We will be reading a lot in the coming days about the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the wake of the death of Fidel Castro. My new book, The Tunnels has lengthy (and quite revealing and surprising) sections on that episode, based on JFK’S tapes and recently declassified documents, as it partly overlapped with–and had an influence on–the main focus of the book, the historic NBC film on escapes under the Berlin Wall that JFK tried to kill. Most people today probably believe that the media of that day hailed Kennedy’s handling of secrecy during that crisis as it enabled him to help push the two superpowers off the brink of nuclear war. Actually, as my book discloses, there was a great deal of push back from the press.
During the missile crisis, Kennedy and his spokesmen misled or lied to the press on numerous occasions during the many days of top-secret discussions, even claiming at one point that he was ill and this caused a changed in his travel plans. JFK, contrary to his media friendly image, actually distrusted or hated the press as much as nearly any previous president. When the crisis ended peacefully, some in the media accepted the need for misleading the press, given the potential for nuclear conflict, but in the days that followed more criticism was expressed. Many resented JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger’s repeated requests–really, demands–for self-censorship during the crisis.
Pentagon spokesman Arthur Sylvester set off a firestorm when he admitted that the administration’s control of information was even tighter than during World War II, yet defended it, due to “the kind of world we live in.” It was important for the nation to speak with “one voice to your adversary.” He used a loaded new term in speaking favorably of government “management” of the news.
The New York Times declared in an editorial that “management” or “control” of the news “is censorship described by a sweeter term.” The Times’ legendary Arthur Krock opined that “direct and deliberate action has been enforced more cynically and boldly” by this White House “than by any previous administration when the U.S. was not at war.” The Washington Star called Sylvester’s comments, “truly sinister.” And many others joined in.
Sylvester’s views were largely shared at the White House, and one can easily imagine President Trump’s support today in a similar atmosphere. Kennedy himself had used the phrase “news management,” and Salinger believed that disinformation and even lies were justifiable measures in a conflict in which the enemy had the advantage of operating in secret. Privately, JFK admitted to his friend Ben Bradlee, now editing Newsweek, that the U.S. had indeed “lied” to the press during the Cuba crisis.
The White House asked Sylvester to walk back his comments–but just a bit. There was no real backtracking or apology. Just weeks earlier JFK had managed to kill Daniel Schorr’s CBS special on the Berlin tunnels, and got NBC to postpone, perhaps axe, its own special. For much more: see The Tunnels.