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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

A Free History Lesson for Dana Perino

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White House spokesmodel Dana Perino admitted that she has no idea what the Cuban missile crisis was, and she thought this ignorance on her part was cute and funny. How a person whose job it is to inform the American people about the views and policies of the President of the United States can be so historically challenged not to have the faintest idea about a nuclear showdown that if mishandled could have annihilated millions of Americans is beyond comprehension. I'd like to provide her with a free history lesson. In my new book, Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism, (Pearson Longman, 2008), I present the basic facts of the Cuban missile crisis. Maybe Dana can take a minute out of her busy schedule stonewalling and misleading the press to read the following:

"In the early 1960s, Robert Kennedy embraced a stylish new theory in fighting the Cold War called "counterinsurgency." "Counterinsurgency," he wrote, "is not a military problem; a military answer is the failure of counterinsurgency." He believed that "allegiance can be won only by positive programs: by land reform, by schools, by honest administration, by roads and clinics and labor unions and even-handed justice, and a share for all men in the decisions that shape their lives. Counterinsurgency might be best described as social reform under pressure." (Ironically, it was precisely these types of reforms that the loathed Castro regime was implementing in Cuba.) It also required U.S. military assistance to friendly governments to "put down Communist terrorism and insurgency." The Soviet Union assisted indigenous revolutionary movements in the emerging nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. To counter Soviet global objectives, President Kennedy created the "Special Forces," the "Green Berets," which were designed to be as nimble and as brutal as their guerrilla enemies.

In the case of undermining Castro, "counterinsurgency" meant arming paramilitary groups that harassed the Cuban government. Robert Kennedy worked with the anti-Communist Cuban exiles toward the goal of making life difficult for the Castro regime. Those who were willing to fight against Cuba were folded into a set of overlapping and illegal covert programs under the codename "Operation Mongoose." With the help of the CIA, they formed small sabotage units based in Florida, purchased airplanes and boats, stockpiled armaments, and staged attacks. Observing these activities, Fidel Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were convinced the United States planned to use the exiles in a second attempt to overthrow the Cuban government.

Adding to the East-West tensions, Khrushchev broke a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons testing that had been in place since the final years of the Eisenhower administration. In October 1961, the Soviets detonated of a monstrous 57-megaton hydrogen bomb. It was the biggest explosion in human history. The cloud of radioactive fallout thrice circled the earth. Kennedy's United Nations Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, denounced the Soviet test before the General Assembly as a "somber development" that illustrated the belligerence of the Soviet Union and the global dangers of radioactive fallout. The United States immediately resumed its own nuclear tests underground.

The early 1960s brought a new era of nuclear brinkmanship. There were no treaties or formal agreements limiting the production, stockpiling, deployment, testing, or proliferation of nuclear armaments, and new delivery systems were coming on line on both sides. The Kennedy Administration forged ahead with the Polaris submarine and approved the deployment of one thousand new Minuteman missiles, with the aim of maintaining the U.S. strategic nuclear advantage. American B-52 bombers of the Strategic Air Command were poised to rain hydrogen bombs on any Russian or Chinese city in a matter of minutes. The U.S. kept an eye on its adversaries through U-2 spy planes, which could fly at the unheard of altitude of 70,000 feet.

In October 1962, U.S. reconnaissance aircraft photographed what appeared to be a half dozen missile sites, with more under construction, on the western part of the island of Cuba, near San Cristobal. Soviet military and civilian technicians were rapidly building the sites as if working under a deadline. The Soviet missiles in Cuba were unprecedented in the Western Hemisphere and could annihilate Washington in a matter of minutes. Khrushchev had dangerously altered the nuclear status quo.

On Tuesday morning, October 16, 1962, President Kennedy was briefed about the Soviet missiles in Cuba, and Robert was the first person he called: "We have some big trouble. I want you over here." They decided the best way to proceed was to keep the crisis quiet for the time being. To avoid suspicion from the press, President Kennedy stuck to his scheduled meetings and public appearances. He ordered his senior foreign policy advisers to arrive at the White House in as few vehicles as possible to trick reporters into believing nothing was amiss. Limousines pulled up with Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, and other top officials squeezed into the backseats, in some cases sitting on each other's laps.

President Kennedy then formed an "Executive Committee" of the National Security Council to pour over the intelligence, and to formulate the American response. Called "ExCom," the group included the highest-ranking officials from the Defense and State Departments, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On October 16th, ExCom met for the first time at 11:45 that morning. It was the beginning of the most menacing nuclear stand-off between the superpowers of the entire Cold War. President Kennedy chose not to attend all of the meetings, thereby freeing his advisers to express their opinions without the presence of the Chief Executive intimidating them, or compelling them to tell him what they believed he wanted to hear. In the president's absence, Robert Kennedy's role was enhanced, though he listened more than he spoke. "Wherever he sat was one of the most important places in the room," National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy said, "and everybody knew that."

At the first session, hardliners from the military and the State Department called for preemptive air strikes without warning to destroy the missiles, followed by a full-scale invasion of the 800-mile island. Hearing the calls for war, Robert Kennedy slipped a hand-written note to the president's assistant, Theodore Sorensen: "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor." President Kennedy held off the demands for aerial bombardment; he had to consider the possible strategic consequences of a U.S. attack on Cuba, such as a Soviet move on West Berlin. During the first sleepless night of the ExCom meetings, a tape-recorder caught Robert Kennedy telling the group while his brother was out: "Assume that we go in and knock these sites out, uh, I don't know what's gonna stop them from saying, 'we're gonna build the sites six months from now.'"

The next day, Wednesday, October 17th, U-2 planes discovered additional evidence of Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) sites. These missiles, which had a range of 2,200 miles, could reduce the response time to a nuclear attack on the eastern seaboard to two or three minutes. Still maintaining a veil of secrecy, President Kennedy kept to his original public schedule. He attended lunches with two foreign ministers, and then flew to Connecticut to campaign for Abe Rubicoff, who was running for the Senate. He later feigned a cold and returned to the White House.

The ExCom deliberated over the next few days and nights. Robert Kennedy did not go home to Hickory Hill for six days. Unbeknownst to them all was the fact that the Soviets had already deployed more than seventy "tactical" nuclear weapons in Cuba. And Khrushchev had given great leeway to Russian commanders on the island to use one or more of the Hiroshima-size bombs in the event of a U.S. invasion. The possibility of the Russians detonating an atomic bomb over the heads of invading Marines was not a contingency given much thought by the members of Excom. Indeed, it was not until decades later when it was learned that the Soviets had a total of 162 nuclear weapons on the island, and dozens of them had a yield eighty times greater than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima.

The hawks on the ExCom who called for a preemptive strike were overruled. Robert Kennedy believed it was vital to give Khrushchev a face-saving way out of the crisis. If a shooting war began between the two superpowers, he and his brother wanted it to take place far out at sea rather than ninety miles from Florida. Robert Kennedy led the group within ExCom that favored a naval blockade. The faction that supported bombing forthwith included the Joint Chiefs of Staff (save one), the former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the Director of Central Intelligence, John McCone, Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon, and President Kennedy's top military adviser, Maxwell Taylor. Robert Kennedy told Edwin Guthman: "It boils down to shoot now on the theory that the showdown is at hand and a blockade is only a time-consuming delay, or blockade and enter a very, very difficult winter and try to go the last mile to preserve the peace."

On Monday evening, October 22nd, President Kennedy revealed to the public for the first time the existence of the Soviet missiles in Cuba, and announced that a U.S. naval "quarantine" of all ships going to Cuba would go into effect the following day. Ominously, the President declared that any discharge of a nuclear weapon in the Western Hemisphere emanating from Cuba would be considered an attack by the Soviet Union upon the United States thereby "requiring a full retaliatory response." (In the back of Kennedy's mind was Berlin, where the Soviets had the upper hand, and the possibility they would take the city as a strategic response to "losing" Cuba. This development could also lead to nuclear war.)

In the North Atlantic, the U.S. Navy established a 500-mile "quarantine." No ship bound for Cuba was allowed to pass without being intercepted, boarded, and possibly seized. The Soviet Union denounced it as an "act of war" (which it was). The Soviet Navy sent a flotilla of twenty-five ships cruising into the U.S.-imposed barrier, along with a half dozen well-armed submarines. At the same time, American surveillance planes reported that the work on the missile sites in Cuba was greatly accelerating. President Kennedy ordered a higher level of military alert, and the Strategic Air Command put its nuclear-armed B-52s on a hair trigger. When Robert Kennedy was informed that top officials had access to a secret bunker in case of nuclear war, he said: "You can forget about that. I'm not going. I'll never go there. If it comes to that, there'll be 60 million Americans killed and as many Russians or more. I'll be at Hickory Hill." After an unforgettably tense morning, reconnaissance photographs revealed that the Soviet vessels had halted a few miles before the U.S. cordon. Some ships were lying at anchor, while others began steaming back.

The Soviet Union had "blinked" after going "eyeball to eyeball" with the United States, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously said, but the crisis was not over. There was still the problem of the missile sites that soon would become operational. President Kennedy sent Robert to seek out "backchannels" with the Russians to discuss realistic ways to defuse the crisis. He met with Georgi Bolshakov, the editor of a glossy Soviet magazine in the United States with KGB ties. Bolshakov had been a frequent visitor to Hickory Hill, and he had a direct line of communication to the highest levels of the Soviet government. Secretly, Robert Kennedy used the U.S. military's Jupiter missiles in Turkey as bargaining chips, along with a pledge not to invade the island. Publicly, the Kennedy Administration maintained that the removal of the missiles was unconditional and non-negotiable. Robert Kennedy had played an indispensable role as his brother's special envoy.

When Edwin Guthman reminded Robert Kennedy that he had been scheduled to speak before the American Jewish Congress in New York City on October 28th, he replied: "That's one I hope I'm around to make." He understood the gamble that Khrushchev was taking: "They had nothing to lose," he said. "If we did nothing, we would be enfeebled in the eyes of the world. If we bombed, we would be the aggressors and they could do anything they wished. Or we could blockade and they could go before the United Nations and raise hell about us." The Joint Chiefs, and their hawkish allies on the ExCom, argued that bombing and occupying the island were the only ways to ensure the missiles were neutralized. The Russians, they argued, could not be trusted to remove the missiles themselves, even with United Nations oversight.

Eleven days into the crisis, the hardliners on ExCom still called for air strikes followed by a land invasion. The State Department set up a team to organize a post-Castro government in Cuba. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara warned ExCom that an offensive would result in "heavy casualties," including the deaths of possibly 8,000 Russians. President Kennedy did not like the military options. He pointed out: "After a bloody fight, they [the missiles] will be pointed at us. And we must further face the possibility that, when military hostilities first begin, those missiles will be fired." The Air Force could not guarantee all of the missiles would be destroyed.

On October 27th, the White House finally received a letter from Premier Khrushchev. The letter was remarkable for its emotion and thoughtfulness. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a pledge from the United States not to invade the island. Hours later, a second letter arrived from Moscow, this time from the Kremlin's Foreign Office. Its tone was harsh, and it demanded that the United States remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey prior to any dismantling of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Robert Kennedy suggested the United States simply ignore the second letter and respond only to the first one. The original letter sounded more like Khrushchev's voice; the second letter hardliners inside his government might have forced on him. President Kennedy chose to acknowledge only the first letter.

While ExCom fashioned a response to the Khrushchev letters, anti-aircraft fire shot down and killed Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr. while he flew a reconnaissance mission over Cuba. Major Anderson had been the pilot of the U-2 plane that had produced the original photographs of the missile sites. The Russians and Cubans had been warned that if they blinded the United States by shooting down surveillance aircraft it would make a U.S. attack on Cuba more likely. "The noose was tightening on all of us," Robert Kennedy wrote, "on Americans, on mankind."

On Sunday, October 28th, between 9 and 10 o'clock in the morning, a special bulletin flashed on every radio and television station in America announcing that the Soviet Union had agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba. The crisis had reached its peak, and everyone was still alive. "Thank God for Bobby," President Kennedy said. Robert Kennedy's backchannel diplomacy, and his cautious contributions to the debates within ExCom, were crucial to resolving the confrontation. (Robert Kennedy wrote a short book chronicling the crisis, Thirteen Days, which was posthumously published, and subsequently made into a film and television drama.)

Critics have pointed out that no "Cuban missile crisis" had existed until President Kennedy chose to forego private diplomacy in favor of a public ultimatum and blockade. Others believe that U.S. threats against Cuba, and the illegal sabotage operations that were run out of Miami, provoked the Soviet Union to place missiles there in the first place. Arthur Schlesinger argues that Castro did not want Soviet missiles in Cuba, and Khrushchev was satisfying purely Soviet strategic objectives, therefore "Operation Mongoose" and the possibility of another U.S. invasion were immaterial to Khrushchev's decision. In any case, the Cuban Missile Crisis stands as a historical test case of the prudent use of military force. Robert Kennedy later pointed out that six of the twelve top civilian and military officials had pressed for bombing raids. If one of those six had been president, he said, "The world would have been very likely plunged into a catastrophic war."

Excerpt from Joseph A. Palermo's,
Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism, (Pearson Longman, 2008), pp. 70-76. [copyright]