The Kennedy-Khrushchev Letters: An Overview

  • Philip Brenner


The recently released communiques between President John F. Kennedy and Chairman Nikita S. Khrushchev,* from the period immediately after the Soviet leader announced the withdrawal of the ballistic missiles from Cuba on October 28, 1962, underscore that the crisis did not end until November 20.1 They also highlight several new lessons about the crisis.


Western Hemisphere Weapon System Ballistic Missile Soviet Leader Offensive Weapon 
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  1. 1.
    Ten letters—from October 22 to October 28, 1962—had been declassified and published in 1973. In 1987, the National Security Archive (a private research library in Washington, D.C.) requested the declassification of thousands of documents related to the Cuban missile crisis, including the post-October 28 correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev. More than two thousand of these Freedom of Information Act requests were filed on my behalf. The petition for the letters and for more than 700 other documents was denied. The Archive then retained the pro bono services of a team of lawyers at Crowell & Moring, led by Stuart Newberger, to seek release of the documents. As the lawsuit proceeded, I asked the Soviet government if it would be willing to release the letters. In April 1991 [Washington Post, April 11, 1991] it announced that it had no objection to the release of the correspondence, and it provided a list of 15 letters in its possession to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. government responded on January 6, 1992 by releasing all fifteen. Of these, two had been published in full and one in part in 1991 [Edward Claflin, JFK Wants to Know (New York: Morrow, 1991)] and had been quoted in Michael Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960–1963 (New York: Edward Burlingame Books, 1991). One letter—from December 19, 1962—actually had been declassified in 1962.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    It is this list to which Khrushchev makes reference in his November 5 letter. See: Department of State, Incoming Telegram No. 1606, November 2, 1962, from Adlai Stevenson to Secretary of State (available at the National Security Archive, Washington, D.C.). Also: Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1989), pp. 107–109.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1979), p. 634. Notably, six weeks later, the White House learned that Soviets appeared to be in the process of building a submarine base at the Cuban port of Cienfuegos. The Nixon administration relied, in part, on the 1962 understanding to demand the Soviets cease construction of the base. What we know now is that the administration was not merely interpreting the language in the 1962 understanding about “offensive” weapons. In his November 6, 1962 letter, Kennedy explicitly referred to the exclusion of submarine bases as part of the understanding: “I hope you will understand that we must attach the greatest importance to the personal assurances you have given that submarine bases will not be established in Cuba.”Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: New American Library, 1969), pp. 127–128. The tripartite Havana conference—held from January 8–12, 1992—was hosted by the Cuban government and sponsored by the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University’s Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© James A. Nathan 1992

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  • Philip Brenner

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