Shortly after he arrived at his Justice Department office on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy received a phone call from his brother at the White House. "We have some big trouble," said President John F. Kennedy. "I want you over here." At about 9 a.m., RFK burst into the small, cluttered office of national-security adviser McGeorge Bundy. A CIA man handed the attorney general some blown-up aerial-reconnaissance photographs and explained that the images revealed Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba. Robert Kennedy rarely used expletives, but he did now. "Oh, s---. S---, s---," he exclaimed, pounding his fist into his palm. "Those sons-a-bitches Russians."
As he stared at the grainy, hard-to-decipher CIA photos, Kennedy believed he--and his brother and the Free World--had been double-crossed. The photo interpreters from the spy agency identified four missile launchers and eight canvas-covered trailers carrying medium-range ballistic missiles. The Soviets had sworn, publicly and privately, not to place offensive weapons in Cuba, but these nuclear-tipped missiles could take out Washington in a few minutes. The cold war had just reached its moment of maximum danger. RFK knew that the United States could not tolerate such a threat so close to its shores, and that some kind of action would be necessary--and right away. If events spun out of control, a strong possibility, the result would be nuclear war.
Usually, in times of crisis, RFK resorted to mordant humor to relieve the tension. He was exhausted, worn out from his role as his brother's chief adviser and protector. Only three weeks earlier, Bobby barely escaped disaster when his push to enroll the first black man at the University of Mississippi had erupted into a riot. Two men had been killed and dozens of U.S. marshals had been wounded by buckshot fired by angry rednecks who had descended on the college town of Oxford. Now, as he looked at the evidence of a far greater crisis, Kennedy inquired about the range of the missiles. "Can they," he dryly asked, "hit Oxford, Mississippi?"
RFK's predictable immediate reaction was to get even with the Soviets, to want to strike back. He gave way to those feelings--but only for about a day. Then he calmed down and his cleverer side took over. The worst of times brought out the best in Robert Kennedy. On the whole, his advice and judgment during the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis were supple and discerning--and critically important to his brother. He blended high moralism and shifty pragmatism in a peculiarly Kennedyesque way to edge the United States and the Soviet Union back from the abyss.
Today, RFK is remembered as myth. He was either the bullying "Bad Bobby," his father's hatchet man and enforcer of his brother's will. Or he was the "Good Bobby," the martyred liberal, shot down before he could uplift the poor and close the nation's racial divide. The real RFK was a more complex figure, at times impulsive but more often shrewd; at once idealistic and devious; often blunt but also keenly sensitive to the mood and moment. Restless and almost childlike in his curiosity, he had an unusual capacity for growth. His true role in the Cuban missile crisis has only slowly emerged over time, as new documents and records have come to light. His story shows that public figures can learn and mature, even under the most stressful circumstances.
The Cuban missile crisis was, in a sense, a coming of age for Robert Kennedy. His particular abilities jelled at just the time they were needed most. His approach was subtle and variable, driven more by instinct and intuition than by fixed principles. In the meetings of the "ExCom," the name given the policy advisers gathered by President Kennedy to help him through the crisis, RFK often played the role of prod and gadfly. He asked awkward questions (sometimes awkwardly; stress did not improve his syntax) and tested and quarreled with assumptions. He did not hesitate to reverse field or rethink an answer, in part to stimulate discussion, but also because he was working his own way through an extraordinarily complex set of problems. At other times, especially when his brother was not in the room, he became a consensus maker, finding the middle ground between hawks and doves. Despite some unwise and intemperate remarks on the first day, one can always sense him trying to think a few steps ahead, working hard to calculate the unintended consequences and then trying to head them off. That summer, the Kennedy brothers had both read Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August," chronicling the blind rush of the great powers into the first world war. Tuchman quoted Germany's chancellor, Prince von Bulow, asking his successor, "How did it all happen?" "Ah," came the reply, "if only we knew." RFK chose this rueful exchange to end "Thirteen Days," his memoir of the missile crisis. On the last night of the crisis, when war seemed very near, the Kennedys explicitly discussed the lessons of Tuchman's book. They were determined not to back Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev into a corner.
At 6:30 in the evening of day one of the crisis, an unseasonably warm and muggy one in the nation's capital, the government cars began to pull up at the White House, as every major foreign-policy adviser to the president gathered to discuss what to do about the missiles. The mood was shaky; Kennedy's men were still stunned. "How much time do we have?" the president asked the CIA. The agency analysts weren't sure; it was impossible to tell if the Soviet missiles were armed and ready to fly. To Kennedy, and to most of his advisers, leaving the missiles in Cuba was out of the question. In September Kennedy had publicly declared that the United States would not tolerate offensive missiles in Cuba. Republicans, already carping about the administration's "softness," would never allow him to forget that pledge. Most worrisome, Khrushchev could be expected to try to use his new rockets as a club or a bargaining chip to drive the West out of Berlin. In the first hours of the crisis, a military strike against Cuba seemed nearly inevitable. To his advisers arrayed around the long table in the Cabinet Room on the evening of Oct. 16, the president flatly declared, "We're going to take out those missiles."
But how? A "surgical" strike to cut out the missiles was tempting, but not realistic. Since even a single missile launched in retaliation would cost an American city, airstrikes could not afford to miss any target. Yet the Air Force could not guarantee the destruction of each and every missile--even assuming that all the launching sites on the cloud-covered island had been found. "It'll never be 100 percent," cautioned Gen. Maxwell Taylor, whom Kennedy had recently made chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the hope of exercising a tighter rein on the military's top brass. The Pentagon generals did not want to strike without controlling the air over Cuba. But massive bombing raids to knock out Castro's Air Force--rapidly improving with the addition of Soviet MiGs--would require more than a thousand sorties by American warplanes and risk killing many Cubans, as well as Russian soldiers on the ground. As for storming the 800-mile-long island with Marines and paratroopers, casualties would be high and victory hard won. An invasion, General Taylor prudently warned, would be "deep mud."
The adviser who seemed most taken with the idea of an all-out invasion was Robert Kennedy. Eventually, he predicted--as he had for months--the United States would have to step up to the Cuban menace and deal with it, once and for all. Late in the discussion, after most others had held forth, RFK weighed in with his own gloomy assessment. Even if the Air Force could knock out all of the missiles, RFK asked, what was to stop Khrushchev from just sending more? Better, he suggested, to "get into it, and get it over with, and take our losses. And if he [Khrushchev] wants to get into a war over this..." He paused, trying to think through the unthinkable. "Hell, if it's war that's going to come on this thing, or if he sticks these kinds of missiles after the warning [Kennedy's declaration in September that offensive weapons in Cuba would be intolerable], then he's going to get into a war six months from now, so..."
RFK's logic, at this point, tracked straight into the void. It boiled down to: if Khrushchev wants war, we'll give it to him. Not a satisfactory answer, since the war would be thermonuclear, but RFK was still burning with rage that he had been deceived by the Soviets. Kennedy's next impulse, both ignoble and reckless, was to fight deception with trickery. Perhaps, he offered, the United States could stage an incident as a further pretext for invading. As RFK put it: "... We should also think of whether there is some other way we can get involved in this, through Guantanamo Bay or something. Or whether there's some ship that... you know, sink the Maine or something..."
Kennedy had been toying with the idea of provocation for months. But one senses, listening closely to his remarks as recorded by JFK's secret taping system, that RFK knew the idea was a shaky one. His voice became slightly quavery, like that of a naughty boy trying to talk his way out of a lie by telling a bigger one. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the clearest mind that evening, the one who did the most to help the group weigh the consequences of precipitous reaction, watched his friend struggle. On the first night of the 13 days, McNamara later recalled, "RFK was a hawk in his head and his heart, because of that damn Mongoose thing [Operation Mongoose, a covert operation, run by RFK, that had been futilely trying to overthrow Castro for some months]. But," said McNamara, "he changed." RFK often followed a pattern: an initial burst of belligerence and intransigence, followed by a willingness to listen and change. This became his pattern during the Cuban missile crisis as well. Still maturing at the age of 36, RFK grew faster during the 13 days. One morning during the first week of the crisis, his assistant Joe Dolan walked into RFK's office at Justice to get his boss to sign some papers. Kennedy just stared straight ahead. "Something is different in here," said Dolan, who was unaware of the crisis. "I'm older," said Kennedy.
JFK and his advisers needed time to decide a course of action, but they feared the news of their discovery would leak, forcing premature declarations and allowing events to spin out of control. After talking to his brother, JFK decided that it would be prudent to maintain his public schedule, or at least a semblance of it, to lull the press, the public and the Russians.
In the president's absence, someone needed to step in as leader. The attorney general became the de facto chairman of the ExCom. RFK never actually took the chair. "He sometimes wouldn't even sit at the cabinet table," recalled Mac Bundy. "I can remember times when he would deliberately put himself in one of the smaller chairs against the wall... But it didn't make much difference," said Bundy. No one doubted who was really in charge.
The elder statesman in the room, Dean Acheson, was unhappy about deferring to the president's younger brother. Acheson was an old cold warrior, Harry Truman's secretary of State and one of the "Wise Men" who created the Western Alliance against the Soviet threat. JFK liked to use him as an informal adviser on dealing with the Kremlin. In his old age, Acheson was becoming more rigid and hard line, and his sufferance of fools, always low, was nonexistent. With the president missing on Wednesday, the ExCom looked to him, Acheson later recalled, like a "floating crap game." Discussion meandered about, ideas were ventured, discarded, then dredged up again. People wandered in and out as randomly as the coffee and sandwiches were delivered.
Acheson was clear in his own mind about the proper course of action. The United States should strike, immediately and without warning. The missiles must be taken out, right away. By catching the Soviets in the act of sneaking missiles into Cuba, the United States had an opportunity to teach the Kremlin a lesson. The Russians were like an animal, "their tail caught inthe screen door. We ought to twist it," said Acheson, who en-joyed vivid metaphors, especially his own.
Rfk was wary as he watched Acheson perform that Wednesday. With his bristling guardsman's mustache, his clipped Groton accent, his too-sure manner, Acheson may have reminded Kennedy of the Brahmins who had kept his father out of the clubs at Harvard and in Boston. Acheson seemed coldblooded, like a British pasha who wanted to teach the natives a lesson. As always, policy was personal for RFK. Acheson's hawkishness helped make a dove out of Kennedy. Less than 24 hours after he had suggested starting a war with a trumped-up provocation--"sinking the Maine"--Kennedy was suddenly seized with moralism. At some point, as he listened to the drumbeat for a surprise attack on Cuba, RFK passed a note on a slip of paper to JFK's speechwriter and counsel, Theodore Sorensen. "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor." Kennedy began to hammer at the Pearl Harbor analogy to his colleagues around the table. "My brother is not going to be the Tojo of the '60s," said RFK. For the United States to stage a surprise attack would be a "Pearl Harbor in reverse."
But if not an airstrike or an invasion, then what? Bob McNamara and others had proposed a naval blockade of Cuba to keep the Soviets from delivering any more missiles and warheads and to demonstrate seriousness of purpose. A blockade was not a final solution--RFK glumly described it as "very slow death" on Thursday morning. He foresaw high-seas confrontations with the Russian Navy, and worried that as each day passed, the Soviets would have more time to hide and camouflage--or prepare to launch--the missiles already on the island. But as he contemplated the chain reaction of reprisals for an airstrike--the Soviets grabbing Berlin or bombing American missiles in Turkey, the United States shooting back, then "general war," i.e., nuclear holocaust--a blockade beckoned as the least bad alternative. Robert Kennedy did not by any means rule out an airstrike. But after the excruciating night of waiting for the troops to arrive at Ole Miss, he had low confidence in the military's capacity to do anything with precision. "He knew there was no such thing as a surgical strike," said Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon. And he wanted to buy time to look for other, less obvious, escape routes.
President Kennedy was under considerable pressure from the military to strike. Meeting alone with the president on Friday morning, the Joint Chiefs of Staff virtually bullied the president to begin bombing. "If we don't do anything to Cuba, then they're going to push on Berlin and push real hard because they've got us on the run," pressed the ever-bellicose Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay. "You're in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President," said LeMay. "What did you say?" asked Kennedy, taken aback at his general's lese-majeste. "You're in a bad fix," repeated LeMay, almost as if he was enjoying his civilian master's discomfort. Kennedy mumbled a joke, but he was not amused. "Those brass hats have one great advantage in their favor," JFK groused to his aide, Kenny O'Donnell. "If we... do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them they're wrong."
After the chiefs departed, the president ran into his broth- er and Ted Sorensen in the hallway off the Oval Office. "This thing is falling apart," said the president. "You have to pull it together." Sorensen believed that JFK had already ruled out military action as a first step and decided he wanted a blockade. "That's not what he said to us," Sorensen later recalled. "But he didn't have to. He knew what Bobby and I thought." Perhaps, but JFK was intentionally opaque and liked to keep his options open. Earlier that morning, before he met with the Joint Chiefs, he had instructed McGeorge Bundy to keep arguing for the airstrike option. "Have another look at that and keep it alive," said Kennedy, according to a private memo written by Bundy.
Bundy, a fellow Groton-and-Yale man, became Acheson's ally at the 11 a.m. meeting of the ExCom in Under Secretary of State George Ball's office on Friday. Bundy and Acheson squared off with the attorney general in the most decisive debate of the 13 days. Acheson was brusque: "The sooner we get to a showdown, the better." The old cold warrior favored cleaning the missile bases out decisively with an airstrike. Bundy was more tentative. He had experienced a "sleepless night," he said, and "doubted whether the strategy group was serving the president as well as it might, if it merely recommended a blockade." Bundy let drop that he "had spoken with the president this morning, and he felt there was further work to be done. A blockade would not remove the missiles... an airstrike would be quick and take out the bases in a clean surgical operation."
The hawks had formidable allies. Dillon, CIA Director John McCone and General Taylor all emphatically chimed in for airstrikes. The doves seemed to reel for a moment; George Ball said he was a "waverer" between airstrikes and a blockade. Then it was RFK's turn to speak. This time, he did not hang back or pretend that he was anything other than the president's brother. He stood up and began to pace around the room. Grinning, he said that he, too, had talked with the president--and more recently than Bundy.
Once again, he raised the moral argument. The world, he said, would remember the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. For 175 years, Kennedy went on, "we had not been that kind of country. A sneak attack was not in our traditions." Thousands of Cubans would be killed without warning, "and a lot of Russians too." Kennedy said he favored action, to make known unmistakably the seriousness of the United States' determination to get the missiles out of Cuba, but he thought the action should allow the Soviets some room for maneuver to pull back from their overextended position in Cuba.
Obviously irritated by Kennedy's speech, Bundy addressed himself to the attorney general. This was all very well, the national-security adviser said, but a blockade would not eliminate the bases; an airstrike would. But others were moved. Listening to the attorney general speak with "intense but quiet passion," Dillon thought that he was witnessing "a real turning point in history. The way Bob Kennedy spoke was totally convincing to me. I knew then that we should not undertake a strike without warning." Most of the others came round or at least softened their insistence on immediate airstrikes. They would continue to argue and wrestle with the options, but RFK had carried the day for a blockade, at least as a first step.
The Secret Go-Between A blockade would buy time. but President Kennedy still needed to find a way out of the crisis. Publicly, the president took a hard line. On Monday night, he went on national television to tell the American people about the Soviet missiles in Cuba; to demand that the Soviets withdraw the missiles; to declare a "quarantine" on the island, and to threaten military action if the Kremlin did not back down. Privately, however, President Kennedy began looking for a peaceful way out--a face-saving concession that would allow Khrushchev to back down.
Within the ExCom, there had already been talk of a trade. As part of its NATO commitment to defend Europe, the United States had stationed medium-range missiles in Italy and Turkey. The missiles were obsolete, scheduled to be replaced by submarine-launched Polaris missiles. Why not trade the unneeded missiles in Turkey and Italy for the more-threatening Soviet missiles in Cuba? President Kennedy saw the logic behind such a trade, but he was reluctant to start bargaining right away--at least in public. This was not the time to engage the Soviets in an open negotiation. Public talks over a missile swap could easily become bogged down, while the Soviets forged ahead on making the Cuban missiles operational, a fait accompli.
That did not mean, however, that the United States could not engage in some behind-the-scenes diplomacy. The Kennedys needed a way to sound out Moscow without appearing to offer a concession. RFK often used secret back channels to try to defuse crises. For the past 18 months, RFK had been quietly communicating with the Kremlin through a Russian spy, Georgi Bolshakov, a Soviet military-intelligence officer based in Washington. About once a month, RFK and Bolshakov had taken a walk on the Mall to talk about how the superpowers might cool off global hot spots. Bolshakov had visited Kennedy's home at Hickory Hill, swum in his pool and even arm-wrestled with the president's brother. But in early October, Bolshakov, himself misled by his superiors in Moscow, had assured RFK that the Soviets would not place offensive missiles in Cuba. Bobby's faith in Bolshakov had been severely undermined by this unwitting deception. Still, Robert Kennedy was not quite ready to cut off his old arm-wrestling foe, especially since the attorney general still needed a rear entrance to the Kremlin.
On Tuesday, Oct. 23, the morning after the president publicly revealed the missile crisis and announced a blockade, Bolshakov received a phone call from Frank Holeman, a New York Daily News reporter who had first introduced Bolshakov to the Kennedys. Meeting privately with Bolshakov, Holeman had a secret message to deliver. It remained a secret for three decades; in 1993, a pair of cold-war historians, Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko, found a copy of Bolshakov's cable to the Kremlin in the papers of the Soviet Foreign Office in Moscow. It described the conversation with Holeman: "R. Kennedy and his circle consider it possible to discuss the following trade: The U.S. would liquidate its missile bases in Turkey and Italy, and the USSR would do the same in Cuba." There was an important proviso: "The conditions of such a trade can be discussed only in a time of quiet and not when there is a threat of war."
Bolshakov was also approached by another Kennedy friend, columnist Charles Bartlett, with the same message: the White House was thinking about a trade involving the Jupiter missiles. At the same time, Robert Kennedy wanted to make sure that Bolshakov understood the depth of the Kennedys' anger. "Get ahold of Georgi and tell him how he betrayed us and how we're very disappointed," RFK told Bartlett. But Bartlett must have laid it on a little thick, because five minutes after he hung up with Bolshakov, he was telephoned by RFK. The attorney general apparently had been listening in on a wiretap. "That wasn't very subtly done," Kennedy chided Bartlett. "I hope you can be a little more subtle." Kennedy's anger was vying with his shrewdness, and Bartlett had been caught in the middle.
On Tuesday evening at 7:10, sitting alone with JFK in the Oval Office (with the president's secret taping system on), RFK casually told the president that Frank Holeman had seen Georgi Bolshakov that day. "Holeman?" asked the president, sounding somewhat skeptical. "But he's not with us on this." JFK seems to have been referring to Holeman's earlier incarnation as a newspaper reporter who had covered, and been friendly with, Richard Nixon. RFK dodged the question about Holeman's loyalty. Instead he noted that Bolshakov was still trying to bluff. "He said this is..." Kennedy chuckled slightly, "this is a defensive base for the Russians. It's got nothing to do with the Cubans."
Curiously, RFK did not mention the real purpose of Holeman's (and Bartlett's) meeting with Bolshakov that day: floating a trial balloon to the Kremlin about trading away the Jupiters. Was RFK holding back something from his brother? When JFK grumbled about Holeman, RFK may have sensed that he had gone too far by sending out the feeler to the Soviets, however guarded and hedged. There is another, equally plausible explanation for RFK's keeping the president in the dark: he may have been trying to provide his brother with "plausible deniability," intentionally distancing JFK from any talk of a trade until the moment a deal needed to be cut.
The mood inside the Oval Office was bleak this Tuesday night. The weather had been mocking the gravity of the ExCom's deliberations: day after day of glorious Indian summer, crystalline blue skies and sunshine lighting up the foliage of the elms along the Ellipse. Inside, that afternoon, the ExCom had discussed how many of the 92 million people living within the 1,100-mile range of the Cuban missiles would survive a nuclear attack. Fewer than half, was the conclusion. "Can we, maybe before we invade, evacuate those cities?" asked the president. No one wanted to even contemplate the chaos and panic.
The deaths of millions seemed unreal, yet it wasn't. "This may end in a big war," Khrushchev told the Soviet Presidium on Monday, when he learned the Americans had discovered the missiles. The Soviet premier slept, fully clothed, in his office that night. Unbeknown to the Americans at that moment, the Soviets had put dozens of tactical nuclear weapons into Cuba, and Khrushchev was prepared to use them. In an invasion, the Marines clambering ashore on D-Day would be marching into the world's first nuclear battlefield.
The members of the ExCom did not know about the Soviet nukes awaiting an invasion force, but they felt the nearness of war. Since President Kennedy's speech on Monday night, the nation had been gripped by dread of a nuclear holocaust. Schoolchildren were practicing duck-and-cover drills. Kennedy's advisers for the most part were no less anxious. Like Khrushchev, some members of the ExCom were not even going home at night, preferring to sleep in their offices. RFK slept very little, staying most nights at the White House. At the Justice Department, he told his aides to go home to be with their families. His personal assistant, James Symington, went to an outdoor-supply store and bought a tent and some small knapsacks in the forlorn hope that, in the few minutes of warning before the missiles struck, his wife and children could flee into the countryside. At the cash register, he was spotted by another government official, similarly engaged. "Going camping, are we?" the other man inquired. The top White House officials were handed envelopes to be opened in case of attack. Inside were directions to landing sites from which helicopters would supposedly whisk them to a mountain cave in Virginia. "I'm not going," RFK told his aide Ed Guthman. "If it comes to that, there'll be 60 million Americans killed and as many Russians or more. I'll be at Hickory Hill."
The Kennedy brothers tried black humor. Standing on the Truman balcony Saturday night with RFK, the president had quipped, "We are very, very close to war. And there's not room in the White House bomb shelter for all of us." But even flat jokes had worn out by Tuesday evening. The next morning the blockade would go into effect. American warships would be confronting the Soviet Navy on the high seas. As they sat alone in the Oval Office at about 7 p.m., John Kennedy said to his brother, "It really looks mean, doesn't it?"
At 10 in the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 24, the deadline for the blockade, two Soviet freighters drew near the quarantine line, 500 miles from the coast of Cuba. The Pentagon went to Defcon 2 (Defcon 5 is peace; Defcon 1 is war), sending out the order in the clear over an open channel, so the Soviets would know. All 1,400 of America's nuclear bombers went on 24-hour alert. In the Cabinet Room, Secretary of Defense McNamara informed the president that a Soviet submarine had moved between the oncoming Soviet ships and the Essex, the American aircraft carrier manning the picket line. McNamara told the president that the Americans would have to try to surface the sub with depth charges. As Robert Kennedy watched, President Kennedy put his hand up to his face and covered his mouth. He opened and closed his fist. "His face seemed drawn," RFK recorded in his diary, "his eyes pained, almost gray. We stared at each other across the table. For a few fleeting seconds, it was as if almost no one else was there and he was no longer the president."
As the first naval engagement of the last war loomed, RFK fell into a reverie. His mind drifted to family tragedy. "Inexplicably," he recalled, "I thought of when he [JFK] was ill and almost died; when he lost a child; when we learned that our oldest brother had been killed; of personal times of strain and hurt." The voices droned on, but RFK heard nothing until his brother's voice broke through. The president wanted to avoid having to attack a Soviet submarine. In calm tones, JFK began to discuss the next harrowing moves: the United States sinks a Soviet ship; in retaliation, the Soviets blockade Berlin. "What do we do then?" he asked. "We try to shoot down their planes," answered Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze. A discussion of the rest of the steps on the road to Armageddon was interrupted by the return of CIA Director John McCone, who had left the room to check a report on the Soviet ships.
His news came as an enormous relief: the Soviet ships had stopped or turned back. Secretary of State Dean Rusk leaned over and whispered to McGeorge Bundy, "We are eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."
But not for long. American spy planes reported that the work on the Soviet missile sites in Cuba seemed to be quickening. American intelligence now estimated that 24 missiles were ready to launch. Disturbingly, reconnaissance planes also spotted Soviet short-range missiles along the coast--a clear sign that the Soviets were readying tactical nuclear weapons to greet an invasion. In the ExCom on Friday morning, the hawks were in ascendancy, pressing for airstrikes by Monday or Tuesday morning. The blockade had been porous: the United States had let several ships through, rather than risk confrontation. Hundreds of warplanes and tens of thousands of assault troops were moving toward southern Florida, preparing for the Battle of Cuba.
On Friday night, the Situation Room teletype machines rattled with a letter from Khrushchev. In rambling, anguished prose, the Soviet premier contemplated war--"only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the world before they do, could do this." George Ball thought the letter was a "cri de coeur." "He's scared," said McNamara. Khrushchev suggested that if Washington lifted the blockade and promised not to invade Cuba, he would stop shipping new missiles to the island. As he drove home that night, RFK permitted himself "a slight feeling of optimism."
The feeling did not last. On Saturday morning, Khrushchev upped the ante in a much sterner letter: he demanded that the Americans withdraw their rockets from Turkey. Worse, he made the demand public in a radio broadcast. There was con-sternation among the frazzled, exhausted members of the ExCom. "He didn't really say that, did he?" one spluttered. President Kennedy understood the larger political realities: "He's got us in a pretty good spot here," JFK told the group. "Because most people would regard this as a not unreasonable proposal." Using an old Briticism--"a good war"--Kennedy could not see how the United States could have "a good war" when conflict might have been avoided by trading some useless missiles. Most other members of the ExCom, however, feared that a decision by the United States to withdraw missiles from Turkey would split apart NATO. The doubters included RFK. "I don't see how we can ask the Turks to give up their defense," he said.
The ExCom struggled to formulate an answer to Khrushchev. Some, like George Ball, wanted to accept the missile swap. Others wanted to reject it outright. It was RFK who did the most to find a middle way, in essence saying "yes" to Khrushchev's cri de coeur proposal of Friday while finessing his hard-line demand of Saturday. Working with Ted Sorensen as his wordsmith, RFK drafted a letter to Khrushchev accepting his first proposal--an agreement to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for a no-invasion pledge by the United States--while tabling for later his demand that the West withdraw the Jupiters from Turkey. RFK was at his best in this confused and muddled debate, bringing judgment and nuance and looking for an answer that would keep the pressure on the Kremlin without foreclosing the possibility of a face-saving deal. He had to fend off some large egos, including his brother's. At one point, he scolded the president, "Why don't we try to work it out without you being able to pick it apart?"
That Saturday--"Black Saturday," Oct. 27--was, if possible, grimmer than all the days that had come before. In the late afternoon, word reached the ExCom that an American U-2 spy plane had wandered into Soviet airspace and had been chased out by scrambled MiGs. The Cubans had opened fire on low-flying American reconnaissance planes over the island, hitting one. The Joint Chiefs were pressing for a decision: they wanted a massive air campaign against Cuba on Monday morning, said General Taylor, followed by an invasion seven days later. "Well, that was a surprise," piped up RFK, in a sarcastic deadpan. The room rocked with the giddy laughter of men under too much pressure.
Teetering at the Brink Then came really troubling news. "a u-2 was shot down," announced Secretary McNamara. "A U-2 was shot down?" asked JFK, his voice now slightly tinged with anxiety. A Soviet surface-to-air missile had brought down an American spy plane over Cuba. "Was the pilot killed?" asked RFK, possibly thinking about prisoners as well as casualties. (The pilot died.) "Well, now, this is much of an escalation by them, isn't it?" said the president. He was in a box. The military wanted him to start bombing Soviet air-defense batteries--as soon as possible, which meant Sunday at dawn.
Still, President Kennedy was determined to avoid war. At about 8 p.m., the United States publicly broadcast the letter drafted by RFK and Sorensen, pledging not to invade Cuba if Khrushchev removed the missiles, while putting off any decision on trading away the Jupiters in Turkey. Secretly, the president made plans to give up the Jupiters as well. At about 7 that evening, he gathered a small group of his closest advisers in the oval office. Their deliberations would remain secret for the next 25 years. With little debate, the group quickly decided on a course of action: Robert Kennedy would sneak away to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. He would deliver two messages. One was simple and stark: the Soviets would withdraw their missiles from Cuba. The United States would agree not to invade. Otherwise, as Bundy put it, "further action was unavoidable." The second message was more subtle. RFK would tell Dobrynin that, while there could be no public deal over the Turkish missiles, the United States was determined to pull them out and would do so after the Cuban crisis was resolved. The 10 or so men in the room--Bundy, Rusk, McNamara, Sorensen, a few other top-level advisers--all swore to secrecy. If word of the missile trade leaked out, they feared it might tear apart the Atlantic alliance. Unspoken was the potential political cost of appearing to "appease" the Kremlin. RFK was also instructed "to make it plain to Dobrynin that the same secrecy must be observed on the other side, and that any Soviet reference to our assurance would make it null and void."
Thus armed, Robert Kennedy met with Dobrynin in his office at the Justice Department at 7:45 p.m. To Dobrynin, Kennedy looked exhausted, as if he had not slept for days. He informed Dobrynin of the U-2 shoot-down, and emphasized that the standoff was fast deteriorating and heading toward war. According to Kennedy's record of the conversation, he told the Soviet ambassador that "there was very little time left. If the Cubans were shooting down our planes, then we were going to shoot back... I said that he had better understand the situation and he had better communicate that understanding to Mr. Khrushchev... I said those missile bases had to go and they had to go right away. We had to have a commitment by at least tomorrow that those bases would be removed. This was not an ultimatum, I said, but just a statement of fact. He should understand that if he did not remove those bases then we would remove them. His country might take retaliatory action but he should understand that before this war was over, while there might be dead Americans, there would also be dead Russians."
Dobrynin did not argue. He asked: what about Turkey? RFK trotted out the nondeal deal: there could be "no quid pro quo." But, after a suitable time had passed--Kennedy mentioned four or five months--the American missiles would be withdrawn from Turkey. "The president can't say anything public in this regard about Turkey," RFK cautioned, according to Dobrynin's notes of the meeting. "R. Kennedy then warned that his comments about Turkey are extremely confidential: besides him and his brother, only 2-3 people know about it in Washington." Dobrynin was struck by RFK's anxiety. "I should say that during our meeting R. Kennedy was very upset," Dobrynin cabled Moscow. "I've never seen him like this before." The Soviet diplomat later told Khrushchev that the American president's brother was near tears. According to Dobrynin, Kennedy implied that he didn't know how much longer his brother could control the hawks and the military. "The generals are itching for a fight," Kennedy supposedly told Dobrynin. The Soviet ambassador immediately wrote up his account of the meeting and sent it--incredibly, there was no other means of immediate transmission--by Western Union. A young boy came by on a bicycle from the telegraph agency to pick up the message. Dobrynin watched him pedal off into the night, praying that he would not stop off for a Coca-Cola or to dally with his girlfriend.
'I'm Going to See My Kids' Returning to the white house, RFK found his brother eating chicken and drinking milk upstairs in the family quarters. He glumly reported on Dobrynin, without holding out much hope that the Russians would back down. "God, Dave," said JFK to his personal aide Dave Powers, "the way you're eating all that chicken and drinking up all my wine, anybody would think it was your last meal." Powers, who enjoyed the role of court jester, replied that, in light of RFK's remarks, "I thought it was my last meal."
At 9 p.m., RFK returned to his strung-out comrades in the Cabinet Room. He asked McNamara, "How are you doing, Bob?"
"Well," said McNamara, untruthfully. Watching the sun set, he had wondered if he would live out the week. "How about yourself?"
"All right," said Kennedy.
"You got any doubts?"
"Well, no, I think that we're doing the only thing we can do, and well, you know..."
The group began discuss- ing an invasion and removing Fidel Castro. The talk turned blustery. "I would suggest an eye for an eye," said McNamara. "That's the mission," said Douglas Dillon. RFK interjected, "I'd take Cuba back. That would be nice." Another voice chimed in: "I'd take Cuba away from Castro." And, finally, to punch-drunk laughter, someone else cracked: "Suppose we make Bobby mayor of Havana."
At midnight the ExCom broke up to get some rest, await Moscow's answer--or prepare for war. The president and Dave Powers stayed up restlessly watching a movie, "Roman Holiday," with Audrey Hepburn. Robert Kennedy, who had given Dobrynin his phone number with instructions to call at any time, went to sleep, or tried to.
Kennedy had barely seen his family for two weeks. Early Sunday morning he took his daughters to a long-promised horse show at the Washington Armory. Before 10, he was summoned to take a phone call from Dean Rusk at the State Department. The taciturn secretary had momentous news: the Soviets had agreed to dismantle and withdraw the missiles from Cuba. The Soviet premier's concession had been publicly broadcast over the radio. "In order to save the world," Khrushchev had declared to the Soviet Presidium, "we must retreat."
So, abruptly, the crisis ended. RFK immediately drove to the White House, then to see Ambassador Dobrynin. The news was a "great relief," the president's brother said to the Russian. "At last I'm going to see my kids." Kennedy, who had told Dobrynin the night before that he was spending nearly all his time with his brother at the White House, joked that he had almost forgotten his way home. For the first time in the crisis, Dobrynin wrote, he saw Kennedy smile. At the 11 a.m. meeting of the ExCom, McGeorge Bundy, a hawk for many of the 13 days, graciously acknowledged that "today is the day of the doves." As George Ball walked out into the Rose Garden, bathed in golden October light, he thought of Georgia O'Keeffe's painting of a rose growing through a skull. ExCom member Donald Wilson of the USIA "felt like "dancing and singing." Only the Joint Chiefs were dejected. "We lost!" Gen. Curtis LeMay bellowed at President Kennedy. "We ought to just go in there today and knock 'em off!" Kennedy could only splutter; his disdain for the Pentagon brass was now complete.
Through designated leakers, the Kennedys would soon put out a version of the secret deliberations of the ExCom that accentuated American toughness and resolve--while completely omitting the backstage diplomacy. These omissions and elisions were unfortunate, but they do not eclipse a more basic truth: that Robert Kennedy performed extremely well during a critical and brutally stressful time.
To be sure, it was a close thing. The Kennedys have been accused of playing brinkmanship by some thoughtful critics, who ask, with the benefit of hindsight, if the crisis was really necessary. What, they ask, was the rush to remove the missiles? And why not open-ly trade for some obsolete rockets in Turkey? Reasonable questions, but the most recent scholarship tends to confirm the judgments of the men who were in the arena, struggling with imperfect intelligence, political pressures and their own fear. Khrushchev was not a deep geopolitical strategist. While wily in some ways, capable of negotiation and compromise, he couldalso be a crude bully who liked to stamp his feet and wave his rockets, as if they were war clubs. He needed to be met with firmness--and, at the same time, allowed to save face. It may be true, that as Dean Acheson groused, the Kennedys were saved by "plain dumb luck." But they were also served by an innate and cunning sense of when to give, when to take and--just as important--how to be seen doing one while actually doing the other. On the tape recordings of the ExCom deliberations, one can almost hear the blending of their complementary talents, JFK steady and reasonable, RFK urgent and probing. Given the stakes and the pressure, their performance was remarkable. Some myths are true: this was their finest hour.