The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the most politically tense moments of the Kennedy presidency, and one of the most memorable media moments of the Cold War. In an interview which originally aired in 2002, Fred Kaplan talked about how the media covered the Missile Crisis then, and how we interpret that coverage today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Journalism has been called the first draft of history, but what if that first draft is never corrected or if the mistakes persist, despite many subsequent drafts? President Bush harkened back to the peril we faced during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 and how we were saved by the uncompromising resolve of an earlier leader, in order to justify our need to take preemptive action in Iraq. He was drawing on the first draft of history, the one that said John F. Kennedy went eyeball to eyeball with Nikita Khrushchev over Russian missiles in Cuba and that Khrushchev blinked and withdrew. [CLIP]: JOHN F. KENNEDY: We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the course of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth. But neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Major players in the Cuban Missile Crisis, including then presidential speech writer Ted Sorensen and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, have tried in recent years to correct the record of those events, but the national myth seems pretty much unshakable. Fred Kaplan, Slate columnist and, incidentally, Brooke’s husband, has examined all the declassified material related to that crisis as it’s emerged over the years. We asked him to take us through the various drafts of the Cuba showdown. FRED KAPLAN: The basic scenario came from an article published shortly after the crisis by Stewart Alsop who was a very establishment columnist of the day who got the information from aides to Kennedy in the White House who were authorized by Kennedy to give him this account. Eyeball to eyeball with the Russians, crazy generals, on one hand, wanting us to bomb the missiles right away, lunatic doves like Stevenson, on the other, wanting to negotiate their way out of it from the beginning and, you know, smart guys like Kennedy and McNamara and Bundy navigating a, a cool and calm course through the thickets and ending us up safe to shore. BOB GARFIELD: That's a heroic and reassuring recounting of the events, and it's certainly not the first nor the last time that a journalist has run with leaked information, but do you think Alsop had any way to know that the story he was writing did not, in fact, reflect the events as we now know them? FRED KAPLAN: No, I don't think he had any way of knowing that. This is what people told him and he certainly wasn't privy to any of the inside stuff going on. And, in fact, this was confirmed in the second draft of history, the memoirs written by two of what could be called the palace historians, Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen, Sorensen being Kennedy's speechwriter at the time who was present at all of the — what they called the ex-con meetings, the meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council which got together for the 13 Days and deliberated what to do. And this basically told the same story, though with more detail. BOB GARFIELD: These memoirs by the "palace guard," when did they appear? FRED KAPLAN: That was in the mid-60s. This was Sorensen's book called Kennedy and Schlesinger's A Thousand Days. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so what's the third rough draft? When did that happen, what form did it take? FRED KAPLAN: The third draft was mainly by revisionists, by people like Gary Wills who in 1971 wrote a book called Kennedy Agonistes. Now, it had been revealed early on that Khrushchev had made an offer toward the end of the crisis basically saying look, I'll take my missiles out of Cuba if you take your missiles out of Turkey. At the time the United States had 15 nuclear missiles in Turkey, which were similar in range and power to the missiles that the Soviets put in Cuba. Ted Sorensen in his book dismissed that Khrushchev offer as total propaganda and that Khrushchev dropped in the end. Well, Gary Wills and the revisionists picked up on this and they said look, this guy Kennedy was a maniac. He was soaking in machismo. He'd led the United States and the world on the brink of World War III because he wouldn't take this sensible offer to do the missile trade. BOB GARFIELD: Machismo was certainly part of the popular image of JFK back then. Here's a clip from a 1970s TV docudrama Missiles of October, starring a very young William Devane. [CLIP]: WILLIAM DEVANE/JOHN F. KENNEDY: Now we must convey an uncompromising message. This government is prepared to negotiate, but not until those missiles are removed from Cuba. We will not be deterred. We will not be shaken. We'll bomb, if we must. We'll invade if we must. [END CLIP] FRED KAPLAN: Yeah, that, that clip is just hilarious, diametrically opposed to the way John Kennedy was acting at any of those sessions. In fact, this does lead us to the fourth draft of history, tapes that Kennedy had secretly been making. Long before Nixon and before Johnson, Kennedy was taping a lot of things that happened in the Oval Office and in the Cabinet Room, where the ex-con meetings took place. And we hear very clearly in those meetings that Kennedy took Khrushchev's offer of the missile trade very, very seriously. In fact, on the third day of the crisis, Kennedy is already musing that well, you know, Khrushchev, he's made a miscalculation. He's obviously done this for bargaining leverage, and we're going to have to help him find a way to save face. Maybe if we trade those missiles in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba, that might be the answer. Nobody even takes him up on it. So on the last day of the crisis, when Khrushchev does bring it up, he's very eager to take it. And, in fact, he is the only one in the room who's willing to take it. You know, there's been this, this model from the first draft of history on, that the room was divided into hawks and doves and centrists. But, in fact, on the last couple of days of the crisis, the room was divided between John Kennedy and everybody else. Everybody else in that room wanted to bomb the missiles in Cuba, and only John Kennedy wanted to take the trade. BOB GARFIELD: Now, unaccustomed as we are to having presidential tapes reveal the president in a positive light [LAUGHS] — FRED KAPLAN: Yeah. BOB GARFIELD: — Nixon certainly was ensnared by his own voice on tape — it must have had an astonishing effect. When were the tapes released, and how long did it take before this real version of history informed our public understanding of the crisis? FRED KAPLAN: Word of the tapes first came out in 1982, 20 years after the crisis, when several of Kennedy's advisors — McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, a few others — wrote a little article in Time Magazine in which they admitted that the myth of the Cuban missile crisis was false. When I interviewed Ted Sorensen about this five years ago, he admitted that basically Kennedy, after that last ex-con meeting, he took seven people into his office and he told them that look, I'm sending my brother over to the Soviet Embassy and I'm going to accept this deal, but you can't tell anybody, and that after Kennedy was assassinated they all got together and pledged that nobody would ever reveal this. The first tape was revealed in 1987, and it was of the last day of the crisis where Khrushchev comes out with a deal and Kennedy says hey, this is a pretty good deal, and everybody in the room is shouting him down, saying this will wreck NATO, we can't do this, it'll, it'll ruin our credibility. Kennedy lets them talk on and at one point he says look, to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man it will look like a very fair trade. I'm reading from the transcript here. And later he also says, and this I think is the - is the telling point, he says, well I'm just thinking about what we're going to have to do in a day or so, which is 500 sorties. The Air Strike Plan called for 500 air sorties against the Cuban missile sites every day for seven days. [RECORDED CLIP]: PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: I’ve been thinking about what, what we're going to have to do in a day or so, which is 500 sorties in seven days and possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn't take missiles out of Turkey. And I – we all know how – [END CLIP] FRED KAPLAN: Kennedy goes on: “All because we wouldn't take missiles out of Turkey. We all know how quickly everybody's courage goes when the blood starts to flow, and that's what is going to happen to NATO. When they start these things and they grab Berlin, everybody's going to say well, that was a pretty good proposition.” BOB GARFIELD: Memoirists! Once these revelations came out in McGeorge Bundy's own memoir, how did journalism react, having been unwitting accomplices in a historical lie? Did newspapers jump on this story to kind of set the record straight, and do you think it had any effect? FRED KAPLAN: I have to say, both among journalists and historians, this chapter of the Cuban missile crisis has not yet been fully incorporated into the dominant narrative, as academics might call it today, and to the degree that people do know there was a trade, it is as yet not generally well accepted how alone Kennedy was. BOB GARFIELD: I'm curious about how much the truth of the Cuban missile crisis has found its way into the public consciousness. If it has, I suppose you can credit the film 13 Days from two years ago. Hollywood took another look at the history books and did substantially incorporate our current understanding in that film. Let's hear a little bit of that. [CLIP]: MAN: We've got time for one more round of diplomacy, and that's it. The first air strikes start in 28 hours. MAN: But we have to make them agree to it! MAN: Right. MAN: So how do we do that? BRUCE GREENWOOD AS JOHN F. KENNEDY: Well we give them something. We tell them we're going to remove the missiles from Turkey — [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE] Hang on! But we do that six months from now, so it appears there's no linkage. KEVIN COSTNER AS KENNY O'DONNELL: We also tell them if they go public about it, we'll deny it. BRUCE GREENWOOD/JOHN F. KENNEDY: Right we deny, the deal's off. KEVIN COSTNER/KENNY O'DONNELL: And we do it under the table so we can disavow any knowledge of it. MAN: It's transparent, Kenny. The press'll be all over it. KEVIN COSTNER/KENNY O'DONNELL: Six months from now we're not going to care, are we? [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: In your review of that film, 13 Days, you made another point about learning from history. It was about the supposition that a president, surrounded by a circle of trusted advisors, can be depended on to make the right decision. And you made a, a connection to the George W. Bush White House. Make it again. FRED KAPLAN: [LAUGHS] The point was - I think George W. Bush had just been elected president, and a lot of people were wondering if he would be smart enough to deal with crises. And the common explanation at the time was well, don't worry, he has a lot of really smart people around him. And the point that you can take from the fourth draft of the history of the Cuban missile crisis is that the people around John Kennedy were really smart - I mean these were the people that David Halberstam later called, in a note of irony, "the best and the brightest," and yet John Kennedy realized that they really weren't very smart, after all. And the lesson of that is that you can have good advisors but the crucial thing is that you need a president. It's the president who makes the decisions. BOB GARFIELD: Well Fred Kaplan, thank you very much! FRED KAPLAN: Thank you! BOB GARFIELD: Fred Kaplan is a columnist for Slate. His latest book, 1959, The Year Everything Changed. [MUSIC]