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The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality

The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality

by Sheldon Stern

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This book exposes the misconceptions, half-truths, and outright lies that have shaped the still dominant but largely mythical version of what happened in the White House during those harrowing two weeks of secret Cuban missile crisis deliberations. A half-century after the event it is surely time to demonstrate, once and for all, that RFK's Thirteen Days and


This book exposes the misconceptions, half-truths, and outright lies that have shaped the still dominant but largely mythical version of what happened in the White House during those harrowing two weeks of secret Cuban missile crisis deliberations. A half-century after the event it is surely time to demonstrate, once and for all, that RFK's Thirteen Days and the personal memoirs of other ExComm members cannot be taken seriously as historically accurate accounts of the ExComm meetings.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Stern's book is a great example of how much is being discovered and revised regarding the Cold War and its major events as more archival sources are declassified. This work is a must read for any scholar of the Cuban missile crisis or the Kennedy administration. It provides a complicated and broad understanding of both the crisis and the Kennedy presidency."—Javan D. Frazier, H-War

"[Stern's] new book marshals irrefutable evidence to succinctly demolish the mythic version of the crisis . . . Reached through sober analysis."—Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic

"Stern is not alone in questioning the precision of the transcripts offered, but he has made the most painstaking attempt to clarify what was really said and done."—Alice George, Journal of American History

"Timed for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stern. . . exposes myths about the crisis. [He] provides an important interpretation grounded in careful research."—Karl Helicher, Library Journal

"The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory offers a compelling reassessment of [the] events [of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis]. Using tapes of ExComm meetings (the ad hoc group formed to meet the crisis), Stern challenges much of the received wisdom. In particular, he rejects Robert F. Kennedy's dovish self-portrayal in Thirteen Days (1969), finding instead a consistent hardliner who, for instance, opposed an American naval blockade in favor of air strikes."—James Clyde Sellman, Colloquy
"In Stern's judgment, President Kennedy displayed leadership, remaining calm during the crisis and staring down his belligerent civilian advisers and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. . . Recommended."—S. G. Rabe, CHOICE
"The latest addition to the outstanding Stanford Nuclear Age series . . . Informed and informative, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality is a seminal work of impressive scholarship and a highly recommended addition to academic library 20th Century American History reference collections in general, and 'U.S. – Soviet Union Cold War Studies' supplemental reading lists in particular."—James A. Cox, The Midwest Book Review
"The Cuban missile crisis may be the most thoroughly documented yet grossly misunderstood episode in Cold War history, and the value of Sheldon Stern's splendid book is that it punctures the myths and unearths the truth so compellingly, drawing on irrefutable evidence, that you'll never think about the crisis or about JFK and his 'best and brightest' advisers in the same way again."—Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist; author of 1959 and The Wizards of Armageddon
"For nearly half a century national security decision makers have relied on three lessons derived inappropriately from the Cuban missile crisis: success depends on (1) the threat of superior force, (2) toughness and inflexibility, and (3) the use of a small ad hoc group like the ExComm to advise the President. Sheldon Stern's trenchant analysis, based on the most careful and exacting review to date of the ExComm's recorded conversations, turns the three traditional missile crisis lessons on their head. He effectively demonstrates that the outcome depended on President Kennedy's repeated refusal to use or threaten to use force, and on his persistent search for a compromise that could end the stand-off peacefully. Most important, Stern highlights that the ExComm did not provide Kennedy with the well-considered advice he supposedly used to avoid war, but instead Kennedy directed its discussions towards the conclusions he sought. This is a clearly written, timely, and significant contribution to our understanding of the Cuban missile crisis."—Philip Brenner, American University
"It has taken nearly 50 years to get a history of the Cuban missile crisis as it really was, as opposed to how it was initially (and for many decades) managed and manipulated by the Kennedy inner circle as well as gullible journalists and historians. For that we have Sheldon M. Stern to thank."—Max Holland, Contributing Editor, The Nation, and Editor, washingtondecoded.com

Library Journal
Timed for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stern (former historian, John F. Kennedy Library) offers here what amounts to a rehash of his previous books in this series: Averting 'The Final Failure': John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings and The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. Stern, the first nonmember of Kennedy's Executive Committee of the National Security Council to have access to the October 16–29, 1962, tapes, analyzes them to expose myths about the crisis. Most significant, the President's brother and attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy was not the cool, in-control adviser he portrayed himself to be in Thirteen Days, his account of the crisis written to bolster his chances for the 1968 presidency. Stern portrays RFK to be as hawkish as JFK's joint chiefs of staff. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson are revealed to have played important roles in forging JFK's response, while Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is shown to have been a hawk, contradicting Robert Kennedy's depictions. VERDICT Readers of Stern's previous books will not find much new here. For all others, he provides an important interpretation grounded in careful research that contradicts previous self-serving memoirs.—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Township Lib., King of Prussia, PA

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Myths versus Reality
By Sheldon M. Stern


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8377-4

Chapter One

History: From Reel to Real

The Cuban missile crisis remains a strange enigma—one of the most dramatic and well-documented events of modern history, yet one of the most thoroughly misunderstood. —Fred Kaplan, 2003

The New Evidence

With the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis fast approaching, some scholars have questioned whether there is really anything new to say about the nuclear superpower confrontation of October 1962. The answer, of course, is quite simple: if there is additional evidence then there must be something new to say. And, in fact, a great deal of extraordinary and unprecedented evidence has recently become available. This material has substantially redefined the early understanding of the crisis (based almost entirely on American sources) that had prevailed for the first quarter century after 1962. Nonetheless, the importance of much of this new evidence has not been fully recognized or absorbed.

First, a series of international conferences brought together scholars and government participants from the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and Cuba and produced extraordinary new documents and personal recollections. (The conferences were held in Hawk's Cay, Florida, March 1987; Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 1987; Moscow, January 1989; Antigua, January 1991; and Havana, January 1992. A follow-up conference in Havana was held to mark the fortieth anniversary of the crisis in 2002.) These discussions revealed, for example, that Nikita Khrushchev had indeed sent nuclear warheads (never located by the U-2 spy planes) as well as medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Cuba; however, wary of a "Dr. Strangelove" scenario, Khrushchev had ordered the missiles and warheads to be stored miles apart; the declassified crisis correspondence between Khrushchev and Fidel Castro revealed that the latter had urged the former to initiate a nuclear strike against the U.S. in the event of an invasion of Cuba—which the Soviet leader interpreted as a call for a nuclear first-strike and refused; and, most startling of all, Khrushchev had managed to covertly send more than 42,000 Red Army troops to Cuba to repel an American invasion and had also shipped battlefield tactical nuclear warheads to the island, authorizing on-site commanders to decide when or if to fire them.

Second, the ebbing, and then end, of the Cold War brought forward significant archival evidence from Communist sources about the missile crisis, or "Caribbean crisis" as it was termed in Moscow, or "October crisis" as it was (and is) called in Havana. These primary sources resulted in valuable additions to, and corrections of, the historical record, which previously had an unavoidable Washington tilt since essentially all the primary source evidence had come from the American side. The new documents, which historians never imagined they would see, confirmed, for example, that JFK's instinct was right when he refused on October 27 to order an attack on the Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) site that had brought down a U-2 plane over Cuba (which he had agreed to do a few days before); Soviet officers on the ground had fired the missiles on their own initiative, and Khrushchev was appalled by their recklessness. Also, in the event of American bombing or invasion, Soviet forces in Cuba had nuclear cruise missiles in place to destroy the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo—which would almost certainly have ignited a nuclear war. In addition, evidence from the Soviet archives suggested that Khrushchev's original explanation for his dangerous gamble in Cuba had been fundamentally true: despite the firm convictions of JFK and his advisers, tensions over Berlin were not a decisive factor in the chairman's decision to ship nuclear missiles and warheads to Cuba. Nor did he intend these missiles as an aggressive threat to the security of the United States. From the perspective in Moscow, the missiles were meant to provide a beleaguered Cuban ally with deterrence against covert or overt U.S. attacks and to give the Americans "a little of their own medicine" after JFK's decision to activate the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Khrushchev was also anxious to conceal the inadequacy of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—giving the U.S.S.R. at least the public appearance of relative parity in the nuclear balance of terror. Finally, he was also determined, in response to harsh criticism from Red China, to shore up his standing as the leader of the communist world. It was a colossal political misjudgment, however, to assume that the Americans would understand or accept the Kremlin's perspective.

Third, and the most recent, has been the declassification of the one-of-a-kind 43-plus hours of White House missile crisis tape recordings (just over half from the iconic thirteen days and the remainder from the November postcrisis). Not even the difficult-to-access archival documents from the Kremlin have influenced our understanding of the missile crisis quite as much as Kennedy's secret tape recordings. The tapes are the closest thing imaginable to a verbatim record of the crisis. In the famous formulation of nineteenth-century historian Leopold van Ranke, the tapes promise the tantalizing prospect of history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist—as it really was.

The once-secret tapes of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) have been available for just over a decade; nonetheless, some writers, likely put off by the demanding and labor-intensive effort required to listen to these technically primitive (initially reel-to-reel) recordings, have chosen instead to use the extremely inaccurate 1997 Harvard Press transcripts, the more reliable 2001 Miller Center/Norton transcripts, or my own 2003 narrative of the meetings. This volume will substantiate, once and for all, that there is no substitute for listening to these tapes. No secondary source (transcripts or a narrative), no matter how reliable, can stand in for this unique primary source—now universally available, at no cost, from the Presidential Recordings Program on the website of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia (http://millercenter.org/academic/presidentialrecordings).

It is hard to imagine, for example, that David Talbot could have made the demonstrably false claim that JFK "could count on only his brother and Robert McNamara for support" in the ExComm meetings and that RFK had "matured from a kneejerk hawk to a wise and restrained diplomat," or that Michael Dobbs could declare that the younger Kennedy "was a chastened man" by October 27, if they had listened to these recordings (Chapters 2–4). Dobbs also contends that on the evening of that decisive day, McNamara, when asked if he wanted dinner, "snapped, 'Eating is the least of my worries.'" In fact, the defense secretary muttered, almost inaudibly, "You don't have to worry, eating is the least of my worries." McNamara's dismal tone, lost in even the best transcript, momentarily exposed the raw depths of exhaustion, fear, and anxiety which he and his colleagues had endured around the clock since October 16.

Many of the pervasive misconceptions about the missile crisis derive, of course, from the initial "heroic" interpretation—created and promoted by JFK, RFK, and key members of the administration, eagerly swallowed by gullible journalists in the first years after the event, popularized by the selective and manipulative writing of administration insiders like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen, and reaching near iconic status in Robert Kennedy's Thirteen Days—not to mention wide currency in dramatizations such as The Missiles of October (1974) and Thirteen Days (2000). The latter concocts a crucial role in the ExComm meetings for JFK aide Kenneth O'Donnell; this claim is pure fiction. The film does not reveal that President Kennedy was taping the discussions, ignores U.S. covert actions against Castro and Khrushchev's motives for placing the missiles in Cuba, and casts Robert Kennedy as a consistent dove—in line with RFK's Thirteen Days, but not with the tapes.

In this "heroic" but historically one-dimensional rendering, the courageous and determined young American president, always cool under fire, successfully resisted the aggressive intent of the Soviet Union and its puppet regime in Cuba and won a decisive victory over international communism. And even more important, having learned sobering lessons on the nuclear brink, Kennedy reached out to the Soviet Union and Cuba in his last year in office and began the process of détente—as reflected in his June 1963 American University speech, the Moscow-Washington Hot Line, and the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as well as a series of cautious and secret diplomatic initiatives aimed at achieving a rapprochement with Castro's Cuba.

This heroic consensus did not go unchallenged for very long despite the best efforts of JFK loyalists. In the 1970s and 1980s, in the wake of the Vietnam war and the expanding documentary record on national security issues from the 1960s, revisionist and New Left historians zeroed in on the Kennedy administration's "secret war against Cuba," which encompassed sabotage and subversion against the Cuban economy, plots to overthrow or assassinate Castro, and "contingency plans" to blockade, bomb, or invade Cuba. These historians accused Kennedy of reckless brinksmanship and condemned him for turning down Khrushchev's entirely reasonable proposal to resolve the nuclear standoff by removing missiles from both Cuba and Turkey. They concluded that JFK's "heroic" management of the crisis, measured against this newly available evidence, was little more than a self-serving fabrication.

One prominent New Left historian, for example, told me in the early 1980s that JFK had been the ultimate macho cold warrior and that the historical record would eventually prove that in foreign relations Kennedy had been the most dangerous of the Cold War presidents. However, as Kennedy Library historian, I had already listened to the tapes. The library was preparing for their declassification, and I was the first nonmember of the ExComm, and certainly the first professional historian, to hear all the recordings and learn exactly what had happened at these meetings. As a result, I knew that JFK had actually accepted the missile trade despite strenuous opposition from essentially all his advisers. I could only reply, "You may be in for some major surprises when these tapes are declassified."

However, the story is unfortunately not that simple, and the crisis is still widely misunderstood despite the availability of this definitive primary source. An entirely mythical Cuban missile crisis remains alive and well. And ironically, the most pervasive and enduring myths about the crisis revolve around the very core event—the secret White House meetings—for which these verbatim tape recordings exist.

There is, of course, nothing new about historical participants manipulating the evidence and inventing "truths" to suit their purposes. In 1984, as a case in point, the Kennedy Library sponsored a conference to mark the centenary of the birth of Harry Truman. The keynote speaker was Clark Clifford— the ultimate Washington insider and power broker—who had served in the Truman White House. Clifford was an imposing figure in every sense: not a single strand of his silver-white hair was out of place, and he seemed almost royal in his immaculately tailored suit. At the conclusion of his talk, which included his personal recollections of the day FDR died and Truman became president, he took questions from the audience.

A rather scruffy, bearded young man politely but firmly contradicted several of the important details in Clifford's account of the events of April 12, 1945. Clifford looked down at him from the rostrum and with a rather lordly gesture admonished the student, "Young man, I was there." The audience spontaneously erupted into applause for the distinguished speaker. In fact, the student's version was correct (and I told him so), and later I decided to check the details of Clifford's recollections. I discovered that Clark Clifford was in the navy, stationed in San Francisco, on that historic day. He did not even meet Truman for the first time until later that summer.

Many of the enduring myths about the Cuban missile crisis can likewise be traced back to the Kennedy administration's own initial spin on the events of October 1962—especially to Robert Kennedy's personal (and until recently, unverifiable) version in Thirteen Days. These misconceptions, of course, also have their own curious and rather circuitous history.

McGeorge Bundy, JFK's special assistant for national security, worked at the Kennedy Library in the early 1980s researching his memoir (published in 1988). During that period, he was granted special access to some of the ExComm recordings and listened to the meetings from the first day (October 16) and the last day (October 27). He usually brought a brown-bag lunch, and I often sat and talked with him in the staff lunchroom. Bundy knew that the tapes were going to be declassified but seemed very surprised when I told him that I had already listened to them. He admitted that he was having problems identifying some of the voices of his former colleagues; one afternoon we listened together, and I was able to persuade him that the voice he thought was John McCloy's was actually John McCone's. However, he was particularly interested in my contention that the Black Saturday tapes revealed that the president had accepted Khrushchev's missile trade proposal; he insisted that it was an understanding, not an actual deal. He seemed evasive, if not hostile, when I referred to the stubborn and all but unanimous resistance to the trade by the ExComm—including Bundy himself—on that final Saturday of the crisis.

A quarter of a century later, in October 2007, I shared the platform with Ted Sorensen at a Princeton University conference marking the forty-fifth anniversary of the missile crisis. Sorensen was scheduled to speak first, but his driver called to say that they were stuck in traffic and I was moved up to that spot. About five minutes into my remarks, the door to the theater was opened, and Sorensen entered on the arm of his assistant (a severe stroke had left him legally blind). The crowd gave him a standing ovation. He listened attentively as I discussed my findings from the meeting tapes—backed up with verbatim quotes.

However, when he stepped to the microphone, Sorensen emphatically rejected my conclusions on the grounds that he was the only person on the panel "who was actually there"—even claiming, much like Bundy in those earlier lunchroom chats, that there had never been a missile trade deal. And again like Bundy, he objected to my findings about the strident and all but unanimous opposition to the trade on that final day. Sorensen did, in fact, attend most of the ExComm meetings but rarely contributed to the discussions. His most important role was behind the scenes in drafting JFK's October 22 speech and the letters to Khrushchev. When he did speak up, his views generally paralleled those of RFK. For example, he urged the seizure of an East German passenger ship because it would demonstrate that the U.S. response was "not a soft one at all"; recommended that the Organization of American States declare Cuba's possession of nuclear weapons a violation of the Rio Pact in order to give the U.S. "greater grounds" for attacking Cuba; opposed Khrushchev's Cuba-Turkey missile trade offer; and declared on the final evening of meetings, "I think in some ways it's a sign of weakness if we just keep responding [to Khrushchev] in messages."

These key participants in the White House meetings were clearly working to spin and shape the evidence in an effort to minimize their own opposition to the secret agreement that in the end avoided nuclear war—an agreement which had to be imposed on the ExComm by the increasingly irritated and intractable President Kennedy. This last-ditch effort, in light of the availability of the tapes, seems to be little more than tilting at windmills. Notwithstanding, Sorensen did not budge from this position in his personal memoir, published only months after the Princeton conference.

There are many conflicting Cuban missile crises in American historical memory. Unfortunately, the mythic crisis, shaped largely by manipulation and half-truths, has gained far more attention than the crisis rooted in hard and often irrefutable evidence. The White House tape recordings offer scholars the rare opportunity to forge a fresh, accurate, and in-depth understanding of this unique historical event. This volume, therefore, building on my previous narrative version of the ExComm recordings, exposes and analyzes a series of pervasive and lingering myths and misconceptions which continue to cloud our understanding of the most dangerous two weeks in human history.


Excerpted from THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS IN AMERICAN MEMORY by Sheldon M. Stern Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sheldon M. Stern taught U.S. history at the college level for more than a decade before becoming historian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts from 1977 to 2000. He was the first non-member of the ExComm, as well as the first historian, to listen to and evaluate all the secret White House tape recordings made during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Stern is the author of Averting the Final Failure: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), and The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), both in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.

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