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Document Friday: The Cuban Missile Crisis – Khrushchev’s Letter to Kennedy

February 12, 2010

Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna, 1961.

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev penned a letter to his counterpart, US President John F. Kennedy.  The letter described Kennedy’s order to “quarantine” Cuba as “an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.”  Beyond reminding us how close the world came to nuclear war, today’s hot doc gives us a glimpse of the two brinksmen’s personal correspondence as they approached the precipice.

If you didn’t live through the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, you almost certainly studied it in history class.  Cold War historians still believe the Crisis to have been the Cold War’s pinnacle.  Just in case you need some details, here’s a little background:  Less than three months after JFK was inaugurated, the new President launched an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.  It failed miserably; the Castro regime remained firmly in power and strengthened its security alliance with the Soviet Union.   This alliance included a Cuban-Soviet agreement to secretly construct nuclear missiles in Cuba.  The colossal operation was hard to keep secret.  Over one thousand reports of the missiles’ construction reached Cuban expats in Miami (these were largely ignored by the CIA).   Finally, on 14 October 1962, an American U2 reconnaissance aircraft photographed the missile sites.

Upon seeing the photographs of the nuclear missiles, Kennedy assembled a secret, fifteen-member committee (named EXCOMM—Executive Committee of the National Security Council) to determine the course of action for the United States.  Initially, the Committee listed five courses of action:

October 23, 1962 US Naval photograph showing Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba

  • Do nothing.
  • Use diplomatic pressure to get the Soviet Union to remove the missiles.
  • An air attack on the missiles.
  • A full military invasion.
  • The naval blockade of Cuba.

Kennedy—swayed by his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—essentially chose the blockade.  He “rebranded” the procedure as a quarantine—a blockade was internationally accepted as an act of war—and won the support of South and Central American nations.  On 22 October 1962, in a nationally televised broadcast, Kennedy announced the existence of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba and his decision to quarantine the island.  He direly stated that any nuclear attack from Cuba would “require[] a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

Khrushchev’s 24 October 1962 letter rejected Kennedy’s “ultimatum” and declared that the quarantine was an illegal and “piratical act” derived from the President’s “hatred for the Cuban people.”  The Secretary General warned that “with the advent of modern types of armament” the United States had “completely lost its former isolation”—a not so subtle reference to the Soviet nuclear weapons miles off the Florida coast.

But despite its bellicose tone, Khrushchev’s letter ultimately conveyed that he understood and feared nuclear war.  Repeatedly the letter takes a pleading tone, at one point opining to Kennedy that:

“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force.  Consider what you are saying!  And you want to persuade me to agree to this!…  You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”

So… what happened?  How did Khrushchev and Kennedy avert catastrophe?  Next week we’ll look at the President’s reply to Khrushchev, the Crisis’s resolution, and new evidence proving that nuclear war was even closer than Khrushchev and Kennedy believed at the time.

PS.  One final (very slightly related) document note.  DC experienced its largest snowstorms in history this week.  While I was snowed in and perusing documents (imagine that!), I came across a very interesting reference to snow and JFK.  A large snow storm also blasted Washington just before his 1961 inauguration.  But in this case, the Army Corps of Engineers was called in to clear away the snow using, among other things, …wait for it… FLAMETHROWERS!  So, if any doc hounds find any primary source docs (including photographs!) about the flamethrowing away of DC’s snow, pass them along!  For Pete’s sake, we could have used some flamethrowers this time around!!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. the_matt permalink
    February 12, 2010 2:30 pm

    The EXCOMM exercise was a case study in one of my IR classes in undergrad. That text held the group up as one of the few instances in modern history that most closely resembles a truly rational actor model of IR. That said, it always sounded to me like JFK listened a lot more closely to his brother – who honestly didn’t really belong in the room, if one looked at the virtues of his position in the government alone – to really make the claim that it was truly “rational”, but that again, is a bit of a tangent.

    But speaking of tangents, the City Paper picked up the thing about flamethrowers too; unfortunately, the DC National Guard no longer has flamethrowers at their disposal. Would’ve been awesome to see dudes walking down Independence this week with a couple of those bad boys… Here’s the link: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2010/02/11/bring-back-the-flamethrowers/

    • Nate Jones permalink*
      February 12, 2010 4:03 pm

      Awesome stuff Matt. Yeah, the EXCOMM meetings were the stuff that IR gurus drool over. I also remember studying them in Thinking in Time. They were tape recorded (not sure if the recordings are online) but the transcripts themselves make a fascinating read. (I often fantasize about writing Broadway plays which the actors read only verbatim from historic documents. Not sure which play I would make first, EXCOMM, or Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik.) ;)

      Here are the transcripts: http://www.jfklibrary.org/jfkl/cmc/cmc_excomm_meetings.html

  2. Phil Walton permalink
    February 13, 2010 5:48 pm

    It was very nice that during the negotiations about the embargo to have one full flight and part of a second flight of Minuteman Bs on STRATALERT in the 10th SMS at Malmstrom they were much more reliable then the Atlas Ds and Fs.

  3. Nate Jones permalink*
    February 13, 2010 6:57 pm

    True, people often mistakenly assume that nuclear weapons will always launch and detonate as planned. Also, McNamara made an important point when he stated that the missiles in Cuba did nothing to alter the strategic balance.

    He said in 1990, “It made no difference…The military balance wasn’t changed. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.”

  4. Melanie permalink
    February 19, 2010 5:08 pm

    Insightful piece– thank you Mr. Jones. I’m eager to hear what you’re able to further uncover about JFK’s flamethrowers. . .

    • Nate Jones permalink*
      February 19, 2010 5:14 pm

      Thanks for the compliment! Hopefully I will be able to sneak off to NARA for a bit next week and dig around!!

  5. Misery permalink
    January 4, 2011 6:00 am

    Didn’t Kennedy have to give something too. like standing down his missiles in the Mediterranean sea. Something comes to mind about that situation at the time.
    Also doesn’t the US violate other sovereignty’s with impunity.
    Aren’t they pushing the NATO next to Russia?
    Seems the US has very little to bark about.
    The US buys up these small countries in order to legitimize their presence in the area.

  6. January 22, 2011 12:40 pm

    What about the sixth alternative : a secret approach to Castro?
    In ‘Essence of Decision’ G. Allison and P. Zelikow mention this alternative too.

    • compaz permalink
      January 23, 2011 7:45 pm

      moments of

      thanks to Sheldon Strerm, storic of pres.jfk bibio– we have even this very surreal tascription of the conversation of jfk during 16 october… where he DIDN’t reembered that the u.s. has ballistic missile in turkey !

      Cabinet room- 18.30-
      JFK :”certanly we were wrong on what he[krushiov]is trying to do”
      -“Not so may were thinking that he was going to put MRBM(mid range ballistic missles) on Cuba”.
      Bundy:” No one , except John Mccone”
      JFK:”Why he did it?”
      -“What kind advantage he gains from that”

      “IT’s LIKE IF WE DICEDE SUDDENLY TO PLACE A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF MRBM IN TURKEY.IT WUOLD BE DAMN DANGEROUS !, I IMAGINE”.

      ————————————-silence in the room—————————————————-

      Bundy-“Ehm..Well…. mr. president, WE DID IT “

  7. jUAN permalink
    April 6, 2011 5:17 am

    Didn’t Kennedy have to give something too. like standing down his missiles in the Mediterranean sea…

    Gave up Turkish missiles.

  8. jUAN permalink
    April 6, 2011 5:20 am

    not Turkish missles but U.S. sites in Turkey.

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