Cuban missile crisis - as it happened

September 28, 1997|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,special to the sun

"The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis," edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow. Harvard University Press. 715 pages. $35.

On Oct. 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy saw, for the first time, U-2 aerial reconnaissance photographs showing the Soviets setting up nuclear-armed ballastic missiles in Cuba targeted on American cities. The ensuing crisis brought the world the closest it has ever come to thermonuclear destruction. During the next 13 days, as Kennedy's inner circle debated what to do, the President secretly tape-recorded the discussions.

These tapes, meticulously edited by Harvard historians, present a definitive record of how the United States government functions in mortal crisis. The tapes should prove invaluable to historians of this period and foreign policy mavens willing to put in the often tedious work of reading them.

In addition to the raw material of the tapes, the editors present a background of key historical experiences, such as Munich, Pearl Harbor and the Bay of Pigs, which dominated the minds of the president and his advisors. They also supply continuity when key discussions are unrecorded, and assess the thinking of the Soviet side, based on records, such as Nikita S. Khrushchev's memoirs, which are now available. What the editors do not provide is any perspective to help the reader see the crisis in the broader scope of history or the moral struggle of the species.

The tapes themselves show Kennedy, surrounded by a somewhat shifting cast of characters, including Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Staring at them - in their imaginations - is the ghostly visage of Soviet Chairman Khrushchev, who has initiated the crisis and commands the only force on Earth which can seriously challenge the United States.

Kennedy's job, and that of his advisers, is to discern Khrushchev's motives and anticipate his actions. Throughout the debate, Kennedy seems considerably less in charge than the editors of this volume claim. Whatever structure exists, and many of the final solutions, are provided mainly by McNamara, whose role the editors inexplicitly slight.

The tapes tell the familiar story of how the United States imposed a naval blockade to stop delivery of new missiles and warheads to Cuba, and how eventually, Khrushchev ordered Soviet ships to turn around. But the tapes do contain a major revelation or, at least, a confirmation of what many historians have long suspected, that Kennedy secretly agreed to remove United States nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles from Turkey, in return for a Soviet agreement to dismantle the missiles in Cuba. Secrecy was maintained to protect the credibility of the NATO alliance. Indeed, Kennedy warns Khrushchev that if the deal is made public, the offer will be withdrawn.

When the two-week crisis is over, the sigh of relief from the American team, nerve-frayed and exhausted, is almost audible. How close the world came to Armageddon, how chaotic the process of decision-making was. In providing a record of the crisis, "The Kennedy Tapes" begs the question if ever again the world can afford an international system which permits the world to come this close to destruction.

Craig Eisendrath was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer during th Cuban Missile Crisis, and is presently a senior fellow at the

Center for International Policy in Washington. He has also written several plays, including "The Disappeared" and "The Angel of History"

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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