The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis


The Cuban missile crisis was the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War and the most perilous moment in American history. In this dramatic narrative written especially for students and general readers, Sheldon M. Stern, longtime historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, enables the reader to follow the often harrowing twists and turns of the crisis.

Based on the author’s authoritative transcriptions of the secretly recorded ExComm meetings, the book conveys the emotional ...

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The Cuban missile crisis was the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War and the most perilous moment in American history. In this dramatic narrative written especially for students and general readers, Sheldon M. Stern, longtime historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, enables the reader to follow the often harrowing twists and turns of the crisis.

Based on the author’s authoritative transcriptions of the secretly recorded ExComm meetings, the book conveys the emotional ambiance of the meetings by capturing striking moments of tension and anger as well as occasional humorous intervals. Unlike today's readers, the participants did not have the luxury of knowing how this potentially catastrophic showdown would turn out, and their uncertainty often gives their discussions the nerve-racking quality of a fictional thriller. As President Kennedy told his advisers, “What we are doing is throwing down a card on the table in a game which we don't know the ending of.”

Stern documents that JFK and his administration bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the crisis. Covert operations in Cuba, including efforts to kill Fidel Castro, had convinced Nikita Khrushchev that only the deployment of nuclear weapons could protect Cuba from imminent attack. However, President Kennedy, a seasoned Cold Warrior in public, was deeply suspicious of military solutions to political problems and appalled by the prospect of nuclear war. He consistently steered policy makers away from an apocalyptic nuclear conflict, measuring each move and countermove with an eye to averting what he called, with stark eloquence, “the final failure.”

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Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
The discovery that President John F. Kennedy had installed a system for taping conversations in the Oval Office transformed the historiography of the Cuban missile crisis, and Stern was at the heart of the effort to transcribe them at the John F. Kennedy Library. An earlier and much longer version of this book (published in 2003 as Averting the Final Failure) expressed his disappointment with the inadequacy of the best-selling version of these transcripts, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. He believes strongly that at issue is intonation as well as language, evidence of the emotions at play, and the substance of the debate — so that emphasis can turn bland comment into heavy sarcasm. Only careful listening brings home, for example, how irritated Kennedy got with McGeorge Bundy during the critical discussions on October 27, 1962. This shortened version centers on a blow-by-blow account of the crisis as revealed in the tapes, getting across the ebb and flow of the discussions, the changes in mood, and the groping for a solution to an apparently desperate situation. As such it is a useful addition to the vast literature on the missile crisis and on Kennedy as a crisis manager.
From the Publisher

"The Week The World Stood Still is an impressive work of scholarship that is also highly recommended for non-specialist general readers with an interest in the history of the Cold War era."—The Midwest Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804750769
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 1/18/2005
  • Series: Stanford Nuclear Age Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Sheldon M. Stern was the Historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library from 1977 to 1999. He is author of Averting 'The Final Failure': John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford University Press, 2003).
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Read an Excerpt

The Week the World Stood Still

Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis
By Sheldon M. Stern

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2005 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5077-6

Chapter One

The JFK Cuban Missile Crisis Tapes

In the summer of 1973, the nation was captivated by the televised "Watergate" hearings into charges of illegal activities in Richard Nixon's White House. On July 16, presidential aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that President Nixon had installed a voice-activated taping system to secretly record his meetings and discussions. Congress subpoenaed the tapes but the president refused to comply. The Supreme Court unanimously ordered their release—and the rest is history.

A day after Butterfield's revelation, the John F. Kennedy Library disclosed that audio recordings of presidential meetings and telephone conversations had also been made during the Kennedy administration. These tapes included most of the secret meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The "heroic" version of the Cuban missile crisis had already become well established by the 1970s. This view, encouraged by JFK himself, popularized by the writings of journalists and Kennedy administration insiders, and dramatized in the 1974 film The Missiles of October, depicted the courageous young American president successfully resisting nuclear blackmail by the Soviet Union and its puppet regime in Cuba and winning a decisive victory over communism. And, according to this viewpoint, after his sobering experience on the nuclear brink, Kennedy reached out to his adversaries and began the process of détente—reflected in 1963 in his American University speech urging a rethinking of Cold War beliefs, the establishment of the Moscow-Washington Hot Line, and the ratification of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

This heroic viewpoint, however, did not last. In the wake of opposition to the Vietnam war and the declassification of key foreign policy documents from the 1960s, critical historians (often called "revisionists") uncovered new details about JFK's "secret war" against Cuba, particularly Operation Mongoose, that included sabotage and subversion against the Cuban economy, plots to overthrow and/or assassinate Castro, and "contingency plans" to blockade, bomb, or reinvade Cuba.

In addition, after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, new evidence available from Soviet archives suggested that Nikita Khrushchev's original explanation for shipping missiles to Cuba had been fundamentally true: the Soviet leader had never intended these weapons as a threat to the security of the United States, but rather considered their deployment a defensive move to protect his Cuban allies from American attacks and as a desperate effort to give the U.S.S.R. the appearance of equality in the nuclear balance of power.

JFK's covert war against Cuba had clearly contributed to instigating the missile crisis. Nonetheless, as the ExComm tapes reveal, when faced with the real likelihood of nuclear war, Kennedy used all his intellectual and political skill to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. The president helped steer American policy makers and the two superpowers away from a nuclear conflict. A hawk in public, he actually distrusted the military, was skeptical about military solutions to political problems, and was horrified by the thought of nuclear war. The confrontational JFK depicted by the revisionists is all but imperceptible during the secret ExComm meetings. The president measured each move and countermove with an eye toward averting a nuclear exchange—which he somberly declared would be "the final failure."

The published transcripts of these secret tapes provide essential insights into the ExComm decision-making process, but they also reflect the flaws in the tapes themselves: frequent interruptions, garbled and rambling exchanges, baffling noises, overlapping comments, conversational dead ends, and a great deal of repetition. By their very nature, transcripts must endeavor to present all the words and can be dense and impenetrable to the non-specialist. However, the condensed interpretive narrative in this book, about half the length of the original full-length version, seeks to bring these discussions to life as a clear, coherent story, making the essence of the discussions completely understandable to general readers and especially to young people.

The narrative format aims to transform a complex and often redundant primary source, the ExComm tapes, into a more usable secondary source by concentrating on essentials and citing only the indispensable material. Readers can follow themes, ideas, issues, and the role of specific individuals as never before possible. The key moments of stress, doubt, decision, resolution—and even humor—are, in effect, emphasized by separating them from the background chatter and repetition of the unedited tapes, helping the reader to grasp as completely and accurately as possible the meaning, intent, and human dimension of these spontaneous discussions. The participants, obviously, did not know how this potential nuclear showdown would turn out, and their uncertainty, strikingly captured in narrative form, often gives the discussions the nerve-wracking quality of a work of fiction. But, of course, this unique story—permanently documented on audiotape—is not fiction.

My experience with presidential tapes began soon after I became historian at the John F. Kennedy Library in 1977. I initially edited some of the president's recorded telephone conversations—my first in-depth experience listening to White House recordings. Then, in the early 1980s, as part of my preparation for conducting a series of oral history interviews on foreign policy in the Kennedy administration, I began listening to the Cuban missile crisis meeting tapes. The Kennedy Library was preparing for their eventual declassification, and I was almost certainly the first non-member of the ExComm to hear precisely what happened at all these meetings; I was definitely the first professional historian to hear all these tapes.

It is difficult to describe the intellectual and physical demands of working on these recordings. I sat for hours at a time, wearing headphones, in front of a Tandberg reel-to-reel tape deck, the state-of-theart equipment of the period, my foot on a pedal that allowed me to fast-forward, reverse, play, or stop the tape. The clunky and heavy Tandberg unit was difficult to move and operate; and, since it did not have a real-time timer, finding a specific moment on a tape could be incredibly frustrating. The first tape I played actually sounded like an FM radio station without frequency lock, the voices almost drowned out by intense background hiss. Dolby noise reduction appeared later in the 1980s, but the Kennedy Library never used this type of technology in order to avoid altering the originals. I listened to copies made directly from the White House originals.

To complicate the task even further, the recordings were also marred by distracting sounds: a smoker emptying his pipe into an ashtray on the table, water being poured from a pitcher into a glass, coughing, sneezing, nose-blowing and throat-clearing, the ringing of a telephone, the siren of an emergency vehicle passing on the street, the shouts of children at play on the White House grounds, and, most frequently, secondary conversations and people talking at the same time. In addition, there were persistent clanking noises on many tapes that sounded remarkably like a venting steam radiator. I checked the weather charts for that week and confirmed that it was too mild in Washington for White House radiators to have been overheating. To this day, I don't have a clue about the source of that exasperating noise.

These complications frequently required listening to the same words scores of times (in some cases, unfortunately, without success). Some voices were much harder to pick up because the speakers were seated at the opposite end of the table from the microphones concealed in wall fixtures behind the president's chair in the Cabinet Room. But, after a few very frustrating days, I began to develop an ear for the task and patience for the work. To my great relief, I also discovered that the first tape I played had not been typical. (Some tapes had likely deteriorated due to poor storage and preservation.) The project became more and more fascinating but always required absolute concentration (for example, I routinely disconnected my telephone). I quickly learned that missing even a second or two could alter both the speaker's intent and the historical record. There is a world of difference between someone saying "ever" as opposed to "never," or "I think" as opposed to "I don't think."

Reviewing these tapes required detailed knowledge of the Cold War era, familiarity with the views of the participants, the attentiveness to pick up even fragmentary remarks, and the ability to recognize voices. (I had interviewed many of the participants for Kennedy Library programs and was very familiar with most voices.) Some of the voices were distinctive, such as the Boston twang of the Kennedy brothers or the soft southern drawl of secretary of state Dean Rusk. However, the sound quality of each voice could vary from meeting to meeting depending on where each individual sat in relation to the microphone or even from slight imperfections in the speed at which the tape was recorded. The White House taping device was technically primitive by today's standards. McGeorge Bundy, for example, a member of Ex-Comm, listened to some tapes in the early 1980s and could not identify the voices of several of his former colleagues.

The ExComm discussions did not move forward with the momentum of a board meeting with a written agenda; rather, they plodded back and forth, with a great deal of repetition and many dead ends. Many participants often spoke in ungrammatical sentence fragments—no one more than JFK himself. They could be blindly self-righteous and cynical when discussing, for example, American covert actions against Cuba, but also remarkably idealistic in expressing moral doubts about a sneak attack on Cuba. Often, the most important decisions, such as choosing the blockade as the first step in the American response, happened without an explicit statement at any recorded meeting. Everyone simply recognized that the president had decided and acted accordingly.

Listening to these tapes, in any case, was the historian's ultimate fantasy—the chance to be the fly on the wall in one of the most dangerous moments in human history, and to know, within the technical limits of the recordings, exactly what happened. Even at the most frustrating moments, when I had to accept that I could not make out a key remark or exchange, I realized how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to study these one-of-a-kind historical records.

JFK's share of the responsibility for the onset of the crisis does not diminish his cautious and thoughtful leadership once the situation had reached a potentially fatal flashpoint. The ExComm tapes prove conclusively that John Kennedy played a decisive role in preventing the world from slipping into the nuclear abyss. If the ExComm decisions had been made by majority vote then war, very likely nuclear war, would almost certainly have been the result. The tapes reveal that a peaceful resolution was far from inevitable; the crisis could easily have ended in catastrophe despite the best intentions of leaders in Washington and Moscow. Of course, as we now know, JFK did have some essential help from his counterpart in the U.S.S.R. Khrushchev too, resisted pressure, especially from his ally Fidel Castro, to escalate the crisis.

There are, apparently, no Khrushchev tapes. The Kennedy tapes, however, present a unique opportunity to observe presidential leadership in the most perilous moment of the Cold War. Many presidents have faced extremely grave crises, but never before or since has the survival of human civilization been at stake in a few short weeks of dangerous deliberations, and never before or since have secret discussions such as these been recorded and preserved. And, given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis will hopefully remain the only "case study" of a full-scale nuclear showdown between military superpowers.

There is, unfortunately, no definitive explanation for why President Kennedy installed the first effective White House taping system. Evelyn Lincoln, JFK's personal secretary, recalled that the president was enraged after the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba when several advisers who had supported the plan in closed meetings claimed later to have opposed it; she also maintained that the president simply wanted accurate records for writing his memoirs. Robert Bouck, the Secret Service agent who installed the recording devices, claimed that the president asked him to set up the taping system but never gave a reason. It seems reasonable that Kennedy's decision did reflect a desire to create an accurate source for preparing his memoirs after he left the White House. These explanations, however, fail to explain why JFK did not begin taping for more than a year after the Bay of Pigs.

In the early summer of 1962, Bouck installed taping systems in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. The actual recording device was in the White House basement. The president did not have access to the tape recorder itself; that is, he could not personally press the play, record, stop, or rewind buttons. JFK could only turn the system on or off in the Oval Office by hitting a switch concealed in a pen socket on his desk, in a bookend near his favorite chair, or in a table in front of his desk. The Cabinet Room switch was installed on the underside of the conference table in front of JFK's chair. The Oval Office microphones were hidden in the knee well of his desk and in a table across the room; the Cabinet Room microphones were mounted on the outside wall directly behind JFK's chair in spaces that once held light fixtures. A separate Dictaphone taping system was later installed in the Oval Office, and possibly in the president's bedroom, to record telephone conversations.

Bouck and another agent maintained the recording system and changed the tapes. Since the reel-to-reel tapes could record for a maximum of about two hours, Bouck later installed a back-up tape machine which was automatically activated if the first machine ran out of tape. The agents put the tapes in a plain sealed envelope and turned them over to Mrs. Lincoln for storage.

On November 22, 1963, after receiving confirmation of the president's death in Texas, JFK's younger brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, instructed Bouck to disconnect the taping system. Two hundred forty-eight hours of meeting tapes and twelve hours of telephone conversations were eventually turned over to the John F. Kennedy Library. Between 1983 and 2001, all forty-three hours of tape from October 16, the day of the first ExComm meeting, through November 20, the day JFK lifted the blockade around Cuba, were gradually declassified.

RFK appears to have asked Evelyn Lincoln to transcribe some tapes soon after JFK's death, but Bouck does not believe that Lincoln did any transcribing. Eventually George Dalton, a junior naval officer detailed to the White House, using equipment supplied by Bouck, took over this task. However, a document found recently at the Kennedy Library proves that some transcripts, probably by Dalton, existed as early as August 9, 1963. On that date, Lincoln apparently turned over eighteen missile crisis transcripts to Robert Kennedy's secretary in the Justice Department—raising the possibility that RFK, and even JFK himself, might have seen these very rough transcripts or even listened to some of the tapes in 1963. (The "Dalton transcripts" remain classified.)

Since the Kennedy taping system was manually activated (not voice activated like Nixon's), it was easily derailed by human carelessness or error. JFK sometimes recorded trivial discussions, but he failed to record the critical Oval Office confrontation with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko during the first week of the crisis. He often neglected to turn the machine on until after a meeting had begun and sometimes forgot to turn it off so that the tape ran out. In one case, the tape was left running and recorded the White House cleaning crew.


Excerpted from The Week the World Stood Still by Sheldon M. Stern Copyright © 2005 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.

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Table of Contents

1 The JFK Cuban Missile Crisis tapes 1
2 The making of the Cuban Missile Crisis 11
The Cold War : JFK's crucible 11
The Cold War and Cuba 14
Nuclear confrontation in Cuba 18
The Kennedy paradox 23
Key members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council 29
3 The secret meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council 37
Epilogue : the November post-crisis 205
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