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The '13 days in October,' 50 years later

Conservatives at the time accused President Kennedy of capitulation in the Cuban missile crisis. No more.

October 14, 2012|By Jon Wiener
(David Gothard / For the Times )

In 2007, when President George W. Bush's White House spokesperson, Dana Perino, was asked a question about one of the biggest foreign policy crises in American history, she drew a blank. "I was panicked a bit because I really don't know about … the Cuban missile crisis," she later told NPR. "It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I'm pretty sure."

Perino was 35 in 2007, and thus had been born about a decade after the famous "13 days in October" 1962 when President John F. Kennedy confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over Moscow's installation of missiles in Cuba. The history books describe it as the closest the world has come to nuclear war.

Perino's ignorance revealed a striking shift in conservative perception. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Republicans expected that it would be remembered for generations as a moment when a Democratic president squandered a historic opportunity. Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley all suggested at the time that Kennedy's handling of the crisis represented a capitulation to the Soviets; that the president had bowed to Soviet threats when he promised not to invade Cuba. They believed Kennedy's actions had guaranteed that a communist outpost would remain, 90 miles from our shores, and that the president should have taken the opportunity to liberate the Cubans from their communist overlords.

These days, most conservatives wouldn't make such arguments. Even the Reagan Library in Simi Valley gave no hint of the views Reagan once held on the matter in a Cold War exhibit it had up until a few months ago. There was a single panel of text about those 13 days in October, and it informed visitors: "Kennedy took decisive action. His firm stand, based on excellent intelligence and analyses, resolved the Cuban missile crisis."

But at the time, it wasn't just Reagan, Goldwater and Buckley who favored U.S. intervention; inside the circle of Kennedy's advisors, advocates of an attack on Cuba were led by Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of the Air Force, who proposed bombing 1,000 sites in Cuba, to be followed seven days later by a ground invasion by U.S. troops. (LeMay had risen in power in World War II for devising and carrying out the strategy of fire-bombing Japanese cities, which killed more civilians than the atomic bombs.)

How would LeMay's Cuba plan have worked? The Soviets might have retaliated as the first bombers approached Cuba. Even if Khrushchev did not order the firing of missiles, a Soviet commander in charge of a missile base in Cuba could have ordered a launch. They had eight of their big missiles fueled, targeted and armed with nuclear warheads that October — missiles that could have reached Manhattan. If all eight R-12s in Cuba had been launched, the total payload would have been eight megatons — "an explosive force equivalent to all the bombs ever dropped in the history of war," according to one account of the crisis. If only a single R-12 missile reached a U.S. city, it would have hit with 1 megaton of explosive force — about 80 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Even if the targeting were off, the city probably would have been destroyed.

But the Soviets might not have attacked cities on the East Coast; they might have retaliated by launching their short-range tactical nuclear missiles at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which could have killed all the Americans there. Then Kennedy would have had to retaliate — by attacking a military base or a major city in the Soviet Union.

For the last 30 years, historians have largely ignored the conservative critiques of the time. Kennedy's actions have been challenged instead from the left, by those who question whether the missile crisis was necessary. The Kennedy advocates have held that the successful resolution of the crisis demonstrated his mastery of world politics, showing how he struck the perfect balance between steely determination and strategic flexibility. As a result, they say, he prevented nuclear war while removing the threat posed by the missiles in Cuba.

His critics have argued for the last three decades that Kennedy's taking the nation to the brink of nuclear war was an irresponsible and unnecessary risk, and that the crisis should have been resolved by less dangerous methods involving normal diplomacy and negotiation. The Soviet missiles in Cuba, they note, did not represent an increased threat to the U.S. — "a missile is a missile," Kennedy himself said, and it didn't matter whether it was coming from Siberia or Cuba. The missiles in Cuba did nothing to change the strategic balance of power — that's what Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Kennedy at the beginning of the crisis: "I don't think there is a military problem." And the U.S. already had missiles based in Turkey, closer to the Soviet Union than the missiles in Cuba were to the U.S., so we had set the precedent for moving missiles up to our enemy's border.

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