Cuba and Berlin: Recalling Two Tense Weeks in October
Thirty-five years ago, Sunday, Oct. 14, a U-2 spy plane, monitoring suspicious Soviet installations in Cuba, discovered medium-range missiles being installed. That precipitated the Kennedy-Khrushchev Cuban missile crisis, which was, for me, the Berlin crisis.
On the strength of White House background briefings that the confrontation over Cuba might have repercussions in Berlin, CBS sent me from Bonn to the beleaguered city 110 miles inside East Germany. Without being very specific on the telephone, an editor suggested that anything up to an all-out Soviet blockade could be expected.
From Berlin I reported that the West German authorities hoped that President Kennedy would not allow himself to be baited into an adventure in Cuba that would tempt the Russians into an adventure in West Berlin. What I did not know then was how Berlin was being weighed against Cuba in the tense consultations in progress in the White House.
We know more now about those high-pressure talks from documents made public since then, especially the transcripts of White House tapes, edited by scholars Ernest May and Philip Zelikow and recently published in a book called "The Kennedy Tapes."
On Oct. 18, weighing the idea of attacking the missile sites, Kennedy said: "And then if he [Khrushchev] says, 'If you're going to do that, we're going to grab Berlin,' he'll grab Berlin, of course. And then either way, it would be we lost Berlin because of these mistakes."
Adviser McGeorge Bundy: "Then, it's general war." The president: "You mean, a nuclear exchange?" Unidentified person: "Mmm-hmm."
Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay: "If we don't do anything about Cuba, then they're going to push on Berlin and push real hard, because they've got us on the run."
LeMay adds: "You're in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President."
Kennedy: "What did you say?"
LeMay: "You're in a pretty bad fix."
But in the end, President Kennedy overruled LeMay and the whole Joint Chiefs of Staff, and opted for a blockade rather than an attack on Cuba. And, apparently not trusting the Joint Chiefs, he gave orders that no military officer be allowed to fire nuclear missiles without a specific presidential order.
On Oct. 22, Kennedy announced a blockade of Cuba and warned Soviet ships to turn back. After a few tense days, they did. In Germany, as in Washington, the big question then was: Would Khrushchev, to save face, blockade West Berlin, as he had been threatening to do? But, as I reported from Berlin on Oct. 28, this isolated city was one of the few places where nothing happened in that tumultuous week.
Cuba, in the end, had not strengthened, but weakened Khrushchev's hand.
And Berlin was safe.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.