Averting the “Final Failure”: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings
Journal article by Jeffrey W. Taliaferro; Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 34, 2004
Averting the “Final Failure”: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings.
by Jeffrey W. Taliaferro
Averting the “Final Failure”: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings. By Sheldon M. Stern. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003. 419 pp.
The Cuban missile crisis is the most “over-studied” crisis in history. For 13 days in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union stood at the brink of nuclear war. Since that time, the deliberations of President John F. Kennedy and the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) have been the subject of innumerable books, articles, documentaries, and films. With the John F. Kennedy Library’s 1996 release of the secret recordings of the ExComm meetings and the subsequent publication of Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s The Kennedy Tapes (Harvard University Press, 1997; Norton, 2001), it appeared that we had the “definitive” account, at least on the U.S. side. Is there anything new to learn about the Cuban missile crisis? The answer evidently is yes. Sheldon M. Stern’s Averting the “Final Failure” greatly contributes to our understanding of the ExComm deliberations and JFK’s role as a crisis manager.
Stern, the retired historian of the Kennedy Library, presents a comprehensive narrative account of the ExComm meetings based upon exhaustive analysis of the recordings. His main claim is that the 1997 edition of The Kennedy Tapes and the 2001 revised edition contained numerous errors or omissions that substantially alter our understanding of the missile crisis. Despite Stern’s efforts, however, there will never be a “definitive” or completely “unbiased” analysis of the ExComm deliberations. Any scholar who listens to the tapes will bring his or her own theoretical predispositions to the endeavor.
Stern’s analysis reveals that JFK and his advisors were cold warriors, bearing “significant responsibility for provoking the missile crisis–because of the Bay of Pigs invasion, ongoing covert plots against Cuba and [Fidel] Castro, a massive nuclear arms buildup and ‘contingency’ plans to invade Cuba again. The Kennedy administration had clearly contributed to polarizing the Cuban issue and ironically had become stuck on its political tar baby” (p. 32). Yet, JFK and his advisors were also realists, cognizant of the implications of the Soviet missile deployment for the global balance of power, the importance of alliance cohesion, and the need to legitimize any U.S. response to domestic and international audiences. JFK realized that any precipitous action could escalate to a nuclear exchange or prompt a Soviet conventional attack on West Berlin. He consistently resisted calls by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), particularly Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, for immediate air strikes or an invasion.
For many readers, the book’s main contribution is its analysis of the interpersonal dynamics within the ExComm. JFK’s leadership was understated and subtle, but remarkably effective in keeping options open. For example, the Cuban military’s firing on low-altitude U.S. reconnaissance planes on October 26 and 27 nearly precipitated retaliatory air strikes on Soviet SAM (surface-to-air missile) sites, which would have certainly led to a nuclear exchange. JFK restrained Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and JCS Chairman General Maxwell Taylor by deferring authorization of further low-level reconnaissance flights.
Stern’s analysis confirms that from October 17 onward, Kennedy strongly supported the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey and pledged not to invade Cuba in exchange for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to remove all missiles from the island and permit international inspections. This quid pro quo remained secret for 25 years. Contrary to previous accounts, the idea for the missile exchange did not originate in Khrushchev’s October 27 public letter. Furthermore, the tapes reveal that JFK faced vehement objections not only from hawks like Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze, but also from moderates like Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, Ambassador-at-Large Llewellyn Thompson, and, initially, CIA Director John McClone and Undersecretary of State George Ball.
The most surprising revelations from the tapes concern the roles played by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Special Assistant to the President for National Security McGeorge Bundy, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Stern demolishes the myth that the younger Kennedy was the author of the “Trollope Ploy”–the decision to reply to Khrushchev’s October 26 private letter offering a missile withdrawal in exchange for a U.S. non-invasion pledge, while ignoring the October 27 public call for the Cuban-Turkish missile exchange. The tapes reveal testy exchanges between JFK and his national security advisor. Bundy, a former dean of Harvard’s faculty …