Reconsidering the Missile Crisis: Dealing with the Problems of the American Jupiters in Turkey

  • Barton J. Bernstein


President John F. Kennedy has been variously praised and blamed for his handling of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. For many, it was his great triumph: Seven days of wide-ranging deliberations and careful planning, and six days of the shrewd use of cautious threats, limited force, and wise diplomacy to achieve victory.4 For critics, however, it was an unnecessary crisis or dangerously mishandled, or both: Kennedy should either have acceded to the Soviet missiles in Cuba, or at least tried private diplomacy before moving to the quarantine. Removal of the missiles was not worth the risk of nuclear war.5


Fatigue Europe Amid Turkey Sponge 


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  1. 3.
    Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days (New York: Norton, 1969), pp. 108–109.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    See, for example, the studies by memoirists (sometimes scholars): Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 808–835; Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper, 1965), pp. 673–717; Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), pp. 159–229; and Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days. Or by independent scholars: Alexander George et al., The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971), pp. 1–36, 86–143; and Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, “Controlling the Risks in Cuba,” Adelphi Paper No. 17 (London, 1965). In recent work, Alexander George, “The Cuban Missile Crisis,” in George, ed., Avoiding War: Problems of Crisis Management (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1991), pp. 222–268, seems more critical of the dangers than in his much earlier work. Like other scholars, he has profited from the careful research by Scott Sagan, “Nuclear Alerts and Crisis Management,” International Security 9 (Spring 1985), pp. 107–122.Google Scholar
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    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), pp. 521–524, reached his conclusion partly on the basis of the Robert Kennedy Papers, JFKL, a collection to which he had privileged access. My own efforts to gain access to the major segments on the missile crisis have been unsuccessful despite various requests in 1979–1991, because the library has a policy of not processing these undeeded materials until other papers—more important in their judgment and deeded to the library system—are first processed. (Susan D’Entremont to Bernstein, December 17, 1990, January 15, 1991.) Though not formally defenders, see Graham Allison, Essence of Decision (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971), pp. 228–229; and Herbert Parmet, JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (New York: Penguin, 1983), p. 297. For indications of such a bargain, also see Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974), p. 512.Google Scholar
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    James Grimwood and Frances Stroud, History of the Jupiter Missile System (U.S. Army Ordinance Command, July 1962), p. 104, NS Archives; cf. Jacob Neufeld, Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force (Office of Air Force History, 1990), pp. 225–227, which dates them as becoming operational in small groups between November 1961 and March 1962. No important argument in this chapter changes if the November 1961 date is accurate for the first few Jupiters.Google Scholar
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    Paul Nitze, with Ann Smith and Steven Rearden, From Hiroshima to Glasnost (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989), p. 233 also implies that Kennedy never gave an order to remove the Jupiters. Rusk, As I Saw It, p. 239, incorrectly places the Jupiters already in Turkey, but also denies that there was a JFK order for their removal.Google Scholar
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    George McGhee to Bundy on “Turkish IRBM’s” (emphasis added), June 22, 1961, NSF:RSF:NATO-Weapons (Cables-Turkey), box 226; and McGhee to Bernstein, February 19, 1979. Recently, in writing his memoirs, McGhee forgot about this June 1961 report and also mangled other matters involving the Jupiters. McGhee, The US-Turkish-NATO Middle East Connection (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 166. At the Vienna summit in June 1961, Khrushchev had complained about the Jupiters and compared Turkey and Cuba. “Vienna Meeting Between the President and Chairman Khrushchev,” June 3, 1961, 3 P.M., JFKL.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Cf. Allison, Essence, pp. 101, 141–2, 225–6, who uncritically accepted recollections that JFK had given a clear order and then tries to explain, in terms of bureaucratic politics, why it was not carried out. A more subtle approach would acknowledge that a chief executive may often express preferences (not orders) for policies, and that he may sincerely reinterpret them as orders when his own inaction leaves him woefully unprepared in a crisis. In this way, a president can place blame on a subordinate, and other aides who listen to his charges tend to believe that the president actually issued an order, and not simply stated a wish or hope. In later memoirs and journalistic accounts, the president’s interpretation dominates and becomes “fact.” Practitioners of the bureaucratic politics model develop a vested interest in uncritically accepting such dubious evidence precisely because their model so nicely “explains” it. Thus, the model first helps define the reliability of the evidence and then explains it—a dangerous, circular process. In view of the published evidence available to Allison, when he was writing, that the missiles were not deployed in Turkey at the time that Kennedy entered office, Allison should have been very suspicious of the recollections about these “orders.” Such suspicions should have barred him from presenting a firm interpretation of thwarted presidential directives. Interviews with Ball, Bundy, and Nitze (which Allison implies but does not clearly assert that he conducted, though he refers to “conversations with most of the high-level participants”) should have made him question his own interpretation. Did Allison perhaps develop such a powerful vested interest in advancing his interpretation that contrary evidence was not sought, or not pursued, or just easily dismissed? Also see Joseph Bouchard, “Use of Naval Forces in Crises: A Theory of Stratified Crisis Interaction” (Stanford University Political Science, Ph.D., 1988), II, pp. 618–628; and Forrest R. Johns, “The Cuban Missile Crisis Quarantine,” Naval History 5 (Spring 1991), pp. 12–18. A number of scholars and others, apparently not knowing of contrary archival sources and some published literature, continue to cling to the belief that the missiles were placed in Turkey under Eisenhower and that President Kennedy, well before the October crisis, had given firm orders to remove these weapons. See Mark Falcoff, “Learning to Love the Missile Crisis,” National Interest 16 (Summer 1989), p. 67; Robert Pollard, “The Cuban Missiles Crisis: Legacies and Lessons,” Wilson Quarterly 5 (Autumn 1982), pp. 148–155; Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986), pp. 9–10; Wayne Smith, The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of U.S.-Cuban Relations Since 1957 (New York: Norton, 1987), p. 82; Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power and Modern Presidents (New York: Macmillan, 1990), p. 207; Michael Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 8; and May to Bernstein, April 4, 1986. In contrast, the problem of the Jupiters is shrewdly treated in Philip Nash, “Nuisance of Decision: Jupiter Missiles and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Journal of Strategic Studies 14 (March 1991), pp. 1–26, an essay that I urged him to write.Google Scholar
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    Raymond Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1989, rev. ed.), pp. 10–19; and Bernstein, “Khrushchev’s Gambit,” pp. 232–235.Google Scholar
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    Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), pp. 493–494. Also see Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes (Boston: Little, Brown, 1990), p. 170; and Andrei Gromyko, Memoirs (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 175. On many matters, though not on this subject, this most recent Khrushchev “memoir” may be suspect, because it is not clear that the tapes were voice-authenticated. Walter Schneir, “Time Bomb,” Nation 251 (December 3, 1990), pp. 682–688; cf. Ronald Grele, letter, New York Times (West Coast ed.), December 24, 1990, p. 20. In a recent essay, Aleksandr Alekseev, former Soviet ambassador to Cuba, also stressed Khrushchev’s motive of protecting Cuba. Alekseev, “The Caribbean Crisis: As It Really Was”Ekho Planety, No. 33 (November 1988), pp. 29–32 (used in translation). For powerful suggestive evidence about U.S. bellicose intentions toward Cuba, see James Hershberg, “Before ‘The Missiles of Cuba, ’” Diplomatic History 14 (Spring 1990), pp. 163–198. Despite claims by McNamara that the recently declassified evidence cited by Hershberg is evidence only of normal contingency planning, the evidence actually reaches far beyond the ordinary and is unnervingly suggestive—but not definitive—on U.S. intentions.Google Scholar
  14. 48.
    Tass, September 11, 1953, reprinted in the New York Times, September 12, 1962, p. 16. In this statement, “designed” could also have been translated as “intended.” See Current Digest of the Soviet Press 15 (October 10, 1962), p. 14; and Ronald Pope, ed., Soviet View on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982), p. 10.Google Scholar
  15. 50.
    Tad Szulc, Fidel: A Critical Portrait (New York: Morrow, 1986), pp. 578–583, and Dorticós quoted on p. 583. In Szulc’s interview with Castro, the Cuban leader likened the Soviet missiles to American missiles in Turkey and Italy, and claimed that he had expected the Soviet emplacement to create “a very tense situation” with the United States. It is highly unlikely that Castro foresaw the kind of crisis that developed. United States intelligence never had firm evidence that the warheads actually reached Cuba, but Soviet officials later claimed that they did arrive. Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, p. 172; and Volkogonov in Allyn et al., eds., Moscow Proceedings, p. 17.Google Scholar
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    McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival (New York: Random House, 1988), pp. 395–396 also adds a second reason for delaying: that night the president might have stirred up advisers by late calls and thus unintentionally encouraged leaks.Google Scholar
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    Abram Chayes, The Cuban Missile Crisis (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 81–82Google Scholar
  18. 87.
    New York Times, October 30, 1962, p. 14; George Harris, Troubled Alliance (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1972), pp. 83–95.Google Scholar
  19. 97.
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    Cyrus Sulzberger, The Last of the Giants (New York: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 20–22, 1004–06; Charles Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929–1969 (New York: Norton, 1973), pp. 504–09.Google Scholar
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    Ronald Hilton, “A Note on Latin America,” Council for Correspondence Newsletter, No. 21 (October 1962), pp. 42–44. Also see Manchester Guardian, October 24, 1962, p. 15 and the (London) Times, October 27, 1962, p. 8.Google Scholar
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    James Hershberg, “Before The Missiles of October’: Did Kennedy Plan a Military Strike Against Cuba?” Diplomatic History 14 (Spring 1990), pp. 179–194; Thomas G. Paterson, “Commentary: The Defense-of-Cuba Theme and the Missile Crisis,” ibid., pp. 252–256; and Bernstein, “Reconsidering Khrushchev’s Gambit,” ibid., pp. 234–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 201.
    Analysts might also pay more attention to the post-crisis settlement and the dispute about whether Soviet bombers were included in the October 27–28 terms. See Bernstein, “Kennedy and Ending the Missile Crisis: Bombers, Inspections, and the No Invasion Pledge,” Foreign Service Journal 56 (July 1979); Raymond Garthoff, “American Reaction to Soviet Aircraft in Cuba, 1962 and 1978,” Political Science Quarterly 95 (Fall 1980), pp. 427–439; and Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (1989), pp. 104–119. The recently declassified Kennedy-Khrushchev correspondence, especially for December 10 and 14, 1962, makes clear that the president, partly because of Cuba’s refusal to allow on-site inspection of the missiles and related equipment, had backed away from a firm no-invasion pledge. For Khrushchev’s later interpretation, see his letter to Castro, January 31, 1963, copy from James Blight.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 202.
    For a fuller discussion, see Walter Johnson, ed., The Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson 8 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), pp. 348–352, which also reprints Kennedy’s disingenuous December 1962 letter to Stevenson. Cf. Bundy, Danger and Survival, p. 459.Google Scholar
  26. 204.
    See Sagan, “Nuclear Alerts and Crisis Management,” pp. 116–122. There is some possibility that Robert Kennedy may have failed to head off this planned expedition, or another similar one during the crisis. See Schlesinger in Blight et al., eds., Cuba Between the Superpowers, pp. 37–38. The information on the test-launch of a U.S. ICBM is in Scott Sagan, Moving Targets: Nuclear Strategy and National Security (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 146. At the level of implementing military orders and related communications, organizational theory can be useful in locating incidents and in helping to explain them. Such theory also requires that researchers mistrust many post-crisis official histories and similar documents, which may have been devised partly to paper over violated or misunderstood orders. Organizations, by being allowed to sponsor and initially control their own history, are invited to shape their own past in self-serving ways. Well after writing this note, I read Sagan, “Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons,” which persuasively illustrates all three points—locating incidents, explaining them, and being critical of official history.Google Scholar
  27. 207.
    For a general discussion of presidential deceit and manipulation, see Barton J. Bernstein, “The Road to Watergate and Beyond: The Growth and Abuse of Executive Authority Since 1940,” Law and Contemporary Problems (Spring 1976), pp. 58–86. Thomas C. Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (New York: Free Press, 1991), a best-selling, general indictment of Kennedy’s “character,” mostly a compilation of already known incidents and themes and based on little original research, praises JFK for his ultimate handling of the crisis and, strangely, notes but does not discuss the issue of deceit in the settlement.Google Scholar
  28. 208.
    This interpretation does not deny the political and bureaucratic influences on Kennedy in making these decisions, but it does stress in the case of the Bay of Pigs that those influences coalesced with his desires and hopes, and that in the case of the strategic buildup he again achieved basically what he desired. See Barton J. Bernstein, “The Bay of Pigs Invasion Revisited,” Foreign Service Journal (March 1985), pp. 28–33; Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 248–327; and Desmond Ball, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 62–142, 180–201.Google Scholar
  29. 209.
    Counterfactuals can be fruitful in compelling analysts of nonreplicable events, as in history, to ponder, in a “thought experiment,” the salience of various factors in shaping the result and thus in explaining the event under study. It may well be that counterfactual thinking is even necessary, though usually implicit, in analyses of such an event, for even a comparison with so-called similar events involves making a determination that the apparent differences between the two events (e.g., two revolutions or two beginnings of wars) are not the basic causal matters but, rather, marginal instead. Can this determination of difference as not basically involving causes be determined without at least some counterfactual thinking? For a more systematic discussion of these issues, see James Fearon, “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science,” World Politics 43 (January 1991), pp. 169–195, which was brought to my attention by Scott Sagan after this comment-note had been drafted.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Barton J. Bernstein 1992

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