Kennedy Conceded Missiles, Too

The full thawing of official US-Cuba relations this week was symbolized by the re-opening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC.

We all think we know what US-Cuban relations were like from the Cuban Revolution until now — mistrust, tension, Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, Guantanamo Bay, and on and on.

Perhaps the most dramatic event was the Cuban Missile Crisis, 13 days in October 1962 when the US used diplomacy and threats to get recently-placed Soviet nuclear missiles removed from Cuba. It was hailed as a diplomatic triumph, preventing a nuclear war, and assuring US dominance over the western hemisphere. Kennedy forced Khrushchev to remove the Cuban missiles without the US conceding anything. The US went “eyeball to eyeball” with the Soviets, and the Soviets blinked. That’s the standard story, anyway.

And that’s the standard myth. It stood for 16 years until a fuller and more accurate version of the story appeared. In a short passage in his biography of Robert Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger revealed that, in return for the Soviet Union removing the missiles from Cuba, the US would remove its missiles from Turkey, which were aimed at the Soviet Union.

The myth of a total backdown by Khruschev had lasted long enough that, when the fuller story came out, few people paid attention. And the original story is still accepted as fact. The Kennedy administration had not only kept the missile removal trade a secret, but they had insisted that Khrushchev and the Soviets keep it a secret too.

Despite the work of Graham Allison at Harvard and Philip Nash at Penn State, who have both written excellent and full analyses of the crisis, the Kennedy suppression of the existence of the Turkish missiles has worked more or less to this day. It’s a Cold War myth, but at least the missiles are gone.

Further Reading:

Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (1971).

Philip Nash, The Other Missiles of October: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Jupiters, 1957-1963
(1997).