Memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Former Kennedy Dan Fenn and Author David Coleman weigh in on the 50th anniversary
- Duration 25:14
- Date Oct 19, 2012
Former Kennedy Dan Fenn and Author David Coleman weigh in on the 50th anniversary
Also in this playlist...
This transcript is automatically generated
Welcome to this special edition of the foxhole on your host James Rosen in Washington we devote our entire half hour today to a single subject.
A look back to fifty years ago this week.
And the thirteen days that comprise the Cuban missile crisis.
It was October 1962.
When president Kennedy and forced -- naval blockade around Cuba.
After the Central Intelligence Agency using state of the art aerial reconnaissance photography.
Have established that the Soviet Union had installed dozens of nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island of Cuba just ninety miles from American soil.
With the two superpowers mobilized -- high alert the crisis -- the closest that the world ever came to nuclear war.
Some advisors to the president -- urging a full scale invasion of Cuba ready to risk a nuclear exchange with the Soviets all the -- the crisis was defused through back channel diplomacy.
With the Soviets agreeing to remove their missiles.
From Cuba in exchange for the US withdrawing its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
One of the last living White House staff aides to president Kennedy is -- friend who later became founding director.
Of the John F Kennedy presidential library that was in 1972.
Dan friend and joins us from Harvard University today.
Thank you so much for being with a stand.
Well it should pleasure damaged it's a very important moment in our history.
Now we want to go straight to the first question mice by noting in advance that you didn't work professionally.
As a war on the Cuban missile crisis but you were there in the Kennedy White House you dealt many times with president Kennedy.
Tell us about the atmosphere before and during those thirteen days.
It's a very very interesting question the White House dad.
In those days is so different from today they.
Total White House compliment.
Clooney clerical people and liars like the president is -- him physical -- -- was 77.
-- be in and it was a very cohesive group.
But the -- as one of the interesting aspects of the missile crisis was how closely held those discussions were.
Lee white one of the three -- -- advisors president Kennedy had his office was upstairs.
He walked down most is to -- that president.
In the middle of the crisis.
Can out -- for the first time said goalie go back upstairs call take you when you couldn't see him.
-- -- had no idea.
What was going on an -- he was right there in the building and a member of this very close and smallest.
And has brought -- attention for asks Dan if you would once it became known what was going on what was it like in the Kennedy White House.
Well obviously a lot of tension.
-- During his speech on the -- -- second when it became.
Publicly known and -- everybody was.
To seal the rest of this is C and the world to see this was.
Going to come out and -- member.
Having lunch in the White House mess.
The middle of that thing.
Pierre Salinger -- Press Secretary came downstairs.
And -- said -- care what was gonna -- it's gonna.
And they sort of cocked his head to this guy and put his hand to his ear to -- listen for incoming missiles and says everything is about those same.
So that was said and some setting gallows humor along with them along -- -- the tension.
-- -- know she did.
Good to -- let me do this then I wanna play a clip here four Americans of a certain age.
One of the scariest moments of their lives was the televised speech the president Kennedy delivered to the nation.
On the evening of October 221962.
Each of these missiles enjoy.
Is capable of striking Washington DC.
The Panama Canal.
Or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States.
In Central America.
Or in the Caribbean area.
-- -- not yet completed.
Appear to be designed for an immediate range ballistic missiles.
Capable of traveling more than twice as -- And that's capable of striking.
Most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere.
Scary stuff indeed this week I asked my Twitter followers who were over the age of fifty to tweet me their memories of the crisis quote in middle school and petrified -- -- WM.
-- the world coming to an end any second live near Oak Ridge, Tennessee thought we'd be first to be bombed.
Rod Brooks tweeted also remember alert siren testing became very frequent anti aircraft missile batteries near Norfolk visible to public.
And Brian mcdaniels tweeted.
Had just enlisted in the US air force was -- Lachlan San Antonio just knew we would be a major target if the missiles were launched.
Dan fan in this singularly frightening time what personal qualities.
Did president Kennedy bringing to the table if you think enabled him to navigate this crisis successfully.
Well you lose.
Cool -- he was what I see was.
He as did if you listen to the -- Sawyer you read that transcript.
You find what he's doing is asking questions.
To the Bay of Pigs which -- took so personally he said the big mistake that I made was I didn't ask that question so I should've asked and -- repaired that did damage.
But and navigation to blow asking questions and probing not to seek -- consensus but to get information.
He was also decisive -- -- commander in chief.
When -- -- offered publicly to trade that Jupiter missiles and Turkey.
-- -- his missiles in Cuba.
That whole executive committee.
Was supposed to it.
Like Lincoln with the emancipation.
He he had decided that is the way.
That we would go -- -- that resolve the crisis because.
It gave Kurdish.
The -- vessels and -- that were stationed in Turkey it's my understanding that the president's military advisors had determined.
Perhaps a year earlier were largely obsolete so really didn't cost us anything except in kind of go.
Court of public opinion to remove those missiles you -- just mentioned the Kennedy tapes there's something like 257 hours of them that compares to the 3700.
Hours that say Richard Nixon recorded.
When we listen to the Kennedy tapes then we can sometimes discern it seems to me some friction between the president -- brother attorney general Bobby Kennedy on one hand.
And the top brass at the Pentagon on the other hand what was that relationship like between the Kennedys and the joint chiefs.
The -- she said took a very strong and simple and direct position right from the start.
That the only thing to do is to bomb and to invade.
And the president.
Would you would ask -- you know what do you think direction response would be what do you think we'll have -- in Berlin where they've.
Dave -- threaten to move on Berlin.
And days said -- nothing.
You know it was very interesting because I don't work with -- senior military here at the Kennedy school.
And the big difference between the military today and Curtis -- and some of the other.
Joint chiefs at that the missile crisis is is enormous.
Americans can be confident and proud of our military today they're much why is there and and more prudent them.
Then those people -- and those days.
Dan we've only got us about thirty seconds left.
Is there -- thing that president Kennedy personally said to you that.
Sticks in your mind today.
No it didn't say anything to me but he said something very important.
To his Press Secretary when it was all over.
He went to -- sound -- said.
This is not our victory.
This is a joint victory of two nations.
We did it together.
Don't let anyone go out there and say this was America's victory.
And since the important mid term elections were about ten days away.
And certain -- the temptation.
To crow about this was great.
This was quite remarkable.
He said he said blunt critic shows that is hard liners to and we don't want to make things anymore and -- for -- code for.
For him than they already are.
And it's a very different world as you -- but there's a lot the remains the same including the presence of nuclear weapons here.
And in Moscow our thanks to Dan fan of Harvard University one of the last surviving White House staff aides to president Kennedy.
Very kind of began to take the time to visit us on the fox hole today after a short break I'll be joined by the author of a brand new book on the Cuban missile crisis who may use.
-- tapes from the Kennedy Oval Office that have only just recently been declassified you'll hear these tapes next in the fox hole.
Welcome back to the fox -- on your host James -- in Washington and we are looking back fifty years ago this week to the thirteen days that comprised.
The Cuban missile crisis.
President Kennedy and the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev have had a rocky relationship.
At their summit in Vienna in June 1961.
Shortly after Kennedy's inauguration Kennedy would later say the Soviet premier quote just beat the hell out of me.
Still the two leaders working through intermediaries during the Cuban missile crisis.
Were eventually able to resolve it by agreeing on a mutual withdrawal of nuclear weapons from countries.
There -- right near each other the Soviets from Cuba the US missiles from Turkey.
I ask some of my Twitter followers Twitter followers excuse me who were over the age of fifty to read to tweet me this week.
-- their memories of the Cuban missile crisis here's a few more.
I was twelve and remember a scary discussion of whether the missile range could reach the GE.
In Carbondale Ohio writes -- you do for us.
We lived in northern Kentucky.
Sassy -- writes to me I remember staring out the window of my sixth grade classroom scared that the world was about to end.
And Gail how -- twelve tweets I lived in Southern California and many families made their own bomb shelters underground.
Fully stocked for a -- supplies.
Well in popular memory the Cuban missile crisis ended after thirteen days -- that agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev.
But there is an accomplished historian who's here to tell us otherwise David G Coleman is the author of the fourteenth today.
He is a scholar at the university of Virginia's Miller Center and thank you for joining us David.
What happened on the fourteenth -- On the thirteenth day crucial capitulated he issued a radio -- Costas said right we agree we can remove these missiles from Cuba.
But the situation on the ground was still much the same -- missiles was still in Cuba.
The Soviet technicians and they're about 42000 Soviet troops still in Cuba -- -- nuclear submarines there they -- long range nuclear bombers and their tactical nuclear weapons so essentially Khrushchev had promised.
But Soviets had -- before.
And say Kennedy on the fourteenth day -- first priorities to try and work out.
Is this -- of a trick they just tricking us in order to buy time so they can actually get the missiles ready to fire at us.
And so that was their first priority in those days immediately following the -- -- -- my understanding is that for the entire month of October they remained in some doubt as to what the Soviet intentions were.
Right Kennedy is through this entire period even up through the end of November is trying to wake one of the -- is trying to do here.
And there are very tense negotiations going on off to the thirteen days trying to work -- Can we get these long range bombers out of Cuba for instance -- these were not.
-- quite as well as the missiles that these could easily strike large portions of southeast United States.
And so they've their very tense negotiations about whether or not we didn't get them out and -- real discussions about do we have to.
Launch military strikes in order take -- the F fields what happens all those missiles were they eventually transported back to the Soviet Union the missiles were there word interestingly.
When no discussion about -- about taking these out of that air strikes take up the missiles.
They thought they'd found most of them they finally have found 33 there are actually 42 days so there are at least not -- -- they now had no idea where they would.
In the -- after the missile crisis what actually happens is the Soviets put these on the big ships take them out and American surveillance planes are allowed to photograph them.
But there's widespread skepticism amongst particularly Republican critics this is leading into election.
We think that the Kennedy administration's being -- that there were many more than 42 that maybe this latest hiding -- in -- and so becomes a real hot political issue for Kennedy.
Even though this was such a special and unique event -- episode.
The Cuban missile crisis that the kinds of questions that sure that you've told us that that policy makers on both sides were confronting on the fourteenth day.
Are really classical arms control issues verification.
-- assembly right that's exactly right there were trying to get weapons inspectors in on the ground in Cuba that didn't work because the Cubans wouldn't let.
Any Americans in particular than anyone else just wander around -- territory.
And so then they had to come -- the next best things there was no real satellite program at least that can be used for this just yet.
But they were sending in surveillance planes you know -- -- and every day for the first few days Kennedy is having to decide.
Whether to send American pilots in harm's way because those planes -- getting shot at.
Now in your research how long did it take you to write this book.
Several he has had to -- -- several years -- search you made reference.
-- two a number of the Kennedy Oval Office recordings -- you drew heavily on the 257 hours of recordings the Kennedy made most of them in the Oval Office but also against.
The National Security Council and some other locations where he was doing some taping.
We've got a few of the clips that that you used it in your book these have never been played on television or the Internet as far as I know all you have them on your site.
On the first we want to play is a conversation from October 291962.
The thirteenth day.
Between the president and one of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the Marine Corps comment -- -- general David should.
That was president Kennedy talking with the president Kennedy talking with the Marine Corps commandant general David -- In October of 1962 David Coleman you relied on that tape among others for your research for your book the fourteenth day.
What do you make having -- so many tapes and transcribe them yourself.
Of the relationship between Kennedy in the military very difficult and that is actually want the perfect examples that particular conversation.
-- talking about the possibility of tactical nuclear war in Cuba and it's not an academic out of argument at that point because.
The Americans had photographed nuclear capable short range rockets in Cuba.
They knew that was there the joint chiefs still recommending in a nation at that point and that the Kennedy really signified that -- the gap between his thinking in the joint chiefs.
Because the United States and the Soviet Union were.
I'm so morally and each other's throats throughout the Cold War and particularly in this period there was a real issue of trust.
About how you how you discern when you should trust the Russians -- Soviets when they're saying something hope when you should know that you shouldn't.
And president Kennedy wrestled with that and we're going to hear from another recording.
The president speaking on October 29 again the thirteenth day of the Cuban missile -- Cuban missile crisis.
-- admiral George Anderson let's listen to that tape.
We're back with David Coleman author of the fourteenth day so was president Kennedy -- -- -- surmise -- that discussion that the Russians to deceive their own ambassador to United States about the installation of the missiles in Cuba.
Well ambassadors away -- brought to life of the country.
Knowing that your life to -- and was not fully informed as far as we know on what was happening.
And you have to remember that two days off to Kennedy was first shown photos.
The Soviet foreign minister was in the Oval Office telling -- -- we are not sending missiles to Cuba.
He Kennedy did not telling I have to -- -- in the destroy all that that the Kennedy was instructive this was a foreign minister of lying to.
Impacted not only the Kennedys.
And and and and that and president Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson but it seems to me US policy makers for perhaps a generational more.
It was such a searing event and that's the scary one.
And we have one work tape that I wanna play which I think shows.
How the Cuban missile crisis.
Affected the mindset of top US policy makers particularly where budget appropriations are concerned.
And and military military expenditures here is president Kennedy speaking with his defense secretary Robert MacNamara.
On December 51962.
Quite some time after the supposed and of the Cuban missile crisis let's listen.
Earlier that you are the important thing that -- Fire.
I think don't believe we can.
Author editor and run the risk of having him.
Are active payroll we are part of any reasonable person would say every corner -- people -- reporting -- there.
It's been completed -- and it would be -- available.
That we have.
Will it deter.
Will the buying of all of these nuclear weapons and warheads actually deter the Soviets from acting aggressively that was the essential question the president asked his Defense Secretary.
What is the fact that Kennedy asked that question.
Tell us about his -- His mindset was that.
Nuclear weapons probably hit him and he was in a position of having deterrents work on him so he was very good at putting himself in the other person's shoes.
And so he himself was skeptical about the value of nuclear weapons because -- since China briefing books he'd been shot and what he would have to do with people who will break out.
And so he is very skeptical about this Robert Mac -- are on the other hand even though he later became a nuclear abolitionist and campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons at this point is.
His job is to make short that.
Not finally do -- we have so we -- he had been out of European partners think we're safe where there's a nuclear umbrella to exactly right and Japan as well so it's all about perception yet Japan Taiwan and other countries as well.
It is it.
Is it right is it proper to draw also a link between.
The Cuban missile crisis the way it unfolded the -- it it it it brought.
To the president and his national security team.
And the decisions he very shortly thereafter started to make about a far away place called Vietnam.
Yeah -- there's.
It's very interesting to see how Kennedy made decisions and the Cuban missile crisis is kind of the poster child for -- -- station making.
But if they -- actually look at the period often it becomes very instructive because Kennedys making a whole series of decisions about what is and is not with -- people.
And what you see Rick I've -- -- again is Kennedy like to keep his options open.
He did not like to get boxed in he had been boxed in with the Cuban missile crisis because he had told the cities do not do this.
And so he was trying to avoid that for the rest of his presidency.
And when it comes to Vietnam he was gay and keeping his options open.
He -- -- talking about trying to get some troops out of there as well -- at the same time this escalating the number of Americans who were in Vietnam at the time it just if you if we -- to look at it in terms of a pure.
All -- line.
On a on a grid.
It would show that the number of of US advisors and troops that were being committed to Vietnam.
Open until the day president Kennedy was killed.
Was a straight line upward for exactly goes up to about 161000 by the end of his presidency.
And -- so do you think from that we can safely draw any conclusions about how he would have been conducted.
Himself in in that limited regarding Vietnam had he lived.
I don't know because it gets complicated by that -- -- -- so the month before he dies he's actually talking with were brought it back tomorrow and this -- plan actually to bring out 5000 troops.
I don't think Kennedy by the time he died put in motion a clear plan of action for Vietnam.
The number of -- was certainly going up he was certainly committing the United States more and more in -- but at the same time he like to keep his options open.
Some of the -- that activities as does his brother Robert Kennedy.
So actually the policy isn't sick even though it was heading towards high number of people -- We only have just about thirty seconds left David.
I gather you come away from your study of the Cuban missile crisis with a certain degree of admiration for president Kennedy and his decision making abilities.
And yet this year also brings us a memoir by a an intern who was eighteen years old at that time.
And who according to her account the president he -- on on on mrs.
Kennedy's bed and so on and she told other sordid tales.
The -- -- the peace with others still other witnesses and people who knew the president personally.
But what if you balance that altogether what kind of judgment you make about the man in his character.
Well the bigger question there is its character and governments.
And if he was certainly floor this absolutely no question about that on a lot of the issues I look at which are very much policy -- and he was very careful about his decisions -- sometimes you make good decisions sometimes make bad decisions one of the other things are told about the book is him ordering the CIA spy on American journalists.
-- sounds very much like Richard Nixon something Nixon exactly exactly and not entirely legal to say the least.
So he certainly mixed on his record but when it comes to decision making at least in this particular episode.
He kept things safe.
But there are very good questions about should they've been in that position in the first place.
Author David Coleman historian with the university of Virginia's Miller Center and the author of the fourteenth day a brand new book about the Cuban missile crisis that makes.
Good use of freshly declassified.
Kennedy Oval Office recordings.
I wonder what direct your attention to the foxnews.com.
Website where you can find on -- All opinion section my -- -- About the Cuban missile crisis I spoke to a few other veterans of the crisis and the Kennedy administration you can read what they have to say on the opinion page of foxnews.com.
In my op Ed.
Thank you all for joining us our thanks to Dan fan of Harvard University won the last surviving staff aides to president Kennedy.
And our thanks to David Coleman we'll see you two weeks from now here.
In the fox hole.