50 years after Cuban missile crisis: closer than you thought to World War III
Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, many people find it hard to believe that the confrontation could have pushed the US and Soviet Union to nuclear war. Robert F. Kennedy’s newly released papers remind us why this was the most dangerous moment in recorded history.
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As both sides moved military pieces on the chessboard toward the precipice of nuclear war, both President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev also intensified the search for an alternative. In a private letter from Khrushchev to JFK that arrived on Oct. 26, Khrushchev admonished Kennedy not to “pull on the end of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied.” RFK’s notes highlighted that phrase.Skip to next paragraph
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At the final hour, both leaders made hard choices. They included concessions that neither man would have been willing to countenance until coming face to face with the real prospect that they could be principal actors in a process that would lead to sudden death for hundreds of millions of people. The president chose his brother as the emissary to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to convey a last and final offer. Khrushchev accepted those terms and the crisis ended without war. In RFK’s notes preparing for his fateful meetings with Ambassador Dobrynin, he stressed that “the purpose to talking...was to emphasize danger.”
What resolved the crisis was an imaginative combination of public deal, private ultimatum, and secret sweetener. If Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles, the US would pledge not to invade Cuba. Privately, RFK warned that unless Khrushchev announced within 24 hours that the missiles would be withdrawn, the US would act unilaterally to eliminate them. Secretly, he said that while there could be no official deal promising such, if the Soviet missiles were withdrawn from Cuba, within six months US missiles in Turkey would be gone.
The further away from those 13 days we get, the harder it is for many people to believe that a confrontation over missiles in Cuba or Turkey could have pushed the United States and the Soviet Union to nuclear war. RFK’s papers allow us to peer over his shoulder in the rush of events to remind us why historians agree that this was indeed the most dangerous moment in recorded history.