The United States had before it two conflicting messages from Chairman Khrushchev, each proposing different ends. Yet, despite the conflicting messages, the moment of greatest danger came when the United States learned that a U-2 pilot had been shot down while on a reconnaissance mission over Cuba.
Khrushchev's second letter, received Saturday morning, did not mention his previous letter and instead referenced the United States' missiles in Turkey. Khrushchev's proposal in the second letter was an exchange of sorts--U.S. missiles in Turkey removed in exchange for the dismantling of missiles in Cuba. This proposal, like that in the first, asked the United States to promise not to attack or invade Cuba. However, unlike the first letter, the second said the Soviet Union would also promise not to invade or attack the U.S. missile sites in Turkey.
A portion of the letter received by Kennedy from Khrushchev:
"I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive. We are willing to carry this out and to make this pledge in the United Nations. Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States, for its part, considering the uneasiness and anxiety of the Soviet State, will remove its analogous means from Turkey. Let us reach agreement as to the period of time needed by you and by us to bring this about. And, after that, persons entrusted by the United Nations Security Council could inspect on the spot the fulfillment of the pledges made. Of course, the permission of the Governments of Cuba and of Turkey is necessary for the entry into those countries of these representatives and for the inspection of the fulfillment of the pledge made by each side. Of course it would be best if these representatives enjoyed the confidence of the Security Council, as well as yours and mine--both the United States and the Soviet Union--and also that of Turkey and Cuba. I do not think it would be difficult to select people who would enjoy the trust and respect of all parties concerned.
"We, in making this pledge, in order to give satisfaction and hope of the peoples of Cuba and Turkey and to strengthen their confidence in their security, will make a statement within the framework of the Security Council to the effect that the Soviet Government gives a solemn promise to respect the inviolability of the borders and sovereignty of Turkey, not to interfere in its internal affairs, not to invade Turkey, not to make available our territory as a bridgehead for such an invasion, and that it would also restrain those who contemplate committing aggression against Turkey, either from the territory of the Soviet Union or from the territory of Turkey's other neighboring states.
"The United States Government will make a similar statement within the framework of the Security Council regarding Cuba. It will declare that the United States will respect the inviolability of Cuba's borders and its sovereignty, will pledge not to interfere in its internal affairs, not to invade Cuba itself or make its territory available as a bridgehead for such an invasion, and will also restrain those who might contemplate committing aggression against Cuba, either from the territory of the United States or from the territory of Cuba's other neighboring states."President Kennedy and the members of Ex-Comm were understandably baffled by the change of tone in the second letter and the divergence from the proposal presented in the first letter.
|Major Rudolph Anderson, Jr., USAF|
It was then, in the words of Castro, "that the moment of maximum tension occurred."
The United States was now faced with two very real possibilities: First, the United States would have to respond to the downed American pilot, and second, any action on their part might result in a Soviet invasion of Turkey. Both the shooting down of the pilot and Khrushchev's second letter were now dangerously intertwined.
At one point during the lengthy Ex-Comm meeting on the 27th, President Kennedy left the room and Secretary of Defense McNamara presented four propositions to the members of the committee:
Robert McNamara: Let me state my propositions over again. First, we must be in a position to attack quickly. We've been fired on today. We are going to send surveillance aircraft tomorrow. Those are going to be fired on without question. We're going to respond. You can't do this very long. We're going to lose airplanes, and we'll be shooting up Cuba quite a bit, but we're going to lose airplanes every day. So you can't just maintain this position very long. So we must be prepared to attack Cuba--quickly. That's the first proposition. Now the second proposition. When we attack Cuba we're going to have to attack with an all-out attack.... I personally believe that this is almost certain to lead to an invasion. I won't say certain to, but almost certain to lead to an invasion-
Douglas Dillon: Unless you get a cease-fire around the world-
Robert McNamara: That's the second proposition.
McGeorge Bundy: Or a general [nuclear] war.
Robert McNamara: The third proposition is that we do this, and leave those missiles in Turkey, the Soviet Union may, and I think probably will, attack the Turkish missiles. Now the fourth proposition is, if the Soviet Union attacks the Turkish missiles, we must respond. We cannot allow a military response by NATO.Since the discovery of the missile sites in Cuba, President Kennedy was well aware of the threat to American pilots who would be conducting reconnaissance flights. This was, without question, the worst case scenario and the timing came at the worst possible moment of the crisis. Kennedy, to his credit, did not have a knee-jerk reaction to the news. He insisted that no response occur until the Air Force could determine that there was not a mechanical failure or pilot error that caused the death of Major Anderson. This reaction, rather than listening to the immediacy voiced by his Joint Chiefs, gave the United States the added hours needed to secure a deal with Chairman Khrushchev. Had Kennedy reacted differently, the course of human history might have been radically different.
As the meeting of Ex-Comm wore on, the State Department submitted a draft of a letter responding to Chairman Khrushchev's second letter. It was met with heavy objection. Bobby Kennedy then suggested, and President Kennedy agreed, that they could go forward ignoring the second letter and responding to the first. Bobby Kennedy and Ted Sorensen went to work drafting the response.
After making a few changes, President Kennedy approved the following letter:
Letter from President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev
October 27, 1962,
I have read your letter of October 26th with great care and welcome the statement of your desire to seek a prompt solution to the problem. The first things that needs to be done, however, is for work to cease on offensive missile bases in Cuba and for all weapons systems in Cuba capable of offensive use to be rendered inoperable, under effective United Nations arrangements.
Assuming this is done promptly, I have given my representatives in New York instructions that will permit them to work out this weekend--in cooperation with the Acting Secretary General and your representative--an arrangement for a permanent solution to the Cuban problem along the lines suggested in your letter of October 26th. As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals--which seem generally acceptable as I understand them--are as follows:
You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision; and undertake, with suitable safeguards, to halt the further introduction of such weapons systems in to Cuba.
We on our part, would agree--upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations to ensure the carrying out and continuation of these commitments--(a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect and (b) to give assurances against an invasion of Cuba. I am confident that other nations of the Western Hemisphere would be prepared to do likewise.
If you give your representatives similar instructions, there is no reason why we should not be able to complete these arrangements and announce them to the world within a couple of days. The effect of such a settlement on easing world tensions would enable us to work toward a more general arrangement regarding "other armaments," as proposed in your second letter which you made public. I would like to say again that the United States is very much interested in reducing tensions and halting the arms race; and if your letter signifies that you are prepared to discuss a detente affecting NATO and the Warsaw Pact, we are quite prepared to consider with our allies any useful proposals.
But the first ingredient, let me emphasize, is the cessation of work on missile sites in Cuba and measures to render such weapons inoperable, under effective international guarantees. The continuation of this threat, or a prolonging of this discussion concerning Cuba by linking these problems to the broader questions of European and world security, would surely lead to an intensified situation on the Cuban crisis and a grave risk to the peace of the world. For this reason I hope we can quickly agree along the lines outlined in this letter and in your letter of October 26th.
John F. KennedyWhile the crisis, even the fate of the world, hinged on Nikita Khrushchev's response, Bobby Kennedy met with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin to express his concern that the threat was worsening and that they had arrived at the final chance for diplomacy.
President Kennedy and the members of Ex-Comm went to bed on night of the 27th not knowing what the world would look like the next day.
Khrushchev's second letter is available in its entirety from Mt. Holyoke.
Castro's quotation and a further discussion of the killing of Major Anderson can be found in Castro: My Life (page 277).
Excerpt of Ex-Comm conversation is taken from Wilson's Ghost (page 78).