October 16, 2017

55 Years Ago: When Kennedy Faced Off With ‘Mad Bomber’

jfk cuba

A couple of weeks back,  I looked at how the Cuban Missile Crisis–which developed 55 years ago this week–was almost as much about Berlin as it was Cuba. There’s a fair amount in the narrative of my new book The Tunnels about the crisis, and how JFK handled it, as it almost overlapped with his (and Dean Rusk’s) attempt to kill the landmark NBC special on an escape tunnel under the Wall.

I have never been a Kennedy fan boy (any of them) but not a hater, either. And I must say, as much as I have been exposed to the missile crisis, going back to living through it as a kid, that in perusing all of the transcripts of meetings related to it for the book my admiration for JFK grew a good deal. He was, indeed, often the “coolest man in the room,” as I write. Just one sample from the book:

By nightfall on October 18 President Kennedy thought his executive committee, or ExComm, had reached a consensus on blockading Cuba without firing a shot in anger, but the next day this began to unravel. An early morning meeting with the Joint Chiefs, who still strongly advocated a preemptive U.S. strike, tested JFK’s resolve. McGeorge Bundy had shifted to that shoot-first position overnight and it seemed that everyone’s emotions were dangerously fluid.

The President continued to play the Berlin card. Any attack on Cuba, he maintained, would give the Soviets “a clear line to take Berlin….We would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin.” European allies would be livid—they cared passionately about Berlin and their own security but didn’t “give a damn” about Cuba. And if the Soviets moved on Berlin this would leave him “only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons—which is a hell of an alternative—and begin a nuclear exchange….When we recognize the importance of Berlin to Europe, and recognize the importance of our allies to us, that’s what has made this thing be a dilemma for three days….” Remember, he added, the “argument for the [Cuba] blockade was that what we want to do is to avoid, if we can, nuclear war….”

Rarely have three words—if we can—signified so much.

General Curtis LeMay, the most hot-blooded hawk of all—one of his nicknames was “The Mad Bomber”—opposed a blockade on grounds that it would “lead right into war.” He also called it “weak” and compared it to “the appeasement at Munich.” He wanted a full bombing assault as soon as possible. LeMay addressed Kennedy, “You’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”

Kennedy, angry, asked LeMay to repeat that. Then JFK replied with a laugh, “You’re in there with me!”

After the meeting Kennedy, always skeptical of advice from the military, said to an aide, referring to LeMay and his ilk, “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

Still, the press and the public were kept in the dark. A Pentagon spokesman stated in response to a media query, “The Pentagon has no information indicating the presence of offensive weapons in Cuba.”