[President Kennedy will] make a fuss, make more of a fuss, and then agree. Nikita Khrushchev, predicting how JFK would respond to the Soviet missiles in Cuba
We’ve walked through the actual events of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so let’s now look at the negotiations between America and the USSR – that is, between JFK and Khrushchev.
As I’ve mentioned before, Khrushchev had a low opinion of Kennedy, based on his two earlier interactions with the US President. At a hastily arranged summit meeting between Khrushchev and Kennedy in Vienna in June 1961 – virtually all Kennedy’s advisors had argued against the meeting – Kennedy had been badly bullied by Khrushchev and had foolishly agreed that the US wouldn’t oppose the building of a barrier between East and West Berlin.
A mere two months later, the border between East and West Berlin was suddenly closed and construction began on the Berlin Wall – dubbed the “wall of shame” by West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. Kennedy did nothing.
This appearance of weakness on President Kennedy’s part emboldened Khrushchev to move forward with the placement of missiles in Cuba. As noted in the quote above, Khrushchev believed Kennedy would gripe and moan but then accept the missiles as a fait accompli.
Khrushchev also believed that the Cuban missiles were only a tit-for-tat for the recent placement of US missiles on the Soviet border – in Turkey. Thus, even in a worst case Khrushchev could agree to remove the Cuban missiles if the US would remove the Turkish missiles. In that case the US would be worse off than it was before the crisis, while the Soviets would be better off – Khrushchev would have “won.”
The crisis began when, in mid-October, 1961, the US discovered the Soviet missiles in Cuba. On October 18 Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko, who lied about the missiles, and on October 22 Kennedy went on national television to alert the American people about the Cuban missiles and that the US would not tolerate them. As a first step a “quarantine” would be enforced around Cuba.
That same day Kennedy delivered a letter to Khrushchev making the US position crystal clear:
“In our discussions and exchanges on Berlin and other international questions, the one thing that has most concerned me is the possibility that your Government would not correctly understand the will and determination of the United States … It was in order to avoid any incorrect assessment on the part of your Government with respect to Cuba that I publicly stated that … the United States would do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies … the United States is determined that this threat to the security of this hemisphere be removed.”
Kennedy was obviously referring to his less-than-impressive performances in his prior relationships with Khrushchev, and was informing the Soviets that that-was-then-and-this-is-now.
On October 23, Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy taking a hard line, stating, “we [cannot] recognize the right of the United States to establish control over armaments which are necessary” for Cuba’s defense. Khrushchev called on the US to “renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace.” Kennedy responded immediately, rejecting Khrushchev’s letter and blaming the crisis on the USSR.
The October 23 letter was sent privately, but the next day Khrushchev released a telegram he had sent to Kennedy, stating that the “quarantine” was nothing but “outright piracy” and would lead to war.
Clearly, Khrushchev believed Kennedy was “fussing” but, after “fussing some more,” would give in and accept the missiles.
But Kennedy wasn’t bluffing. Not only did the US impose the quarantine around Cuba, but all US military forces were put on DEFCON 2 status. On October 25 Kennedy responded briefly to Khrushchev’s October 23 letter, simply stating that the USSR had lied about the missiles and was now paying the consequences.
Belatedly, Khrushchev realized that Kennedy wasn’t “fussing” at all, but clearly meant to have the missiles removed or the US would remove them – even at the risk of nuclear war.
In the early evening of October 26, Washington, DC time – it was 2 a.m. in Moscow – the US State Department received an odd message from Khrushchev. The letter was very long, full of misspellings and grammatical errors, and clearly hadn’t been cleared with the Soviet Politburo. In the letter Khrushchev wandered aimlessly from topic to topic, complained about minor issues, whined about this and that. It was an emotional response directly from the pen of a very rattled Nikita Khrushchev.
Emotional or not, Khrushchev’s letter made an offer – the USSR would remove the missiles from Cuba in return for a public declaration from President Kennedy that the US would not invade the island. Invading Cuba had been American policy ever since the Castro revolution had succeeded back in 1958, and hence it was a bitter pill for the Americans to swallow – to accept a Communist government ninety miles from Miami. Still, JFK felt it was a concession worth making to avoid nuclear war.
But as EXCOMM was drafting a reply to Khrushchev’s long, emotional letter, accepting the tradeoff of removing the missiles in return for an American promise not to invade Cuba, yet another letter came in from Khrushchev. This one, on October 27, made a different proposal – that the Cuban missiles would be removed only if the US removed its missiles in Turkey. Did Khrushchev – or anyone in Moscow – know what they were doing?
The puzzled Americans debated what to do. Was Khrushchev cracking up, forgetting which offers he’d made or not made? Was there a power struggle going on in Moscow, a possible attempt to replace Khrushchev?
Next week we’ll see how the crisis – the worst nuclear crisis since atomic weapons had been invented – was resolved. Finally, we’ll look at what we might learn from the Cuban crisis about Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats associated with the war in Ukraine.
Next up: Ukraine through the Lens of Cuba, Part 6
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