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Document Friday: The Cuban Missile Crisis— Kennedy’s Letter to Khrushchev

February 19, 2010

The Excomm. 29 October 1962.

Today’s hot doc is President John F. Kennedy’s 27 October 1962 letter to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in which the President proposed an end of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Kennedy stated that if the USSR removed its missiles from Cuba, the US would end its “quarantine measures” and publicly pledge that it would not invade Cuba.  Kennedy closed his correspondence by warning that the continuation of the Cuban Crisis would lead to “a grave risk to the peace of the world.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev exchanged ten letters.  Last week, we looked at a 24 October 1962 letter from Khrushchev condemning Kennedy’s quarantine of Cuba, decrying it as an act of aggression which led to the “the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.”  Kennedy read Khrushchev’s letter and surmised, “He said those ships [Soviet ships with nuclear weapons] are coming through.”

Map of Soviet ships and the quarantine line by Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight.

But, Kennedy’s judgment that Khrushchev would run the quarantine was incorrect.  The Soviet leader had ordered his ships to turn back even before he had sent Kennedy the 24 October 1962 letter.  Recent evidence shows that when the Soviet ships turned back they were more than 500 nautical miles from the quarantine line.  Secretary of State Rusk’s oft repeated description of a naval standoff—that “we were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked”—never actually happened.

But other recent evidence shows that the Cuban Missile Crisis was even more dangerous than Kennedy and Khrushchev perceived at the time:

  • Despite detecting some nuclear weapons in Cuba, US intelligence was dangerously incorrect in other facets. In addition to mistakenly reporting the presence of Chinese troops on Cuba, Secretary of Defense McNamara reported to the President that there were 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet “technicians” on the island rather than the actual 43,000 armed combat troops.  Some of these troops, we now know, were within fifteen miles of Guantanamo Bay and were armed with nuclear cruise missiles which could have obliterated the US base within minutes.
  • Fidel Castro was ready to sacrifice his country to nuclear war to promote the socialist cause.  In a 26 October 1962 letter to Khrushchev, he wrote that if the imperialist United States “manage[ed] to carry out an invasion of Cuba…then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense [read: nuclear war].”  Castro’s zeal likely contributed to Khrushchev’s decision to remove the nuclear weapons from Cuba.
  • American U2 planes escalated the crisis.  On 27 October 1962, Cuban and Soviet troops shot down an American U2 over Cuban airspace because they feared it could uncover the position of the Soviet nuclear cruise missiles near Guantanamo Bay;  Maj. Rudolf Anderson was killed.   That same day, a U2 piloted by Captain Charles Maultsby flew into Soviet airspace, ran out of fuel, and glided home to Alaska.  Khrushchev asked Kennedy in his 28 October 1962 letter, “Is it not a fact that an intruding American plane could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step?”
  • And most shockingly, hours after the U2 plane was shot down over Cuba, the US Navy used grenade-sized depth charges to force a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear torpedo to surface in the Caribbean.  One sailor has controversially claimed that the captain of the sub became enraged, ordered the nuclear torpedo armed, and yelled, “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all.” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. According to Robert Kennedy, when McNamara informed the President that depth charges had been used on Soviet submarines, “those few minutes were the time of greatest worry to the President. His hand went up to his face & covered his mouth and he closed his fist.”

Soviet FRK cruise missile deployed in Cuba.

These recent revelations make the Kennedy-Khrushchev letters an even more exciting read.  But the leaders’ ten letters also show the shortcoming of relying solely upon documents to understand history. The letters make no mention of the secret deal brokered between RFK and the Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. The deal stipulated that after the Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba, the United States would remove its Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey—although their removal would not be a public “quid pro quo.”

As the letters reveal, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous crisis in human history; an example of the power of diplomacy; and a scary reminder that heads of state are neither omnipresent nor omnipotent.  After the crisis, Kennedy wrote Khrushchev a final letter in which he pleaded, “Perhaps now, as we step back from danger, we can together make real progress in this vital field [of nuclear disarmament].”  Alas, despite progress and proclamations, the specter of nuclear war still hangs above our world.

  1. Brad Olson permalink
    June 1, 2010 12:00 pm

    Hi I am a Junior in High School and am doing a project on the Cuban Missile Crisis and I was wondering if I could use some of your pictures for my project.

    Brad Olson

    • Nate Jones permalink
      June 1, 2010 2:03 pm

      Sure. The pictures, are all fair use. Good luck!!

  2. Kate permalink
    January 29, 2012 6:49 am

    Great website – very useful resources for teachers, thanks

  3. DET permalink
    April 11, 2013 2:58 pm

    The fact is that until he knew how US would react to his missile bases in Cuba Khrushchev NEVER put nuclear warheads on the island. Of course, he had tactical nukes there but these would and could only be used to defend against an invasion force. They in no way constituted a strategic threat. Keep in mind from this person who lived in that era, everyone was ready to err on the side of caution. You rightly point to them most idiotic aspect of the whole period: the Bay of Pigs Fiasco. Our military commanders were in historically induced menopause: hot and cold flashes. We see that there is a military tendency to always go beyond the operational to the strategic realm that is only civilian prerogative, hence we have numerous idiotic strategic analyses that really make you wonder how complex these guys can really think and how many balls they can juggle at one time. History has proven that while they have balls, they can’t juggle them!

    Another lesson: the JFK people were all congenital liars. They deemed deception the essence of manhood. To their end, debating several of the close-ups to JFK, I found them to be extremely mendacious, insisting that we MUST all accept their lies as truth for the sake of national security– even 20 years after JFK was dead. While JFK had a lot going for him as a reasonable person, his entourage were ready to do and say anything to be noticed and achieve the tightest orbit around their Sun King!

    The incompetence of decisions made was due to the fact that the ideas of men deemed loyal to a fault was taken over that of men deemed able to get into Soviets’ shoes. Bottom line, Khrushchev was not playing Cuba but a piano of crisis keys across the board, determined to make a global symphony that would cause JFK to trip and remain off balance.

    Lastly, with no nuclear warheads in Cuba, Khrushchev had nothing to bargain with. Yet, JFK gave him the Jupiters in Turkey to save his butt. Khrushchev never forgot that JFK didn’t take advantage of him. Had JFK not been assassinated by a US ally fearing that we would force it to abandon its developing nuclear weapons in compliance with Khrushchev’s demand on route to nuclear disarmament, JFK could have really brought on, together with Khrushchev, the 1963 end of the Cold war that so many academics on the left erroneously thought to the case. They failed to factor in Mao and Le Duan.


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