Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

Averting the Apocalypse

Oct. 27, 1962

At 4 p.m., the Joint Chiefs recommended to President John F. Kennedy that the U.S. attack Cuba within 36 hours and destroy the Soviet missiles we had detected, believing — as the CIA estimated — the nuclear warheads had not yet been delivered. It would be a huge attack: the first day's air strike would be 1,080 sorties. This would be followed by an invasion; we had 180,000 troops mobilized in southeastern U.S. ports. We didn't learn until 30 years later that the Soviets already had 162 warheads in Cuba, and Fidel Castro had already recommended to Nikita Khrushchev that nuclear weapons be used if the U.S. invaded. That's how close we came. Events were slipping out of control.

When Kennedy first learned of the missiles, on Oct. 16, he knew he had to get them out of Cuba. For a month before, Soviet officials had told us no missiles had been delivered to Cuba and none would be. Clearly the Soviets had introduced them under the cloak of deception, and if they got away with that, they might believe they could do it elsewhere. That day Kennedy brought together his top advisers and told us to meet until we came to an agreement on what course to take.

By Oct. 21 one group of advisers thought we should try to force the missiles out without military action, that is by a quarantine — we called it a quarantine because a blockade is an act of war — and the other group recommended an attack. Kennedy asked General Walter Sweeney, chief of the Tactical Air Command, if he was certain he could take out all the missiles. Sweeney replied, "We have the finest fighter force in the world; we have trained for this kind of operation, and they would destroy the great majority. But there might be one or two or five left." What President would knowingly take the risk of exposing millions of Americans to attack by not destroying one, two or five nuclear weapons? At that moment I knew Kennedy would decide on a quarantine.

Even so, by Oct. 27 Khrushchev was not giving any sign of backing down. We met all day with the President, split between those who believed we should attack and those who thought we should negotiate. The Joint Chiefs pushed for an invasion. Khrushchev had sent a hard-line offer that morning. But Kennedy decided simply to take the Soviet leader up on his offer of the previous night, proposing to withdraw the missiles if the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev accepted on Sunday. He was so worried that war would break out in the six hours it took to encode and transmit a message from the Kremlin to the White House, he broadcast his response on Moscow public radio.

McNamara was J.F.K.'s Secretary of Defense