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 talks about how the media covered the crisis then, and how that coverage led to people drawing the wrong lessons from the crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If journalism is the first draft of history, what if the draft is never corrected, or worse, if it is, but nobody seems to notice? Fifty years ago this week, the US was in the midst of one of the most dramatic and dangerous national security showdowns it has ever faced, the Cuban missile crisis. In the first draft of the story, the moral was simple and profound. In October of 1962, we were saved by the uncompromising resolve of President John F. Kennedy, who went eyeball to eyeball with Nikita Khrushchev over Russian missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev blinked and withdrew.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs 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 anytime it must be faced.
BOB GARFIELD: On the 40th anniversary of the crisis, we talked to Fred Kaplan, Slate columnist and, incidentally, Brooke’s husband, who had examined all of the declassified material related to this event as it emerged over the years. He said that major players in the Cuban missile crisis, including then presidential speechwriter Ted Sorensen and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara did try to correct the record of those events before they died. And the Hollywood film “Thirteen Days” actually got the story largely right. And yet, the national myth remains pretty much unshakeable. We asked Fred to take us through the drafts.
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 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: 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, 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 ExCom 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, when did they appear?
FRED KAPLAN: That was in the mid-sixties. 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 “The Kennedy Imprisonment.”*
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 docu-drama, “Missiles of October,” starring a very young William Devane.
WILLIAM DEVANE AS PREIDENT 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.
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 ExCom 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: — 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 ExCom 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 - I'm reading from, 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.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: I’ve been thinking about what, what we're going to have to do in a day or so, 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…
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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 gonna happen to NATO.
BOB GARFIELD: 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 “Thirteen Days.” 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.
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: So how do we do that?
BRUCE GREENWOOD AS JOHN F. KENNEDY: Well, we give them something. We tell ‘em we're gonna remove the missiles from Turkey —
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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.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: Right we deny - the deal's off.
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.
KENNY O'DONNELL: Six months from now we're not gonna care, are we?
BOB GARFIELD: In your review of that film, “Thirteen 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: 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 the wars stories columnist at Slate and the author of the forthcoming book, “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War,” due out this January.
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*Correction: The broadcast wrongly identified the Garry Wills book as “Kennedy Agonistes.”