The Role Of Bobby Kennedy Throughout The

Cuban Missile Crisis Essay, Research Paper


On the morning of Tuesday October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy was reading the Tuesday morning newspapers in his bed at the Whitehouse. Not twenty fours hours before, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, received the results of Major Richard S. Heyser’s U-2 mission over San Cristobal Cuba. In light of recent mysterious Soviet and Cuban activities developing in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the president’s administration had given the order to conduct reconnaissance missions over the island of Cuba. In particular a fifty-mile trapezoidal swath of territory in western Cuba was to be looked upon under intense scrutiny. A CIA agent reported in the second week of September that this stretch of land was being guarded closely by Peruvian, Colombian, and actual Soviet soldiers. There was a real reason to be suspicious of the activity in western Cuba. The first of this U-2 reconnaissance mission would reveal a shocking discovery.(Chang & William p.33-47)

The U-2 reconnaissance reports that Bundy received in full detail two 70-foot-long MRBMs at San Cristobal. The news that Bundy would eventually have to expose to President Kennedy would sound alarms not just in his administration or in the United States of America, but throughout the entire world. Bundy did not tell the president that night. He opted to allow him a good night’s rest, the last he would have for some time, as it turned out. Bundy felt there was nothing the president could do about the missiles that night anyway, and he would need to be sharp the next morning.(Brugioni p.68) Besides Bundy and the leadership of the U.S. intelligence community, Dean Rusk and his team at State, as well as McNamara and the deputy secretary of defense, Roswell Gilpatric, received word of the U-2’s discovery before going to bed on October 15. Kennedy’s discovery of the missiles could wait till the next morning.(May & Zelikow p.24)

Thus on the morning of October 16, while Kennedy was lying in bed, Bundy informed that the U-2 mission that flew over Cuba had spotted two nuclear missiles and six missile transports southwest of Havana. Before the summer of that same year had ended, Khrushchev had made the twin promise that “nothing will be undertaken before the American Congressional elections that could complicate the international situation or aggravate the tension in the relations between our two countries,” and ensured the president through his own brother Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general of the United States and the president’s closet advisor by means of a back channel, that only defensive weapons were to be placed in Cuba.(Brugioni p56) This last and final statement left the young attorney general and the entire administration to believe that no offensive nuclear missiles, and certainly no weapons that were capable of hitting any target in the continental United States were being placed in Cuba at this time.(Chang & William p67)

The news brought to the Kennedy administration in the form of the U-2’s telltale photographs made nonsense of both of Khrushchev’s pledges. But most importantly the Soviet Union had equipped Cuba with an arsenal of Soviet nuclear missiles despite a presidential statement only a month early that the United States would not tolerate such a situation in the Western Hemisphere. Kennedy felt personally insulted by the deployment of these missiles.(Fursenko & Naftali p.193) He thought that he had done everything possible to defuse and smooth over tense relations with the Soviet Union even before he took office in 1960. This devastating news from Cuba would result in the tense period in Cold War history to date and perhaps its tensest period in the entire history of the war.

Kennedy decided limit the information regarding the devastating news from Cuba to as small a group as possible. This group would come to be known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or as it would later be known and shortened to simply Ex Comm.(Brugioni p.45) This would be the group of Washington’s sharpest and most influential minds that would more or less decide the fate of the nation and the world. A heavy responsibility would be carried on their shoulders. If they failed they we would take the entire nation with them.

The group would come to include Charles Bohlen, the old Kremlin hand who was recently named U.S. ambassador to France. Beside Bohlen it would include Secretary of State Dean Rusk, as well as Undersecretary of State George Ball and Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Edwin M. Martin, as well as Ambassador at Large Llewellyn Thompson. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his deputies Roswell Gilpatric and Paul Nitze represented the Defense Department. John McCone, head of the CIA, away on an urgent family matter, was replaced by his deputy Marshall “Pat” Carter, and the CIA was also represented by the head of the NPIC, Arthur Lundahl, whose analysts had found the missile sites on the U-2 photographs. General Maxwell Taylor came as chairman of the JCS. Rounding out the group were McGeorge Bundy and the Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, as well as Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon. Last but not least this group of Washington’s sharpest minds was joined and highly influenced by the President’s brother and closest advisor, the Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy.(May & Zelikow p.8-12)

Robert F. Kennedy would prove to be one of the most, if not the most important person responsible in deciding the fate of the two world superpowers and essentially the entire world next to Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union, and his own brother, John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States. Even before the crisis reached a head when the American government finally discovered the nuclear missiles in western Cuba, Bobby Kennedy played a key role in attempting to guarantee America’s worst nightmare would never come to being.

Through his own personal back channel to the Kremlin, a Soviet intelligence officer and member of the KGB, Georgi Bolshakov, Kennedy attempted to shape and relay messages and negotiations between the two superpowers in question.(Brugioni p.157) When Kennedy was deceived through these private and often personal channels, there was no question that Robert F. Kennedy felt a degree of personal insult and damage to his own pride.

Kennedy would play a key role throughout all of the Ex Comm meetings, and while his brother was away, there was no question that was in charge of these meetings. Throughout these meetings, Bobby’s own views on how to deal with this dramatic situation evolved from a rather hawkish and indignant position; a wish to get even, to a much more moderate and sensible, even dovish position on how to deal with the situation in question. Kennedy would play an important role in shaping the final course of action in handling the drama at hand.

Finally Kennedy would play the role of messenger and negotiator with the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, in negotiating the final deal and trade off to defuse the conflict and end it once and for all. Involved in this secret negotiating, the knowledge of which was possessed by less then ten men in both the United States and the Soviet Union at this time is also laden with controversy, involving classified documents and different accounts of the true story revealed on both the American and Soviet side of the conflict, including the memoirs of Nikita S. Khrushchev himself.(Chang & Kornbluh p.237)

Kennedy was one of the most important shapers of the entire conflict. Without his presence it is unknown which direction this conflict would have taken. It would be Robert F. Kennedy whom the president would rely on and trust the most in this situation. He was one of the most vocal in dealing with the conflict and certainly one of the most rational. He helped keep control of the situation and staved off the continued assaults of the war hawks in congress who truly looked to attain the upper hand in the method of dealing with this conflict. His great and important role in this conflict that will be discussed, from his secret back channels to the Kremlin in the months before the crisis, to the deals he would eventually present and make to the Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin.

Back Channels to the Kremlin

Robert F. Kennedy first met Georgi Bolshakov through Frank Holeman, an American journalist for the New York Daily News. Bolshakov was a soviet intelligence agent. He had been working for the Soviet intelligence agency GRU. The GRU, who began his grueling training process in 1943, while the war with Hitler, was still very much in full swing. Despite the war going on around him, Bolshakov was trained in a vigorous apprenticeship for seven years to become a Soviet intelligence officer, and then attended a three-year course at the High Intelligence School of the General Staff. In all his training lasted until 1950 during which time he acquired some impressive English language skills. As a result of his impressive English skills, Bolshakov was assigned to the TASS Soviet news agency in Washington where he would be an editor whose main role in the office would be to cultivate sources.(Brugioni p.157)

After dedicating four years to this assignment aboard in Washington, Bolshakov was recalled back to Moscow where he was to work under Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Georgi Zhukov. When Zhukov was dismissed in 1957, a temporary halt was brought to Bolshakov’s career. However his career would see a rival by the end of the 1950’s through his friendship with the new son-in-law of Soviet Premier Khrushchev, Aleksei Adzhubei, the husband of Rada Khrushchev. By 1960 Bolshakov was back in Washington working once again for GRU.(Brugioni p. 157-9)

Frank Holeman had first met Bolshakov in 1951 at a Soviet held lunch-in in Holeman’s honor. The two hit it off rather well and met infrequently and exchanged information. Soviets soon began to value Holeman as a useful informant and encouraged this budding relationship until Bolshakov was transferred back to Moscow in 1955.(Brugioni p.159) Upon Bolshakov’s return to Washington in 1960, Holeman was quick to reestablish ties with his former acquaintance from Moscow. Soon after Holeman and Bolshakov began there correspondence again, Holeman dropped the prospect to Bolshakov of possible meeting in person to discuss national interests with the attorney general of the United States, the brother of the President himself, Robert F. Kennedy. Bolshakov was taken off guard by the suggestion, but was quite tempted and excited about possible taking face to face with someone in such a position of American power as Kennedy. Despite his hidden enthusiasm, Bolshakov replied to the journalist that he needed approval from his “embassy before such a meeting could be proposed.(Brugioni p.160-4) What Bolshakov really needed was permission for his boss in the GRU, whose identity is still unknown, who initially upon hearing the proposal was rather surprised that one of his assistance would of interest to the Attorney General of the United States and rejected the proposition. Why would some one of such importance wish to speak to one of his assistants?

Despite the rejection by his superior and despite relaying the message back to Holeman that he would be unable to meet with the attorney general, Bolshakov decided to risk it anyway and meet up with Holeman on May 9th of 1961, just ten days after Holeman made his initial proposal. Bolshakov chose the date of May 9th for the meeting with Bobby Kennedy because it was a Soviet holiday in celebration of the defeat of fascism in 1945, and his office with the GRU would be understaffed as most of his colleagues would be home enjoying the holiday. Thus Bolshakov would be able to move around much easier.(Brugioni p.166)

Holeman met Bolshakov at roughly 4:30 at a nearby restaurant in Georgetown. Bolshakov had barely sat down to eat when Holeman asked him if he would be ready to meet Kennedy at 8:30 in front of the Justice Department office in Washington. Bolshakov was once again caught off guard by the abruptness of the scheduling of the meeting, but agreed non-the less to meet with Kennedy at this time. At 8:30 sharp Kennedy was waiting with one of his aides on the steps of the Justice Department building. Holeman introduced the Soviet intelligence officer to the Attorney General of the United States. With that Both Holeman and the Kennedy aide left the two gentlemen to themselves to talk.(Brugioni p.167-8) The groundwork was unofficially laid. From then on Robert F. Kennedy had his own personal connection to the Kremlin, via a Soviet intelligence officer.

Khrushchev did not entirely condone Georgi Bolshakov’s meetings with Bobby Kennedy. He even wrote to President Kennedy himself that his ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in Washington enjoyed his “complete trust,” to encourage the use of regular diplomatic communications.(Blight & Welch p.189) But the personal rapport between the president’s brother and the Soviet military intelligence officer was too great for the Kremlin or the White House to wish to close down the Kennedy-Bolshakov back channel.

Khruschev also had no problem using this back channel as the means for an initiative. The channel had already been used in negotiations involving a nuclear test ban treaty and the continuing stalemate in Berlin. Khruschev also saw a way in which he could take advantage of the channel in an attempt to keep the Cuban Missile operation, codenamed Anadyr a covert operation.(Brugioni p.175) Khrushchev new he couldn’t possible prevent American U-2 pilots from flying over the island of Cuba, but perhaps he could prevent them from flying over Soviet ships delivering missiles and supplies necessary to make missile sites operational whose destination was Castro’s Caribbean communist paradise.

Khrushchev instructions for Bolshakov were to convey to Bobby Kennedy that the Soviets and Premier Khrushchev felt that reconnaissance missions via U-2 spy planes over the open ocean were acts of harassment on the part of the United States and the ceasing of these activities might lead to more friendly US-Soviet relations and a brighter opportunity for peaceful coexistence. Bolshakov relayed his instructions and the Kennedy’s agreed only under the condition that the Berlin issue be iced. Khrushchev was reluctant to agree on such a volatile issue as Berlin, but did promise not to do anything until after the American elections in November and the Americans did cease to send spy planes over the Atlantic.(Blight & Welch p.188-9)

However Bolshakov was left in the dark about the entire missile situation. On repeated occasions Kennedy questioned Bolshakov on the weapons and materials being sent to Cuba by the Soviet Union and Bolshakov repeatedly assured RFK that these weapons and materials were purely of a defensive nature. The weapons were merely a means for Cuba to defend itself against any possible aggregations.(Brugioni p. 175-6)

As recently as two weeks before the Kennedy administration became aware of the actual missile situation in Cuba, Bolshakov came to Bobby with an important message. Kennedy’s at this point knew that the Cubans had already received state of the art SA-2 missiles from the Soviets, which were designed as high-tech antiaircraft defensive missiles.(Cook p.92) Robert Kennedy made time to see Bolshakov on October 5 because Bolshakov said he had received and important message from Khrushchev. Kennedy usually affected a casual, unbuttoned look with his Russian friend, but Bolshakov noticed that this day the attorney general’s shirt was meticulously buttoned. There was no small talk about Bolshakov’s vacation, which months before the men had considered taking together. Kennedy listened and took notes as Bolshakov conveyed a pledge from Khrushchev that the Soviet Union was sending only defensive weapons to Cuba.(Blight and Welch p.193) To be sure he had not missed any nuance, Kennedy asked him to repeat the key phrase in the message. “The weapons that the USSR is sending to Cuba will only be of a defensive character,” said Bolshakov.(Brugioni p.178)

“In a short while,” Kennedy explained, “I will have to report this to the president.” Indeed, from what Bolshakov new of Soviet intentions, what he was instructed to tell Robert F. Kennedy was the truth? Bolshakov really believed that the Soviets had know intention of placing offensive nuclear missiles capable of targeting any region in the continental United States, at least without first informing the United States and the Kennedy administration. Bolshakov was left in the dark. Bolshakov lived to see the end of the Cold War; but he never got over his bitterness towards the Soviet Premier at having been used to deceive the Kennedy’s. Bolshakov was not informed about operation Anadyr.(Blight & Welch p.197)

The deception that the Soviets employed through Bolshakov insulted the pride of both Kennedy’s but in particular that of Bobby, who was Bolshakov’s friend. Perhaps that’s why Bolshakov was not informed of the operation. When it was brought to the attention that the American government was well aware of the Soviet missiles in Cuban territory, Bolshakov was dumbfounded and even a little confused. Bolshakov was not aware of the missiles in Cuba until John F. Kennedy’s administration itself had informed him that the missiles were there and even showed him photographs. When he did view the photographs he denied any expertise in rocketry. “I have never seen anything like these photographs,” complained Bolshakov, “and cannot understand what is on them.” He even suggested that they just might be baseball diamonds. The Americans however were not pleased with these results.(Blight & Welch p.197)

Bolshakov however did not prove to be totally useless to the Kennedy administration in resolving the missile crisis. On October 23, Frank Holeman revealed to Bolshakov, that the United States was willing to make a swap, Soviet nuclear ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba, in exchange for American ballistic nuclear missiles in the NATO State of Turkey on the borders of the Soviet Union. Kennedy was looking to remove the missiles in Turkey anyway for they had become obsolete upon the development of a larger quantity of higher quality missiles.(Cheney p.94) However GRU office in Washington chose to sit on the information and not reveal it to Khrushchev and the Soviet presidium just yet. Through Kennedy’s Bolshakov connection, it was first revealed that the Kennedy administration was willing to make a swap of missile installation in respective Soviet and American allied states.(Brugioni p.224)

Bolshakov proved valuable in the months before the missile crisis to both the White House and the Kremlin. Both used him as a source of intelligence regarding the other superpower’s plans. Bolshakov was Bobby Kennedy’s initative in dealing with the Soviet Union.

Ultimately, however, Khrushchev and the Soviet Union used the Kennedy-Bolshakov channel in a deceitful manner, deceiving the intelligence agent himself. Bolshakov was used to cover Soviet-Cuban covert operations in the Atlantic Ocean and to reassure the Kennedy administration that the Soviets had no plans to install offensive nuclear weapons capable of wiping out the entire continental United States on the island of Cuba.

To the contrary, the Soviets had planned for months to turn the small island nation of Cuba and its six million people into a Soviet Island fortress only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. This fortress would be fully equipped with not just medium range, but intercontinental nuclear missiles, as well as a submarine base capable of supporting nuclear submarines. In addition an entire Soviet garrison of 50,000 troops would be stationed on the island equipped with the weapons and the defense systems required to keep this fortress operational and eventually impregnable.(Cheney p.102) Bolshakov was left completely in the dark about this situation, and intern so was the Kennedy administration.

The situation infuriated both Kennedy’s and as the missile crisis progressed, the brothers relied less on the channel as a means to reach Moscow. It appeared obvious that Bolshakov had no idea what kinds of weapons were being installed in Cuba. The Soviet deception through Bolshakov helped to set the tone for Bobby Kennedy at the first Ex Comm meetings in deciding exactly what to do about this devastating situation in Cuba. Bolshakov was Bobby Kennedy’s personal channel to Moscow and his friend. Moscow’s use of Bolshakov as a means of deceit and deception truly infuriated the younger Kennedy.

Kennedy was looking to get even. It was no surprise that when Kennedy entered the very first Ex Comm meeting on October 16, 1962 Kennedy sat in his chair ready to act as a hawk. (Fursenko & Naftali p.234) He was prepared to do what ever was necessary to remove those missiles from Cuba. If it meant an air strike followed by an invasion, so be it.

Bobby Kennedy and the Ex Comm Meetings

The beginning of the Ex Comm talks for Robert F. Kennedy were marked by humiliation. The humiliation that he was directly lied to by the Soviet Union through one of his closest contacts and the humiliation that Castro had once again made the United States look like a bunch of fools. He struggled in the early part of these Ex Comm meetings with that humiliation on his shoulders.

Robert Kennedy believed that the missiles in Cuba represented an extremely valuable bargaining chip for both the Soviets and the Cubans. His opinion was also shared by his brother the president of the United States.

Kennedy wondered whether Castro might not make new threats against Cuba’s neighbors, saying, “You move troops down into that part of Venezuela, we’re going to fire these missiles.”(Fursenko & Naftali p.235) The attorney general in the first meeting of Ex Comm was by far the strongest advocate for invasion. He understood his brother’s sensitivity toward the political impact of a U.S. reaction that was not considered commensurate to the crime. But Robert Kennedy also expected Khrushchev simply to reload his missiles if he lost his first group of missiles to an American air strike. The odds of destroying every missile cleanly and efficiently with just one simple air strike were next to impossible.(Fursenko & Naftali p.247)

Perhaps as a way of showing how an invasion could be made internationally acceptable, Robert Kennedy brought up the quick fix that he had been advocating off and on since the Bay of Pigs disaster. “We should also think of . . . whether there is some other way we can get involved in this through . . . Guantanamo Bay, or something, . . . or whether there’s some ship that, you know, sink the Maine again or something.”(Hinckle & William p. 278) Kennedy was indeed grasping for straws suggesting such farfetched and outlandish excuses for invading Cuba, under pretexts of questionable morality. However Kennedy was confused and extremely frustrated by the current situation. Much of what Kennedy suggests early on in the Ex Comm meetings were the venting of great frustration over the crisis. None the less his brother, the president of the United States took Bobby Kennedy’s lamentations very seriously. Bobby was still his closest advisor and John F. Kennedy felt the same frustration and confusion that his brother felt.

Initially most of the other members of Ex Comm barring the members of the actually military who were present, supported a much more peaceful way of dealing with the situation. Diplomacy was seen as an alternative means of dealing with such an explosive situation. Llewellyn Thompson advocated a naval blockade of Cuba.(Dolan & Scariano p.105) Believing it “very highly doubtful the Russians would resist a blockade against military weapons . . .”(Dolan & Scariano p.105) Thompson argued that the best way to avoid peace or at least legitimatize an invasion of Cuba was a combined stern coercion of blockade with a public demand that Moscow dismantle its missile sites in Cuba. Thompson realized that odds were this would not be enough to remove the missiles already existing in Cuba and would not prevent them from becoming operational in the near future. He suggested threatening to use force if Khrushchev ignored the U.S. demand. “I think we should be under no illusions that this would probably in the end lead to the same thing,” he said with some resignation. “But we would do it under an entirely different posture and background, and much less danger of getting into the big war.”(Fursenko & Naftali p.253)

In the beginning Robert Kennedy, still very much a hawk disagreed in entirely with Thompson. He saw the blockade as a “very slow death.”(Thompson p.123) Robert Kennedy envisioned that a blockade would last for months. He saw a great deal of conflict involved in a naval blockade anyway. The stopping of Russian ships by the American navy would cause chaos and possibly even retaliation by Russian ships. Russian ships would dare the American navy to stop them, and no doubt about it there would be ships that would attempt to run and break through any kind of naval blockade put into affect by the United States Navy. Russian planes that attempted to fly over the American blockade would have to me shot down which would lead to nothing more than an escalated mess.(Fursenko & Naftali p. 256-9) These at least were Kennedy’s arguments.

On October 19, the Ex Comm divided into two groups. There was the air strike team, which included Treasury Secretary Dillon, Bundy, CIA director John McCone, and the former secretary of state Dean Acheson who had now joined in on the Ex Comm meetings. Robert Kennedy chose to join this group. Favoring the blockade were Secretary of Defense John McNamara, Dean Rusk, Thompson, George Ball.(Blight & Welch p.235) The responsibility of the two groups was to generate by the end of the day position papers that made the strongest case possible for their preference. Over the next thirty-six hours, Robert Kennedy played a key role in bringing these two groups together. He considered himself apart of the air strike team, but his position on so drastic a measure was wavering. While he still saw the naval blockade as full of headaches and weaknesses, he saw the air strike position as even more dangerous.(Fursenko & Naftali p.263-4)

The reason he was wavering was not that agreed with Thompson or the others, rather he began to fully recognize the consequence of the alternative air strike. An air strike left little room for the Soviet Union and communist Cuba to manuver. In a situation such as the one placed upon them in an air strike, the two communist nations would seemingly have no choice but to fight back and defend themselves.(Blight & Welch p.229)

In the morning Bobby Kennedy argued that the U.S. airforce should simply go and make the attack without warning. Only after a full air strike was made against the Soviet Cuban positions on the island should the United States go to the Organization of American States. This was Kennedy’s view. By the evening of the same day, he was firmly against striking without warning. Kennedy realized the cowardlyness in such an attack. A similar surprise attack was made on the day of December 7th, 1945, a day that would live in infamy. There was no way Kennedy decided, that he would allow his brother to be compared with Tojo of Japan, in reference to the Japanese sneak on the American navy stationed in Pearl Harbor that eventually lead to American involvement in World War II. The United States was not in the tradition of cowardlyness.(Blight & Welch p.230) While he still was leaning towards an air strike or at least an eventual air strike over a naval blockade, he realized that the Soviet response to such a strike would be far more prepared if they were warned previously. None the less Bobby Kennedy had become dead set against a preemptive without warning strike on the island of Cuba. As a result, he had changed his mind about resorting to a blockade as a first step.(Thompson p.145)

By the time John F. Kennedy had arrived back at the White House after a scheduled cross country trip across the United States early Saturday morning, Bobby Kennedy was firmly locked into the blockade camp of Ex Comm. If a vote were to take place in Ex Comm, the air strike camp would lose. Robert F. Kennedy upon weighing the options of an air strike over taking the first step as an announced military blockade realized that the consequences of the air strike made the blockade far more appealing.(Fursenko & Naftali p.267) At least the blockade could buy time and allow the Soviets to retreat without a single shot being fired. It was President Kennedy who in fact needed convincing of the impracticality of an air strike as opposed to a naval blockade.

Kennedy would indeed take some convincing that the blockade would be a safer alternative to an outright surgical air strike on Soviet missile positions in Cuba. However in light of new CIA intelligence that intelligence agency understood that the operational status of the missiles and the possibility of hitherto undiscovered missile sites were the issues closest to the president’s heart and potentially most relevant to his final decision.(Hinckle & William p.287)

Thus with the help Bobby Kennedy bringing the Ex Comm group together and the shining of light onto newly found intelligence, the blockade camp carried the day. On Monday morning Kennedy would give a nationally televised address, followed by the imposition of a limited blockade a day later. Kennedy realized that the pentagon barring McNamara was against the decision, but was affirmed by General Taylor that the U.S. armed services would back the president’s decision completely.(Hinckle & William p. 293)

Robert Kennedy also argued that the pretext behind a naval blockade of the island of Cuba should be of a moral pretext. He argued that the pretext of a naval blockade should involve the deception of the Soviets in there placing of nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba despite American warnings of what would be the consequences of such an action. President Kennedy however rejected this moral pretext. Kennedy stated flatly why there was not an acceptable military option at this stage in the crisis. The Soviet Union’s mobile MRBM (medium range ballistic missile) bases “can be set up quite quickly,” and for this reason and this reason alone he was sure there were more on the island had previously been detected.(Cohen p.175)

Kennedy no longer believed the Soviets would act prudently in the event of war. After all it was not very prudent of the Soviet Union to seriously believe it could place nuclear missiles right under the nose of America and easily get away with it. Kennedy thought that maybe even the Soviets were itching for the fight. Right up till Kennedy’s address, the Soviets were unaware that the Americans had idea that the United States knew of the ballistic missiles in Cuba. However there were signs. Thus when the announcement of the naval blockade was made, the Soviets were not take completely off guard.(Fursenko & Naftali p.253)

During this first part of the Cuban missile crisis, prior to the Soviet knowledge of American awareness, Robert Kennedy played a crucial role in developing his brother’s position on how to handle the situation. Early on into the conflict, Kennedy was a clear and vocal hawk. His suggestion of sabotage and false pretexts in an attempt to trigger a legitimate invasion seem over the top. Yet as he cooled down, and sobered up to the realization that this conflict could very well lead to the advent of thermonuclear war, Kennedy began to realize the illogical reasoning behind triggering a war with such lethal consequences. His position gradually developed from that of an invasion to that of a surprise air attack to that of a warned air attack and finally to that of a blockade of Cuba without a single shot being fired.

Kennedy was very instrumental in quieting the hawks calling for an air strike and eventually championing the concept of a naval blockade. While not entirely accepting the effectiveness of the blockade, he did learn to appreciate the consequences of the other possible alternatives. As his position on the crisis evolved to that of a more rational one, so did that of the Ex Comm committee. This demonstrated a great character and leadership in the young attorney general. In the end everybody though not necessarily agreeing with it was willing to accept the idea of a naval blockade at least as a first step towards resolving the conflict.

While his brother the president disagreed with him on certain points, such as that of conducting the blockade under a moral pretext, at least he was able to help convince and restrain his older brother from a more aggressive action like an air strike that may result in a much more serious counter reaction. Even the CIA stated, the missiles found were at this time believed to be operational, and it was impossible to confirm that there were no other missile sites that the central intelligence agency was not aware of. These missiles might very well be pointed in the direction of Washington D.C.

Robert F. Kennedy and Anatoly Dobrynin

Perhaps Robert F. Kennedy’s most important role in the Cuban Missile Crisis would be played as the Washington representative in negotiations in an exchange for the removal of missiles out of Cuba. These negotiations would occur through a new channel, a more official channel of negotiation, through the Soviet Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin.(Hershbag p.8) It would be through these negotiations at the tensest interval of the crisis that a resolution to the entire affair would be achieved.

After the blockade was placed into effect, on October 23 some of the Soviet ships turned back upon reaching the blockade. However Khrushchev specifically ordered certain ships to run the blockade if necessary. The ships, which attempted to run the blockade, were able to do so. In the mean time both sides were preparing for war.(Blight & Welch p.255)

The United States was amassing an invasion force of 90,000 marines for a possible invasion of Cuba from bases on the eastern coast of the United States as well as additional marines from bases on the Pacific coast.(Blight & Fursenko p.238) However many of these marines would have to sail around Central America through the Panama Canal in order to reach the battlefield. They may not reach the scene of the conflict until at least a week later. The Pentagon had lowered the U.S. warning system from DEFCOM 5, which was peace to DEFCOM 2. DEFCOM 1 stood for all out war. Pentagon also warned American hospitals throughout the country to begin expecting large numbers of casualties. At this point in time U.S. reconnaissance planes were flying at treetop level over Cuba as a means of gathering in intelligence for an eventually amphibious landing of marines on the island.(Fursenko & Naftali p.238)

Soviet and Cuban forces on the communist island also had begun preparing for war. Khrushchev gave the ok to his general in charge of military operations on the island, General Issa Pliyev, to prepare his troops for a possible invasion and to defend him in the advent of an American air strike. Cuban forces under Fidel Castro were also taking steps toward the possibility of war and a coming invasion. Castro already assumed an American invasion would come only days after the blockade was initiated and proved ineffective. Castro sent his brother Raul Castro to prepare defenses in western Cuba. In eastern Cuba he relied on his most trusted advisor outside his own brother, Che Gueverra to handle military operations there. Castro believed the American invasion was inevitable and saw no reason not to fire on any American reconnaissance planes that violated Cuban air space. Both states were indeed preparing for all out war.(Hinckle & William p.278-287)

At this point in time, through the tenseness of the situation, Khrushchev offered a possible deal as a means to get out of this conflict while still saving face. Khrushchev’s deal involved and American pledge not to invade Cuba. As long as the United States was willing to publicly pledge not to invade Cuba, the Soviets would be willing to dismantle the weapons that the President’s administration deemed offensive. The deal was first mentioned as a possibility by a Soviet intelligence officer named Aleksandr Feklisov.(Schesinger p.7) Feklisov proposal seemed adequate enough to President Kennedy and the Ex Comm committee and did not require the United States to give much ground abroad. Few states globally favored a U.S. invasion of Cuba any way and the missiles would be removed under UN inspection.(Schesinger p.7)

However following the heels of this plea for negotiation, terrible news brought the conflict to its tensest point and its climax. On Saturday October 27, an American reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba by Soviet SA-2 fire. The pilot of the U-2 airplane was killed. In addition to the down of the aircraft, Cuban antiaircraft weapons had fired upon other American aircraft. These planes were flying at treetop level and one of these planes was hit but not downed. None of these planes had any means of protecting themselves, but now President Kennedy was under great provide these reconnaissance planes with precisely that kind of protection.(Fursenko & Naftali p.276-9)

On top of that, Khrushchev cabled a new proposal to the White House only a day after the first modest proposal was received. This proposal was far more demanding than the first one. The proposal not only called for an American pledge not to invade Cuba now or at any time in the future, but it also demanded that U.S. Jupiter missiles be removed from silos in Turkey as a condition towards the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Both operations were to be done under UN inspection.(Fursenko & Naftali p.277)

Kennedy’s reaction to this new letter was “He didn’t say that, did he?” “That wasn’t in the letter we received, was it?”(Fursenko & Naftali p.277) Khrushchev had upped the anti in this new proposal and had taken a much firm stance then only a day before. Some members of Ex Comm even doubted if Khrushchev was still in control of the situation in the Kremlin. Removing the missiles from Turkey, as part of a negotiation to remove Soviet missiles in Cuba would have to been done without consulting NATO whom the missiles were pledged to defend.(Cheney p. 98-9) Though the missiles were obsolete, how would feel about the American pledge to defend them against Soviet aggression if they were to be removed? How would NATO react? Such a drastic removal could lead to serious fracturing of NATO alliance. Negotiations would have to be conducted fast. In the negotiations that would follow, both sides would have to be satisfied and both sides would have to be able to save face. The President decides to send his brother Robert F. Kennedy to negotiate with Washington’s Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin.(Hershburg p.3)

Robert Kennedy account of the meeting between the two officials from both superpowers reads as follows directly from his own memoirs.

“At the request of Secretary Rusk, I telephoned Ambassador Dobrynin at approximately 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, October 27th. I asked him if he would come to the Justice Department at a quarter of eight.

We met in my office. I told him first that we understood that the work was continuing on the Soviet missile bases in Cuba. Further, I explained to him that in the last two hours we had found that our planes flying over Cuba had been fired upon and that one of our U-2’s had been shot down and the pilot killed. I said these men were flying unarmed planes.

I told him that this was an extremely serious turn in events. We would have to make certain decisions within the next 12 or possibly 24 hours. There was a very little time left. If the Cubans were shooting at our planes, then we were going to shoot back. This could not help but bring on further incidents and that he had better understand the full implications of this matter.

He raised the point that the argument the Cubans were making was that we were violating Cuban air space. I replied that if we had not been violating Cuban air space then we would still be believing what he and Khrushchev had said–that there were no long-range missiles in Cuba. In any case I said that this matter was far more serious than the air space over Cuba and involved peoples all over the world.

I said that he had better understand the situation and he had better communicate that understanding to Mr. Khrushchev. Mr. Khrushchev and he had misled us. The Soviet Union had secretly established missile bases in Cuba while at the same time proclaiming, privately and publicly, that this would never be done. I said those missile bases had to go and they had to go right away. We had to have a commitment by at least tomorrow that those bases would be removed. This was not an ultimatum, I said, but just a statement of fact. He should understand that if they did not remove those bases then we would remove them. His country might take retaliatory actions but he should understand that before this was over, while there might be dead Americans there would also be dead Russians.

He then asked me what offer we were making. I said a letter had just been transmitted to the Soviet Embassy, which stated in substance that the missile bases should be dismantled and all offensive weapons should be removed from Cuba. In return, if Cuba and Castro and the Communists ended their subversive activities in other Central and Latin-American countries, we would agree to keep peace in the Caribbean and not permit an invasion from American soil.

He then asked me about Khrushchev’s other proposal dealing with the removal of the missiles from Turkey. I replied that there could be no quid pro quo — no deal of this kind could be made. This was a matter that had to be considered by NATO and that it was up to NATO to make the decision. I said it was completely impossible for NATO to take such a step under the present threatening position of the Soviet Union. If some time elapsed — and per your instructions, I mentioned four or five months — I said I was sure that these matters could be resolved satisfactorily. (This last sentence did not appear in Kennedy’s actual memoirs as a result of its sensitive nature in revealing information that was still considered top secret and classified at the time of the publication of RFK’s memoirs on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days in 1967.)(Hershburg p.9)

Per your instructions I repeated that there could be no deal of any kind and that any steps toward easing tensions in other parts of the world largely depended on the Soviet Union and Mr. Khrushchev taking action in Cuba and taking it immediately.

I repeated to him that this matter could not wait and that he had better contact Mr. Khrushchev and have a commitment from him by the next day to withdraw the missile bases under United Nations supervision for otherwise, I said, there would be drastic consequences.”(Kennedy p.254-9)

The terms of the deal outlined by Dobrynin and Kennedy were as follows; in exchange for an American pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba, the Soviet Union, under the supervision of a United Nations inspection team, would remove all weapons from the island of Cuba that the United States deemed as offensive. These weapons would include all ICBM and MRBM located within the borders of Cuba. Along with the missiles, the presence of Soviet military forces would also be removed. Secretly, the attorney general also assured the Soviet ambassador that the American nuclear Jupiter missiles in Turkey would also be removed, under the context of a NATO withdrawal of the missiles. The withdrawal of these missiles from Turkey would consequentially appear to have nothing to do with the crisis in Cuba. Withdrawal of the missiles under such a pretext as Soviet threats and aggression would potentially harm American leadership in NATO and the faith of American allies as to its pledge to protect and aid them, particularly Turkey.

Thus the deal was complete and when Khrushchev received the terms the following day, he quickly broadcast the terms of the agreement over Moscow radio as to prevent a surprise event from disrupting the agreement. By the end of the day both sides were relieved and the crisis was seemingly averted. The worst of the situation was over.

Moscow’s account of the transgressions between the Soviet Washington ambassador and Kennedy has resulted in some controversy as to how the negotiations truly progressed. Khrushchev’s account of the meeting between the two negotiators in his memoirs Khrushchev Remember’s are as follows:

“The climax came after five or six days, when our ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, reported that the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, had come to see him on an unofficial visit. Dobrynin’s report went something like this:

Robert Kennedy looked exhausted. One could see from his eyes that he had not slept for days. He himself said that he had not been home for six days and nights. ‘The President is in a grave situation,’ Robert Kennedy said, ‘and does not know how to get out of it. We are under very severe stress. In fact we are under pressure from our military to use force against Cuba. Probably at this very moment the President is sitting down to write a message to Chairman Khrushchev. We want to ask you, Mr. Dobrynin, to pass President Kennedy’s message to Chairman Khrushchev through unofficial channels. President Kennedy implores Chairman Khrushchev to accept his offer and to take into consideration the peculiarities of the American system. Even though the President himself is very much against starting a war over Cuba, an irreversible chain of events could occur against his will. That is why the President is appealing directly to Chairman Khrushchev for his help in liquidating this conflict. If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power. The American army could get out of control.’”(Khurschev & Talbott p.204)

While it is highly unlikely that the American military was ever on the verge of taking control of the United States government; all living members of Ex Comm at the time of this publication deny any possibility of this occurring, it was true that the United States military was pushing for an aggressive approach in resolving the Cuba crisis. It is quite possible that Dobrynin took Bobby Kennedy out of context or the former Soviet Premier misunderstood Dobrynin himself. Theodore Sorensen himself, the close friend of the Kennedy’s and the editor of Bobby Kennedy’s memoirs on the Cuban missile crisis, Thirteen Days admits deleting sentences involving the exchange of Jupiter missiles in Turkey for ballistic missiles in Cuba due to the secrecy of this exchange at the time of the memoirs publication. Dobrynin described the publication as being not as explicit as their actual conversation.(Hershburg p.8)

In any event the crisis was resolved, with great a deal of gratitude to be given to Robert F. Kennedy in role in participating in the most important negotiations of the entire conflict. The only real loser in the crisis were the Cubans, who were not informed of the secret trade stipulations of the deal, and understood the situation to be that Moscow had just agreed to dismantle a nuclear fortress in exchange for a flimsy pledge not to invade Cuba by the imperial American juggernaut. Castro and his Cuban comrade’s felt betrayed by the Soviet Union and relation would never be as close as they were during the crisis between the two nations.(Schlesinger p.9)

In Conclusion

In conclusion, Robert F. Kennedy proved to play a vital role in shaping the American response to ballistic nuclear missile bases in Cuba. At first Kennedy and his brother’s entire administration was deceived by Khrushchev through Bobby Kennedy own personal back channel to the Kremlin. The intelligence officer himself who had become a close friend of Kennedy was also deceived by his own government. Khrushchev used the agent to take initiatives against the Kennedy administration and ultimately to maintain the secrecy of operation Anadyr.

Despite the deception, Kennedy would also play a crucial role in the early stages of the Ex Comm meetings, before the Soviets realized the Americans had discovered there missile installations in Cuba, and help to shape a more rational approach to dealing with the crisis the committing to an all out, preemptive strike against Cuba. Through these meetings, Kennedy’s position on a course of action in the crisis evolved from of a hawk to that of a rational position that would not result in mutually assured destruction of both superpowers. While his opinion evolved, he helped to evolve the opinion of the entire Ex Comm committee. By the time the president was asking for a solution to the situation from the group, a rational response was available. Bobby Kennedy played a crucial role in developing this response.

Finally Robert F. Kennedy may have played the most crucial role of all in the final negotiation of the terms to finally resolve the conflict that placed both superpowers on the brink of world war. Though the precise details of the conversation between Kennedy and Ambassador Dobyrnin remain unclear and controversial, the conflict was resolved and the world moved on. Without Bobby Kennedy’s role in the conflict, it is unclear as to whether this would have been the case in October of 1962.

1. Dolan, Edward F. and Scariano, Margaret M. (1987). Cuba and the United States. New York: Franklin Watts Inc.

2. Cook, Fred J. (1972). The Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Franklin Watts Inc.

3. Chang, Laurence and Kornbluh, Peter. (Ed.) (1998). The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. New York: The New Press.

4. Brugioni, Dino A. (1991). Eyeball to Eyeball. New York: Random House.

5. Hinckle, Warren and William, W. Turner. (1981). The Fish is Red. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

6. May, Ernest R. and Zelikow, Philip D. (Ed.) (1997). The Kennedy Tapes. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap press of Harvard University Press.

7. Khrushchev, Nikita S. (Au.), and Talbott, Strobe. (Ed.) (1974). Khrushcev Remembers. Boston: Brown Little.

8. Thompson, Robert Smith. (1992). The Missiles of October. New York: Simon & Schuster.

9. Cheney, Glenn Alan. (1999). Nuclear Proliferation. New York: Franklin Watts Inc.

10. Fursenko, Aleksandr and Naftali, Timothy. (1997). “One Hell of a Gamble.” New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

11. Blight, James G. and Welch, David A. (1989). On the Brink. New York: Hill and Wang.

12. Cohen, Stephen F. (1985). Sovieticus. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

13. Kennedy, Robert F. (1969). Thirteen Days. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Internet Sources

14. Hershburg, Jim. More on Bobby and the Cuban Missiles. Crisi

15. Schlesinger, Jim. More on Bobby and the Cuban Missile Crisis.


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