those two weeks: “Absolutely do not use tactical nuclear weapons,” because he knew they were there on the understanding that, in the event of invasion, they could use them. Now, those weapons are still in Cuba in November. And even though there is no order from Moscow or no pre-delegation, there is the physical capability that they could use those weapons if invasion still happened. And how do you get those weapons out? Because they were actually the most surest tripwire to start a nuclear war, because if the Americans landed not knowing, not expecting a nuclear war fighting, and they were attacked with nuclear weapons, Kennedy would have to respond nuclear, and then where would the escalation stop?

ADRIANA BOSCH:  This is fascinating history, indeed. It’s not 13 days, it’s years; it’s not a crisis of October, it’s a crisis in November; the defense of Cuba is added to what we normally have considered the motivation of the Soviets and Khrushchev to put the missiles in Cuba. We all love history, we all love details, there couldn’t be a more fascinating narrative. But what’s the point of going there? What are the lessons that are important about studying this narrative and knowing all of those details of what happened, what might have happened, what didn’t happen?

It’s a question I think we all face all the time which is what is the meaning? What does it add up to?

PETER KORNBLUH:  Well, this is absolutely the most important thing, it’s the most relevant issue, it’s the reason why we have to have every single page of every single document that we can get from all the countries involved in this crisis, so that we can understand the lessons of the moment that Arthur Schlesinger called “the most dangerous moment not only of the Cold War, but of human history.” And those lessons are immediately relevant today. They were discussed 10 years ago when George Bush was appropriating the Missile Crisis to invade Iraq. They’re being discussed today over the issue of a preemptive strike against Iran. 

And when you look at what’s happened with the historiography that we’re talking about today, we’ve gone from a period of time in which the main lesson that was learned from the Missile Crisis is that might makes right and the other side will just blink, and the United States won this major victory of the Cold War and the Soviets retreated and backed down. And that is completely false. There was a compromise to end this crisis. The Soviets walked away with getting US missiles out of Turkey, and the US walked away with getting missiles out of Cuba.

And in the middle of this we’ve learned that Kennedy was very dedicated to back channel diplomacy to end this crisis. He had back channel diplomacy to the United Nations. They should make a proposal, if necessary, for the missile swap of Turkey to Cuba. He had back channel diplomacy to Fidel Castro, found by James Hershberg here in the audience, to try and get him to save his own country from an obliterating attack by kicking the Soviets and their missiles out. And it is clear that he was dedicated to a diplomatic settlement rather than risk a preemptive strike that could lead to the escalation that Svetlana was just talking about. So we need for our own international security to learn the final lesson of the Missile Crisis by getting all the documents out.

ADRIANA BOSCH:  Same question.

SHELDON STERN:  Well, I think the lesson is the ability to connect the dots. So many times during the meetings, Bobby Kennedy would say something like, “Well, let’s go in, do our thing, and get it over with.” He just continuously failed to connect the dots and realize, “Well, wait a minute, maybe we won’t get it over with, maybe it’ll go the next step, and then the next step after that.” And in some ways, the most interesting discussion actually takes place on the 14th day, the day after Khrushchev agrees to remove the missiles on the 29th, when there is a very informal, kind of relaxed meeting in the Oval Office between President Kennedy, Admiral Anderson, the chief of naval operations, and General Shoup, the Marine Corps commandant. 

The mood is very different. They talk about football, and they’re clearly no longer in a state of terrible anxiety. But they do finally turn to the question of whether or not there were tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba. And obviously they don’t know. But the thing that’s so fascinating is that Shoup takes for granted that they can be used, and Kennedy says, “No, you can’t use nuclear weapons, even the tactical ones. It’s absurd. They’re not weapons. They’re purely political. Nobody can use nuclear weapons because it’ll get out of control.” And that’s the ultimate lesson.

One of the things that’s so striking, and I think sometimes it’s unfair that people parody the Joint Chiefs for the position that they took, but it’s important -- as a friend of mine who is writing a book on the education of the American military made the point to me – to remember that people like LeMay and the others – the names, well, Anderson and Shoup, et cetera – they had been educated at places like West Point and the Naval Academy, et cetera, et cetera, before the nuclear age. Unfortunately, they had not learned the lesson that the nature of war had absolutely changed, that you couldn’t think about it the way you had thought about it before nuclear weapons existed. And the friend told me that today he does a lot of interviews with current American military people, and he said it’s like night and day. They’re so well educated and so sophisticated compared to the almost parody in that meeting, Kennedy with LeMay and people like that.

ADRIANA BOSCH:  I think you wanted to say something very quickly?

SVETLANA SAVRANSKAYA:  Very briefly. I think one of the important lessons is the importance of small actors. For a long time, the Cuban Missile Crisis was studied as there was the United States, there was the Soviet Union, and there was a parking lot where the missiles were parked. What we found out is that Castro was probably the most independent variable of the crisis. Just imagine: Mikoyan doesn’t go there, in November Americans find out that there are still tactical nuclear weapons about which the Soviets are still lying to them, over 100 nuclear weapons – what could have happened?

ADRIANA BOSCH:  I’ll never be invited to do this again. Jorge?

JORGE DOMINGUEZ:  So two lessons: One is you can get it really wrong if you ignore the other, if you ignore the parking lot. And the other one is who won the Missile Crisis? Fidel Castro. Think about it. He’s the one who, though he did not realize it at the time, successfully deterred the United States to the end of his life. 

TOM PUTNAM:  Please join me in thanking this terrific presentation. So as has been referenced a couple of times now, at this library we have these terrific secretly recorded tapes, and we’ve just opened a new exhibit in conjunction with the National Archives called “To the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” I wanted to show you a few of the secretly recorded tapes in the multimedia video presentations that are at the heart of this new exhibit, which, again, we hope you’ll visit in Washington, D.C. and later here at the Kennedy Library. So let’s listen: it’ll show you the dates of the tapes and some of them were referenced, actually, in this recent conversation. So let’s watch the secretly recorded tapes.


Panel Two

TOM PUTNAM:  No one can bring us closer to one of the principal actors in the Cuban Missile Crisis then Sergei Khrushchev. Dr. Khrushchev. [applause]

SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV:  Thank you, Tom. Thank you, everybody. I have only 10 minutes.

I’m very pleased to be here, and I’m pleased to speak to you like an American same time as I am a  Russian, as a Russian same time as I am an American, because I’m a citizen of both countries, and I think I can, number one, understand what happened on both sides. First, who won this crisis? We won this crisis, because we can sit here and discuss it after 50 years. And then all the others can be more or less on the winning or losing side, depending on how they want to present themselves. Why did they send the missiles to Cuba? We can discuss all aspects. But most important, this is obligations of the superpower. Cuba would announce that it is an obligation of the superpower, the great power, to defend all of their lives, whether far or close, good or bad.

So Cuba became for the Soviet Union the same as West Berlin to the United States: a small, useless piece of land, deep inside hostile territory, but if you will not defend them, you will lose your face, and your other allies will not treat you as a great power. It is very dangerous. We can discuss whether it was wise or not wise, but it was the simple rules of the superpowers and it’s still the same rules with the superpowers. We look what has happened there, and it reminds me of the movie, “Thirteen Days,” where you see the loneliness of the Commander in Chief; you see President Kennedy discuss with everybody and listen to everyone’s advice, but he is the Commander in Chief who has to make the last decision.

Khrushchev was in the same position. He has to decide what to do: use these weapons, not use these weapons. And it is very different from this time. Most important, what happened in that time? That politicians, they first shoot and then think. They prefer first think, then second time think and then not to shoot at all, because each crisis can be resolved in this way. And through this, you can see, yes, we’ll stop the shipment. It was also an invitation for negotiation, because it was not an invasion that we had in mind. It was not a first step to the end of the world. And Khrushchev accepted this, and he stopped his ships that carry weapons because he told me that we have enough there. “We have to show them.” But he told me not to accept your violation of the freedom of the movement of the ocean. And Kennedy, he understood this and he allowed other ships, Soviet ships, to go through. He didn’t stop them, and he didn’t search them. He searched this ship from the third country that was not violating the Soviet territory.

And it was going step by step, step by step, until both of them understood, it is too dangerous.

And what is negotiation? Negotiation is bargaining. You cannot have everything that you want. You cannot just have the word from an American president that, “We’ll not invade Cuba and keep your missiles there.” You cannot take missiles out together with Castro and others. They reach this, and then in the middle of this week they came to a conclusion, both sides, mostly at the same time, it is a good deal. “We will not invade Cuba and you will take your missiles out.”

You can say on the opposite side: “We’ll take missiles out and we will not invade Cuba.” And we see it worked, and it was no Kennedy, no Khrushchev, but still we have Cuba, we have Castro.  I think it was in the interest of both parties, and it is very different from what we have now, because now we don’t want to negotiate with our enemies, with our adversaries. We want to negotiate only with our friends. But negotiation with our friends is not negotiation, it’s a party. You negotiate with enemies because then you can show them your position, understand their position, and then, at least, resolve this crisis peacefully.

Because unconditional surrender is not negotiation. Only twice it worked in our history:  when it was fully to destroy Germany and fully to destroy Japan. We could negotiate no difference, you like them or not. I think that President Kennedy did not like Khrushchev any more than President Obama likes President Ahmadinejad. But he exchanged letters with him every day personally.

Unfortunately, we don’t do it now. So if we go forward and see the result of this crisis, and we now see how many mistakes were made during this crisis, how close we were to real war, because real war can be decided by the commander of the Soviet submarine or the commander on the ground forces. And I absolutely agree with Svetlana. We in academia can discuss everything that we want whether someone was authorized to use these nuclear weapons or not, military trained or not.  “If they gave us these weapons and they invaded the island with superior forces, if we can destroy them, then we will do it.”

And I ask American generals, “Would you do it?” They thought, “Yes, because if they don’t want us to use them, they will not give them to us.” And this is just the lessons of this Cuban Missile Crisis. We see that a consequence of the crisis was the growth of the trust between two leaders – not because they liked each other, but because they found that they can work together.

My father repeated several times, “We are very different. Kennedy defeated their treasures, their system; we defeat our system and our treasures. We have one in common. We want to preserve peace.”  It was very similar to the speech of the American President at American University. What are the consequences? It was not only after there that there was the direct line. It was not only signing the nuclear test ban treaty. It was not only the Soviet Union signing the peace treaty with East Germany. It was not only the offer of President Kennedy to fly together to the moon. I think that we had the bad luck that we lost these two leaders because in ’63 there was no Kennedy and in ’64 Khrushchev was ousted of power. Because I worked with the missiles, I met with military, I talked with my father and I have very strong feeling that had they stayed power, the Cold War would have come to an end in the late ‘60s. You will ask me why. I think because they seriously wanted to do this. They didn’t want to talk about this, but to do something.

I don’t know what was the intention of President Kennedy. Many historians can find this. I can say only one thing: In 1963, in the meeting of the defense council, Khrushchev said, “Now we’ll have enough capability to destroy the United States. We need to reduce our armed forces, because the political system would want to have more weapons, but we want to give a better life to our people.” He said, “We have to reduce our armed forces to a million or maybe half a million and stop production not to zero, but close to zero.” I think if he had made this first step, maybe the Americans would have responded the same way, and then there would still be competition: Who lives better? There would still be confrontation, but confrontation without the nuclear weapons, confrontations on the fields, confrontations just sitting at the table.

I will finish with the words that we’re lucky that we ended this crisis, that we can talk about this. And here I have the token, it is the half a ruble that was printed in Russia also in commemoration of 50 years of the Cuban Missile Crisis. So thank you very much. [applause]

TOM PUTNAM:  Thank you, Dr. Khrushchev. You honor us here today with your presence.

Before we hear from the next panel, we thought it would be interesting to hear directly from President Kennedy himself. In December of 1962, he sat down for an interview with all three major networks. Let’s listen to an excerpt of his thoughts about the Cuban Missile Crisis and what it teaches us about the American presidency.


MARY SAROTTE:  Hello and welcome to the afternoon panel, the second afternoon panel, on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our panel will focus particularly on Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro, and the factors that led to their decision-making. We have an impressive array of talent here. I’m really looking forward to this discussion. We have Jim Hershberg, a professor at George Washington University and the author, actually, of a brand-new fascinating book on Vietnam called Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam, and also author of a number of important articles on the Cuban Missile Crisis; Michael Dobbs, author of the book One Minute To Midnight, also about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a brand-new book, Six Months in 1945, just out this week; next to me, Tim Naftali, author of a number of books, including Khrushchev’s Cold War, dealing with this topic. He’s currently writing a biography of Kennedy as President; and, Brian Latell, author of Castro’s Secrets. They’re all fantastic books. I encourage you to stop at the bookstore on the way home or take out your iPad and just order them right now.

My name is Mary Sarotte. I am an expert on the end of the Cold War, not on its most difficult moments. So I am really looking forward to hearing from experts on this time period and learning a lot about it. I’d actually like to start with Tim, especially since you’ve done work on Khrushchev, his motives going further back. Perhaps you could just tell us a little bit about why the Cuban Missile Crisis started?

TIM NAFTALI:  Thanks, Mary. Before I do that, I’d just say that with John F. Kennedy having introduced this panel, it’s a hard act to follow. I also wanted to say, I used to work for the National Archives and we don’t often congratulate the National Archives when it does a superb job, and those of you on TV and in the audience who saw the audio-visual presentation, which is connected to the exhibit in Washington, I think should give a round of applause to Tom Putnam, the Director of the Library, and David Ferriero, the head honcho of the entire archives, and to Stacy Bredhoff, who is the curator, for that magnificent achievement. [applause] Those are your tax dollars at work, and you should be proud of it. 

All right, well, we’ve heard a lot about red lines. Now that I don’t work for the government, I can actually talk about elections. We’ve heard a lot about red lines and establishing red lines and telling foreign countries, “You cannot step over this line and if you do, there will be a crisis.” The reason that John F. Kennedy had to respond forcefully to the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba was that he had established a red line.

In early September of 1962, he publicly said that the United States would not countenance the installation of what he termed “offensive weapons,” which everyone understood to be missiles, on the island of Cuba. Now, John F. Kennedy, when you look at him as a President, was a man who actually wanted to keep us further away from the brink of war than closer to it. Most of his actions in foreign policy were designed to push the nuclear threshold away. Why would he draw a red line that would actually make it likely that there might be a nuclear confrontation? He did it because he thought the Soviets weren’t going to do it. He had used a backchannel to speak with the Soviet leadership and had said, “Look, I have heard rumors that there will be missiles in Cuba. We assume you’re not doing that, because you know what the consequences would be.”

And the Soviets, who had mounted a very fine deception campaign, said, “No, we would never put missiles in Cuba.”  Thinking that they would never put missiles in Cuba – or that at least his public statement would deter them from any future effort to do so -- he goes public in early September. That’s a big problem for him. There’s a mid-term election in 1962. John F. Kennedy is having a hard time pushing his legislative agenda. In that era, the Democratic Party was really two parties:  it was the Southern party and it was the Northern liberal party. That party had not worked well together, and he wanted more Kennedy liberals and progressives to be elected.

The GOP was taking advantage of the Cuban issue. So Kennedy is now out on a limb and that’s when he finds out that the Soviets are putting missiles in Cuba. He had no choice but to react strongly because people would say, “Mr. President, didn’t you just say that you would not countenance this?” Not only did he have to react for mid-term election reasons, he had to react for alliance reasons. His allies would wonder about the meaning of his guarantees. And what about the Soviets? How would the Soviets react if, after publicly saying he wouldn’t accept such things, he privately accepted them?

So John Kennedy was put in a box because of a red line he didn’t really mean to draw, which is a lesson, I think, for other presidents, too. So that’s the dilemma for John Kennedy. The dilemma for Khrushchev, I’ll say very quickly, is that he and Sergei Khrushchev, who has done great work on this, Khrushchev was in a box of his own, but his box was different.  He had basically decided to move ahead with one kind of missile over another and it meant the Soviet Union was far weaker than the United States in 1961-’62. 

The American power that he saw around the world, he felt threatened him and threatened his allies. Cuba was one of them but, as the Soviet records have shown, it wasn’t just about Cuba. It was about a lot of things, not simply Cuba. Khrushchev wanted to find a quick fix to send a message to the United States: “Stop pushing us around.” And to be sure that the great symbol of the youth of the revolution, Cuba, would not be taken over.  So he is in a box and he sends the missiles. Unfortunately, he sends them secretly, lies to Kennedy and, before you know it, they’re at the brink of war.

MARY SAROTTE:  I’d like to go over to Jim more on this topic of Khrushchev’s motives. What inspired him to put missiles in Cuba?

JIM HERSHBERG:  Well, as Tim and his co-author, Alexander Forsenko, have written at great length, it was a whole panoply of reasons, and it also reflected Khrushchev’s personality, which was somewhat of a gambler, as the CIA estimated.  He saw an array of issues and thought that sending missiles to Cuba could solve all of them and also elevate his own standing.  So it’s like, “Tastes great, less filling” – it’s not one nor another reason. It’s a whole series. And as Tim wrote, it’s like the Agatha Christie mystery where the answer is, “Whodunit?” All of them. It was to deter an American invasion of Cuba; it was to save the Cuban Revolution; it was, he hoped, at least partially to redress the nuclear balance, because Soviet inferiority had been publicly revealed by the United States in late 1961.

It was a general offensive strategy in the Cold War, which he had spoken of in early 1962. It was showing up the Chinese, who in the emerging Sino-Soviet schism were accusing him personally and the Soviets of weakness, under the codename “Revisionism.” This would show up the Chinese. The Chinese could talk back, but the Soviets could take action. It would also deal with the Soviet economic plight. The agricultural program was not going well. This was a way to gain security on the cheap – deter the Americans, extend the nuclear umbrella, and yet spend a lot less than sending untold numbers of Soviet conventional forces to Cuba. 

And there was a secret crisis in Soviet-Cuban relations. The Cubans were leaning a little bit towards the Chinese. There was tension between Castro and the old-line pro-Moscow Cuban Community Party, the PSB, and, in fact, the Soviet ambassador was essentially on the verge of being evicted. And reinforcing that alliance was something that sending missiles would do. So Khrushchev had a whole panoply of motives and he therefore rejected advice saying, “What if the Americans find this out? They’re not going to stand for it.”

MARY SAROTTE:  Michael, I’m wondering if you could both share with us a little bit about what you think are the key moments in the narrative of the crisis, but also address the larger question: Is this really a story of individuals and their choices or are there greater historical forces at work, and the individuals don’t really have much to say in what’s going on?

MICHAEL DOBBS:  Right. Well, the key moment in the crisis was, of course, exactly today 50 years ago, which was the day that we discovered that Khrushchev had been lying to us and had, in fact, deployed nuclear weapons in Cuba. The CIA analyzes it the following day on the 15th.

They don’t tell Kennedy immediately. The 3 a.m. moment actually does not come at 3 a.m. when they discover it, but at 8 a..m the next morning because they think that they’ll give the President a good night’s sleep, because he’ll need it over the next two weeks.

And then there’s a week of private decision-making, which was very important. The Americans had the luxury of being able to think for a week about what they were going to do about this challenge. Had they decided immediately, as the President had indicated in those remarks you heard, the decision would probably have been different. They would probably have attacked the missile sites. So there was a week of deciding what they would do about it.

Then the blockade is implemented and eventually the peak of the crisis comes on October the 27th – it was called “Black Saturday” – when many things started happening that nobody had really predicted. And to answer the second part of your question, I think this is the drama of the missile crisis. It’s the drama of individuals, leaders -- Khrushchev and Kennedy -- who actually end up thinking in very similar terms. They both brought the world to the edge of the abyss, and they both want to bring it back. They’ve got no interest in unleashing a war but in the meantime, they’ve unleashed all these forces that they cannot control.  They do not fully control their military. Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev fully appreciates what is happening in Cuba. 

When I researched my book, One Minute To Midnight, what really struck me was the difference between what was happening in the Oval Office and what was actually happening on the ground.

And there were many things that the President didn’t understand. I mean, there’s the famous Watergate question: What did the President know and when did he know it? But the real question in the Missile Crisis was: What didn’t the President know and when didn’t he know it?  Because there were so many things he didn’t understand about what was happening in Cuba. He thought that there were 8,000 Soviet troops on the island. In fact, there were 42,000. He thought they were only armed with missiles that could reach the territory of the United States. In fact, they had 98 tactical nuclear missiles that would have been used to wipe out an American beachhead.

He didn’t know that a plane went missing over the Soviet Union, a U-2 spy plane, on “Black Saturday,” the most dangerous day of the crisis. He didn’t know there was a confrontation in the Caribbean between the US Navy trying to bring up Soviet submarines that were armed with nuclear torpedoes. So there were all these things that the President didn’t know. And similarly on the Soviet side.

But Kennedy, I think one of his great qualities was that he had a kind of instinctive knowledge of these things. He understood that things go wrong, and he derived that understanding from his experience in the military during World War II. He liked to say the military always screws up, and that wasn’t just an intellectual understanding. It was something that he had seen in the South Pacific, commanding a PT boat. And it was that feeling that events are getting out of control that both he and Khrushchev shared, and I think that’s what led them to bring the crisis to an end after the harrowing events of “Black Saturday.”

MARY SAROTTE:  I’d like to go over to Brian, who in a previous life before he became an author and started teaching at the University of Miami, was the principal Cuban analyst for the CIA and spent a great deal of his life thinking about what Castro was doing, Castro’s motives. So I’d be interested in what you believe Castro’s motives were in this crisis and what he viewed as the important points in its unfolding?

BRIAN LATELL:  Mary, Castro, in one of his recollections about the crisis, said that those days, his guerrilla instincts all came back to the fore. He was in the mood of a warrior. He was militant. He was idiosyncratic, and he was volatile. As Khrushchev and Kennedy were struggling during those last few days to resolve the crisis without resorting to war, Fidel Castro was stimulating military conflict. Castro, on the morning of October 27th -- “Black Saturday” that we keep hearing about, the worst, the most dangerous, the most tense day of the Missile Crisis -- Fidel Castro ordered all of his artillery to begin firing on American reconnaissance aircraft at dawn, at sunrise that morning of “Black Saturday.” 

Fidel Castro said later on the record, “War began in those moments.” And the commander, one of the Soviet generals there with the expeditionary force, General Gribkov, said essentially the same thing. He said that, “We Soviet commanders, all the way from the generals down to the lieutenants in the Soviet force, we all agreed that conflict, military conflict, essentially began that morning.” October 27th, “Black Saturday,” Kennedy and Khrushchev are desperately trying to bring this crisis to a peaceful end, and Castro is stoking the fan of conflict.

Fidel Castro was so persuasive with his Soviet military counterparts that later that day, “Black Saturday,” the U-2 was shot down. We saw earlier in the video that the U-2 was shot down. It’s very interesting. Nikita Khrushchev believed, I think until his death, that Fidel Castro had personally ordered the shoot-down by a Soviet ground-to-air missile site, Khrushchev believed that Castro had actually somehow been responsible for it himself. Apparently, he was not. It was a Soviet commander who actually gave the order to fire the missile. But it was in the spirit of joint conflict. The Soviet military and the Cuban military were now essentially resisting the Americans as one.

General Gribkov said that, “It was amazing that we were prepared, we, Soviet forces” -- including himself, the general -- “if the Americans invaded, we were prepared to fight as hard as we could and then to go into the mountains of Cuba, and to fight to the death as guerillas with our Cuban comrades.” This was a Soviet general who said that.

Arthur Schlesinger I think summed it up very nicely in something that he wrote later. He said that psychologically, by “Black Saturday,” psychologically Fidel Castro had come to dominate most of the Soviet leadership in Cuba. Fidel was that persuasive, that mesmerizing. He was that much of a role model, a revolutionary role model to the Soviets, that they were beginning to follow his bidding, if not his actual orders. 

Gribkov, the general, said, “We were inspired, we were imbued by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary legitimacy.” So Castro ordered the first shots that were fired, the aircraft barrages on the American aircraft. He was partly responsible, he later admitted, for the shoot-down of the U-2.

And later on the evening of “Black Saturday,” he wrote what is commonly known as the “Armageddon letter” to Khrushchev. He went to the Soviet embassy in Havana late that night, October – well, he actually went on the 26th, the night of the 26th, and he was there until dawn the next day, the 27th, he dictated a letter. It was an apocalyptic letter. It’s commonly called the “Armageddon letter.” And he recommended to Khrushchev that if Cuba is invaded by the Americans, Khrushchev should not hesitate but to launch a preemptive nuclear attack on American targets.

Now, I don’t think that Castro was irrational. I think he was wildly idiosyncratic. I think it was bizarre, but I don’t think it was totally irrational. He knew that the tactical nuclear weapons were on the ground in Cuba. He really wanted those weapons. He later said, “Had I been in charge, and if the Americans had invaded, I would’ve ordered the tactical nuclear weapons fired on American invading forces.” So Castro’s “Armageddon letter” to Khrushchev recommending a first preemptive nuclear strike on the United States apparently assumed that when the Americans invade, nuclear weapons are going to be fired on the battlefield.  The Soviet Union, the Soviet general staff, should not wait after those weapons are fired for an American nuclear, a strategic nuclear assault, on Soviet military and civilian targets. That was Fidel Castro. He came to dominate the Missile Crisis during its final, essentially its final day, “Black Saturday.”

MARY SAROTTE:  Jim actually wants to jump in on that point.

JIM HERSHBERG:  Thank you, Brian, for bringing us to the most dangerous day in human history, Saturday, October 27th, because I can follow up precisely what happened when that “Armageddon letter” reached Nikita Khrushchev. And to do so, we don’t have an empty chair.

That idea has already been taken up for this year. But I’d like to bring up on stage a missing witness that all of those wonderful critical oral history conferences in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and even more recent, which is of course Nikita Khrushchev. And I’m going to read to you a passage, not from the smuggled-out memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev that were taperecorded after he was deposed in 1964 and published in the West many years later. And the “Armageddon letter” was only disclosed in a volume that was called “The Glasnost Tapes,” the third volume of Khrushchev’s tape-recorded memoirs, only in 1990. And it caused a lot of hullabaloo because Castro denied he had asked for a preemptive strike. But it was later confirmed that he clearly said, “If the Americans attack us, you should unleash any means, no matter how terrible, on the imperialists.” Because basically his view was that World War III would have started.

But just a few days later, on October 30th, 1962 in the Kremlin, Nikita Khrushchev gave his own version of what happened. And the record I’m going to read to you from is from a Czechoslovak document that was found in the archives in Prague. And it’s going to be published this week for the first time, along with about 850 pages of other non-American, non-US translated documents from Communist countries and other countries, more than 24 of them from around the world, by the Cold War International History Project. It’s available free at the Cold War International History Project website, and that’s at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Khrushchev explained what happened to the Czechoslovak Communist party leader, Antonin Novotny, in the following. “In a letter, Fidel Castro proposed that we ourselves should be the first to start an atomic war. Do you know what that would mean? That probably cannot even be expressed at all. We were completely aghast. Castro clearly has no idea about what thermonuclear war is. After all, if a war started, it would primarily be Cuba that would vanish from the face of the earth. At the same time, it is clear that with a first strike, one cannot today knock the opponent out of the fight.” He goes on to say, “What would we gain if we, ourselves, started a war? After all, millions of people would die – in our country, too – can we even contemplate a thing like that? Could we allow ourselves to threaten the world of socialism, which was hard-won by the working class? Only a person who has no idea what nuclear war means or who has been so blinded, for instance, like Castro, by revolutionary passion, could talk like that. We did not, of course, take up that proposal, especially because we had a chance to avert war.”  And there are other passages that essentially make it seem that Nikita Khrushchev was the adult and Fidel Castro was the hotheaded teenager who wanted the car keys, to go get revenge on a bully in a schoolyard fight.

By the way, that “Armageddon letter” was the product of a four or five hour session with the Soviet ambassador, where they were drinking beer and eating Cuban sausages.  I don’t know what it is about eating Cuban sausages and drinking beer that leads you to the edge of nuclear war … 

BRIAN LATELL:  Was rum involved?


BRIAN LATELL:  Was rum involved?

JIM HERSHBERG:  It should have been rum, but Alekseyev remembered beer. But here’s the point: The Cubans were not involved at all in the discussions during this crisis so they became angrier and angrier when it was clear, as this thing dragged on, that the two daddies, the two superpowers, were going to make a decision over their heads. So whatever Castro’s basic revolutionary elan, there’s no doubt that the warrior Castro comes out, because he’s really angry, because he’s been insulted primarily by his ally, the Soviet Union.

I was going to make a point about the two adults. It’s very important to understand -- at least let me try to persuade you to understand -- that both Kennedy and Castro, both Kennedy and Khrushchev wanted to demilitarize the Cold War. Both of them, for different reasons, felt that the militaries had played too large a role in the Cold War to that point. Kennedy had a problem with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and you saw some of that played out. This is a very deep problem. There is an assumption sometimes in American history that military leaders know best what to do. I can’t comment on the current military leaders of the United States, but I can tell you that if either Dwight Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy had followed the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their era, we would have had a nuclear war at some point in the 1950s or the ‘60s. 

American military leaders, these were men who had fought in World War II, and in their thinking they were pre-nuclear. This is the problem. They had won a war, they were heroes, but they had won a conventional war, and they applied the same logic to a nuclear era. One of the things that John Kennedy said to his first presidential biographer, William Manchester, was, “You know, I have to be a different kind of President, even from Dwight Eisenhower. I’m the first nuclear age President.” Remember he said in that little interview, “There aren’t total solutions.” What he meant was, in this era if you seek a total solution, you may end up with a total calamity, that you have to be ready to negotiate, you have to be ready to find common ground.  Kennedy felt that way, and everything we know from the Soviet Union proves that Khrushchev felt the same way. How fortunate were we that those were the two people -- frankly, they put themselves in boxes -- but how fortunate were we that those were the two people in charge at a moment like that in US history, in world history?

BRIAN LATELL:  And not Fidel Castro. Mary, may I just say one more thing to close out the point that Jim and I were making: Is it any wonder, then, given what we’ve said about Fidel Castro’s behavior, especially on that last day, “Black Saturday,” is it any wonder that Khrushchev was suddenly in a great hurry to settle the crisis peacefully? And he did that by the next day. He could’ve gotten a better deal from Kennedy, especially with regard to the Jupiters in Turkey, but Khrushchev was in a hurry. He was desperately afraid that Fidel Castro was playing with fire, and that there might be a global holocaust. 

Fidel opened fire on the aircraft. Fidel had some responsibility for the shoot down of the U-2. Fidel wrote the bizarre letter advocating a preemptive nuclear attack and, perhaps worst of all, if it’s possible, Soviet commanders on the ground in Cuba were losing command and control of their own forces. Soviet forces were becoming more and more responsive to Castro and the Cubans and not to their own commanders, not to Moscow. So it’s no wonder that the crisis ended when it did, and we can thank Fidel Castro for that.

MARY SAROTTE:  Jim wants to jump in again. But just briefly, I wanted to ask you, would you agree with Jim’s statement that Khrushchev was the adult and Castro was the hotheaded teenager wanting … 

JIM HERSHBERG:  That was the perception, certainly, from Moscow.

BRIAN LATELL:  Well, I think that’s a useful metaphor. But I’ve never thought of Fidel Castro as a teenager. 

JIM HERSHBERG:  I didn’t mean to say that was my view of Castro, but that was certainly not only Khrushchev’s, but Mikoyan’s view increasingly, as Svetlana Savranskaya said earlier, about the idea of leaving nuclear weapons in nuclear hands.

MARY SAROTTE:  Could you identify Mikoyan for the audience?

JIM HERSHBERG:  Anastis Mikoyan was Khrushchev’s chief lieutenant and troubleshooter, and who Khrushchev sent to Havana to mollify Fidel. But we shouldn’t overly personalize. He wasn’t alone. All of the Cubans, virtually all of the Cubans, certainly the leadership, were greatly upset at what they viewed as the humiliating collapse by the Soviets. And, by the way, another document that we’re publishing this week, Che Guevara -- you know, the fashion icon of later years, then the revolutionary icon -- told the Yugoslav ambassador in Havana, “You know what the Soviets should have done? They should have told the Americans that if you fire at our ships, if you fire at our forces, we won’t just use our tactical nuclear weapons, we will nuke New York. That will be our response.” And he expressed regret that the Cubans didn’t have control, because we would have used them unhesitatingly.

But I just want to summarize what Tim said. I’ve been following for the last 20 years the evidence that’s been flowing out from Communist and other sources since the end of the Cold War, and if I were to summarize what do they say about Kennedy and Khrushchev, about the Missile Crisis, in just one passage? I think Kennedy and Khrushchev both look worse for their actions before the crisis. Kennedy, because more has come out about the covert operations, military planning, assassinations, plotting that he approved against Castro, even though Cuba was not such a threat to American national security, and that gave not only the Cubans, but the Soviets, reasonable fears about a potential American invasion, even if one was not really intended.

And Khrushchev, by approving, secretly, tactical nuclear weapons was risking escalation to World War III without really thinking through the consequences. Both of them, I think, look worse for their actions before the crisis. But both Kennedy and Khrushchev look even better for how they managed to come to a common language to resolve the crisis peacefully. Kennedy, on October 16th, when he is first informed, he is very belligerent. He only gradually comes to the idea of starting with the blockade, i.e. quarantine, to give time for further steps. Khrushchev has less time to react. As Tim and Michael have written, when he is first informed that the Americans have discovered the missiles on October 22nd, the initial reaction is belligerent: “We are not going to stop our ships. The blockade is piracy.” He only has two days to change his mind and to start backing off.  So it is really an amazing story of those two leaders going from irresponsibility, not thinking through the consequences of their action, to finding a common language just in time.

MARY SAROTTE:  Actually, I wanted to, not only those two leaders, but perhaps talking a little bit about Castro and the assassination attempts that you mentioned, perhaps a question for Michael and Brian.  What was the thinking behind those and what role did they play in contributing, setting the conditions that then led to this crisis?

MICHAEL DOBBS:  Well, the assassination attempts actually, I didn’t think the Cuban leadership was not aware of the assassination attempts at this stage, as far as I remember. But the Cuban leadership was aware of Operation Mongoose, the campaign of sabotage against the Castro regime. And it wasn’t very effective. One of the Americans said, “Well, it was just a psychological [inaudible] inaction for not doing anything.” But as far as the Cubans were concerned and as far as their Russian patrons were concerned, it sent the message that the Americans were determined, one way or the other, to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba. And that was central to Soviet and Cuban decision-making in the missile crisis. 

I’d just like to sort of add to one point that has been made about Kennedy and Khrushchev being the adults in the room. They, of course, made a lot of mistakes in bringing the world to this point.

But during the 13 days, I see them as being on the same side.  Graham Allison, who you’re going to hear from in the next panel, talked about the rational actors. Well, Khrushchev and Kennedy were both rational actors. But there were a lot of irrational actors, too. And it was this contest between the rational actors and the irrational actors that is central to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Who were the irrational actors? Well, Fidel was irrational. But there were also people who sort of stumbled, pilots who didn’t receive, who the two leaders could not control. There were a whole lot of irrational things happening. I mean, thank God on the last day the two rational adults, rational actors, the two adults in the room, managed to get control of this and bring it to an end. And that they had something in common.

JIM HERSHBERG:  I would say, though, it’s very important, because it makes the story much more colorful that both adults -- and adults I think to do this on occasion -- change their minds. I think it took Kennedy a little bit longer to actually make up his mind to go with the quarantine than some would assume. It took him a whole week, and he wasn’t even sure until the very end and he became sure when he asked the Air Force, “Can you, in a surgical strike, get rid of all of the missiles?” And they said, “Sir, no. It’s about a 75 to 80 percent chance.” And then he asked, “Well, what would be the consequence if the Soviets used their remaining missiles against the United States?” “Oh, sir, about 30 million people might die in the Southeastern portion of the United States.” 

Kennedy recognized, because by that point a number of the Soviet missiles were actually operational in Cuba – they had not been earlier – that he could not, as President of the United States, take such a risk. But for the entire week what nagged at him was, “Okay, I put in this blockade, but Khrushchev could just keep the missiles there. What’s stopping him from keeping what’s already there? I’m stopping future shipments. How do I know that the threat of war will be enough to move Khrushchev?” Because, of course, Kennedy couldn’t predict that Khrushchev was an adult in the room, and on the Khrushchev side, Khrushchev, in the very first moments of this crisis -- and for the Soviets the crisis is not two weeks, it’s only one week -- Khrushchev is really nervous and is talking about using tactical nuclear weapons against an American attack.

Now, he changes his mind. And, again, to go back to Anastas Mikoyan, I think Mikoyan plays a very important role in softening – he’d always done that – in softening Nikita’s sharp edges. Mikoyan plays a role in trying to make Soviet policy towards the submarines, for example, more sensible. So Khrushchev and Kennedy are not just adults, but they’re human beings. And what’s great about this crisis is that time worked on the side of rationality, time for everybody to think about the consequences of their actions, and the world benefitted.

TIM NAFTALI:  We shouldn’t have too sharp of a divide between rational adults in the Kremlin and the White House, and irrational Fidel. Like Humphrey Bogart coming to Casablanca for the waters, he was also misinformed in the following way: He believed that Nikita Khrushchev shared his view that if the United States invaded Cuba, this was not a local, limited, regional conflict. This was the first salvo of World War III and that it was simple military logic to get in the first blow. He didn’t understand that much like Dwight Eisenhower was not going to send the cavalry to rescue the Hungarians from the Soviets in 1956, but instead ready to get maximum propaganda benefit from it. If the US invaded Cuba, the Soviets were not going to destroy Moscow and Leningrad and lose 100 million people to Robert McNamara’s arsenal. He was going to get maximum propaganda advantage, and it would be a very unfortunate outcome.

But there was a not entirely irrational misunderstanding. And John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were believers in what I think, in retrospect, appears to be a pretty irrational system of nuclear weapons and mutual nuclear deterrents at levels where a political disagreement can lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions.

MICHAEL DOBBS:  I don’t think Kennedy did believe in it.

TIM NAFTALI:  To some extent.

MICHAEL DOBBS:  At one point, Kennedy says, “It is completely crazy that two men, 8,000 miles apart, are able to blow up the world.” He thought that whole thing was completely crazy, and the experience of the Missile Crisis led him to change his views.

TIM NAFTALI:  I agree.

MICHAEL DOBBS:  About the rationality of nuclear war, and he expresses that the next year in his speech at the American University.

JIM HERSHBERG:  I think he believed it a lot before the Cuban Missile Crisis, but America was a hawkish country and Kennedy was very sensitive to the fact that even though privately -- the evidence is overwhelming, by the way, because he told the Soviets he thought this way -- he thought this was nuclear nonsense. Publicly, in America, there are times when if you don’t seem strong, if you don’t use this sort of strong, hawkish language, you know, blah, blah, blah, you’ll seem weak as a president. What about presidents who understand dilemmas, that understand the world is complicated? Kennedy did. The evidence is overwhelming. But he couldn’t say it publicly, Michael, until after the Cuban Missile Crisis, because he got his chops with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Until the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was not known as a good foreign policy president. If anything, he was known for the Bay of Pigs. It’s the Cuban Missile Crisis that allows him to say at American University in June of 1963 what he really thinks about the Cold War.

TIM NAFTALI:  And a year later for Stanley Kubrick to put out “Dr. Strangelove,” and say, “This is crazy.”

JIM HERSHBERG:  Peter Sellers should thank Nikita Khrushchev.

TIM NAFTALI:  Absolutely.

JIM HERSHBERG:  I knew it.

MARY SAROTTE:  I want to hear from Brian about assassination attempts on Castro. But then we’ll come back to you, Michael, I promise.

BRIAN LATELL:  I do get into that in some detail in “Castro’s Secrets,” my new book. The most well-developed, the most serious, the most egregiously well-planned assassination attempt occurred in 1963. It was a year after the Missile Crisis. There was a Cuban – he’s still alive, he lives in Miami and in Spain – his name is Rolando Cubela. I interviewed Cubela in Miami. He was the chosen assassin in the eyes of the CIA, and in the eyes, I think, of Robert Kennedy. Cubela was seen as the ideal assassin to kill Castro after several other attempts, as we have heard, had failed in earlier years, but Cubela was the ideal candidate in their eyes. He had already killed in cold blood. He had murdered a Batista colonel in 1956, in a savage attack at a Havana night club. He was a wounded veteran of the wars, the guerilla wars against Batista.  And when I met this man, he showed me the scar, the wound from his own war experience as a guerilla. The scar ran down all the way down his shoulder to his bicep. He was a commandante. He had the highest military rank in the Cuban armed forces. He was a friend of both of the Castro brothers. He was the perfect candidate, the best one that the CIA ever had, to assassinate Fidel. He had a beach place that he used at Valadero, right next to one that Fidel used. And all he had to do was get close enough to Fidel to kill him.

The CIA recruited this man. He was known in the declassified literature as AMLASH. That was the CIA cryptonym for this man, Rolando Cubela. Cubela was recruited by the CIA. He had a number of meetings with CIA case officers in South America and in Europe. He was trained in demolitions in France. He went to an American airbase in the south of France. He was taught demolitions and explosives by the agency. And he met in October 1963 with one of the highest level officials at the CIA, Desmond Fitzgerald, Des traveled to Paris, met in a safe house with Cubela, and Fitzgerald told Cubela, “I am the Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s personal representative in this meeting.” 

About a month later, the CIA case officer working for Desmond Fitzgerald was in Paris, in the same safe house, meeting the same Rolando Cubela. It was November 22nd, 1963 when they met. And Sanchez, who I also interviewed, a retired CIA case officer, fluent in Spanish, Sanchez was meeting with Cubela and giving Cubela sort of final directions and instructions for the assassination of Fidel Castro. And as they’re getting to the point, Sanchez reaches into his pocket –  conveniently I have it right here – he reaches into his pocket, and he pulls out a pen. It’s a PaperMate pen, but it’s not really a pen. Instead of an ink cartridge, there is a syringe inside of this PaperMate pen. And Sanchez tells Cubela, “All you have to do is fill the syringe with poison, and the next time you see Fidel just lightly scratch him. The needle on the pen is that fine –  a light scratch with the right poison might very well kill Fidel.” The moment is so dramatic, because the phone rings in the CIA safe house, and it’s Desmond Fitzgerald. He’s in Washington. Sanchez picks up the phone and his boss, Fitzgerald, tells him, “Terminate the operation. President Kennedy has just been killed in Dallas.” A remarkable coincidence of events.

But Fidel Castro -- I have to say one more thing, Michael -- Fidel Castro knew all of this. He knew that Bobby Kennedy had a role in it. He knew the CIA was plotting his assassination, because I demonstrate, I prove beyond any doubt in my new book, that Rolando Cubela, the assassin, was a double agent, working for Fidel Castro all along.

MARY SAROTTE:  This is, just to repeat, you said, a year after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

BRIAN LATELL:  It’s a year after the Missile Crisis.

MARY SAROTTE:  So we don’t want to exaggerate the degree of peace, love and understanding that breaks out at the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jim?

JIM HERSHBERG:  The incoherence of the Kennedy Administration’s policy towards Cuba is such that it would be simultaneously involved in plotting Castro’s assassination, but also in a hidden, mostly indirect dialogue with Havana, to explore the possibility of some sort of modus vivendi. And Peter Kornbluh is going to be telling the story in his forthcoming book, but much of this has leaked out, including the fact that even as AMLASH was being prepared for an assassination, there was an initiative through a reporter, Lisa Howard, to communicate a message, and a French reporter, who had just met with JFK, was passing a message to Fidel. 

But I want to go back to the Missile Crisis. One of the least explored aspects of the Missile Crisis, on which new evidence is emerging even this week from the Kennedy Library, is that one option from the beginning to the end of the 13 days was, “Should we try to get a message from Fidel, to basically communicate the following.” The United States by this point had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba at the beginning of January 1961. There was no US embassy in Havana. The US, after the failure of the Bay of Pigs, had done its best to isolate Cuba diplomatically through the Organization of American States, had imposed an economic blockade, and yet there was fitful communications.

And all through the 13 days there is the idea, “If we can get word to Fidel, ‘If you could kick the Soviets out, everything else can flow from that in terms of being welcomed back into the hemisphere.’” And the whole story climaxed on that same October 27th. The US passed a message approved by the EXCOMM to the Brazilian government on blank paper from the US embassy, with no stationary letterhead, typed in Portuguese saying, “Please deliver this to Fidel Castro personally.” They didn’t say, “That’s because the CIA is intercepting all your diplomatic cables and we don’t want word of this to spread,” but, “If you could send an emissary to Fidel, present this as your proposal, we will back it up.”

And it so happened that the emissary was sent, met with Fidel, Fidel came to the Brazilian embassy, but really didn’t take it seriously, because he didn’t understand that those words had been approved by John F. Kennedy.  But that’s a sub-history. It just shows how desperate Kennedy was. At the same time he was plotting for an invasion, sending the message via Bobby Kennedy to Dobrynin, to compromise on the Turkish Jupiters, going to the UN, the back channel, he was also trying to send word to Fidel. And it just shows he didn’t think any of it would work and, you know, we’re all lucky we didn’t get to find out what would have happened.

MICHAEL DOBBS:   There was a lot that was contradictory about US policy and Kennedy’s own policy, but he was firm on one thing, which was that he didn’t have much time left. And here I disagree with Tim, who says that time was running in favor of the rational actors. That may have been the case at the beginning of the crisis, but by the end of the crisis, by “Black Saturday,” I think things were getting out of control and both Kennedy and Khrushchev realized this. They were in the position of Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, who said, “I didn’t control events; events controlled me.” There were so many different things happening. We were moving to higher levels of nuclear alert. And when you move to higher levels of nuclear alert, accidents can happen. Nuclear missiles and warheads were moving around Cuba. Neither leader fully understood what was happening and that was why they understood that these chaotic forces could take over, and they had to bring the thing to an end. And that’s why they ended up giving a little more than they … If they had stuck it out for a few more days, they might have got the other side to back down more completely, but neither of them were willing to take that risk.

TIM NAFTALI:  No, 13 days was just about right. My fear was that it would have been a threeday crisis, because if it would have been a three-day crisis it would have been a war. And the challenge for each leader was to figure out the turning point. And one thing that you’ll see if you go through and look at the records of both Soviet and American decision-making is that when the Soviets were afraid that Kennedy was about to attack, that’s when Khrushchev was looking for a diplomatic settlement. And then when the Soviets got a little bit more confident that maybe Kennedy was not that irrational, then they upped the ante and said, “Well, maybe we can get the Turkish missiles, or maybe we can get them to close their military base in Pakistan,” or what have you.

Once both sides realized, as Michael has just expressed, that war was nigh, neither side wanted to wait any longer. But it was their ability to use time effectively to make decisions and not go with the rash reaction – Kennedy was really mad when those missiles were put in, because he went public about how he said it wouldn’t happen – and Khrushchev was really nervous when he heard that Kennedy was about to make a speech, because he wasn’t sure what Kennedy was about to announce.  Had those men acted on their initial passions, they world would have been a very different place in 1962. That’s what I meant by them using time effectively.

JIM HERSHBERG:  Time is absolutely crucial, because for months, even years, afterwards Khrushchev would be attacked by Castro for giving in too fast. And Khrushchev’s defense always was, “Um, this was necessary to have the peace.” He even bragged in that document that I was talking about to the Czechoslovak Communist leader that, “The world sees me as a lamb. I am a man of peace, because I saved it.” And the Cubans could say, “No, he could have slowed down the process, consulted, accepted with the condition of allowing, getting Cuban consent for UN or other inspections of the removal of the missiles.” But Khrushchev definitely felt he was losing control of it.

The great unknown and unknowable is when Bobby Kennedy on Saturday night sees Dobrinyn he is giving a de facto ultimatum, although he and other Kennedy administration officials would never accept that word.

MARY SAROTTE:  Could you identify Dobrinyn for the audience?

JIM HERSHBERG:  Dobrinyn, of course, is the Soviet ambassador. He says, “We need a decision, because an invasion is probable in 24 to 48 hours.” Khrushchev gives in even faster. I think it’s highly likely, and I suspect Michael and Tim would agree – although I’d be curious – that JFK was probably bluffing, that he wouldn’t have invaded. You could’ve tightened the embargo further to include more Cuban goods, especially petroleum, oil and lubricants, that Kennedy, having read “The Guns of August,” having been so attuned to what the costs of nuclear war would be, would be unlikely to have actually carried through.

TIM NAFTALI:  There is a myth that my colleague, David Coleman, has exploded it; he did it a few years ago and he’s done it again in a book.  There’s a myth about the tactical nuclear weapons that I’d like to deal with now, because it’s the answer to your question.

The United States government knew that there were tactical nuclear weapons with nuclear war heads on the island. And that’s what makes the US military’s planning about Cuba outrageous, because they plan for the invasion of Cuba as if they were going to be in a nuclear environment. This was not the first time that Kennedy had encountered this kind of military thinking. A year earlier, over Laos, when he was considering the invasion of Laos for reasons we don’t have to go into today, but this is important, he was told that there was a nuclear component, a nuclear dimension that, by the way, was only declassified three years ago.

JIM HERSHBERG:  The Chinese went in.

TIM NAFTALI:  The US government was planning a nuclear war with China as part of its handling of Laos. Now, it wasn’t going to happen immediately, but presidents -- and this is something that we should someday learn more about -- presidents actually pre-delegate the use of nuclear weapons. It’s a myth that the president has to press a button. There are ways to actually tell the military in advance, “You may use nuclear weapons under the following circumstances.” In 1961, John F. Kennedy was asked by the military to give permission for them to use nuclear weapons against China as part of this Laos business. He knew very well that tactical nuclear weapons in the Cold War had gotten out of hand. And I don’t doubt that he understood, in 1962, that if he let the US military invade Cuba, they would be in a nuclear environment, just as they would have been in Laos.

So I don’t think it was a surprise to McNamara. People have talked about how his memory has changed. It wasn’t a surprise to McNamara when he heard about this in 1992. He had just forgotten. It was not a surprise. So that shows you the risk that the US military would have taken without civilian leadership. Something to keep in mind.

MICHAEL DOBBS:  The US military knew that there were Frog missiles in Cuba which were nuclear capable. They didn’t know that nuclear warheads for these missiles were there. It did come as a huge surprise to them 30 years later when they discovered that there were actually tactical nuclear warheads, so many of them – 98 of them.

JIM HERSHBERG:  But, Michael, the plan that was brought from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the 25th or 26th of October included the assumption that American forces would be met by nuclear tactical weapons.

MICHAEL DOBBS:  Well, we discovered the nuclear capable Frogs on the 25th, and once we knew that the Soviets had nuclear capable missiles there, we didn’t know if they were, in fact, equipped with nuclear weapons. But as soon as that happened, the American commanders started demanding tactical nuclear weapons of their own. And so, in fact, we were in the early stages of a nuclear war at this point, particularly on the 27th.

JIM HERSHBERG:  The question I inflict on my poor undergraduates in my US foreign policy class is how dangerous was the Cuban Missile Crisis? And they have to get into these kinds of weeds. But I just want to make the broader point about, so what?  Why is it worth continuing? One of the questions is what impact do nuclear weapons have in international affairs, because there are those who look at the Cuban Missile Crisis and say the glass is half full. Crisis management worked. Rational actors stopped it from getting out of control and, in the end, nuclear deterrence kept everyone at bay and, therefore, we can rely on nuclear deterrents for the indefinite future. 

Others say there were so many contingent events that could have gone wrong, so many factors that were poorly understood, that we survived due to Dean Acheson’s phrase in a different context – “blind, dumb luck.”  And we can’t count on that every single time. And, therefore, our goal for the future should be nuclear abolition. Of course, the third hand is, some would say, “Well, that makes the world safer for conventional war.” But the arguments about, should we rely on nuclear deterrence forever, or should we try to get rid of nuclear weapons because sooner or later something is going to go wrong in a crisis, a lot of it hinges on how you read the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

MARY SAROTTE:  This actually goes to the closing question I wanted to ask, which is lessons of the crisis for today? And you’ve started to answer that question, but I’d like to give Brian, Tim and Michael also a chance to answer it as well.

BRIAN LATELL:  Well, Fidel Castro was a highly idiosyncratic, charismatic, militant, unpredictable leader. If he had had nuclear weapons -- which he aspired to in November – we know that after the crisis he wanted to keep the tactical nuclear weapons, Mikoyan refused; Khrushchev knew much better by then than to let him have his own nuclear weapons. But if any leader like that today, say the North Koreans or the Iranians -- highly idiosyncratic, militant, unpredictable leaders -- acquire nuclear weapons, how dangerous the world is going to be. 

McNamara in, what was it called in that documentary – “The Shadow of War?”

BRIAN LATELL:  “The Fog of War.” He says, “We came that close to nuclear holocaust.” And any other highly idiosyncratic leader like Castro or worse than Castro could make the world a very dangerous place again. 

TIM NAFTALI:  You can also make the argument that the Cuban Missile Crisis reminds you of the role of bluff in international affairs, and that there are countries that will bluff that they have more nuclear weapons or are more capable of having nuclear weapons than they actually have in order to keep you away. If you react on the bluff, you can actually militarize the situation that doesn’t require a military approach, but a diplomatic one. And if you want evidence in the recent past, look at Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein pretended to have nuclear weapons, because he was afraid of us and he was afraid of other people in the Middle East. He was doing the same thing that Nikita Khrushchev did, which is to pretend to be stronger than you are because you’re fearful of American power.

Whether we like it or not, our very existence as a powerful, successful country is threatening to other countries. Whether we like it or not, we can be just ourselves and we’re threatening. So that’s one lesson, which is be careful of how you act on a bluff. The second is presidents should be allowed to compromise, not on our national interest, but on minor points. John F. Kennedy was prepared to compromise, and he was prepared to think about what the other side needed for there to be a lasting settlement. That’s a great talent in a president.

MICHAEL DOBBS:  I think, just one lesson. It’s the same as the lesson that Kennedy himself actually drew during the Missile Crisis, which is don’t get into a war unless you’re very sure about what is going to happen. And in the case of a nuclear war, you can’t be. So don’t get into it unless you can explain in advance to the American people what you’re doing. And I think that lesson was ignored subsequently in American history, and I think it’s still a lesson that we should remember today.

MARY SAROTTE:  Well, I’m afraid that our time is up, so I’d like to ask you to please join me in thanking the panel for their contribution. [applause]

Panel Three

TOM PUTNAM:  Welcome back. So while the Cuban Missile Crisis, at least from the American perspective or the Kennedy perspective, may have ended in 13 days, obviously there was much more that happened after the peaceful resolution of the crisis. And we’re so pleased now to have David Coleman from the Miller Center at the University of Virginia to talk about his new book, called The 14th Day, David.  [applause]

DAVID COLEMAN:  Good afternoon. It’s a great pleasure to be here to talk about the book that Tom just mentioned, The 14th Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As we know, on the 13th day of the crisis Khrushchev backed down, the world sighed with relief, and children could stop for a while practicing hiding under their desks. But the crisis didn’t simply evaporate with one radio broadcast The missiles were still in Cuba, as were dozens of short-range tactical nuclear weapons, nuclear bombers, and tens of thousands of Soviet troops. And it wasn’t until nearly three weeks after Khrushchev had backed down that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were finally in a position to come into the Oval Office and tell Kennedy, “We are finally fully ready to invade if you tell us to.” 

Helpfully for historians, Kennedy created a remarkable view of what was happening inside the White House during this period. Kennedy taped intensively during the 13 days, but after the 13 days he kept the tapes rolling. And through those tapes and other documents, we get an intimate view of Kennedy’s decision-making in the first weeks in the aftermath of the crisis as talk of air strikes and blockades and invasions continued out of the public eye. In those weeks, Kennedy faced a series of decisions about how to protect American interests without flaring up the crisis again or sparking something worse. It may not have had the same “High Noon” character as the 13 days, but it is illuminating about how Kennedy faced national security decision-making.

Once Khrushchev promised to remove the missiles, the first order of business was making sure that it wasn’t just some trick, that it wasn’t just a way of buying time for the Soviet troops to rush to ready the missiles for firing. And after recent events, there was naturally a deep skepticism amongst members of the EXCOMM that perhaps the Soviets were lying again. Secretary of State Dean Rusk worried that it just might be, “a gigantic hoax, of which history has had no parallel.” 

Verifying that it wasn’t a trick meant sending American surveillance planes over Cuba. One had already been shot down on October 27th, the pilot killed. And others continued to return to base with holes from Cuban bullets. So in a very immediate sense, in the weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis, after the 13 days Kennedy is facing difficult decisions about whether to send American pilots into harm’s way and what to do if another plane was shot down.

In a broader sense, though, the problem was deciding what the United States could and could not live with in Cuba. The Soviets had assembled a formidable military presence on the island, armed with a lot of sophisticated weapons. As National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy framed the problem privately for the President, in a moment caught on tape, he said it was “whether you want to keep the heat on, get the basic Soviet military presence out of Cuba, which means a small war.” McGeorge Bundy, with his typical puckishness, said, “My five second reaction is to have the small war, but not today.” And if they pushed too hard, war was still an all-too-real possibility. 

Khrushchev had just been humiliated and, with all due respect to Mr. Khrushchev, his father was not famous in the West for being cool, calm and collected. So Kennedy did not want to push too hard. The IL-28 bombers were a particular problem, and it’s a technical name but it’s a type of Soviet bomber that was obsolete at the time. They were slow, obsolete, and they were no match for the air defense system in the Southeastern United States, but they were still nuclear bombers.

They had a long-range; they could easily get within the range of the United States’ southeastern corner. 

The Soviets were refusing to remove those. They were not what they called “offensive weapons,” which is the term that was used in the deal to settle the crisis. But to the Americans, they were offensive weapons. So after three weeks, the Americans and Soviets privately argued about the IL-28s as American military planners explored their options for air strikes to take out the airfields and the IL-28s, if necessary. What comes through strikingly in the tapes is that Kennedy himself was one of the least concerned about the bombers. A number of times he says that he doesn’t want the deal to get hung up on the bombers, and he confides to Bundy that he thinks they were being unreasonable asking Khrushchev to remove them. But it’s Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk who pushed the case very hard, and said that the United States could not live with long-range nuclear bombers in Cuba. Ultimately, of course, they prevailed. Kennedy agreed to stand firm on the IL-28s, and it was when Khrushchev finally gave in on those, too, that the November 20 deal was finally struck and the quarantine lifted. 

Kennedy faced a similar decision with respect to the Soviet combat troops and the short-range tactical nuclear missiles in Cuba. When low-level surveillance flights began on October 23rd, they found something that the high-level U-2 flights had not found – that there were thousands of Soviet combat troops in Cuba, organized into four regiments. And those four regiments were armed with sophisticated battlefield weapons, including short-range nuclear capable rockets known in the West as FROGs. 

Kennedy knew it would be a hard case to make that these were offensive weapons, although tactical nuclear weapons could, in the words of Marine Corps Commandant General David Shoup, “deal bloody hell with Guantanamo,” they could not reach the United States. And even members of the EXCOMM conceded that the FROGs had not been on the original list and as Bundy put it, they were “not the missiles we’ve had on our minds.” So while Kennedy and the EXCOMM are debating how hard to push for the IL-28s, they’re also deciding how hard to push on the Soviet troops and their advanced battlefield weapons.

By November 29, Kennedy concedes that there’s no longer any incentive for Khrushchev to pull out the combat troops and their FROGs unless he’s willing to offer a stronger commitment against invasion. And that, he said, was too high a price.  So Kennedy navigated those weeks by choosing carefully where to apply pressure. He was forced to compromise on some actions and he was forced to accept a level of risk. The Soviets ultimately agreed to remove the nuclear bombers. The Americans decided not to push explicitly for removal of the short-range missiles, and Khrushchev would be taken at his word that he was going to remove the troops in due time.

Of course, he didn’t because they resurfaced about a decade and a half later with the Cuban Brigade Crisis. 

But in the weeks after the 13 days, it wasn’t just about Cuba. If the tapes of the six presidents who secretly taped in the White House tell us anything, it’s that presidents don’t have the luxury of stove piping issues the same way that historians or political scientists do. Issues bleed into each other. So in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a midterm election loomed and Democrats were expected to lose seats. During the summer, Republicans had designated the President’s Cuba policy as one of their leading lines of attack. They were suddenly robbed of that issue in what they called an “October surprise.” So they doubled down on their attacks, accusing the White House of covering up what they knew, of letting the Soviets off too easily, of playing politics with the nation’s security, and even manufacturing the crisis in the first place.

The press, frustrated with a lack of access and information during the 13 days, was clamoring for more information in the wake of it and accused the White House of increasingly draconian news management. It had been sparked by some careless truth-telling from Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Arthur Sylvester, that of course the government used information as a weapon to manage a crisis. That was something that everybody knew, but it wasn’t something that the press was willing to get the Defense Department to get away with on record.

And all the while, Kennedy has an eye on his legacy and an eye on the ’64 election. As the postmortems on Cuba flowed in the press and Congress, as political opponents tried to define the Missile Crisis not as a Kennedy victory, but as a Kennedy failure, Kennedy was also looking ahead to moments like the signing of the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty and the American University speech. And it’s thanks to Kennedy’s own tapes, then, and to wonderful institutions like the Kennedy Library that make these records accessible that fifty years later we’re finally getting a good and remarkable window not only into how Kennedy made decisions in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and how difficult some of those decisions were, but also how hard it is to be president. Thank you. [applause]

TOM PUTNAM:  So while our next panelists are coming on stage, let me just remind you all, we welcome you to visit our website, JFKLibrary.org. On that website, you can search through our digital archives, you can see the newly released documents from the Robert F. Kennedy collection, as well as an interactive website about the Cuban Missile Crisis. So we hope that you’ll come and visit and spend as much time on our website exploring these fascinating documents. And now our final panel on the lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, I’ll turn it over to Juliette Kayyem.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure to moderate this panel, which is essentially about lessons learned with the Cuban Missile Crisis. In so many ways, as those of you who have been listening for the last five hours, the crisis was unique, not least of all because we came so close to the brink of disaster. It has captured our imagination, our fears, our academic insights and thoughts for half a century now. Its legacy, though, isn’t simply about a moment in time, a group of men, a struggle between superpowers. It’s also about today and the challenges this nation faces.

There are lessons to be learned about policy formation as well as the government deliberative process. It is no coincidence that I sit here with Graham Allison, who changed how we think about decision-making in his historic Essence of Decision. And in many respects, the lessons learned did not take 50 years to unearth. President Kennedy’s speech before the American University in June of 1963 was proof that the Cuban Missile Crisis also changed him. 

So we will spend this time unearthing what has been learned, whether they are the right lessons, and how best to think about the challenges we face today in light of the crisis. And the two people who are probably best to go through this exploration are Ambassador Nick Burns and Professor Graham Allison. From the panel, you may think that the Kennedy School has a monopoly on the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think it’s more true that it shows that a school that exists to train the next generation of leaders is destined to treat the Cuban Missile Crisis as the most significant lesson in what constitutes, in Graham’s book, as he so rightfully states, “the essence of decision.” So let’s begin with some of those decisions. Graham, if I could start with you about the mythology about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the legacy of that mythology. We tend to think that America stood strong and Russia folded and that has, over the years, been proved to be a little bit more complicated. How has that mythology and that belief that Russia folded and America stood strong, how has it tied the hands of future presidents, in particular this one, or the next one? And then focusing on our policy options with Iran and China or any other threat today?

GRAHAM ALLISON:  Well, thank you very much, and it’s a great opportunity to be here at the JFK Library and the great resources that it’s made available. And I think their website is fantastic, and the material that the library is making available on this occasion for those of us who are historians and analysts, but I think also as citizens, to get back into the picture and feel something that’s that long ago. And from the discussion today, for those that have been here, I think you have had a great opportunity to see how this is a lively conversation still about an iconic event, the most dangerous moment in recorded history and why, therefore, continuing to look at it and think about it and ask what the lessons are has been compelling for every president of the US since Kennedy, and for other leaders as they try to think about it. So Juliette is exactly right, that we continue studying this because it’s fascinating in itself, but also because there are lessons that are very relevant for issues that we have today.

Juliette, to your specific question, there emerged immediately after the crisis a narrative which actually the Kennedy Administration was quite enthusiastic about and played a significant role in maintaining and sustaining, which was that the US found Khrushchev attempting to sneak missiles into Cuba, Kennedy confronted him publicly, he drew a clear red line, he flexed our military muscles, he hung tough, and as the most quoted line, “We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked.” Now, this was half of the story, at least, and an important half.

But it, I think, obscured the fact that there was another half of the story, which was crafty, extremely crafty, stealthy, sometimes even deceitful, but always masterful diplomacy, which was a huge part of this, and then that including concessions. So a concession over US missiles in Turkey, which Khrushchev pointed to as essentially equivalent to the missiles in Cuba, which they were, even though we denied that they were. They had been put in there publicly, and in the case of Cuba, Khrushchev was trying to sneak them in secretly, but other than that, they looked rather similar.

Kennedy was prepared to eliminate those as part of the whole package to get out of a crisis that - as I think came across very well in the previous panel -- was getting out of control, thinking that, “My God, who’s in charge of this? Is this going to end up rolling to a nuclear war that I can’t pull back?” And Khrushchev actually, as Sergei knows very well, coined I think one of the best metaphors of this:  “We should be careful.  We’re pulling on two strings of a rope, and we’re going to tie a knot so tight that the two of us cannot untie it.”

So I think that this combination of things was crucial in this instance, and I think that because of … The mythology is a little bit more in the John Wayne style – you know, you confront the guy at the crossroads. If you’re tough and you look him in the eye, you can stare him down. But actually, in fact, it was resolved by a much more intelligent process, and I think the lessons that Nick has been pushing us to all think about is diplomacy is not some alternative to all the rest of this. Diplomacy is actually the orchestration of all of this that was, in this instance, essential.  But that we tend to neglect this, given that it’s kind of easier to tell the John Wayne story.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  Do you want to follow up on that?

NICK BURNS:  I’d be happy to. And, first, let me thank the Library and Tom and Amy for this invitation. I must say to you it’s a real pleasure to be on this podium with two Kennedy School colleagues – Juliette certainly, but also Graham. If you’re looking at the most insightful American on the Cuban Missile Crisis, he’s right there. He wrote the greatest book that the United States has seen, certainly, in Essence of Decision, published in 1971. And I think Graham has made this a major focus of our efforts at the Kennedy School of Government, to think about the implications here. 

I’ll just pick up on Graham’s point by saying this: This was a negotiation during these 13 days. It wasn’t just a military standoff, it was a decision about whether or not we were going to go to war and whether or not we’d try to entertain the possibility of thinking about a nuclear conflict. Graham has said that the death toll could have risen to hundreds of millions of people on both sides of the divide. I think the crucial lesson here for us is to understand that in a negotiation, unless you’re trying to vanquish the person across the table or at the other end of the phone line, unless you want to win a 100 to nothing victory, you’re going to have to compromise.

When President Kennedy made that fateful agreement that he would essentially trade Jupiter missiles in Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles in Cuba, most of the people on the Executive Committee, at the Cabinet level briefing President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, had no idea this offer was being made. But in my mind, he saved us, President Kennedy saved us from a nuclear catastrophe as did Premier Khrushchev.

So what’s the lesson here, and how might we apply it, say, to Iran, because we’re facing, unfortunately, at least the possibility of a war with Iran in the next couple of years. If we’re not trying to destroy Iran, if we’re not trying to win a complete victory, you do have to leave your adversary exit doors in a negotiation. You’ve got to help your adversary stand down, appreciate his or her political situation, as President Kennedy appreciated what Khrushchev was up to in his own system. And on Iran, there must be a way to negotiate our differences that leave us short of a nuclear weapon in Iran. And I think President Kennedy’s wisdom in this crisis gives us that channel. So it’s a central lesson to me, Juliette.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  So let’s talk about Iran and an exit strategy, since it’s in all the headlines now. What’s amazing about the Cuban Missile Crisis is the extent to which it really was an intelligence failure at the beginning. Things were unknown, or the known unknowns -- in the words of Donald Rumsfeld -- and the President and his team, as well as Khrushchev, were working with imperfect information – lots of assumptions, lots of leaps of faith. So as you think about Iran and sort of the known unknowns or what we anticipate, how would you advise a president about the lack of information we have, drawing from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how we should factor those unknowns into our own strategic approach about the issue that everyone is focused on right now?

GRAHAM ALLISON:  Well, again, a great question and it’s complicated. So I would say that, on the one hand, the Cuban Missile Crisis was an intelligence success, a significant success, but simultaneously that there were some failures or significant unknowns, which is almost always the case. The world is extremely complicated. I refer sometimes in class to the “fog of life.”

Anybody that thinks they’ve got everything taped has probably not understood the situation. 

First, the intelligence successes:  Had it not been for a magical set of technological developments, we would have never known the missiles were being constructed in Cuba until after they were completed and Khrushchev had announced this is a fait accompli. So a US U-2 flying way out of sight, magically, with a camera made here in Boston, actually, by the LandPolaroid folks, took pictures of things on the ground that nobody could even imagine happening.

Actually, if you look at the Soviet camouflaging of these missiles as they’re constructing them, they camouflage them by putting a wall around it. They’re not camouflaging it from somebody looking down from the sky and seeing this, because if they were looking at it from the sky a plane would come over, they would hear it. But this thing is up there at 60,000 feet. You don’t hear it coming over and it’s taking these pictures. I mean, it was genuinely magical. So I would say we shouldn’t forget that. If they had known about this capability, they would have camouflaged it and we wouldn’t have known. So that’s the reason why Kennedy gets the chance to deliberate, as the last panel said, and think and prepare the first move.

At the same time, as came up in the last panel, here’s Kennedy making decisions about an air strike followed by an invasion, which was clearly his preference the first, second, third, fourth day. So as he said in the video, if he had had to choose right at the beginning, he wouldn’t have chosen so wisely. He would have gone with the air strike. I mean, if you look at these new papers that Tom and company have just opened at the Library, the RFK papers, you can see Bobby’s handwritten comments that says – this is the second or third day – “We’re going to have to go in and we’re going to have to go in hard,” which meant go.  Well, those forces, as they came on the beaches would have been attacked by tactical nuclear weapons that Kennedy didn’t even know were there. So you look and you think, “Whoa.” 

Now we take the Iran case. What do we know and what do we not know? Just what you said. About Iran, we have a pretty good picture of the fact that they’re enriching uranium, they’ve got 10,000 centrifuges, they’ve been operating for 10 years, they’ve got about 7,000 pounds or 7 tons of low-enriched uranium, enough for a half dozen bombs after further enriching. Because the IAEA inspectors, the international inspectors, go look and see, so I’d say we have a pretty good picture of that.

What we don’t know about is any facility that has not been declared or discovered. Fordow, the place that the Iranians have recently been installing centrifuges deep underground, was a secret for four years while it was being constructed, until it was discovered. So what’s the likelihood that we’ve discovered all of the facilities in Iran that are relevant to Iran’s nuclear program? I’ve said in a different context, if that’s the case, the Iranian nuclear program manager should be fired.  Is he going to keep all of his activity, all of his eggs, under the klieg lights with international inspectors coming in, seeing them?  

If you try to think about the airstrike option, which is on the table now for Iran, one thing for sure – you cannot destroy any target that you haven’t identified. If we had attacked, as was the plan in Cuba, with the air strikes, we would have destroyed every facility that we had identified, but the tactical nuclear weapons would not have been destroyed, because we didn’t know they were there. So I think it’s a big, big reminder, this kind of known unknowns, that it’s extremely implausible that we have a good fix on all of the elements of this. And I think that’s yet another reason why the lessons of the Missile Crisis relevant for Iran would suggest, just as Nick said, that, well, we’ve got to find some way to reach an agreement for them to stop short of a nuclear bomb, because our opportunities to assure that this happens otherwise are not very good.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  Nick, I want to follow up on that and talk a little bit where you come from, your history at the State Department and leadership at the State Department. The Cuban Missile Crisis happens and then about six months later President Kennedy gives a speech which was as significant, perhaps, as any he gave. Could you tell the audience a little bit about this speech and how does it frame the State Department in terms of their thinking about threats today or the challenges that they face as the sort of key diplomatic organization for the United States.

NICK BURNS:  Well, the short answer to that question, Juliette, is that there’s no substitute for knowledge of history. President Kennedy studied history at Harvard College and loved to read history throughout his entire life. There’s no substitute for understanding the person across from you in an adversarial relationship, in international politics, and there’s no substitute for wisdom. But wisdom is so elusive. You can’t study it at any university to get a PhD in wisdom. You get it from your life experience – you have it or you don’t.

I agree with Juliette. I re-read the June 10th, 1963 American University commencement speech this morning. I teach it. In the first week of all my classes at the Kennedy School, I ask the students to watch it because if you go on to this Library’s website, you can watch the speech. I think it’s the most important speech given by an American president in the last 50 years. Here’s what that speech did. I went through it this morning. It asked us to break fundamentally from this psychology of the Cold War where we demonized each other, first. 

Secondly, President Kennedy made this very crucial distinction between the human interest and the national interest. Obviously, his job as American President was to pursue the national interest, protect this country, which he did quite well. But I think it dawned on him -- and Graham might have a sense of this -- eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, that the human interest was more important here, that he and Premier Khrushchev might have destroyed the lives of several hundred million of us; many of us were living in October, 1962. He had got that crucial distinction, which I think in 2012 is very important for us to remember in an era of chemical weapons and biological weapons and terrorism, the human interest is paramount. 

Third, there’s this wonderful passage in the speech, some of the most beautiful prose, I think of any American president in our history, where President Kennedy really talks about globalization, a global world. You all know this quote. He says, “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.” That is the President saying to us, “We are interconnected in this world and the decisions that a powerful country like the United States makes affects everybody.” And certainly he was cognizant of that in 1962 during the crisis, but especially when he reflected on it. 

Finally, I think a very powerful part of this speech, Juliette, the American University speech, is essentially he said we need a strategy of peace. When was the last time we heard one of our political leaders, Democrat or Republican, say, “I’m for peace.” Since 9/11, our leaders, and quite rightly, have been saying, “I’m for security. Vote for me. I’ll build the walls higher.” But President Kennedy had an equally dangerous time during the Cold War and said, “No, actually, the highest objective should be peace, and we Americans need a strategy for it.” And he said, “Do not demonize.” He said, “I call on my fellow Americans, don’t demonize the Soviet peoples. We have to see the possibility of reaching across this ideological divide and somehow connecting with them and stepping back from the psychological precipice of war.” I just really would encourage you -- all you need is seven minutes -- go to the Kennedy Library website and look at it. It’s a powerful set of messages for us today.

GRAHAM ALLISON:  Let me just pick up for a second, because I agree completely with what Nick said, and I would say if you want to do actually better than listening to the rest of the panel, go quickly there and push the button. It’s a terrific, terrific speech. Deserves to be read and deserves to be heard. It’s well-delivered. But if you just read it even, it just is a thrilling speech. 

All the things Nick said I agree with completely. 

But to go back to the last panel, I think if we asked what does the President say now that he’s thought about this over some time, what is his main takeaway from the crisis? And is it that, okay, now we know how to do this. We’re smarter, we played this hand, I’m pretty confident we can do this again and we’ll be successful. That would be theory one. Or theory two, which is, whoa, this was so dangerous it almost got out of control. We should give thanks for the fact that we escaped in this instance, and we should never, never, never get into a confrontation like this again. 

He is in theory two and he says, let me quote, which is what I always do for my class, the same way, he says, “While defending our national interests, we must avert confrontations that force an adversary to choose between humiliating retreat and war.” Wait a minute. So we must avert crises so we don’t get into confrontations like this that give an adversary only two choices – humiliating retreat or war. After the crisis, you can see this immediately getting into his head in the immediate establishment of the hotline between the US and Moscow so that people can talk directly, the limited test ban treaty, the beginning of the negotiations that lead to the nonproliferation treaty, which holds back the spread of nuclear weapons, and then so brilliantly in this American University speech, a President that’s about a very different agenda than he was before. 

Actually, the other piece of this that I do for my classes, Kennedy talked in that context about what he called “the precarious rules of the status quo.” That’s an odd phrase:  “the precarious rules of the status quo.” Which he thought through the missile crisis, he and Khrushchev and their associates should learn, and these rules of the status quo were that you can’t do things like Khrushchev taking such a brinksman-like act to put missiles in Cuba within our zone of core interests, surprising people. No, that’s not going to work.  And, actually, interestingly, because Cuba was paired with the Berlin crisis -- which then was supposed to have occurred in November but which got shelved -- this became a turning point, maybe the major turning point, in the Cold War, where ever thereafter neither side took a venture as adventuresome as putting missiles in Cuba, but recognized that we’ve got to live together in some way; we’ve got to survive in some way. We can’t take another chance that would put us back in a confrontation that would play this hand over again. Because Kennedy thought there was a very good chance that whatever he did, this was still going to end in a nuclear war. 

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  I think that what both of you are describing, between war and peace there’s a lot of gray and a lot of relationships between nations that fall into that area. One in particular today is China, obviously – neither enemy nor ally, much more complicated than that. Graham, what you were just discussing -- ensuring that your enemy or another nation has a way out without humiliation and that you give options -- can you talk a little bit about the US relationship with China in the absence of Soviet Union as sort of the double superpower. We have an emerging superpower, we have the United States debating its own exceptionalism, lots more complicated than it was 50 years ago.

GRAHAM ALLISON:  Oh, my goodness, we’re going … 

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  We’re going to travel the world.

GRAHAM ALLISON:  I think Juliette is always challenging because thinking of the lessons of the Missile Crisis and saying, “How do they apply to things on the current agenda?” is exactly the right idea. Actually, let me give a little advertisement. On the CubanMissileCrisis.org, if you go to that website, there’s a contest for lessons of the Missile Crisis in which you can iPad, okay? So there are three categories:  There is one for professionals, like professors; there is one for college students; and, there is one for high school students. I think the deadline is midnight,

October 16, so look at the website. There’s still a chance. You just write your lesson with a little explanation in less than 300 words -- we and foreign policy are jointly doing this -- and you could win an iPad. And if you can think of a better answer than the one I can for China that would be great.

Let me go back to China for a second. Big picture for China: China’s emergence over the last generation is the furthest, fastest growth of power on all dimensions of any state ever in history. This is a shocker. A country whose economy was smaller than Spain in 1980 is now the secondlargest economy in the world and the first-largest economy in the world in the next decade. So, whoa, for Americans.

I call this the problem of Thucydides’s trap. I won’t give you my Thucydides lecture, but Thucydides talked about what happens when a rising power rivals a ruling power. Athens, Rome shocked Sparta. He says that made inevitable the Peloponnesian War. But if you looked in general -- one of our colleagues, Rose Krantz, has done this look – in 11 of 15 cases since 1500, when rising power challenges ruling power, there is war. Think of World War I: Germany rises, challenges Britain, war. Now, it’s not inevitable, so four cases turned out okay. The US rose, challenged Britain, accommodation. There are some lessons there. But in the case of China, unless the US and China can work out some rules, precarious rules of the status quo or some mode of accommodation, it’s very likely that China will challenge things that Americans think to be our core interests or that we’ll challenge things to be their core interest. 

The best set of candidates for that right now -- we can see every week in the paper -- is the socalled South China Sea. There are a bunch of islands there. All of them are claimed by China, all of the rest of them are claimed by somebody else. The Japanese say the Senkakus are theirs, the Philippines say these islands are theirs, the Indonesians say these islands, the South Koreans say these, the Vietnamese these, so there are a lot of competing claims. The US has been the guarantor of security in that whole space, and the US Navy believes we own that space. So if as China comes to confront and contest with one of these other countries these islands, the question is going to be what is the US Navy going to do if the Chinese and the Japanese get into a conflict over the Senkakus?  The Japanese are our treaty-bound allies. How are we going to become engaged? So working through some understood rules about how one accommodates and accommodates in a way that doesn’t necessarily give us all of what we want, I think would be the place to go.  But Nick is our super diplomat. So, Nick, how would you solve that problem?

NICK BURNS:  Thanks a lot, Graham.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  It’s just a minor country.

NICK BURNS:  Thanks for that softball. I would add two points to what Graham has said. First, in a way, if there’s any hope here as we look at the relationship between China and the United States, I don’t think it’s nearly as dangerous as the US-Soviet rivalry of the ‘50s and ‘60s. That was an ideological rivalry. And in a sense both of us were out to win the Cold War, and that’s why the American University speech is so important. President Kennedy says, “We can’t win. We can’t try to win it, because we’ve got to preserve humanity and fall short of a nuclear conflict.”

I do think the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis are in the minds of every global leader that’s a nuclear weapon power, and China and the United States are both such powers. That’s the first point. I don’t think it’s as dangerous a crisis. But, secondly, there are 193 nation-states in the world. The most complicated, challenging relationship we Americans will have certainly in the next 50 to 60 years will be with China, because we’ve got this tension in our relationship. I think Juliette, the way you phrased it, we are a friend and foe. China is our largest single economic partner and will be for the foreseeable future. We’re tied together economically in a symbiotic way. We can’t live without each other. But on the other hand, we’re strategic rivals. 

The United States under President Obama -- I think, quite rightly the President has been very intelligent to say we ought to be pivoting our strategic intention as Americans to Asia. That’s where we have this alliance system – South Korea, Australia, Japan. We have defense arrangements with the Philippines and Thailand. We have an emerging strategic partnership with India. We’re all democratic. We want to keep Asia and the Pacific democratic. 

At the same time, China is going to want to rise militarily. It’s going to emerge from its isolation. It’s going to want to assert itself. We’re seeing that in the South China Sea. So how do you have this very close economic relationship and yet have a strategic competition? We’re going to have that. Can we keep the peace, avoid a catastrophic war?  It’s going to take wisdom and a sense of real diplomacy, and of balancing two objectives that are in tension with each other but there really is no other way to look at this, because we need to preserve this leading strategic role for the United States. 

Too many people in Asia are depending on us and one of the great ironies these days, as an American, is to travel in Asia. It’s one thing for the Japanese and South Koreans to say, “Please maintain the American Navy and Air Force as the preeminent power in Asia.” But when our secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, went to Vietnam a couple of months ago, they said, “Please visit Cam Ranh Bay.” A lot of us of a certain age remember that’s where the American Navy had its hub during the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese want us to come back, because the enemy of my enemy is my friend and, of course, Vietnam and China have been rivals for 1,000 years. So we’re seeing among all the littoral states of the South China Sea island chains, all these countries saying to the United States: “Don’t leave Asia. Sustain your military power.”  Because the only way to live in peace with China is to have a power and the United States can be that balancing power, so it’s critically important.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  Well, Nick, picking up on that point, I’m going to turn to you first because the Cuban Missile Crisis isn’t only about substantive lessons learned, but also process issues about how a president comes to decision-making. In reviewing some of the materials for this, I was amazed to the extent how Castro and Cuba’s interests were essentially, purposefully left out of the room; that this was going to be between the two superpowers and between the two leaders. Now we’re in a world of multi-nation institutions, the UN, you think about the Arab Spring, Arab organizations, Latin American organizations, other interests that are not so easy to silence in a world in which there’s globalization. You can think about Israel’s interests in what’s happening in Iran. You can sort of add these third party interests. How can you manage both the necessity of that tete-a-tete that was so crucial to both Kennedy and Khrushchev’s resolution, but being open enough to, “Hey, this isn’t a world of superpowers anymore. There are other very important interests – the Arabs or the Africans or the Latin Americans.” How do you advise a new president, or this President, on thinking about that difficult balance?

NICK BURNS:  Well, it’s a great question. I guess I’d say that what was key for President Kennedy was that he had a little bit of time and space. He had 13 days. I thought bureaucratically he did the right thing. He got a lot of very smart people, powerful people -- but some of them were rivals -- around one table and said, “Help me think this through.” He was very wise to understand that some of those people may have thought more deeply about some of these strategic implications than he had time to do, but he had the decision-making power. He was wise to reserve that to himself and not to make this a group exercise in decision-making because, as Graham has said, the vast majority of this group of very wise men at the time – I don’t think there were any women around the table at the time – would have had us embark on a much more aggressive policy that might have led to war. 

I think this is his greatest moment as President. It’s one of the great moments of the American presidency, going back to Washington, when he had enough intellectual courage in his own reason, in his own wisdom, with his brother and with Ted Sorensen and others, to say, “I’m going to defy the majority here and I’m going to do what I think is right.” And boy, was he right. We have the benefit now of some of the historical records here at the Kennedy Library to know he was right. 

But the second point, Juliette, would be to say we’re in a different time now. We’re still the most powerful country in the world, without any question, but the relative power has shifted. China and India and Brazil are closer to us, and the European Union, certainly economically closer to us, so I hope we’ll never have a crisis like the Cuban Missile Crisis. But when we deal with climate change or whether to assert ourselves in Syria to save people being killed there, you need to have an American leader who can reach out, who has credibility and respect in other capitals, who is broad-minded enough to want to listen to other leaders and not think that he or she has all the answers. 

In that respect, and I don’t want to be political today, but I’ll just say this: I think that President Obama is a very modern leader, because as I see him over the last nearly four years, what he has done is he’s gone out and broadened the American leadership circle. He has actively courted Manmohan Singh as a friend and counselor in India, he’s developed very close relations with the Brazilian leadership, with Dilma Rouseff. He’s reached out, I think in a very democratic way, to widen this decision-making circle, and we’re going to need that in a globalized age. We can’t just reserve these decisions for ourselves, of war and peace and life and death. We’ve got to have a leadership circle, and I think President Obama has been able to build one, which gives me some hope that if he ended up in a crisis like this, he’d have the ability to make a wise decision. [applause]

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  Do you want to follow up on that, Graham?

GRAHAM ALLISON:  I agree with Nick, as always, or almost always. I would say, to get back to just one kind of hard nub of this, in the Missile Crisis, fortunately -- as I think was rather effectively discussed at the previous panel -- at the end there were two players, and Castro was eager to get in the game. He was frustrated as hell that he was left out of the game, that he’d been pushed aside. He was just running a location. When he had a chance to get in the game, all he wanted to do was push towards war. I think that came up quite clearly, that the success of both Kennedy and Khrushchev in effect at sidelining his impact on events was frustrating to him, but fortunate for us. 

So when Kennedy first announces that the missiles have been discovered, in this first speech, there’s a chilling line that I always, again, quote, that says, “Any attack emanating from Cuba on any target in the Western Hemisphere will be regarded by the US as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring” – and here’s the chiller – “a full retaliatory response.” Which meant nuclear war. So you think, “Wait a minute, what if Castro should be the actor?” So this was basically reminding Khrushchev, “These are your missiles, this is your problem. You got this thing started, so we’re holding you accountable.”

Now today, if you look at the Iranian crisis, well, there’s us and there’s the Iranians, but there’s the Israelis. They’re a totally independent actor in this picture. Now, you can see in the struggle that’s been going on -- and Nick and I have been in two days of intense meetings that just stopped yesterday at lunchtime with some Israeli friends doing this -- that they, as one of them said rightly, no Israeli government of any stripe is going to ask the US for permission to defend Israel’s national security, if that’s what it concludes. “We understand that this may have consequences.” And then, similarly, the reason why the P-5 plus 1, that is the Permanent 5 of the UN plus Germany, have been doing the negotiations with Iran is that they all have great stakes in this. So an American president who said, “Well, gee, this is complicated, I don’t want to have too many actors, I’ll just do this all by myself.” That would be nice and clarifying, but you couldn’t really get away with that today.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  Right. And what you also couldn’t get away with, talking about the process issue, is 13 days. The luxury of time to make decisions. We were lucky to have the luxury of time. So instead of wishing that we had the luxury of time, which I don’t think is going to happen, what are ways in which a president and his staff, or national security staff, could think about replicating the luxury of time afforded Kennedy and his EXCOMM team? Is that possible?

GRAHAM ALLISON:  My goodness, this is one that I wrestle with all the time and I thought actually the Library did a great job with the Kennedy video earlier because Kennedy says, “If we had had to decide quickly, we would have chosen” – he didn’t say the airstrike, but that’s what he meant – “we would not have chosen so wisely.” So let’s just imagine that Kennedy thought he had only 48 hours and he had to make the first move, and he made a decision and he had the air strike and this led to a nuclear war.  So the idea of having time in private, in secret, to think, to deliberate, to take your first judgment, but then subject it to conflicting evidence, to competing views, to change your mind, I would say that luxury a president needs if he’s going to make wise decisions. And how to try to square that circle with the 24/7 news cycle, with pervasive press, with not just the responsible press, but all this surrounding, I think that’s an issue, that’s a problem.

Interestingly, in the case of Osama Bin Laden, a case that I’ve studied as well, there Obama, after having heard from the CIA that they’ve got a pretty good fix on this guy, takes four months. Now, he does it by drawing the circle so tight that most of the people who should be part of the decision process aren’t really in the room. So there’s a great cost to that, because you’re losing perspectives that you otherwise should have as part of the consultation. But I think the dilemma that you point to, which is right, even if you ask, well, if Kennedy had had to choose in 48 or 72 hours, maybe he would have just been a smarter, faster learner, maybe. But maybe he would have done what he said he was going to do. And if I listen to the tapes, I’m pretty confident if it had to go in 48 hours, they would have gone with the air strike.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  Nick, did you want to follow up on that in terms of the deliberative process and how fast-paced they are. I mean, you’ve been very involved about what happened in Benghazi, and Biden -- this is just narrative more than anything -- but Biden explaining that the intelligence changes over time. So you have a statement the first minute, it is going to be different than the statement the next day, then a statement a week later. But we don’t allow people to change, modify, accept the facts as they move. I find that one of the most troubling differences between what you see Kennedy and his team have and what goes on with any president now. And is there a way to try to resolve that or are we sort of doomed to it?

NICK BURNS:  Well, I think the environment in which our leaders work in 2012 is entirely different than the environment that President Kennedy knew in 1962. We’re in a 24 hour news cycle. The first question that you now have to answer in any national security crisis in the situation room in the White House is what do we say? And when I started my career as a lowly intern in the State Department in 1980, diplomacy was an interior game. It was behind a curtain and secrets were kept, and the press was limited. I remember when I was State Department spokesman in the mid-‘90s for the Clinton Administration, I could go home at 7 at night, because the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post had closed. The evening news, you know, Walter Cronkite was off the air.

And now, of course, this is a 24-hour game. So the first thing that President Obama has to consider in a national security crisis is, “What do I say to my public? What do I say to the rest of the global community?” That was probably 14th on President Kennedy’s list at the beginning of the Executive Committee in ’62.

Second, I think President Obama has been right to push for openness. You know, one of his big initiatives in 2009 was, can we make the government more transparent? Can we reduce classification timelines -- maybe not 30 years -- but 10 or 15 years in terms of the time, the dates at which you declassify a document? But governments do have to have some secrets. We have nuclear codes for our nuclear weapons. We can’t make those public, right? Not every citizen has a right to know everything the government is doing.  I think Graham’s example is a good one. In a crisis nowadays, the President needs to carve out with a very small circle, smaller than President Kennedy’s Executive Committee, his decision-making so that he avoids the possibility of a leak.

Finally, I’d say I don’t understand this attack on the Obama Administration, frankly, by Governor Romney and Paul Ryan, that somehow the Administration has been misleading the public on what happened in Benghazi. I’ve been in a situation like that, both at embassies and also in Washington. You can’t believe the first reports that come in. You do try to establish a sense of what happened in the first 24 hours. You have a duty to communicate that to the public, but if the story changes because your sense of what happened changes, then of course you’ve got to change what you say publicly. I find what the Administration has done entirely credible and believable based on my own experience in government. And I’m sorry to see that this situation in the Middle East, the attacks on our embassies, has been politicized. This is a time for us to stand together when our diplomats are being attacked. I think it’s a grave error of the Romney campaign to try to politicize this. [applause]

GRAHAM ALLISON:  I think Nick is precisely right. I remember when Nick was the US ambassador to Greece, in Athens, and his house was fired on by an RPG that went through the window and almost hit your family – your wife and children were there. And the question was what happened? Well, it was clear that somebody had fired something; it was easy enough to determine, but it took a week, more, to figure out. And the proposition that at the beginning there’s a great deal of confusion, as McNamara rightly said in “The Fog of War,” “Your first report is always wrong in some significant way.” The expectation that then one should be omniscient at the beginning is completely unrealistic, and I think that actually we do ourselves a disservice as a society, as citizens, and as reporters or newspapers or otherwise, are suggesting that it could be otherwise. The President can’t be omniscient. You couldn’t possibly know what had happened other than the fact that thank God you and your family survived.

NICK BURNS:  And as it turns out, there wasn’t an RPG fired into our house, but there were Greek terrorist groups that were threatening us. They did fire some RPGs, luckily not at us. But you’re right about that. Governments have a right, as you suggested, Juliette, to change their minds and not to be called inconsistent because when further information comes in you have a better appreciation of what has happened.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  I think that’s right. I want to ask one final question and it’s a short question, but one that I hope the audience will appreciate. Based on the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis, if you could have 10 minutes with any world leader – enemy, friend, whomever – and describe or teach them about one day, one moment, one decision during that 13 days, whom would it be today and what would the lesson be?


JULIETTE KAYYEM:  And it can’t be Castro because, as we learned in the previous panel, he won the Cuban Missile Crisis. He’s still around.

GRAHAM ALLISON:  Well, if you said who’s still here? I remember Khrushchev said he was going to bury us, Kennedy said he was going to bury Castro. I think Castro is still here, right? I think that the most urgent nuclear challenge on the agenda today is Iran, and I think Iran’s nuclear challenge looks like a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow-motion. In the Missile Crisis, in 13 days we rushed up to the edge of a precipice and almost fell over. Here, maybe the next 13 months you can see the parties moving inexorably to a confrontation that will look a lot like the Cuban Missile Crisis. There, in the Missile Crisis, at the last day, the 27th, it was being discussed, two choices: Attack, to prevent the missiles being able to fire against the US; acquiesce in Cuba becoming a strategic offensive nuclear weapons base. In that last minute, Kennedy became super inventive and developed this package that was being discussed before that included a public deal, a private ultimatum, and a secret sweetener. And that combination was what led to the successful resolution of the crisis. 

He would’ve rejected that proposal if you had given it to him the week before. But when he looked over the precipice and thought about what the consequences of each of the options would be, he became inventive. I think it’s time on the Iranian case, before we get to attack or acquiesce, to become much more inventive about options that will be ugly, that we won’t like, that we wouldn’t want, that we wouldn’t choose, except for the fact that it’s better than two other options that are worse.

NICK BURNS:  We could design an entire course at the Kennedy School around Juliette’s question. I guess I’d say this: I don’t think that Castro was the victor of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He sits as a discredited figure in isolation in a communist country. He’s an anachronism. I think President Kennedy is the great hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Without him, and without his ability to think his way through this and arrive at a decision that most of his advisers told him was not correct, we would very likely have ended up in a catastrophic conflict. So I think he’s the hero.

What lesson do we draw for Iran? Your question. I’d want to have 10 minutes with the Supreme

Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. And if Graham and I could do that meeting together, because Graham is smarter than I am on the Cuban Missile Crisis, here is what Graham and I might say to him: “What did President Kennedy do directly to arrive at a successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years ago today? He combined diplomacy and force. He was smart enough to say to Khrushchev, ‘I can inflict unacceptable military damage on you, but I’d rather us find a way to back off and find some agreement that leaves us both and our countries peaceful.’” And that’s what we’ve got to do with Iran.

I don’t think we can allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and there are all sorts of reasons, but I think everyone would understand why. But we shouldn’t choose to fight them if we can possibly avoid it, because who knows where that will lead? Who knows if it will be another ten year land war in the Middle East with unacceptable losses on both sides?

So I would say to the Ayatollah Khamenei, “See what President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev were able to do. They were mortal enemies, and yet they had the human insight to understand that war was unacceptable. Is there some agreement, Mr. Supreme Leader, that you could accept that would allow you to walk away with your pride intact, short of a nuclear weapon that we could accept?” And should we do something that we haven’t done in 32 years between the United States and Iran? Can we have a conversation that is strategic and sustained?

We haven’t had such a conversation since the Jimmy Carter Administration. We are totally divorced from each other.  I think Graham and I would both choose that meeting with the Ayatollah Khamenei, and I think the Cuban Missile Crisis gives us a lot of lessons for the US and Iran relationship to avoid war. I think we can do it.

JULIETTE KAYYEM:  I hope so, too. I want to thank both Ambassador Burns and Graham Allison. [applause] 

TOM PUTNAM:  Let me introduce our next speaker. As we know, the election of John F. Kennedy represented a profound shift in American politics, bringing to power a new generation described by JFK in his inaugural as “born in this century, tempered by war, and disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” When his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, founded this Library, she expressed her hope that it would be not only a memorial to President Kennedy, but a vital center of education and exchange and thought which will grow and change with the times, and will inspire the ideals of democracy and freedom in young people around the world.

I was at a meeting recently marking a transition in leadership here, and it was suggested that a baton was being passed, at which I quipped that here at the Kennedy Library we pass torches, not batons. We cannot think of a more fitting way to end this conference than to hear from a representative of the next generation of Americans, President Kennedy’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg, who is currently a sophomore at Yale University. Jack? [applause]

JACK SCHLOSSBERG:  On behalf of the Kennedy Library and my family, I want to thank you all for coming to my grandfather’s Presidential Library and thank all the speakers who are here with us today. This is a special place that holds many memories for me that many people, including my mother and father, have worked hard to make worthy of President Kennedy’s legacy. I want to especially thank David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, and Sergei Khrushchev, who I was honored to meet during these proceedings.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is now part of America’s storied history. It’s a signature moment of the 20th century that we are here, together, to remember today as a testament to the wisdom of my grandfather and all those who, 50 years ago, braved the most trying 13 days in our nation’s history. My grandfather would love this event not just because every Irishman loves a bit of praise, but because today we are here to bear witness to the past for the sake of our future.

Admirers of President Kennedy know that he was a student of history. I try to be. And as I study my grandfather, the man and the President, I believe his greatest asset was indeed his understanding of the past. The inspiration he found in the achievements of others is what guided him through the crisis, it’s what inspired him to send a man to the moon, and it is what compelled him to search for a lasting peace.

President Kennedy is known for his own inspiring words, but he also looked to the great men of history for guidance, just as I do to him. He knew that the problems of the 1960s had their counterparts in other struggles. In his address at Rice University in 1962, President Kennedy quoted William Bradford speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, who said that “all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficultly and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”

I think he would tell my generation the same thing today. We have grown up in tumultuous times. Our outlook has been shaped by 9/11. We have been burdened by two misguided wars that have damaged our credibility abroad. We have experienced an economic crisis unlike any other since the Great Depression. We have watched our environment head toward disaster and our government stand at an impasse. We have been told over and over that America is no longer the great country it was when my grandfather was President.

But President Kennedy would not be discouraged by these great challenges. He would not give corner to defeat. He would not, as he said in his inaugural address, “shrink from the responsibility to meet these challenges;” he would welcome it. He would tell us to look to the challenges that past generations faced – fighting the Civil War to right an unspeakable wrong, entering World War II to defeat a pervasive evil, or marching on Washington to demand the basic civil rights all men deserve, Americans have always faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. President Kennedy would tell us, as he did in 1962, quoting the explorer George

Mallory, that “We should climb the highest mountain because it is there.”

My grandfather described himself as an idealist without illusions. He would not propose to my generation that any of this would be easy, or that we would not face constant opposition from those who, to quote him directly, “would have us stand where we are a little longer, to rest and to wait.” Though we look back on my grandfather’s Presidency as one with many successes, we must not forget that those three years were not absent of partisan gridlock or disappointment or immense frustration. Yet from those years emerged accomplishments of which he was very proud, chief among them the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. To me, that Treaty, which sought to limit the danger of nuclear confrontation, is the most inspiring aspect of his Presidency.

Today, we remember our nation’s closest encounter with nuclear war, an encounter that, if not for the President’s steady leadership, may have resulted in mutually assured destruction. How incredible it is that just after the Missile Crisis, man took his first steps to slow the arms race. That gives me hope. It gives me hope in an age when my generation is told that sea levels will rise and kill millions of people, that our debt is so large we’ll never be able to pay it back, that the idea of Middle East peace is only for those idealists who are full of illusions. It gives me hope that we, too, will be able to avert disasters and turn them into triumphs. I’m confident that my generation will follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and learn from our storied past. If we do, and I believe we will, we will know, as President Kennedy told Americans in 1961, that

“Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” Thank you. [applause]

TOM PUTNAM:  As he explained in his remarks, Dr. Sergei Khrushchev has asked to present a special half-ruble coin that was minted in Russia to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the peaceful crisis of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and who better to accept it for the Library than Jack Schlossberg. But before he does, I’ll read just a portion of President Kennedy’s commencement address at American University in June of 1963 that hasn’t been read yet.

“Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process, a way of solving problems. No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered lacking in virtue. So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help them make the world safe for diversity.”

I cannot imagine a more potent symbol of a world that has been safer for diversity than this next moment, when the son of one world leader during the Cuban Missile Crisis meets the grandson of the other, now on this stage, in an environment made safer by the actions of their forebears, Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy. [applause]