Key Players in the Cuban Missile Crisis

It was a defining characteristic of the Cold War: A handful of powerful men with their fingers on triggers of firepower capable of destroying the entire planet.

During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the men who ran the affairs of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba were locked in a titanic struggle that tested their resolve and moral judgment. Their eventual avoidance of Armageddon was by no means inevitable.

At the White House, President Kennedy relied for advice on a select inner circle—the Executive Committee, or ExComm. They were America’s “best and brightest,” well-educated men who believed in their ability to manage any crisis. Under Kennedy’s leadership, their deft response to the missile crisis lead to a great foreign policy victory. From that point forward, Cuba ceased to be a viable threat to American security and there was never again a direct confrontation between the two superpowers.

Within two years, however, many of the same tough-minded “wise men” led another president into a bloody quagmire in Southeast Asia.

Public faith in the veterans of October ’62 plummeted as American soldiers died in Vietnam in the name of standing firm against Communism. Doubts grew about the defining logic of “mutual assured destruction” and “acceptable risks,” the rhetoric of nuclear security. During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the men who ran the affairs of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba were locked in a titanic struggle that tested their resolve and moral judgment. Their eventual avoidance of Armageddon was by no means inevitable.

At the White House, President Kennedy relied for advice on a select inner circle—the Executive Committee, or ExComm. They were America’s “best and brightest,” well-educated men who believed in their ability to manage any crisis. Under Kennedy’s leadership, their deft response to the missile crisis lead to a great foreign policy victory. From that point forward, Cuba ceased to be a viable threat to American security and there was never again a direct confrontation between the two superpowers.

Within two years, however, many of the same tough-minded “wise men” led another president into a bloody quagmire in Southeast Asia.

Public faith in the veterans of October ’62 plummeted as American soldiers died in Vietnam in the name of standing firm against Communism. Doubts grew about the defining logic of “mutual assured destruction” and “acceptable risks,” the rhetoric of nuclear security.

John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency on a pledge that a “new generation” would resist communist aggression and maintain American nuclear superiority. Only a month before the missile crisis began, the president assured Congress and the nation that the Soviets had no plans to build a military base in Cuba—but if they did, he would “do whatever must be done” to protect American security and drive them out.

When missiles were discovered in Cuba, during an important mid-term election campaign, it came as a shock. Kennedy had been assured by the CIA and by private communications with Khrushchev that this would never happen.

The president faced a political and strategic dilemma: If he failed to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, his Republican opponents would have a field day (he even told his brother Bobby that he would be impeached). On the other hand, if he confronted the Soviets and miscalculated, he could plunge the nation into nuclear war. The stakes had never been higher—he and Khrushchev were “one mistake away” from triggering a holocaust.

New historical evidence suggests Kennedy handled the crisis with aplomb, navigating a viable course between the truculence of his ExComm hawks and the conciliatory logic of the doves. During the tense discussions, Kennedy listened carefully, asked probing questions, and demonstrated that he was in charge.

In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States and the first to begin rolling back the totalitarian excesses of Stalinism. To Americans, he seemed a crude, bombastic bear, a man who might be capable of anything (of course, most Soviets felt the same way about the American president).

For Khruschev, Cuba was the harbinger of socialism in the Americas and an opportunity for Soviet influence to escape the containment strategy of the Western allies. He courted Fidel Castro by giving the Cubans everything the Americans denied them: oil, cash, and weapons.

Encircled by superior U.S. nuclear forces, some of them stationed less than 200 miles from his own Black Sea dacha, Khrushchev decided to secretly place the Cuban revolution under the Soviet nuclear umbrella by basing short- and medium-range missiles in Cuba. Above all, Khrushchev wanted to be treated as an equal in the contest with Washington, and the Cuban missiles were designed to bring him one step closer to nuclear parity.

One year after the Americans discovered those missiles, however, the Soviet premier was removed from office, in part because he had failed to protect the interests of Communist Party hard-liners.

In the wake of the April 1961 U.S.-backed invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro and other Cuban officials believed a new, more organized American invasion was imminent. The Soviet offer of nuclear missiles was quickly accepted.

The fact that a nuclear confrontation might lead to the complete destruction of the island and its people was a risk the revolutionaries appeared willing to take. It was preferable to giving in to U.S. attempts to put an end to the revolution.

But by the end of the crisis, Castro became infuriated with Khrushchev’s unilateral decision to remove the missiles and bombers he’d delivered only months before. “The Soviets have treated Cuba as a bargaining chip,” he said.

Castro didn’t believe Kennedy’s vague promise to leave Cuba alone. Relations between Havana and Moscow remained strained for several years.

One of JFK’s main challengers for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1960, Lyndon Johnson was eyed with suspicion within the Kennedy White House after he became vice president.

Nevertheless, the president did consult Johnson during the ExComm sessions, especially with regard to how Congress was likely to react to any attempt to resolve the crisis.

Although Johnson shared little in common with the Eastern establishment types who dominated the group, he was not intimidated and often took command when President Kennedy wasn’t present at the meetings.

When Kennedy was assassinated one year later, LBJ depended on many of these same men to help him manage the war in Vietnam.

Robert Kennedy, the president’s younger brother, was probably his closest and most trusted adviser, especially when it came to sensitive political matters such as the Cuban crisis.

The Attorney General played a crucial part in the ExComm deliberations, offering very direct, often combative viewpoints that ran counter to the positions of either hawks or doves. In some of the most crucial discussions, Robert Kennedy met secretly with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to communicate the urgency of the situation and find a way to let both nations back away from the nuclear brink.

In 1968, he wrote Thirteen Days, for years the authoritative account of the missile crisis. That same year, he was assassinated, moments after giving his victory speech in the Democratic presidential primary in California.

Next to his brother Robert, President Kennedy looked to long-time political aide Theodore (“Ted”) Sorensen as his most loyal adviser. He served as JFK’s chief speechwriter and special counsel.

He advocated a naval blockade as the best first response to the missile crisis. He wrote Kennedy’s Oct. 22 speech to the nation, in which the president announced the presence of the Soviet missiles and the American response.

Sorenson helped Robert Kennedy write the standard account of the crisis, Thirteen Days, in 1968.

Dean Rusk had served in the State Department under President Truman during the early days of the Cold War. He was the most senior and experienced diplomat within ExComm.

Early in the crisis, Rusk pressed for a “surgical” air strike, but with a prior warning to Castro and Khrushchev. Later, he recommended that Robert Kennedy offer informal assurances to Soviet ambassador Dobrynin that the United States would withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Throughout, Rusk spoke formally and at great length about the need for careful deliberation in foreign affairs. While the president routinely referred to other ExComm members by their first names or nicknames, he always addressed Rusk as “Mr. Secretary.”

McGeorge Bundy was a dean at Harvard and a hereditary Republican when Kennedy tapped him to become his adviser for National Security Affairs in 1961. Like JFK, he had served in the Navy during World War II.

During the missile crisis, Bundy took minutes and sat directly across from the president during ExComm meetings at the White House. Although he advocated careful consideration of how any U.S. action might affect the situation in Berlin, Bundy joined with the hawks in pushing for a massive air strike against Cuba.

After the crisis, he helped formulate American policy in Vietnam.

Before coming to the Kennedy White House in 1961, Robert McNamara had been president of Ford Motor Co.

His approach to foreign affairs was to rationally weigh the costs and benefits of any policy option and then proceed with the cool logic of a technocrat. During the missile crisis, he preferred to keep options open and control the pace of events. As a key member of Kennedy’s ExComm defense team, he objected strongly to an air strike and was one of the most persuasive advocates of the naval blockade.

Kennedy seemed to trust him completely, and McNamara was very successful in his management of the Pentagon and Congress during the early 1960s. He was far less successful within the Johnson administration, however, when his policies led the U.S. deeper into a hopeless civil war in Vietnam.

Undersecretary of State George W. Ball was already active at the State Department in implementing the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba (which continues to this day).

When the missile crisis began, Ball used his skills as a successful attorney to argue in favor of the naval blockade.

He later served in the Johnson White House, advising the president on American policy in Vietnam.

John McCone inherited the leadership of the American spy agency after the CIA’s disastrous management of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

He was the first administration official to become convinced of a Soviet military build up in Cuba and he ordered the U2 reconnaissance flights on Oct. 14 that discovered the first hard evidence of nuclear missiles on the island.

McCone began each ExComm meeting he attended with an intelligence update on the status of the Cuban bases. He advocated a hard line toward the Soviets throughout the crisis.

Gen. Maxwell Taylor was a trusted friend of the president, but during the ExComm meetings he spoke for the Joint Chiefs of Staff—career military men who were suspicious of the Kennedy brothers and eager for aggressive action against Cuba and the Soviets.

A self-described “two-fold hawk from start to finish,” Taylor joined with assistant Defense Secretary Paul Nitze and the other hard-liners in advocating military action.

He believed firmly that the United States must maintain absolute nuclear and conventional military supremacy in the Western hemisphere.

Llewellyn (“Tommy”) Thompson, the former U.S. ambassador to USSR, was the sole Soviet expert on the ExComm and the only adviser prepared to assess Khrushchev’s character. He spoke with confidence and authority and was one of the few ExComm members who didn’t hesitate to interrupt or correct the president.

Thompson supported the naval blockade and argued against trading American missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was instrumental in persuading JFK to accept Krushchev’s Oct. 26 proposal and to publicly ignore the second part of that communication that suggested a quid pro quo.

One of the most hawkish members of ExComm, Paul Nitze brought strong negotiating skills and Pentagon experience to the table during the missile crisis.

He urged immediate military action to take out the Cuban missile sites, saying they dramatically altered the strategic nuclear balance—a view few other ExComm members shared. Nitze argued U.S. military superiority in the Caribbean would prevent the USSR from retaliating for an American attack on Cuba.

JFK chose Republican businessman C. Douglas Dillon as his Treasury Secretary, to reassure Wall Street and because he fit in so well with the elite, patrician character of Kennedy’s other trusted advisers.

Dillon had been a staunch anticommunist since the dawn of the Cold War. As a member of ExComm he initially favored a quick air attack on the Cuban bases. As the crisis deepened, he was persuaded by Robert Kennedy and others to support the naval blockade, but continued to side with the hawks in recommending a military solution if that failed to resolve the problem.

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