By Peter Kornbluh / The Nation
On October 28, 1962—that dramatic day exactly 60 years ago when Nikita Khrushchev publicly ordered the removal of nuclear ballistic missiles his forces had just installed on the island of Cuba—the Soviet premier sent a private letter to President John F. Kennedy regarding the resolution of the most dangerous superpower confrontation in modern history. Officially, the USSR withdrew the missiles in return for a vague US non-invasion-of-Cuba guarantee. Secretly, however, the crisis was resolved when President Kennedy dispatched his brother Robert to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on the evening of October 27 and agree to a top-secret deal: US missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba.
“I feel I must state to you that I do understand the delicacy involved for you in an open consideration of the issue of eliminating the US missile bases in Turkey,” Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy in his private note, seeking to confirm the arrangement in writing. “I take into account the complexity of this issue and I believe you are right about not wishing to publicly discuss it.”
Dobrynin gave the confidential letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy on October 29. But instead of passing it on to the president, the next day Kennedy returned the letter to the Soviet ambassador. The United States would “live up to our promise, even if it is given in this oral form,” Kennedy told him, but there would be no written record. “I myself, for example, do not want to risk getting involved in the transmission of this sort of letter, since who knows where and when such letters can surface or be somehow published,” Dobrynin’s detailed report to the Kremlin quoted Kennedy as saying. “The appearance of such a document could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future. This is why we request that you take this letter back.”
So began the epic cover-up of how the crisis actually ended and nuclear war was averted. President Kennedy was determined to keep the missile swap secret—to safeguard US leadership of the NATO alliance of which Turkey was a member, as well as to protect his political reputation, which, like his brother’s, would suffer if it became known that he had actually negotiated with the USSR in order save the world from self-destruction. To hide the quid pro quo, the president took a number of active measures: among them lying to his White House predecessors, misleading the media, and orchestrating a political hatchet job on his own UN Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson—the first, and virtually the only, adviser to urge Kennedy to consider a missile exchange to resolve the crisis diplomatically, without the use of force. After JFK’s assassination, a handful of his former White House aides sustained the cover-up. They would maintain a wall of silence that endured for more than 25 years, obfuscating the true history, and real lessons, of the Cold War crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon.
A BODYGUARD OF LIES
Within hours of Khrushchev’s radio broadcast on the morning of October 28, announcing his order to dismantle and repatriate the nuclear missiles, President Kennedy began to spread a false narrative of how the crisis had concluded. His secret White House taping system captured Kennedy’s phone calls to his three surviving predecessors—Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, and Herbert Hoover—about how he had dealt with it. He misled Eisenhower, telling him that “we couldn’t get into that [Turkey] deal,” as missile crisis historian Sheldon Stern reported in his book Averting “the Final Failure.”
“We rejected that,” he lied to Truman, about Khrushchev’s public demand on the Jupiter missiles in Turkey, saying that “they came back with and accepted the earlier proposal” [on the non-invasion pledge]. To Hoover, Kennedy falsely reported that the Soviets had gone back “to their more reasonable position” on non-invasion.
The next day, the president conferred with his brother about Khrushchev’s unexpected letter on the missile swap and decided that there should be no paper trail about the secret agreement. “President Kennedy and I did not feel correspondence on our conversations was very helpful at this time,” was the message Robert Kennedy provided to Ambassador Dobrynin, according to Kennedy’s top-secret account of their meeting. “He understood our conversation, and in my judgement nothing more was necessary.”
The president then set about fostering stories in the media that would distance himself from any speculation about a quid pro quo. He gave a green light to his closest friend, Charles Bartlett, whom Kennedy had used as a secret emissary to Soviet intelligence officials during the missile crisis, to write the inside story of decision-making that ended the conflict; Bartlett teamed up with another Kennedy confidant, Stewart Alsop, to co-author the controversial article “In Time of Crisis” for The Saturday Evening Post, which began to circulate around Washington in early December 1962.
The Saturday Evening Post story established the official narrative of how the missile crisis was resolved. Indeed, the opening quote of the article, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked”—attributed to Secretary of State Dean Rusk during the crisis—instantly became the iconic summation of how the world was spared the fate of atomic Armageddon. Threatening to invade Cuba, Kennedy had resolutely won the game of nuclear chicken with the Soviets; Nikita Khrushchev had “blinked,” withdrawn the missiles and given America a major Cold War victory. “Rusk’s words,” the authors of the article intoned, “epitomize a great moment in American history.”
But the article also contained a savage political smear on UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, casting him as “soft” on the Soviets for favoring political negotiations over military action. Worse, he was an appeaser. Alsop and Bartlett quoted an “unadmiring official” as stating that “Adlai wanted a Munich. He wanted to trade US bases for Cuban bases.” Before it was published, the editors of The Saturday Evening Post began distributing the article to the New York and Washington media with a press release titled “The Controversial and Hitherto Unrevealed Role Played by U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson During the Height of the Cuba Crisis.” The attack on Stevenson immediately set off a political firestorm, as President Kennedy must have known it would.
As Kennedy White House aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recounted in his widely read memoir A Thousand Days, on December 1 the president summoned him to the Oval Office and told him that the forthcoming article “accused Stevenson of advocating a Caribbean Munich.” Because of Kennedy’s close friendship with Bartlett, the president said, “everyone will suppose that it came out of the White House.” He told Schlesinger to “tell Adlai that I never talked to Charlie or any other reporter about the Cuban crisis, and that this piece does not represent my views.”
In truth, Kennedy had talked to Bartlett as the story was being written; it did represent his views, or at least his political purposes, since he had surreptitiously edited the article and orchestrated the hatchet job on Stevenson as a way to distance the White House from how the missile crisis really ended. “In fact, the ‘nonadmiring official’ was Kennedy himself,” historian Gregg Herken revealed in his book The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington.
“The president had penciled in the ‘Munich’ line when he annotated a typescript of the draft article,” Herken wrote, drawing on interviews with members of Stewart Alsop’s family and correspondence between Alsop and the executive editor of The Saturday Evening Post, Clay Blair Jr., letters published in full for the first time—60 years after the missile crisis—by my organization, the National Security Archive. President Kennedy’s role “must remain Top Secret, Eyes Only, Burn After Reading, and so on,” Alsop wrote to Blair four months after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, when his editor urged him to write a “tell-all” about the president’s participation in the drafting of the article. The manuscript page with the president’s handwritten remarks, Alsop said, had been returned to Kennedy in 1962 and destroyed. “I sent the ms. to Himself as a Christmas present, through Charlie [Bartlett]. It has long since been reduced to ashes,” Alsop wrote. “It would have made an interesting footnote to history, at that.”
PROTECTING THE MYTH OF PRESIDENTIAL TOUGHNESS
In the years following Kennedy’s assassination, his top advisers, though privy to the secret deal, sustained the sacred myth of the Cuban missile crisis. Early memoirs from former officials such as Theodore Sorensen, among others, withheld all references to the missile swap. Robert Kennedy’s diary of the crisis did contain a detailed account of his climactic October 27, 1962, meeting with Dobrynin about the quid pro quo. But when the diaries were posthumously published in 1969 as the best-selling book Thirteen Days, those passages were omitted. Twenty years later, at a Moscow conference on the missile crisis, Sorensen confessed that he had quietly cut the references to the missile trade. “I was the editor of Robert Kennedy’s book,” he admitted. “And his diary was very explicit that [Turkey] was part of the deal; but at that time, it was still a secret even on the American side…. So I took it upon myself to edit that out of his diaries.”
“There was no leak,” former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote in his book Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years, finally revealing the cover-up in 1988. “As far as I know, none…of us told anyone else what had happened. We denied in every forum that there was any deal.”
Indeed, only in the late 1980s and early 1990s did the full history of the diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise that resolved the missile crisis finally emerge. In 1987, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library began to release declassified transcripts of the secret tapes that recorded Kennedy’s meetings with his advisers during the conflict; they captured the president weighing the merits of a missile trade that might avert a nuclear conflagration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Foreign Ministry archives began to share key documentation, including Dobrynin’s cables to Moscow reporting on his meetings with Robert Kennedy. A series of international conferences, including 30th and 40th anniversary meetings in Havana bringing together surviving Kennedy White House officials, former Soviet military commanders, and Fidel Castro, significantly advanced the historical record on how the dangerous nuclear confrontation began—and how it really ended.
That historical record remains immediately relevant today, as Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in its war of aggression against Ukraine have created another “time of crisis.” The degree to which the lessons of the past are applicable to the present remains unknown. But 60 years ago, in his October 28, 1962, letter to President Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev issued a prescient warning for coexistence in a world of nuclear weapons: “Mr. President, the crisis that we have gone through may repeat again. This means that we need to address the issues which contain too much explosive material. But we cannot delay the solution to these issues, for continuation of this situation is fraught with many uncertainties and dangers.”