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Plan R????

THE KENNEDY TAPES: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. By Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow . The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press: 728 pp., $35 : THE OTHER MISSILES OF OCTOBER: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Jupiters 1957-1963. By Philip Nash . University of North Carolina Press: 244 pp., $45

November 02, 1997|JAMES G. BLIGHT | James G. Blight is the author of the forthcoming, "Politics of Illusion: The Bay of Pigs Invasion Reconsidered" and co-author of "Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse." He is professor of international relations at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies

The British historian and peace activist E.P. Thompson once described Nikita Khrushchev as "the philosopher-king of deterrence" for having the wisdom and courage to back down during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and remove the nuclear missiles he had unwisely deployed to Cuba. With the appearance of "The Kennedy Tapes" and its transcripts of secretly taped discussions between President Kennedy and his advisors, we can see more clearly that Kennedy was Khrushchev's equal in statesmanship. Kennedy, we now know, was instrumental in finding a way for both sides to back off, rather than force Khrushchev to back down.

Less than a month before the congressional elections of November 1962, Kennedy would risk the wrath of hawks in the United States by publicly pledging not to attack Fidel Castro's Cuba in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles and troops from the island. He would also risk splintering the NATO alliance by secretly agreeing to trade NATO missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. These moves would give Khrushchev just enough political capital with his own hawks to offset the humiliation associated with the withdrawal of the missiles.

It has been known, ever since the information surfaced during the Watergate investigation in 1973, that Kennedy secretly taped many discussions during the crisis and that only he, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy and one or two others knew about it. The Kennedy Library began a project about 15 years ago to transcribe and declassify the tapes, beginning with Oct. 16, the day after photographic confirmation of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. That transcript, stunning in its evocation of the White House's struggle with nuclear danger, has been available for more than 10 years. Its appearance led to a renaissance of scholarship on the crisis.

Shortly after the transcript was released, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security advisor, undertook to transcribe and declassify the tapes of Oct. 27, the day (and night) of supreme tension. After that appeared in 1987, the transcribing process ground to a virtual standstill because of a lack of resources, the poor quality of the tapes and a shortage of knowledgeable scholars with the appropriate security clearances to do the work. Now, because of the herculean effort by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, we have a transcription of the complete tapes, detailing what conversations took place between Oct. 16 and 29. The reader of "The Kennedy Tapes" comes as close as most people will ever get to being a fly on the wall during the discussions of leaders caught in a deep and dangerous dilemma.

"The Kennedy Tapes" begins with a tour de force: an introduction providing a masterful review of Kennedy and his men, their formative experiences, their institutional responsibilities, even descriptions of their appearances, voices and gestures. May and Zelikow also review for us the significance of the historical short-hand in the transcripts: "Munich" (an aversion to appeasement), "Pearl Harbor" (the moral repugnance of a sneak attack) and their concerns about developing crises in Laos and especially Berlin during the spring and summer of 1961. This introduction is so compelling and comprehensive in the space of a mere 43 pages that most will want to read it several times before tackling the transcripts themselves.

The transcripts are very much in the staccato Kennedy style. People often interrupt one another; Kennedy himself fails to complete his thoughts (though his meaning is usually clear) and it is difficult to assess the relative importance of so much verbiage from so many men on so many complex issues. (The end of "The Kennedy Tapes" is, however, puzzling. The editors do not draw any significant conclusions. These pages are ostensibly a survey of recent research about the Soviets' conduct during the crisis, virtually all of which is already known to specialists; it seems a somewhat esoteric afterthought.)

Of great interest in "The Kennedy Tapes" is Kennedy's early insistence that, like it or not, the United States would have to "trade" NATO Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which threatened Russia from its southern border, for Soviet missiles in Cuba. At the first meeting on Oct. 16, Kennedy already saw the total elimination of the Jupiters as a necessary component of any resolution (although it was hardly a problem considering that Polaris submarines armed with nuclear missiles were about ready for deployment):

President Kennedy: What is the advantage? Must be some major reason for the Russians to set this up. Must be that they're not satisfied with their ICBMs. What'd be the reason that they would. . . .

[Gen. Maxwell] Taylor: What I'd give them is, primarily, it makes the launching base for short-range missiles against the United States to supplement their rather defective ICBM system, for example. That's one reason.

Kennedy: How many weapons do we have in Turkey?

Taylor: We have the Jupiter missiles.

[McGeorge] Bundy: We have how many?

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