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Cuban Missile Crisis: Kennedy's Mistakes

Forty years ago, President John F. Kennedy was locked in a test of wills with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev over missiles in Cuba. Memorialized in both film and print, the Cuban missile crisis has come to be the ultimate symbol of presidential resolve and courage. In the 1974 movie "The Missiles of October" and the more recent "Thirteen Days," starring Kevin Costner, JFK is portrayed as a resolute and unflinching commander in chief. He's given the same heroic portrayal in his brother Bobby Kennedy's "Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis," a book still regularly assigned in college classes. And many historians still share the view of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that Kennedy's actions demonstrated to the "whole world . . . the ripening of American leadership unsurpassed in the responsible management of power . . . [a] combination of toughness . . . nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated that [it] dazzled the world."

In short, Kennedy's handling of the crisis has captured the popular imagination, making him perhaps the most potent symbol of Cold War courage and resolve. But now that the Soviet archives have been opened, it's time to retire JFK as Cold War hero. Instead, the mantle should be passed to Ronald Reagan who, according to those archives, was the president they most respected and feared.

Most portrayals of the Cuban missile crisis begin with the secret placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba and Kennedy's insistence that they be removed. But the story actually begins a couple of years earlier, when JFK first stepped into the Oval Office.

The Kremlin was very pleased when JFK edged out Richard Nixon in 1960. Before the election, the KGB resident in Washington had been ordered to "propose diplomatic or propaganda initiatives, or any other measures, to facilitate Kennedy's victory." The Kremlin regarded Kennedy as a "typical pragmatist," who would change his position and accommodate adversaries if it served his interests. Khrushchev went so far as to delay the release of American U-2 pilot Gary Francis Powers, who was being held in prison after being shot down on a spy mission over the Soviet Union, until after the election. By doing so, said Khrushchev, he was "voting" for Kennedy.

Shortly after JFK became president, he was put to the test. In March 1961, Communist guerrillas armed with new shipments of Soviet weapons advanced deep into the eastern reaches of Laos, which borders Vietnam. The peaceful country's neutrality was supposedly guaranteed by the 1954 Geneva Accords, but the North Vietnamese wanted to use the country as a supply line for their forces fighting in the south. In short order they occupied Eastern Laos and began developing what came to be called the Ho Chi Minh Trail to arm their forces fighting in South Vietnam. In Washington, Kennedy was apprised of the situation and elected to do nothing.

One month later, a large force of Cuban exiles began landing on the beaches of Cuba, near the so-called Bay of Pigs. They had been trained and equipped by the CIA with the intent of liberating the country from Fidel Castro. The plot was something that Kennedy had inherited from Eisenhower. Kennedy signed off on the operation, but nixed a critical ingredient: When the exiles hit the beaches they did so without American air or naval support. The exile army was driven back in a matter of days. The operation was an unmitigated disaster.

A few months later, Soviet bloc leaders decided to begin construction on the Berlin Wall to stem the flow of refugees into West Berlin. As they broke ground, Kennedy became furious. He called up the reserves, sent troops to Europe, and proposed a substantial increase in the military budget. But he was not prepared to resist the move. "It seems particularly stupid," he told aides, "to risk killing a million Americans over an argument about access rights on the Autobahn."

Kennedy thought that by showing restraint he was avoiding a crisis. But in reality he was causing one. In the Kremlin, the combination of Kennedy's tough words and lack of action was seen as weakness and fear. After JFK's speech on the Berlin crisis, Khrushchev hosted a secret meeting of the Central Committees of Communist Parties of the Soviet Union. "Kennedy spoke [to frighten us] and then got scared himself," snickered Khrushchev, according to a transcript. The president was "too much of a lightweight both for the Republicans as well as for the Democrats."

For Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy's failure at the Bay of Pigs, along with Communist successes in Laos and Berlin, was proof that he could have things his way with the young president. When Robert Frost returned from a September 1962 trip to the Soviet Union, he said that Khrushchev had told him Kennedy was "too liberal to fight." In short, Kennedy was encouraging Khrushchev to pursue what would become his most dangerous gambit.

In May 1962, Khrushchev announced to the Politburo his secret plan to put Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Fidel Castro was eager for the missiles because they would deter another Bay of Pigs-type invasion. Khrushchev figured if he could pull the plan off, it would shift the balance in the arms competition because his shorter-range ballistic missiles would now be capable of reaching the United States.

The Soviet premier, seemingly always the gambler, was hoping to build the missile sites before the United States even detected them. On the chance that they were discovered, he believed that Kennedy might fear a confrontation and not take any substantial action. Soviet transport ships brought material and specialists to Cuba where construction crews busily worked on the missile batteries. The plan seemed to be going as Khrushchev hoped, until an American U-2 spy plane flying over the island uncovered the scheme. When Kennedy learned about it, he was again furious.

The president ordered an immediate naval blockade of Cuba and regular U-2 flights to monitor the situation. He explained his position to Khrushchev in unambiguous terms: Remove the missiles and the personnel to man them or military action is imminent. Khrushchev, mulling over the situation in his Kremlin office, knew the strategic situation favored the United States. Not only did America have nuclear superiority; Cuba was just off the American coastline while the Soviet Union was halfway around the world. Kennedy had called his bluff; a bargain needed to be struck. And Kennedy, contrary to the steely determination portrayed in the movies, was all too willing to deal.

Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles. But he wanted several things in return. For his ally Fidel Castro, who was angered by any suggestion that the missiles be pulled out, he demanded a pledge that the United States would never invade Cuba again. And for good measure, he wanted U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey, which were pointed at Soviet forces, removed as well.

On Saturday, October 27, 1962, as the crisis reached a crescendo, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin went to the Justice Department for a private meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was serving as a confidant for his brother. Moscow might have been negotiating from a weak position, but Bobby Kennedy didn't press the matter. His brother was prepared to make a no invasion pledge, he told Dobrynin, and would pull the Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. But he cautioned that the deal needed to be done quietly. "The president can't say anything public in this regard about Turkey," the Soviet transcripts of the meetings quote RFK as saying. It would be too much of a political embarrassment. The missiles would need to be withdrawn under some pretext and without consulting NATO allies. Dobrynin agreed to the secret bargain and it was never mentioned in public.

Indeed, Bobby Kennedy was so sensitive about the secret deal involving missiles in Turkey that when his diary of the crisis was later published as "Thirteen Days," the editor of the book, Ted Sorensen, purposely deleted any mention of them.

LIKE THE REST OF AMERICA, Ronald Reagan spent much of October 1962 watching closely the duel between Kennedy and Khrushchev. He was of course pleased that the crisis was over. But he fretted in public that Kennedy had given up too much. He faulted Kennedy for agreeing to a no invasion pledge. "Are missile bases enough," he asked, "or will we insist on freedom for all Cubans?"

Reagan had always had his doubts about Kennedy, fearing that he was simply not up to meeting the Soviet challenge. In January 1962, during a speech at Huntington Memorial Hospital in California, he saw what Khrushchev saw, and expressed his concerns about whether JFK could handle "the roughnecks of the Kremlin." He was surrounded by "well-meaning and misguided people" who failed to understand the threat. Reagan also astutely noted that by not challenging the Communist move into Laos, Kennedy was signaling his willingness "to drink the bitter cup of capitulation" in Southeast Asia.

In the months following the Cuban missile crisis, Reagan made some pointed suggestions about what America should do next. While the Kennedy administration began pursuing arms control agreements, Reagan wrote an article explaining that the goal should be not to coexist with communism but to defeat it. Crank up the arms race, he advised in early 1963; there was no way Moscow could keep up.

When Reagan announced for the presidency years later, in 1979, the KGB wrote a secret analysis of Reagan the man. Unlike Kennedy, whom they considered prone to changing his mind, Reagan got grudging respect from the KGB. He was "a firm and unbending politician for whom words and deeds are one and the same."

Once he was elected president, Reagan outlined ambitious plans to undermine and defeat the Soviet Union in a series of secret directives. Nothing quite like it had ever been undertaken in the history of the Cold War. Using economic, military, and psychological pressure, he developed a plan to defeat the Soviet empire.

Throughout he demonstrated tremendous resolve. He enacted the largest peacetime military build-up in American history, even though the plan was opposed by the majority of his cabinet. Early in his administration, William P. Clark and Tom Reed came to him to explain the super-secret Continuity of Government program. In place since the Eisenhower administration, COG was a plan to evacuate the president from the White House in the event of a nuclear war. Both Clark and Reed could sense Reagan's discomfort as they described the program, particularly the part about being hustled away on a helicopter to a safe location. When Reed was finished Reagan shook his head.

"No, I'm not going to do that," he told them. "If it happens--God forbid--I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying here at my post." The two men left and were forced to revise America's nuclear war-fighting plans.

Reagan developed an ambitious strategy and then stuck to it. Even during the heights of Gorbymania, there was very little change in the substance of his policies. Reagan was quite simply immovable, much to the frustration of the Kremlin. "No matter what diplomatic tack Moscow examined or actually took," recalls Ambassador Dobrynin, "the Reagan administration proved impervious to it. We came to realize that in contrast to most presidents who shift from their electoral rhetoric to more centrist, pragmatic positions by the middle of their presidential term, Reagan displayed an active immunity to the traditional forces, both internal and external, that normally produce a classic adjustment."

How we choose to look at the Cold War will determine how we face the strategic challenges of the war on terrorism. If we study JFK, we can learn about how to react to a crisis and the art of "crisis management." By studying Reagan, we can learn how to forge a strategy of victory and to defeat our enemies.

So as the television cameras carry 40th anniversary reruns of "Thirteen Days" with images of a resolute JFK, don't imagine that you are watching the apotheosis of Cold War toughness. Think back instead to Gdansk, Poland, on a rainy day in September 1990. Ronald Reagan is at the birthplace of Solidarity, standing in front of a crowd of thousands who are chanting "Thank You! Thank You!" while serenading him with "Sto Lat," a song in honor of Polish heroes. Lech Walesa's former parish priest approaches Reagan with a sword. "I am giving you the saber," he tells the former president, "for helping us to chop off the head of communism."

This article was first published by the Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.