THE KENNEDY TAPES: Inside the White...

The British historian and peace activist E.P. Thompson once described Nikita Khrushchev as “the philosopher-king of deterrence” for having the wisdom and courage to back down during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and remove the nuclear missiles he had unwisely deployed to Cuba. With the appearance of “The Kennedy Tapes” and its transcripts of secretly taped discussions between President Kennedy and his advisors, we can see more clearly that Kennedy was Khrushchev’s equal in statesmanship. Kennedy, we now know, was instrumental in finding a way for both sides to back off, rather than force Khrushchev to back down.

Less than a month before the congressional elections of November 1962, Kennedy would risk the wrath of hawks in the United States by publicly pledging not to attack Fidel Castro’s Cuba in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles and troops from the island. He would also risk splintering the NATO alliance by secretly agreeing to trade NATO missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. These moves would give Khrushchev just enough political capital with his own hawks to offset the humiliation associated with the withdrawal of the missiles.

It has been known, ever since the information surfaced during the Watergate investigation in 1973, that Kennedy secretly taped many discussions during the crisis and that only he, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy and one or two others knew about it. The Kennedy Library began a project about 15 years ago to transcribe and declassify the tapes, beginning with Oct. 16, the day after photographic confirmation of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. That transcript, stunning in its evocation of the White House’s struggle with nuclear danger, has been available for more than 10 years. Its appearance led to a renaissance of scholarship on the crisis.


Shortly after the transcript was released, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security advisor, undertook to transcribe and declassify the tapes of Oct. 27, the day (and night) of supreme tension. After that appeared in 1987, the transcribing process ground to a virtual standstill because of a lack of resources, the poor quality of the tapes and a shortage of knowledgeable scholars with the appropriate security clearances to do the work. Now, because of the herculean effort by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, we have a transcription of the complete tapes, detailing what conversations took place between Oct. 16 and 29. The reader of “The Kennedy Tapes” comes as close as most people will ever get to being a fly on the wall during the discussions of leaders caught in a deep and dangerous dilemma.

“The Kennedy Tapes” begins with a tour de force: an introduction providing a masterful review of Kennedy and his men, their formative experiences, their institutional responsibilities, even descriptions of their appearances, voices and gestures. May and Zelikow also review for us the significance of the historical short-hand in the transcripts: “Munich” (an aversion to appeasement), “Pearl Harbor” (the moral repugnance of a sneak attack) and their concerns about developing crises in Laos and especially Berlin during the spring and summer of 1961. This introduction is so compelling and comprehensive in the space of a mere 43 pages that most will want to read it several times before tackling the transcripts themselves.

The transcripts are very much in the staccato Kennedy style. People often interrupt one another; Kennedy himself fails to complete his thoughts (though his meaning is usually clear) and it is difficult to assess the relative importance of so much verbiage from so many men on so many complex issues. (The end of “The Kennedy Tapes” is, however, puzzling. The editors do not draw any significant conclusions. These pages are ostensibly a survey of recent research about the Soviets’ conduct during the crisis, virtually all of which is already known to specialists; it seems a somewhat esoteric afterthought.)

Of great interest in “The Kennedy Tapes” is Kennedy’s early insistence that, like it or not, the United States would have to “trade” NATO Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which threatened Russia from its southern border, for Soviet missiles in Cuba. At the first meeting on Oct. 16, Kennedy already saw the total elimination of the Jupiters as a necessary component of any resolution (although it was hardly a problem considering that Polaris submarines armed with nuclear missiles were about ready for deployment):

President Kennedy: What is the advantage? Must be some major reason for the Russians to set this up. Must be that they’re not satisfied with their ICBMs. What’d be the reason that they would. . . .

[Gen. Maxwell] Taylor: What I’d give them is, primarily, it makes the launching base for short-range missiles against the United States to supplement their rather defective ICBM system, for example. That’s one reason.

Kennedy: How many weapons do we have in Turkey?

Taylor: We have the Jupiter missiles.

[McGeorge] Bundy: We have how many?

[Robert] McNamara: About 15, I believe it is.

Kennedy was already inclining toward the view of his Soviet expert, Llewellyn Thompson, who advised him on Oct. 18 that “you just have to make it as easy as possible for him to back down.” That is, give Khrushchev something he wants but not the option of keeping his missiles in Cuba.

Fast-forward to Oct. 27: The world waits nervously as the missile sites in Cuba are rapidly becoming operational and American planes are patrolling Cuba and being shot at every day. Khrushchev has sent a private message on the previous evening seeming to propose a deal in which the Soviets would remove the missiles in return for a pledge from the United States not to invade Cuba. In the morning, Khrushchev adds the condition of a public trade of the Jupiters in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy and his advisors are in disarray. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze declares in the transcript that to the Turks, this is “absolutely anathema,” that they will never give up the missiles as “a matter of prestige and politics.” Bundy and Under Secretary of State George Ball are worried not only about whether the Turks will cooperate in this “Turkish missile crisis” but also about whether the whole NATO alliance might be put at risk by appearing to make a NATO member, Turkey, a pawn in a dispute taking place far from Turkey in the Caribbean.

Kennedy, however, sees the situation more clearly than his advisors. By Oct. 27, he is impatient with their parochial concerns over NATO and the feelings of the Turks:

President Kennedy: Well, have we gone to the Turkish government before this came out this week? I’ve talked about it now for a week. Have we had any conversations in Turkey, with the Turks?

[Secretary of State Dean] Rusk: We’ve not actually talked with the Turks.

[George] Ball: We did it on a basis where, if we talked to the Turks, I mean, this would be an extremely unsettling business.

President Kennedy: Well this is unsettling now, George, because [Khrushchev’s] got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people would regard this as not an unreasonable proposal.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara provided critical assistance to Kennedy by taking charge when the president was periodically absent performing other presidential duties. Again and again, McNamara emphasized to the advisors why the Turkish missiles would have to be defused, traded or otherwise removed from the equation. If they were not removed, argued McNamara, an attack on Cuba would lead to a Soviet counterattack on the Turkish missiles, requiring a NATO response on the Soviet Union: a nuclear war. Curiously, May and Zelikow say that by the end of the crisis, McNamara’s “analyses and judgments seem narrower, less helpful to President Kennedy, than they were when the crisis began.”

This seems manifestly untrue. Rather, Kennedy’s political intuitions, backed up by McNamara’s hard strategic logic, led the group to endorse the decision, specifically suggested by Dean Rusk, to combine the two proposals: the Cuban missiles will be removed in exchange for a public non-invasion pledge and a pledge to remove the Turkish missiles that was kept secret so that the U.S. would avoid the appearance of “selling out” a NATO ally.

What about these Turkish missiles and this nascent “Turkish missile crisis” that pervades the discussions of Kennedy’s executive committee of the National Security Council? Philip Nash has told their story in “The Other Missiles of October,” that rarest of literary creatures: a doctoral dissertation developed into a book that is not only informed but concise and tightly written and, of all things, witty, acerbic and infused with a theater-of-the-absurd sense of humor nearly equal to the absurdity of the missiles themselves. We have long known, for example, that it was Rusk who characterized the missile crisis memorably as the moment when the superpowers were “eyeball to eyeball.” But we now learn from Nash that, in addition, “it was a moment when the United States and the Soviet Union stood, to use [Soviet Foreign Minister] Andrei Gromyko’s memorable mistranslation, ‘balls to balls,’ ” a locution whose weird aptness would surely have appealed to Kennedy.

Nash points out that the Jupiter missiles were worse than useless “because they sat above ground and immobile, they were provocative, obsolescent, vulnerable to air attack, sabotage, and even the weather.” But on the heels of the Soviet Sputnik success in 1957, the missiles had seemed to the Eisenhower administration to be something they could offer their NATO partners to allay their fears of the Russians. Started under Eisenhower, the deployment had been completed during the Kennedy administration, a fact that Kennedy famously forgot early in the crisis, leading Nash to compare Kennedy’s memory lapse to the scene in “Dr. Strangelove” in which President Muffley asks Gen. Turgidson about the plan that has allowed Gen. Ripper to send bombers against the USSR:

Muffley: Plan R????

Turgidson: That’s right, sir. Plan R. You approved it, sir. You must remember.

In the conclusion to “The Other Missiles of October,” Nash cites Barbara Tuchman, whose book on the origins of World War I, “The Guns of August,” Kennedy had been reading on the eve of the missile crisis. “To recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course,” she wrote, “is the most repugnant option in government.” That Kennedy and Khrushchev, together with their advisors, were able to do just that, to compromise when the hawks in both camps were out for blood, warrants E.P. Thompson’s designation of “philosopher-king of deterrence” on both. At that moment, both leaders led their advisors and their nations out of the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. They had the vision to see that the otherwise useless Turkish missiles might provide the currency for a deal preventing their Cuban counterparts from becoming the missiles of October, initiating World War III.