Friday, October 19, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis: Day Four

Day four of the Cuban Missile Crisis was filled with further conversation about the pros and cons of a naval blockade versus an air strike.

Historians today have a fantastic resource in the White House recordings from this time period. Kennedy, like his successors, utilized a recording system and those recordings have been made available to the public. The following video includes audio from the October 18th meeting between Kennedy and his advisors:

This conversation about whether an air strike or a blockade would be more effective continued as Kennedy met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as Bobby Kennedy convened the members of Ex-Comm without Kennedy that afternoon.

Perhaps the most noteworthy event of the 19th, day four, continues a confrontation that began the previous day between President Kennedy and General Curtis LeMay of the Joint Chiefs. The following conversation was also recorded and made available with other White House recordings from the Kennedy administration:  
General LeMay: There's one other factor that I didn't mention that's not quite in our field, [which] is the political factor. But you invited us to comment on this as one time. And that is that we have a had a talk about Cuba and the SAM [surface-to-air missiles] sites down there. And you have made some pretty strong statements about their being defensive and that we would take action against offensive weapons. I think that a blockade and political talk would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And I'm sure a lot of our own citizens could feel that way, too. In other words, you're in a pretty bad fix at the present time.  
President Kennedy: What did you say?  
General LeMay: You're in a pretty bad fix.  
President Kennedy: You're in there with me. Personally.
This exchange with General LeMay and the private meeting the Joint Chiefs requested with him further signified to Kennedy that his greatest allies for a blockade were Robert McNamara, Bobby Kennedy and Ted Sorensen. 

Unfortunately, this wasn't the only moment of tension between President Kennedy and General LeMay that day. While Kennedy sat down with the Joint Chiefs, LeMay continued advocating for an immediate air strike. In the process of making his case for the air strike, LeMay was critical of the blockade idea. He said that if the United States went with a blockade it would be "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich."

The single most sensitive topic to many in Washington, including Kennedy, was that of appeasement. Kennedy had written his dissertation on the topic and was no stranger to appeasement and World War I. That LeMay would take this course with Kennedy to convince him to approve an air strike was, to put it mildly, a low blow. Kennedy's anger the day prior was nothing compared his anger following that Friday morning meeting with the Joint Chiefs. However, the encounter would serve to tip the balance away from the Joint Chiefs. Ted Sorensen wrote about this in his memoir:
"The President coolly held them off. After the tense meeting, encountering me in the hall outside his office as he was about to leave on another scheduled campaign trip, he was still seething. 'You and Bobby have to pull this thing together. It's falling apart,' he said, knowing, I believe, that I would work for the blockade option, not the air strike. Certainly, from our work together on the Berlin crises, he knew that I preferred any possible diplomatic resolution to military confrontation."
Following his meeting with the Joint Chiefs, as Sorensen wrote, Kennedy boarded Air Force One for a whirlwind weekend campaign trip on behalf of various congressional candidates. Kennedy had kept his regularly scheduled meetings and appearances to prevent panic among the American people, particularly the American press.

Kennedy had not made a decision about the blockade as of Friday night. His schedule reflects how he went about making a decision that weekend:

It would not be an easy decision to come to, despite, or perhaps in spite of, having recommendations from each of his advisors and the members of Ex-Comm.
Nearly every memoir and account of this day includes mention of General LeMay's remarks. The most notable being the account of Special Counsel Ted Sorensen in his recent book Counselor: A Life At the Edge of History (pages 292-93).

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