With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Trollope Ploy Myth Lives On: Robert McNamara and the Cuban Missile Crisis

The death of Robert S. McNamara severs one of the last profoundly personal links to some of the most contentious events of the 1960s. McNamara, of course, is principally remembered for his role in the escalation of the American phase of the war in Vietnam. Not surprisingly, most people who viewed Errol Morris’s Academy Award winning (2003) documentary film, “The Fog of War,” have been principally interested in McNamara’s agonizing memories about Vietnam. However, McNamara’s account of his role in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, an event which was far more likely than Vietnam to lead to an all-out nuclear war, has received far less attention.

Unfortunately, as Fred Kaplan has observed, “McNamara's recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a self-serving travesty.” McNamara told Morris that he was JFK’s principal ally in “trying to keep us out of war." In fact, after the first two days of ExComm meetings, McNamara “became an increasingly firm advocate of bombing the Soviet missile sites … and of then invading the island of Cuba itself—even if doing so risked sparking a larger war with the USSR.”  It is particularly “bizarre,” Kaplan concludes, to also see McNamara “parroting” the myth that Kennedy agreed to a scheme to accept the offer in Khrushchev's October 26 letter and ignore the tougher message received on October 27. 1

The traditional account of the two Khrushchev messages is simple enough. On Friday, October 26, Nikita Khrushchev sent JFK a secret letter proposing to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba in return for an American pledge not to invade the island nation. The following morning, however, the Soviet leader made a public proposal that upped the ante—demanding that the U.S. also remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Key members of the ExComm urged the president to ignore the second letter and accept the proposal in the first, less truculent letter.

This allegedly brilliant diplomatic strategy came to be called the “Trollope Ploy”– a reference to a plot device by nineteenth-century British novelist Anthony Trollope, in which a woman interprets a casual romantic gesture as a marriage proposal. But, is that what really happened? The tale of this shrewd maneuver for responding to Khrushchev’s letters began with Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett, writing in the Saturday Evening Post less than two weeks after the crisis and exploiting leaks from the Kennedy brothers themselves. Their article launched the notion that Robert Kennedy “had dreamed up the ‘Trollope Ploy’ to save the day.” There has been a long-standing consensus that the Trollope Ploy was “a brilliant way to handle it,” “an ingenious ploy,” “an extraordinary diplomatic move,” and that RFK met with the Soviet ambassador on the evening of October 27 “to execute the Trollope Ploy.”2

President Kennedy himself immediately seized on the political benefit in this simple and dramatic explanation of the settlement of the crisis. Only hours after Khrushchev publicly agreed to remove the missiles, JFK phoned former President Eisenhower—and deliberately misinformed him. He accurately reported that Khrushchev, on Friday, had privately suggested withdrawing the missiles in exchange for an American promise not to invade Cuba; but, on Saturday, the Kremlin leader had sent a public message offering to remove the missiles if the U.S. pulled its Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. Kennedy informed Eisenhower, “we couldn’t get into that deal.”  Eisenhower, who had dealt personally with Khrushchev, asked skeptically if the Soviets had tried to attach any other conditions. “No,” Kennedy replied disingenuously, “except that we’re not gonna invade Cuba.” The surprised former president concluded, “this is a very, I think, conciliatory move he’s made.” The Trollope Ploy became the key to the administration’s cover story—which was indelibly fixed in public consciousness by the 1974 television film, “The Missiles of October,” based on RFK’s book, Thirteen Days.

Despite the availability of the ExComm tapes since 1998, the Trollope Ploy remains an all but immovable fixture in the legend and lore of the Cuban missile crisis. However, the crisis was not resolved so neatly and the actual story is far more subtle and complex.

At the morning ExComm meeting on Saturday, October 27, barely twelve hours after receiving Khrushchev’s Friday evening letter—the first of the two celebrated messages—JFK read aloud a press statement just handed to him: “Premier Khrushchev told President Kennedy in a message today he would withdraw offensive weapons from Cuba if the United States withdrew its rockets from Turkey.”3 JFK speculated, “He may be putting out another letter” and Secretary of State Dean Rusk finally articulated the emerging realization in the Cabinet Room: “This appears to be something quite new.”

JFK had actually been probing the Turkish option for more than a week and asked, “where are we with our conversations with the Turks?” Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Nitze responded firmly, “The Turks say that this is absolutely anathema” and view it “as a matter of prestige and politics.” JFK understood the world of prestige and politics as well as anyone in the room, but told Nitze, “Well, I don’t think we can” take that position “if this is an accurate [report].” National security adviser McGeorge Bundy argued that if Khrushchev had backed away from the “purely Cuban context” in last night’s letter, “There’s nothing wrong with our posture in sticking to that line.” “Well maybe they changed it overnight,” JFK persisted. “He’s in a difficult position to change it overnight,” Bundy reasoned, “having sent you a personal communication on the other line.” “Well now, let’s say he has changed it,” JFK snapped, “and this is his latest position.” “Well, I would answer back,” Bundy retorted testily, “saying that ‘I would prefer to deal with your interesting proposals of last night.’” Someone egged Bundy on, whispering, “Go for it!”

JFK’s reply represents a turning point in the discussions—leaving no doubt about his evolving position: “Well now, that’s what we oughta be thinkin’ about. We’re gonna be in an insupportable position on this matter if this becomes his proposal. In the first place, we last year tried to get the missiles out of there because they’re not militarily useful, number one. Number two, it’s gonna—to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade.” “I don’t think so,” Nitze countered, as someone muttered “No, no, no” in the background. “Deal with this Cuban thing. We’ll talk about other things later.” “Now we’ve known this might be coming for a week,” Kennedy responded impatiently. “This is their proposal.” “How much negotiation have we had with the Turks this week?” JFK grumbled again, “Who’s done it?” “We’ve not actually talked with the Turks,” Rusk explained.

Under Secretary of State George Ball declared that approaching the Turks on withdrawing the Jupiters “would be an extremely unsettling business.” “Well,” JFK barked, “this is unsettling now George, because he’s got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people will regard this as not an unreasonable proposal. I’ll just tell you that.” “But, what ‘most people,’ Mr. President?” Bundy asked skeptically. The president shot back: “I think you’re gonna have it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba … when he’s saying, ‘If you get yours out of Turkey, we’ll get ours out of Cuba.’ I think you’ve got a very tough one here.” “I don’t see why we pick that track,” Bundy repeated, “when he’s offered us the other track in the last 24 hours.” JFK interrupted irritably, “Well he’s now offered us a new one! … “I think we have to assume that this is their new and latest position, and it’s a public one.”

“How can we negotiate, McNamara exploded, “with somebody who changes his deal before we even get a chance to reply and announces publicly the deal before we receive it. … You see, it completely changes the character of the deal we’re likely to be able to make.” “So my point is,” McNamara stressed, “we oughta really keep the pressure on them in this type of situation.” He urged the president to “turn it [the Cuba-Turkey link] down publicly.”

Bundy warned that “if we sound as if we wanted to make this trade to our NATO people and to all the people who are tied to us by alliance, we are in real trouble.” He admonished the commander-in-chief: “I think that we’ll all join in doing this if this is the decision. But I think we should tell you that that’s the universal assessment of everyone in the government that’s connected with these alliance problems.” Bundy also pressed McNamara on military options and the defense chief replied unflinchingly, “the military plan now is very clear. A limited strike is out”— because reconnaissance aircraft had been fired on. “So the military plan now is basically invasion.” 4

Rusk soon proposed new language for JFK’s message to Khrushchev: “As I was preparing this letter, I learned of your broadcast message today. That message raises problems affecting many countries and complicated issues not related to Cuba or the Western Hemisphere.” After the crisis in Cuba is resolved, “we can make progress on other and wider issues.” President Kennedy recognized immediately that Rusk’s wording did not reflect his own persistent stance on pursuing a Turkey-Cuba trade—his advisers appeared to be trying a rather transparent end run around his position. “Well, isn’t that really rejecting their proposal of this morning?” JFK countered irritably. “I don’t think so,” Bundy replied, supported by Rusk. “It’s rejecting the immediate tie-in [on Turkey],” “We’re not rejecting the tie-in,” President Kennedy declared.

“Mr. President,” former Ambassador Llewelyn Thompson admonished, “if we go on the basis of a trade, which I gather is somewhat in your mind, we end up, it seems to me, with the Soviets still in Cuba with planes and technicians and so on. Even though the missiles are out, that would surely be unacceptable and put you in a worse position.” President Kennedy replied with practical and determined logic: “But our technicians and planes and guarantees would still exist for Turkey. I’m just thinking about what we’re gonna have to do in a day or so, which is 500 sorties in 7 days and possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take missiles out of Turkey.” Perhaps recalling his own wartime experience, JFK continued, “And we all know how quickly everybody’s courage goes when the blood starts to flow and that’s what’s gonna happen in NATO.” If the Soviets “grab Berlin, everybody’s gonna say, ‘Well, that was a pretty good proposition.’ Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s the difficulty. Today it sounds great to reject it, but it’s not going to after we do something!”

If the Turks were adamant, JFK continued, then the U.S. ought to get NATO to “put enough pressure on them. I just tell you,” he lectured, “I think we’re better off to get those missiles out of Turkey and out of Cuba because I think the way of getting ‘em out of Turkey and out of Cuba is gonna be very, very difficult and very bloody, one place or another.” But, JFK objected to forcing the deal on Turkey and NATO. “What I’d like to do is have the Turks and NATO equally feel that this is the wiser move.”

“The point of the matter is,” Kennedy snapped again, “Khrushchev’s gonna come back and refer to his thing this morning on Turkey. And then we’re gonna be screwing around for another 48 hours. … He’ll come back and say, ‘Well we’re glad to settle the Cuban matter. What is your opinion of our proposal about Turkey?’ So then we’re on to Monday afternoon, and the work goes on.” “It’s got to be finessed,” JFK continued, “we have to finesse him.” President Kennedy, nonetheless, had no illusions about Khrushchev’s response to U.S. pressure to go back to Friday’s proposal, “which he isn’t gonna give us. He’s now moved on to the Turkish thing. So we’re just gonna get a letter back saying, ‘Well, he’d be glad to settle Cuba when we settle Turkey.’”

“He must be a little shaken up,” RFK pointed out, “or he wouldn’t have sent the [Friday] message to you in the first place.” “That’s last night,” JFK retorted impatiently. “But it’s certainly conceivable,” RFK replied, “that you could get him back to that. I don’t think that we should abandon it.” JFK halfheartedly agreed that there was no harm in trying. “All right,” he finally conceded, “Let’s send this” letter dealing with Cuba first. But, he cautioned that the key question remained, “what are we gonna do about the Turks.”

The president seemed willing to go along with this scheme on the slim chance that Khrushchev would at least agree to a cessation of work on the missile sites, but he clearly remained unconvinced and unenthusiastic: “As I say, he’s not gonna [accept] now [after his public offer on Turkey] … we can try this thing, but he’s gonna come back on Turkey.” McNamara, however, warned the president about appearing “too weak” to the Soviets.

After news arrived that a U-2 had been shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air missile, the president tried to placate the opponents of a Turkish deal by reiterating that “first we oughta try to go the first route which you suggest and get him back [to the Friday offer]. That’s what our letter’s doing.” But, at the same time, he again underscored his lack of conviction about that strategy and made clear that he was determined to keep the Turkish option alive: “Then it seems to me we oughta have a discussion with NATO about these Turkish missiles.” “We oughta go in at dawn and take out that SAM site,” McNamara urged the president. “And we oughta send a surveillance aircraft in tomorrow in the regular flights early in the morning, and we oughta be prepared to take out more SAM sites and knock out the… aircraft.” The defense secretary also continued to adamantly oppose a direct Cuba-Turkey missile deal.

At the end of the late afternoon ExComm meeting, McNamara, Deputy Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatric, Ball, Bundy, RFK, Rusk, Ted Sorensen and Thompson joined President Kennedy, at his invitation, in the Oval Office. JFK revealed that his brother Bobby was about to meet with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and requested advice on what to tell the Soviet diplomat. The group quickly agreed that RFK should warn Dobrynin that military action against Cuba was imminent and make clear, consistent with Khrushchev’s Friday letter, that the U.S. was prepared to pledge not to invade Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn. But, the president continued to press for a deal on the Turkish missiles. Rusk, finally recognizing JFK’s determination, suggested that RFK advise the ambassador that a public quid pro quo for the missiles in Turkey was unacceptable, but the president was prepared to remove them once the Cuban crisis was resolved. The proposal was quickly accepted. Robert Kennedy was instructed to tell Dobrynin that any Soviet reference to this secret proposal would make it null and void.

JFK clearly had no faith in the strategy of accepting Khrushchev’s Friday offer and ignoring his public Saturday message. Instead, he worked secretly with Rusk to put together an emergency fall-back plan. The secretary of state arranged to have former deputy UN Secretary General Andrew Cordier put in place a covert back channel strategy by which U Thant would announce, after receiving private word from Rusk that U.S.-Soviet negotiations had failed, a UN plan through which the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would mutually agree to remove their missiles from Turkey and Cuba. JFK was prepared to gamble that if the U.S. publicly accepted this supposedly neutral plan, it would be very difficult for the Soviets to reject it. Khrushchev’s unexpected announcement the following morning made the Cordier gambit moot and Rusk did not reveal this closely-held secret for over twenty-five years.

The October 27 meeting tapes prove that ExComm participants and scholars have read far too much cunning and coherence into the discussion of the so-called Trollope Ploy. President Kennedy, as the tapes document, stubbornly and persistently contended that Khrushchev’s Saturday offer could not be ignored precisely because it had been made public. In fact, JFK’s eventual message to Khrushchev did not ignore the Saturday proposal on Turkey, but left the door open to settling broader international issues once the immediate danger in Cuba had been neutralized. JFK ultimately offered the Kremlin a calculated blend of Khrushchev’s October 26 and 27 proposals: the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba, an American non-invasion pledge (contingent on UN inspection), a willingness to talk later about NATO-related issues and a secret commitment to withdraw the Jupiters from Turkey.

The president had no illusions about forcing Khrushchev to settle for the terms in his earlier message and assented to this strategy largely to placate unyielding ExComm opposition. In fact, as revealed by RFK’s meeting with Dobrynin and the other secret steps taken later that day, which were kept from much of the ExComm, JFK was determined not to allow this chance to avert nuclear catastrophe slip away. As he had reminded the gung-ho Joint Chiefs on October 19, an attack on Cuba could prompt the firing of nuclear missiles against American cities and result in 80-100 million casualties—“you’re talking about the destruction of a country.”

In fact, President Kennedy’s inclination to pursue the Turkish option actually hardened in response to the dogged intractability of his advisers. The ExComm toughened JFK’s determination by all but unanimously opposing his preferred course of action—a deal on the Turkish missiles. The celebrated diplomatic sleight of hand, little more than a cosmetic concession to the ExComm, ultimately served to conceal the real agreement that secretly—and peacefully—resolved the Cuban missile crisis.

The tapes prove conclusively that McNamara was not JFK’s principal ally in “trying to keep us out of war." Indeed, Kennedy had no consistent ally and stood virtually alone against his ExComm advisers. The president later confided to John Kenneth Galbraith, “You will never know how much bad advice I had.” Now, thanks to the ExComm recordings, we all know.

1 Fred Kaplan, “The Evasions of Robert McNamara: What’s True and What’s a Lie in The Fog of War,” Slate, December 19, 2003.

2 James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis, Noonday, 1990, 162, 179, 369; Thomas, Robert Kennedy, 438; Robert W. Merry, Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop—Guardians of the American Century, Viking, 1996, 389; Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, Little, Brown, 1971, 227; David A. Welch and James G. Blight, “The Eleventh Hour of the Cuban Missile Crisis: an Introduction to the ExComm Transcripts,” International Security, Winter 1987/88, 16.

3 The following account of the October 27th meetings is adapted from the author’s narrative of the ExComm meetings,  Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, Stanford University Press, 2003.

4 This quote, incomplete and severed from its context, is cited in Tim Weiner’s McNamara obituary in the New York Times, July 6, 2009.