Fifty Octobers ago, the world faced a nuclear war that would have left this planet a very different place. The danger was every bit as it appeared. Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet leader who had secretly deployed 90 nuclear missiles in Cuba, had a back-up plan should the United States attack the weapon sites.
“I knew the United States could knock out some of our installations, but not all of them,” he wrote in his memoirs. “If a quarter or even a tenth of our missiles survived—even if only one or two big ones were left—we could still hit New York, and there wouldn’t be much of New York left.”
The U.S. never tested Khrushchev’s dire resolve. We never attacked his missiles. Instead, President Kennedy improvised a jerry-built policy that included an embargo on further shipment of Soviet missiles and a demand that all such weapons in Cuba be removed. Khrushchev turned back his cargo ships and removed his missiles. In this eyeball-to-eyeball conflict, he appeared to “blink” while his counterpart, President John F. Kennedy stood firm.
The full truth, which would only get out years later, is that the American president, dreading nuclear war and fearing a “miscalculation” that would trigger it, made an under-the-table deal. He gave Khrushchev precisely what he needed : something to get the hawks off his back. He agreed to remove the nuclear missiles we had deployed in Turkey, to do so in a short period of time but quietly, out of the glare of media—and Republican—attention. He did what was necessary, proffering a deal he knew he couldn't sell to his fellow countrymen.
This is the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis that gets overlooked but should be the key to all future confrontations with a dangerous enemy: Always leave the other side a way out. Otherwise, they will only have a way in.
TAKING OFFICE IN 1961 as the country’s youngest elected president, John F. Kennedy inherited two potent legacies, each in conflict with the other. One was the real prospect of a catastrophic World War III. The other was the well-cultivated memory of what had triggered WW II: appeasement at Munich.
To many of us growing up in the early Cold War, a nuclear war was taught as a real possibility. On a regular basis, the Sisters of Mercy at St. Christopher’s drilled us on it, ordering us to squeeze ourselves under our desks. Fifteen minutes, we were told. That would be the time it took for the missiles to drop, the warning we’d each get to say our prayers. Next would come the “flash of light” that would mark the greatest and no doubt final conflagration in the history of mankind: the end of the world. Americans of all ages shared a presumption that sooner or later the two nuclear powers would go head to head and that one first, then the other, would use the best weapon they had. World War II had taught that the most unthinkable catastrophes could easily become reality if one wasn't careful.
But World War II in Europe also taught another lesson: that shows of weakness could be responsible for starting such conflagrations. If the British and French had possessed the fiber to confront Adolf Hitler’s grab for German-speaking territory of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, he would never have gotten out of hand. What Winston Churchill would christen “the most unnecessary war” would have been averted.
So all Kennedy had to do in the Cuban Missile Crisis was (a) avoid a nuclear war and (b) avoid a second “Munich,” another concession that would delay war but also make it inevitable. Fortunately, Kennedy had the temperament needed to thread the needle. He understood the limits of what he could afford to do, but also the extent of what he might be able to get away with doing and not get caught.
One reason for this strategic clarity was his cold indifference to the emotions and passions of those close by, a detachment that could send a chill through those who happened across it. Chuck Spalding, one of his lifetime girl-chasing pals, noticed it at Jack’s wedding in 1953. Watching his friend that glorious Newport day, he saw two personalities at work: one was Jack as groom, the other was this figure he also recognized observing everyone in the large gathering studying what everyone was up to. That, too, was Jack.
This is the coldly-calculating American president who sat in the Oval Office in those 13 days of October 1962. Kennedy had no problem assessing the positions of those surrounding him. Air Force chief of staff Curtis LeMay was joined by his own national security advisor McGeorge Bundy and Cold War veteran Dean Acheson in pushing for an immediate air attack on the Cuban missiles. All around Kennedy were men arguing that the only safe action by the United States once the nuclear missile sites were discovered was to destroy them.
Gradually, Kennedy, his brother Robert and others were able to see the necessity for an alternative response. But cold calculation was not enough. He also needed to isolate in his mind the precise pressures on his opposite number in the Kremlin. What was it that pushed Khrushchev to make such a dangerous gambit in the first place? Why did the Russians feel the need to place missiles in Cuba when they had all those ICBMs pointed at us? And what did he need to take those missiles back?
Kennedy knew that he needed, in addition to a promise not to invade Cuba, to approve some sort of concession. He needed to add a dash of Neville Chamberlain to the Churchillian courage he was displaying. He needed to appease, to give the other side something it wanted.
Because the alternative was a nuclear holocaust. Kennedy believed and said so to those he trusted that nuclear weapons, if contained in a country’s arsenal, would eventually be used. And he had first-hand reason to believe that Khrushchev was just the man to pull the trigger. At their meeting in Vienna the prior year this has been made stunningly clear. “I talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill seventy million people in ten minutes,” he later told Time’s Hugh Sidey, “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.”
And that’s why he was willing to offer Krushchev a trade. If the Russians removed their missiles from Cuba, Kennedy told Krushchev that he would remove American missiles stationed in Turkey. Kennedy’s calculation paid off. Khrushchev accepted the trade.
Yet Kennedy still had a huge hurdle to overcome. How could he sell a policy involving a give-away of missiles, a quid-pro-quo, an admission of moral equivalency of this historic caliber, an appeasement? It was a step that he knew threatened to render him finished politically.
He did it anyway—he just insisted on keeping the deal a secret. He was ruthless enough to do what was necessary, even if it meant fooling the American people big-time, and risking a PR fiasco if the news ever leaked. If he hadn’t done this all the other gutsy steps of those valiant “13 days” wouldn’t have avoided war. It was not enough that JFK didn't blink when the Soviet ships neared the “quarantine” line patrolled by the U.S. Navy; it was Kennedy's willingness to cut a deal, under the table, with the enemy that saved the day and, really, the planet.
Fortunately, we did not have a Dick Nixon—or a Dick Cheney—calling the shots, men who for all their mental capability saw such conflicts as that in October of 1962 as tests of toughness, opportunities to act on an existing grievance, or, worse yet, a metaphor for some moral test of who’s right. Kennedy didn’t see the Cuban crisis as a test of his manhood. He'd already passed such a test back in the Solomons as a sailor in World War II when he swam for four hours with a badly-burnt engineer on his back, when he’d kept his crew alive after his PT boat had been rammed by a Japanese destroyer.
Kennedy's policy in the Cuban Missile Crisis may have involved appeasement, but the outcome would not ever be mistaken for Munich. Chamberlain’s acquiescence to Hitler led to his grabbing the rest of Czechoslovakia. Kennedy’s deal with Khrushchev would lead to the first treaty of the Cold War: the 1963 limited nuclear test ban treaty.
Kennedy had seen something in Krushchev's eyes when they met in Vienna in 1961. What he saw was a hardness that would not be budged by the prospect of mass death. His surmise was borne out in Khrushchev's memoirs, where he coldly contemplated hitting New York with nuclear weapons. “I don’t mean to say everyone in New York would be killed—not everyone, of course, but an awful lot of people would be wiped out ,” Krushchev wrote. “And it was high time that America learned what it feels like to have her own land and own people threatened.”
The real lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t at all that the two nuclear powers had gone eyeball to eyeball and one side had knuckled under to the other. It was that both sides were able to get their eyes wide open to the consequences of what was being risked and both sides were able to deliver us from the worst human-made disaster in history.
Chris Matthews is the host of Hardball and the author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.