In a secretly recorded meeting on October 19, 1962, President John F. After criticizing Kennedy’s call to blockade the island as too weak a response, Gen. Curtis LeMay, Air Force chief of staff, tells the president that his refusal to invade Cuba would encourage the Soviets to move on Berlin.
The Ultimate What-If of the Cuban Missile Crisis: What If There Had Been a Nuclear War?
Eric G. Swedin is the author of “When Angels Wept: A What-If History of the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Potomac, 2010), as well as nine other books, and is an Associate Professor of History at Weber State University. His web site is http://www.swedin.org/.
The fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis just passed and America justly celebrated the event. Five decades ago, at the height of the Cold War, the world survived the most dangerous moment in human history. During the course of thirteen days, the Soviets and Americans confronted each other, but sanity won out and a deal was negotiated to end the crisis.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of historical archives, as well as participants speaking up, we have learned that the crisis was much more hazardous than initially supposed. The Soviets had four submarines in the Atlantic, each armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo, and ambiguous instructions on when those weapons could be used. American naval vessels found some of the submarines and harassed them with noisemakers and grenades into surfacing. On Cuba itself, the Soviet troops were armed with tactical nuclear weapons, again with ambiguous instructions on when they could use those weapons. If Kennedy had followed the advice of the military and bombed or invaded Cuba, these weapons might have been used. While the American military knew that the Soviets on Cuba might have tactical nuclear weapons, they had no intelligence showing this and tended to believe that the Soviets had not brought such weapons with them.
The chances for an accidental war were very high. Many of us might assume that people are more rational than that, but nations are independent actors and when they are playing chicken, unwanted outcomes are the norm. World War I and World War II both effectively started by accident in that none of the major powers were seeking a general war.
What makes the Cuban Missile Crisis fascinating for me as a historian is not what happened, as grateful as I am that we all survived, but what could have happened. What if the U-2 flight that found the Soviet missile sites on Cuba, thus starting the Cuban Missile Crisis, had been delayed by just seven days? Many of the earlier reconnaissance flights had been delayed by too much cloud cover over Cuba. Because the time line of the crisis was dictated by how close the Soviets were to getting their strategic missiles on Cuba active, such a delay in discovery would have created a much shorter time period for decisions to be made. At the beginning of the crisis, the tendency of the president’s advisors was to be much more belligerent, and the longer length of the real crisis allowed emotions to cool and caution to prevail. A shorter crisis could have encouraged Kennedy to follow the advice of the Pentagon and resort to the bombing of the strategic missiles on Cuba before they became active and then to invade the island just to make sure that they had been destroyed. Removing Fidel Castro from power, who had already demonstrated his inclination to be a thorn in the side of American foreign policy, would have been a bonus.
Two years ago, I wrote a what-if history book based on the premise that the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a general nuclear war. The first half of the book was accurate history, with a few changes to match the narrative of fictional history in the second half of the book. The book was not a novel, at least not in the traditional sense, since it was written as a history book in both style and content, but it did later win an award that normally went to novels: the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. The recent documentary on the crisis, CloudsOverCuba, also portrayed an alternate outcome of the crisis. [Disclaimer: I consulted on the documentary.]
In my counterfactual history, because of the shortened time line for decisions, Kennedy follows the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cuba is bombed. The Pentagon then implements its plans for an invasion, but the invasion fleet is destroyed by a Soviet tactical nuclear weapon and the world holds its breath. The Americans react to the loss of their ships and troops by dropping fourteen nuclear bombs on Cuba. Kennedy is assured by Air Force general Curtis LeMay that this will destroy all possible Soviet nuclear weapons on the island, a claim that LeMay could make because he was unaware that the Soviets had brought over one hundred nuclear weapons to the island with their troops.
The crew of the remaining Soviet medium bomber on Cuba, absent orders from their superiors, retaliate by dropping their nuclear bomb on New Orleans. Quick messages are exchanged between the two superpowers. Khrushchev recognizes that because his own strategic forces are so much smaller than the American forces, that the only hope for the Soviets is to strike first. The Soviets have 25 intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States, while the Americans have ready 180 ICBMs that can reach the Soviet Union only 110 Soviet strategic bombers can reach the United States and 1,600 American strategic bombers can reach the Soviet Union. In other classes of weapons, the United States enjoys similar advantages. It is a classic case of desperately opting for war because of a sense of weakness, instead of strength.
My research led to an unexpected outcome. In 1962, because of the disparity of strategic nuclear weapons between the Soviets and Americans, a general nuclear war would have destroyed the Soviet Union and Europe, but only damaged the United States. Canada and the United States had strong fighter defenses, and Soviet missile-carrying submarines were all in port, so the United States would probably only be hit by less than thirty nuclear weapons. That is horrific, but not a civilization killer in comparison, the Soviets took proportionally a similar number of casualties during World War II. Western Europe would be devastated by numerous shorter-range Soviet missiles and in return, the Soviet Union would be obliterated by over a thousand American nuclear weapons. The American war plan for nuclear war was politically inflexible, not taking into account that a global war might not include all communist nations, so in following the plan, China and other communist nations would also be hit hard by the Americans.
Nuclear weapons were set to either explode high in the air, as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, maximizing the range of blast effects, or on the ground, in order to destroy command bunkers and missile silos buried in the ground. In 1962, the long-term effects of a global nuclear war would have been minimized because almost all of the nuclear explosions would have been air bursts in order to increase immediate damage and reduce fallout. For instance, the Soviets had no motivation for maximizing the fallout from their strikes on Western Europe, because the jet stream would have just brought that fallout to their own nation. The massive silo-building program of the mid-1960s had just began and had not yet forced a change in tactics.
After the real crisis ended, the Soviets resolved to not be caught in a position of strategic weakness again, and so embarked on a massive buildup in strategic nuclear forces. Both sides also buried their missiles deep in silos, which meant that during a nuclear war ground bursts would be required to destroy those missiles. A general nuclear war, in which each side used its thousands of weapons, throwing massive amounts of fallout into the atmosphere, would kill human civilization. The proposed outcome that I presented in my book, where the United States would have survived, however weakened and shocked, would not have happened after the increased nuclear buildup.
In the end, in an argument for what-if history, we need to remember that history may now be in the past, but at one moment it was in the present. Contingency is too often neglected by historians and other people. When thinking about history we assume that whatever happened was inevitable. This is a poor way to think about history and about why events unfolded as they did. Thinking about alternate outcomes of the Cuban Missile Crisis is an extended exercise in continency and helps us to imagine what the crisis must have felt like for people at that time . and for what might have happened instead.
General LeMay and President Kennedy shared a barely concealed, mutual contempt for each other which was widely known in Washington, and John F. Kennedy had more than once walked out of a meeting with LeMay in a fit of pique. President Kennedy was so upset when first briefed in September 1961 by General Lyman Lemnitzer (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) about America’s inflexible plan for total, world-wide nuclear war, SIOP -62 – the ‘Single Integrated Operational Plan’ for Fiscal Year 1962 – that he spent most of the meeting tapping on his teeth with his thumbnail, a sign of irritation in him, and said in disgust to Secretary of State Dean Rusk at the conclusion of the meeting, “And we call ourselves the human race.” (Although the target list in the fist SIOP had been developed in 1960 – and was officially the brainchild of LeMay’s protégé and replacement as head of SAC, General Power – it was at heart really LeMay’s plan, even though briefed by Lemnitzer, for it reflected LeMay’s personal philosophy of massive and continuing retaliation for several days, in the event of nuclear war).
At that time, the SIOP essentially called for the massive and overwhelming destruction of the entire Communist bloc – [National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy called SIOP-62 and its predecessors “a massive, total, comprehensive strategic attack…on everything Red.” It allowed for no flexibility once nuclear hostilities began.] – both military bases and major civilian targets (cities) – in the event of nuclear war with any one of its members. [For example, in a war with the Soviet Union, all major strategic targets in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, and North Vietnam would have been destroyed.]. It was overkill on a grand scale, and greatly upset President Kennedy, who was already preoccupied about the danger – even the likelihood – of accidental nuclear war through mistakes or miscalculation, to the point where after this briefing, he ordered the SIOP revised to allow for a more flexible response by the Commander-in-Chief than the obligatory destruction of half of the planet in the event of a nuclear conflict. The revised plan, called SIOP-63, went into effect just prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
LeMay, for his part, considered Kennedy a ‘weak sister,’ and was angry with JFK for not immediately bombing, and then invading Cuba during the Missile Crisis in October 1962.
General Thomas Power, an ‘extreme personality’ who himself sometimes made General LeMay look like a reasonable man, commanded the Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. On Wednesday, November 24, 1962, General Power not only took the dangerous and provocative step of moving SAC from DEFCON-3 to DEFCON-2 (one stage short of nuclear war) without Kennedy’s permission during the crisis, but made two unencrypted radio transmissions about this change in status to all of SAC, undoubtedly to ensure that the USSR knew what the U.S. Air Force was doing. (There was a great nuclear weapons imbalance at this time in favor of the Untied States, and both the United States and the Soviet political and military leadership knew this.)
Kennedy and his advisors were not only furious that this had happened, but actually horrified, because putting SAC at DEFCON-2 could have been interpreted by the Soviets as the prelude to a pre-emptive “first-strike” by the United States, and thereby increased the risk of general war.
General LeMay, as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was not only responsible for Power’s actions, but he supported them after the fact, even though Power had acted independently. (Thomas Power, Curtis LeMay’s former Chief of Staff when LeMay commanded SAC, was the handpicked replacement chosen to take over the powerful organization LeMay himself had succored and nurtured through its childhood and adolescence, into the maturity of adulthood.) LeMay, furthermore, had given what new Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Maxwell Taylor later called “half-assed” recommendations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, including telling President Kennedy that the Soviet Union would not respond with military force anywhere in the world – not even in Berlin – if the U.S. attacked Cuba, destroyed its missiles, and killed large numbers of its troops and technicians.
Shortly after the Missile Crisis ended, President Kennedy met with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Cabinet Room at the White House to thank them for their efforts, after achieving a negotiated settlement with the Soviet Union that both guaranteed removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba and avoided war. President Kennedy tried to put a good face on what had been a difficult and stressful two weeks with his military leadership, saying that he wanted to tell them how much he admired them and had benefited from their advice and counsel.
President Kennedy said, “Gentlemen, we’ve won. I don’t want you to ever say it, but you know we’ve won, and I know we’ve won.” At this point the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral George Anderson, exclaimed, “We’ve been had!” LeMay’s own emotional outburst followed immediately thereafter. LeMay – who was enraged that the United States had not bombed and invaded Cuba – pounded the table in the Cabinet room and blurted out, “Won, Hell! We Lost!” We should go in and wipe them out today!” LeMay then proclaimed the resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis to be “the greatest defeat in our history,” and ejaculated, “Mr. President, we should invade today!” - leaving President Kennedy stunned and stammering in amazement.
President Kennedy and General LeMay no doubt both considered themselves patriots, but they were very different kinds of patriots – the type of men who were so far apart in their respective views of the world that they could not help but despise each other. LeMay was crude, bull-headed, profane, inflexible, demanding, and used to getting his way President Kennedy was, more than anything else, flexible and open to new ideas, and his World War II experiences had made him very skeptical of the so-called wisdom of senior military officers. The animus between Kennedy and LeMay was real, and quite serious.
LeMay, who had earned his stars in the European Theater during World War II as a B-17 bomber unit commander (in the European ‘daylight precision bombing’ campaign of the Eighth Air Force) before moving to the Pacific and initiating the firebombing campaign against the Japanese cities with the high-tech B-29 Superfortresses, was the ultimate Cold Warrior. He was a strong advocate of nuclear deterrence, and had spent 8 years, from 1949 to 1957, building up the Strategic Air Command (America’s extremely efficient and formidable organization established for the purpose of delivering long range nuclear weapons) into the greatest fleet of destruction ever assembled. In doing so he had ushered into service the B-36, B-47, and B-52 bombers, and a huge fleet of tankers to support worldwide operations. Curtis LeMay was the pre-eminent symbol of America’s nuclear warfighting capability, in the era before the advent of the Polaris ballistic missile submarine. He was upset that JFK had decided the United States only needed a future projected total of 1000 ICBMs instead of the 3,000 nuclear-tipped missiles that LeMay wanted.
Some military historians actually believe that LeMay attempted to provoke a violent response from the Soviet Union during the mid-to-late 1950s – through repeated, provocative overflights by SAC aircraft – and that he wanted to use the hoped for Soviet knee-jerk response as a pretext for an annihilating “first strike” against the USSR. During the 1950s, LeMay was certain that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was not only survivable, but easily winnable, and apparently believed that since nuclear war with the Soviets was inevitable, the U.S. should consider striking first, before the USSR developed effective long-range delivery systems in large numbers. Robert McNamara has said that “LeMay believed that ultimately we were going to confront these people [meaning the Soviet Union] in a conflict with nuclear weapons, and by God, we’d better do it when we have greater superiority than we will have in the future.”
In 1962, the number of U.S. nuclear warheads outnumbered what the Soviets had by a ratio of 17 to 1, and the respective numbers and reliability of our long-range delivery systems was equally superior. LeMay knew all this, of course, and he knew President Kennedy had ‘blown’ his best political opportunity to launch a justifiable pre-emptive first strike against the Soviet Union, and “win” the nuclear conflict LeMay felt was inevitable.
President Kennedy was so upset with LeMay’s unsophisticated, bellicose response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his failure to adequately control General Thomas Power and SAC during those events, that he wanted to fire LeMay afterwards, along with the Chief of Naval Operations, George Anderson, who had openly quarreled with McNamara in the Pentagon. Kennedy was dissuaded from replacing both men by his advisors, because it would have been a public admission of serious friction between President Kennedy and his military leadership, and in the end, he only got rid of George Anderson (by appointing him as Ambassador to Portugal), and hoped to keep Air Force Chief of Staff LeMay “inside the tent pissing out,” rather than have him “outside the tent pissing in.”
[Author Richard Reeves reported in President Kennedy: Profile of Power that JFK had “a kind of a fit” every time someone mentioned LeMay’s name, and once stated to an aide, “I don’t want that man near me again,” after another frustrating exchange with America’s foremost Hawk. His extreme frustration was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that he himself had promoted LeMay from Air Force Vice Chief of Staff to Chief of Staff in June 1961. Kennedy felt obligated to do this for two reasons: first, he could not afford to have LeMay out of uniform making anti-administration speeches about how weak the President was and second, if the U.S. did get into a major war, LeMay was clearly the kind of commander you wanted in charge of your Air Force. June 1961 was a period of extreme tension with the USSR over Berlin, and no doubt promoting LeMay to Air Force Chief of Staff was an intentional signal which the Soviet military leadership took note of.]
JFK made a final public jab at LeMay in his famous “Peace Speech” at American University in June 1963, encouraging Americans to “reevaluate our attitude towards the Soviet Union,” saying that if these two peoples could not agree on everything, that the world would be at least made “safe for diversity,” and publicly disavowing those who called for “Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.”
[As author Dino Brugioni states in Eyeball to Eyeball, LeMay loved to discuss how Roman strength had produced Pax Romana how the British , through their naval and military strength, had achieved Pax Britannica and with unabashed gall, how ‘his bombers’ had achieved ‘Pax Atomica.’ Once, during a lecture, LeMay resorted to the term ‘Pax Americana,’ and it was to this that JFK was responding in his commencement address at American University.]
. Finally, JFK’s then Top Secret order to withdraw completely from Vietnam by the end of 1965, passed on initially to the Joint Chiefs in Honolulu in May of 1963 by Secretary of Defense McNamara, and formalized by National Security Action Memo 263 on October 11, 1963, was anathema to military zealots who had been longing to defeat Communism on the battlefield ever since the Korean War ended in a stalemate and frustration in 1953. These facts did not sit well with Cold War Hawks.
All of the above is a prelude to what is admittedly an ‘urban legend,’ but at any rate is a believable one. Former Navy Hospital Corpsman Paul K. O’Connor, whom I have dubbed the ‘original body bag and shipping casket’ witness because of his historic interview with the HSCA staff in August 1977, told an anecdote for many years about something he witnessed during the autopsy on President Kennedy at the Bethesda morgue.
The anecdote’s essentials are that Dr. Humes, smelling cigar smoke in the morgue, loudly ordered whoever was smoking a cigar to ‘put the damn thing out,’ and told O’Connor to ‘see to it,’ or words to that effect. According to O’Connor, while Humes had his back turned to the gallery and was busy conducting the autopsy on the President’s body, he (O’Connor) went over to the gallery to enforce Humes’ dictate, only to run into the Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay, who arrogantly blew smoke in O’Connor’s face. When O’Conner informed Dr. Humes of the identify of the culprit, so the story goes, Humes turned quite pale, stuck his tail between his legs, and that was the end of the matter. According to O’Connor, when he saw LeMay the General had removed the four-star insignia from his uniform, but O’Connor recognized him nevertheless.
[This is not at all a farfetched possibility. LeMay was an extremely well-known military man who had a very efficient public relations machine of his own, second only to J. Edgar Hoover’s for example in 1955, he had been glorified in a Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson Cold War film called “Strategic Air Command,” where he was appropriately portrayed by a character named “General Hawks” by actor Frank Lovejoy. Many Americans knew who the real Curtis LeMay was in 1963, and knew what he looked like. As Brugioni wrote, “his beetle brows, jutting jaw, sagging jowls, shock of slicked down black hair, and ubiquitous brown cigar,” gave him the visage of a bulldog. He was a living icon to many in 1963, especially former and active members of the military. ]
While O’Connor’s anecdotal evidence certainly does not prove LeMay was present, the behavior described sounds very much like the real Curtis LeMay. The entries in the log book rescued by Chuck Holmes prove that LeMay had more than enough time to get to Bethesda from National Airport before President Kennedy’s body arrived from Andrews AFB LeMay landed 48 minutes prior to Air Force One, and Washington National Airport is much closer to Bethesda than Andrews Air Force Base.
Did LeMay go to Bethesda to gloat over the corpse of his nemesis, a man he considered dangerously misguided and weak? Was he the four-star general that Custer recollected giving orders, or instructions from the gallery? And if so, was he doing more than just gloating – was he a 'known integral player in a domestic conspiracy to remove the Chief Executive and replace him with ‘known quantity’ who was going to ‘play ball’ with Hawks in the government? After Custer’s deposition was over, I asked him in private if the uniform shirt of the general in the gallery was green or blue – and he said he thought it was light blue. [Air Force personnel wore light blue shirts Army personnel wore light green shirts.]
One final item of possible corroboration for Custer’s claim is the testimony of Pierre Finck at the Shaw trial in 1969 in New Orleans. The exchange went like this
Finck: “Well, I heard Dr. Humes staying that, he said, “Who is in charge here?” and I heard an Army General, I don’t remember his name, stating, “I am.” You must understand that in those circumstances, there were law enforcement officers, military people with various ranks, and you have to coordinate the operation according to directions.”
. Humes claimed during his ARRB testimony that the “I am” comment was a statement made by the Army General commanding the Military District of Washington (ie. General Wehle). before the body arrived. If Finck's testimony was true, then Humes’ sworn testimony to the ARRB cannot possibly be true, and in fact constitutes perjury.
Before the reader dismisses this possibility, ask yourself two things: why would Humes use words like “hysterical” and “three ring circus” over the years to describe the atmosphere in the morgue, if he really was in charge of the autopsy, as he has always claimed and why would the Air Force Chief of Staff ignore instructions from the Secretary of the Air Force to land at Andrews Air Force Base, where everyone in America knew the President’s body was being flown. END OF EXCERPT.
Capturing History as it Really Happened in October 1962 (Part 4)
Dr. Stern is the author of numerous articles and “Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings” (2003), “The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis” (2005), and “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality”(2012), all in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000. This is the fourth in a series. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
President Kennedy meets in the Oval Office with General Curtis LeMay and reconnaissance pilots who flew the Cuban missions. Third from the left is Major Richard Heyser who took the photos on which the Cuban missiles were first identified. Wikipedia
October 19, 1962: The president met with the Joint Chiefs to reveal, not to consult about, his decision to begin with a naval blockade around Cuba rather than bombing and/or invasion. If the U.S. attacked the island, he explained patiently, it would give the Soviets “a clear line to take Berlin.” The U.S. would then be regarded by the NATO allies, since “they think we’ve got this fixation about Cuba anyway,” as “the Americans who lost Berlin. . . . [because] we didn’t have the guts to endure a situation in Cuba. After all, Cuba is five or six thousand miles from them. They don’t give a damn about Cuba. But they do care about Berlin and about their own security. . . . I must say, I think it’s a very satisfactory position from their point of view.” A quick air strike might neutralize the missiles, but if the Soviets take Berlin in response, that “leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons—which is a hell of an alternative.”
General Curtis LeMay, the air force chief of staff, countered forcefully that the United States doesn’t have “any choice except direct military action.” LeMay turned Kennedy’s Berlin argument on its head: “I don’t share your view that if we knock off Cuba they’re gonna knock off Berlin.” On the contrary, the Soviets “are gonna push on Berlin and push real hard” only if the U.S. failed to take military action in Cuba, since they would then feel “they’ve got us on the run.” A skeptical JFK interrupted to ask, “What do you think their reprisal would be” if the U.S. attacked Cuba?” There would be no reprisal, LeMay asserted without missing a beat, as long as you tell Khrushchev again, “If they make a move [in Berlin], we’re gonna fight. . . . So, I see no other solution. This blockade and political action I see leading into war. I don’t see any other solution for it. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich. . . . I just don’t see any other solution except direct military intervention, right now.”
The general had gone well beyond disagreeing with the commander in chief. He had taken their generation’s ultimate metaphor for shortsightedness and cowardice, the 1938 appeasement of Hitler at Munich, and flung it in the president’s face. And everyone at the table knew that JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had been a supporter of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement when he served as ambassador to England between 1938 and 1940. President Kennedy did not respond.
After several seconds of awkward silence the discussion resumed. Admiral George Anderson, chief of naval operations, asserted: “I agree with General LeMay that this will escalate and then we will be required to take other military action at greater disadvantage to the United States, to our military forces, and probably would suffer far greater casualties within the United States if these fanatics do indeed intend to fire any missiles. I do not see that as long as the Soviet Union is supporting Cuba, that there is any solution to the Cuban problem except a military solution.” He acknowledged the danger to Berlin but insisted that only a strong U.S. response would deter the Soviets from aggression against that divided city.
General Earle Wheeler, army chief of staff, increased the pressure by endorsing surprise bombing, a blockade, plus an invasion. He warned that because the Soviets had only limited numbers of ICBMs targeted at the U.S., “this short-range missile force gives them a sort of a quantum jump in their capability to inflict damage on the United States. And so as I say, from the military point of view, I feel that the lowest-risk course of action is the full gamut of military action by us. That’s it.”
Finally, the Marine Corps commandant, General David Shoup, warned the president that Khrushchev might have deployed missiles so close to America so that Cuba could inflict damage on the U.S. while the Soviets “keep out of it.” The longer the U.S. waited to eliminate this threat on its doorstep, he claimed, the greater the forces that would be required to do it. Despite dismissing Cuba as “that little pip-squeak of a place,” Shoup argued that these missiles “can damage us increasingly every day.” To head off these contingencies, Shoup urged, “you’ll have to invade the place,” banging the table for emphasis, “and if that decision is made, we must go in with plenty of insurance of a decisive success and as quick as possible.”
As to the “political factor,” LeMay interjected, “that’s not quite in our field . . . but you invited us to comment on this. . . . I think that a blockade and political talk would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as bein’ a pretty weak response to this. And I’m sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way too. In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time,” the general declared, almost taunting the president. “What’d you say?” Kennedy asked matter-of-factly. “I say, you’re in a pretty bad fix,” LeMay repeated smugly. “You’re in with me,” Kennedy replied, with a derisive chuckle, “personally.”
General Maxwell Taylor, JCS chair, insisted that the Soviet base in Cuba was rapidly becoming more threatening than anyone had believed even earlier in the week. But the president again insisted that the Cuban missiles did not substantially alter the Soviet nuclear threat. He acknowledged that Soviet ICBMs might not be completely reliable, but they still had enough fire power to strike American cities, with or without Cuba, resulting in 80 to 100 million casualties: “you’re talkin’ about the destruction of a country! . . . The logical argument,” the president persisted, “is that we don’t really have to invade Cuba. That’s just one of the difficulties that we live with in life, like you live with the Soviet Union and China.”The president grimly acknowledged that “the existence of these missiles adds to the danger, but doesn’t create it. . . . I mean, hell, they can kill, especially if they concentrate on the cities, and they’ve pretty well got us there anyway.” “I appreciate your views,” the president finally told the JCS, “as I said, I’m sure we all understand how rather unsatisfactory our alternatives are.” But he repeated that the potential advantage of the blockade “is to avoid, if we can, nuclear war by escalation or imbalance. . . . We’ve got to have some degree of control.” JFK and Taylor soon left the meeting.
LeMay, Shoup, and Wheeler remained behind to talk as the door closed. The hidden tape recorder, of course, continued to turn. Shoup lauded LeMay for challenging the president: “You pulled the rug right out from under him.” “Jesus Christ!” LeMay responded disingenuously, “What the hell do you mean?” Shoup explained that he supported his air force colleague “a hundred percent” and mocked President Kennedy: “he’s finally getting around to the word ‘escalation.’ . . . When he says ‘escalation,’ that’s it. If somebody could keep ’em from doing the goddamn thing piecemeal, that’s our problem. You go in there and friggin’ around with the missiles. You’re screwed. You go in and friggin’ around with little else. You’re screwed.” “That’s right,” LeMay exclaimed. “You’re screwed, screwed, screwed,” Shoup fulminated “He could say, ‘either do the son of a bitch and do it right, and quit friggin’ around.’ . . . You got to go in and take out the goddam thing that’s gonna stop you from doin’ your job.” The discussion soon trailed off, and the tape ran out just as the JCS officers left the Cabinet Room.
LeMay and Kennedy Argue Over Cuban Missile Crisis - HISTORY
I grew up during a rather intense phase of the Cold War, when much of the world seemed to be involved in a titanic struggle between the forces of freedom and democracy, led by the United States of America, and the forces of Marxist communism, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Of course, things were not really that simple, but that was a common way of thinking.
Even in small town America there was a constant undercurrent of fear of sudden destruction, of nuclear annihilation. We saw public service ads on TV based on the most chilling line of iambic pentameter ever uttered: "Your only warning is a flash of light." Then we would see windows shattering and a room filled with flying glass.
In his campaign for president, Senator John F. Kennedy played upon that fear most skillfully. When he told us, falsely, as it turned out, that there was a missle gap, with the Soviets having more than we had, we all trembled, and chose him to be our president instead of the less personable Richard Nixon.
In 1962, the Soviet Union installed missiles armed with nuclear warheads on the island of Cuba, thus threatening military facilities and population centers on the U.S. mainland. During the crisis that followed, the actual use of nuclear weapons was a real possibility.
I remember drills we did in Junior High School. A warning siren or horn would go off and we would all file into the school's tunnel system and spend a few minutes with our faces to the wall, just in case the Russians hurled nukes at Southeastern Michigan.
I found a web page devoted to discussions amongst members of the Kennedy Administration that took place during the crisis. The site includes audio clips, but text summaries and highlights give us a good idea the kinds of attitudes that shaped the American response. Kennedy and most of his advisors were very definitely not itching for a fight, but they also understood the genuine dangers of weakness or the appearance of weakness. Plus, they understood the legitimate concerns of Cuba and of the Soviet Union. In 1961, the U.S. had encouraged a group of Cuban expatriots to invade the island. This led to the Bay of Pigs disaster, with many invaders being killed or imprisoned. Also, the United States had established nuclear missile bases in Turkey, as close to the U.S.S.R. as Cuba was to the U.S.A.
There was a certifiable right-wing whackjob in the Kennedy administration who apparently wanted to start a shooting war: U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay. According to a summary of a section of audio recording on the History Out Loud web site (same link as above),
Quite possibly we are here today because LeMay lost the argument. The crisis was resolved. The Soviets took their nukes back to Russia and the U.S.A. publicly agreed not to invade Cuba and secretly agreed to take its nukes out of Turkey. According to an undoubtedly somewhat biased web page titled Curtis LeMay - Demented Cold Warrior, the general regarded the relatively peacefull resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis as "the greatest defeat in our history." (For more info on LeMay, see General Curtis Lemay - father of the Strategic Air Command and the Curtis LeMay entry in "Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.")
I find two lessons in this little bit of history. First, "appeasement" isn't always bad. We "appeased" the Ruskies then they took their nukes out of Cuba. They did not decide we were "weak" and then go on and take all of Berlin or all of Western Europe. There is no single action in diplomacy or war that is right all of the time. Sometimes you attack, sometimes you defend, sometimes you retreat. In diplomacy, sometimes you threaten, sometimes you appease, most of the time you negotiate. Wisdom is in knowing when to do which. The war weenies who cry "Munich!! Munich!!" at every faint intimation of potential belligerence are the kind of people who lead nations into pointless wars.
The second lesson is: we need leaders who can act according to actual situations, not ones who keep saying the same thing over and over again like a wind-up army doll. Ronald Reagan could threaten and bluster when he saw fit. Then he could surprise the heck out of his right-wing fans (including me!) by signing a strategic arms limitation agreement. Kennedy certainly played a part in inflaming Cold War tensions, but he also prevented those tensions from leading to a nuclear war. In contrast, George W. Bush has needlessly gotten us into a war over "weapons of mass destruction" that did not exist.
19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
All of the Joint Chiefs supported military action but Curtis LeMay &ndash seated closest to the President &ndash did all he could to start one, and continued to argue for invasion after the crisis was averted. CIA
11. LeMay encourages the President to take military action
Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay virulently opposed the naval quarantine imposed by President Kennedy and argued vigorously for bombing missions to destroy the missiles already installed in Cuba. Even after the crisis was averted through diplomatic means, LeMay argued for an attack on Cuba anyway, destroying the missile sites as the Russians were in the process of dismantling them and removing Castro from power. LeMay continuously clashed with President Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara throughout the crisis, insisting that American bombers were sufficient to resolve the situation and that the Soviets would not respond with military action. In his assessment of Soviet resolve he was wrong, as subsequent events proved. Had Kennedy followed LeMay&rsquos recommendations, a nuclear attack would have occurred on the United States.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, review of formerly classified documents under their control revealed that the missile sites in Cuba had been given the authority to launch their weapons at the discretion of local commanders if they were deemed to be under attack. Even the provocative reconnaissance missions ordered by LeMay &ndash without presidential authorization &ndash were sufficient to allow the site commanders to launch their weapons, more than twenty of which were operational. Each of the Soviet warheads installed and ready to launch were equivalent to 50 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb. LeMay&rsquos opposition to the president was so strong that Robert Kennedy warned the Soviets during negotiations that failure to arrive at a diplomatic solution to the crisis could result in the Pentagon taking action without presidential authorization, in effect executing a coup within the United States government.
19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
President Kennedy signed a proclamation establishing a naval quarantine of Cuba before going on television to inform the American people of the situation and the actions taken by their government. JFK Presidential Library
8. Kennedy addresses the nation on the situation in Cuba
On October 22, the American Ambassador to the Soviet Union met with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev to inform him of America&rsquos knowledge of the Soviet activity in Cuba and the details of the impending quarantine. Kennedy called former president Eisenhower to brief him, with Eisenhower informing the President that he could expect Berlin to be used as a bargaining chip. That evening Kennedy went on national television to announce the Soviet missile buildup and the quarantine, warning that any attack launched from Cuba would be considered an attack by the Soviet Union, and that the United States would launch a &ldquofull retaliatory response on the Soviet Union&rdquo. Thus Kennedy placed nuclear war on the table in the dispute with the Soviets over Cuba. Kennedy also announced that the United States would not deny &ldquothe necessities of life&rdquo to Cuba, &ldquoas the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948&rdquo
Kennedy&rsquos speech, and diplomatic efforts in nations around the world, received a widely varying response. The Chinese announced that they stood with the Cuban people. The Turks responded to a diplomatic feeler about removing the Jupiter missiles from Turkey by stating that they would &ldquoresent&rdquo such an arrangement. US military forces around the world went to an elevated alert status. The US Navy began deploying ships to the Caribbean and the Atlantic approaches, with USS Newport News, a heavy cruiser, assigned as the flagship for the quarantine force. Soviet ships continued on their courses for the island of Cuba. In West Germany support for the American action was nearly universal while in DeGaulle&rsquos France the authenticity of the evidence Kennedy had presented during his speech was openly questioned by several newspapers.
JFK’s politics of war and peace
The successful diffusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis is often hailed as the crowning moment of JFK’s Presidency. To his substantial credit, JFK didn’t cede to the hawks in launching an immediate strike on Cuba.
He was also prepared, at the risk of political expediency, to strike a secret deal whereby the US withdrew its nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal of ICBMs from Cuba. Kennedy’s legacy is shaped by this ability to ‘thread the needle’ — face up to the Soviets challenge whilst giving them a way out.
It is true that Kennedy was a cold political pragmatist, well-suited to these crisis moments. In a post-WWII world, appeasement was a very dirty word, and the dominant outlook in the military hierarchy was that nuclear war was inevitable and that the US should strike first.
In this vein, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Cold War veteran Dean Acheson all pushed for an immediate air attack on the Cuban missiles when they were discovered. Kennedy calmly saw down this challenge. It seems he was revolted by the idea that people could countenance a nuclear conflict so blithely.
Reporting his infamous meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna the year before, Kennedy had said:
I talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill seventy million people in ten minutes, and he just looked at me as if to say, ‘So what?’ My impression was that he just didn’t give a damn if it came to that.
However, it must be added that Kennedy himself played fast and loose with American lives. Political factors drove him to front up to Khrushchev in such a way that, had the Soviet Premier not had a moment of extraordinary humanity and called off the ships, a nuclear conflict would almost certainly have resulted. The Cold War was inherently full of posturing and bluster, but Kennedy, when given the option to dissolve tensions, would always heighten them.
Inside JFK’s Decisionmaking During the Cuban Missile Crisis
O n Tuesday morning, October 16, 1962 President John F. Kennedy awoke to a political and security nightmare. At 9 A.M., McGeorge Bundy, his National Security Adviser, informed him that a U-2 reconnaissance mission over Cuba had photographed Soviet medium range ballistic missiles, nuclear capable weapons with a range of 1,200 miles.
In public and private statements Premier Nikita Khrushchev had stated that he sent only defensive armaments to Cuba, and during a press conference in September the president had warned Khrushchev that the United States would not tolerate offensive weapons. But Bundy’s report made it clear that Khrushchev had deceived him.
Meeting that morning with fourteen handpicked advisers—known to history as the ExComm—Kennedy agreed that the missiles would have to be bombed and Cuba invaded. But a week later, on Monday evening, October 22nd, he announced his decision to “quarantine” (blockade) Cuba as the first move to force Khrushchev to withdraw his missiles.
It was a tortured decision. It required shedding firmly held Cold War doctrines and resisting the arguments of hard-line advisers who favored attacking Cuba and overthrowing Castro. It was a political risk, but in light of the possibility that an attack could lead to a war with the Soviet Union, Kennedy reasoned, possibilities had to be treated as probabilities. How he reached this conclusion is revealed in a secret recording of a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff [JCS] on the fourth morning of the crisis. It offers a cardinal lesson in presidential leadership in the nuclear age.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff saw Fidel Castro’s regime as a cancer that must be removed, by whatever means proved necessary,” according to Walter Poole, the official historian of the JCS. “They came to that conclusion in March 1960 and conveyed it repeatedly thereafter to their civilian superiors.” They insisted that a Communist Cuba threatened the security of the Western Hemisphere, and they assured the commander in chief that it was possible to depose Castro “without precipitating a general war, and without serious effect on world opinion.”
The meeting in the Oval Office on October 19th began at 10 a.m. with JCS chairman, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, explaining that the chiefs unanimously agreed on a minimum of three steps: a surprise [bombing] attack against the known missile sites, continued surveillance, and a blockade to prevent reinforcements from entering Cuba.
“Let me just say a little, first, about what the problem is, from my point of view,” President Kennedy interrupted. Returning to a question he had asked during the initial ExComm meeting, he proposed that “we ought to think of why the Russians did this.”
It provided them with a range of new options, he explained. “If we allow their missiles to remain, they have offended our prestige, and are in a position to pressure us. On the other hand, if we attack the missiles or invade Cuba it gives them a clear line to take [West] Berlin,” Khrushchev’s highest priority since 1958. That “leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons—which is a hell of an alternative.”
To complicate the situation further, he continued, “our blockade of Cuba will give Khrushchev an excuse to blockade [West] Berlin, which will infuriate our allies. We will be blamed for jeopardizing the city because we overreacted. . . When we recognize the importance of Berlin to Europe, and recognize the importance of our allies to us, that’s what has made this thing be a dilemma for three days. Otherwise, our answer would be quite easy.”
Of course “we’ve got to do something,” he conceded, because doing nothing will not make the Berlin problem go away.
“We recognize all these things, Mr. President,” General Taylor responded, and presented the basic assumption that shaped the Chiefs’ recommendations: Cuba is the test of U.S. resolve. “If we don’t respond here in Cuba we think the credibility of our response in Berlin is endangered,” Taylor declared. “We don’t have any choice except direct military action,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay added. The blockade, he worried, will provide the Soviets with time to hide their missiles, and it will even encourage them to move against Berlin.
“But what about the Soviet reaction to an attack on Cuba?” the president asked.
They will not respond, LeMay assured him. We just have to be clear that “if they make a move we’re going to fight.” And then he added: “This blockade and political action, I see leading into war. I don’t see any other solution for it. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich” (which, it was well known, had been supported by the president’s father, Joseph Kennedy, when he was American ambassador to Great Britain).
It is a loss to history that there is no photograph of Kennedy’s face at that moment. But one can imagine his jaw tightening, his temples pulsing, and his eyes fixed firmly on LeMay.
Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral George Anderson, Army Chief of Staff Earle Wheeler and Marine Corp Commandant David Shoup backed LeMay. As long as Castro was supported by the Soviet Union, a military assault was the only good option, they believed. It was impossible to be sure that all the missiles were destroyed, Gen. Wheeler asserted “until and unless we actually occupy the island.” From a military point of view, he concluded, “I feel that the lowest risk course of action is the full gamut of military action by us. That’s it, sir.”
“Thank you, General,” Kennedy tellingly responded.
Gen. LeMay then reminded the president that he had made several strong public statements warning the Soviets against sending offensive weapons of any type to Cuba. “I think that a blockade and political talk would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And I’m sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way, too. In other words,” LeMay declared, “you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”
“What did you say?” Kennedy snapped.
“You’re in a pretty bad fix,” LeMay repeated.
“You’re in there with me,” the president shot back. And to be certain that LeMay got his point, he added: “Personally!”
Despite their mutual interest in deposing Fidel Castro’s communist government, the chiefs’ and the president viewed the crisis differently. The chiefs’ objective was to be in the best position to fight a war, while the president’s aim was to select the strategy that was least likely to start a war. The chiefs assumed that a prompt military response (bombing and invasion) would coerce the Soviets, but the president believed it would provoke them to respond in kind: “They can’t let us . . . take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians and not do anything.”
Both assumptions were plausible, and perhaps the Soviets would not have responded militarily. Khrushchev did not want a war. But he was driven by obligations and pressures that could force him to retaliate if his missiles were attacked. His decision would depend on too many variables for the president to accept the chiefs’ blithe assumptions.
8. His Brutality In North Korea May Be A Big Reason They Still Hate Us To This Day
The Korean War is probably the most forgotten war in history. While people love to talk about the glories of World War II, or reenact the Civil War in great detail, there are very few movies or media about the Korean War. Now, we know a lot of M*A*S*H fans are going to be up in arms, but the show (and book, and movie), while excellent, is a lot more lighthearted than something like Band of Brothers or The Pacific, and doesn’t really go out of its way to show you all the worst of the gritty, horrible things that happened in the Korean War. And the truth is, the reason why the Korean War is largely not talked about is because it was really a pretty shameful chapter in our history.
The way the war was run was filled with paranoia and unnecessary aggression to begin with, and we allowed the South Koreans to get away with many war crimes in the name of victory, and defeating communism. General Douglas MacArthur wanted to toss down a ring of nukes to irradiate the area above South Korea so nobody would be able to invade for decades. However, it was our old friend General LeMay, who once again took things too far, and proceeded to demolish civilians with horrifying speed. As the head of strategic air command for the whole operation, he had them go for occupied cities, civilian infrastructure, and once again made a lot of use of incendiary ammunition. He set most of North Korea on fire, and they simply were unprepared for it. In an interview on TV in the 1980s, he stated without any hint of remorse that we had likely destroyed about 20% of their population. And people wonder why they hate America.