President Kennedy: What is this map?
Carter: That shows the circular range capability…
…Kennedy: Well, I was just wondering whether San Diego de los Banos is where these missles are.
Carter: Yes, sir….
From The Kennedy Tapes – Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Edited by E. May and P. Zelikow; Belknap Press, Harvard, 1997) which notes: “Kennedy was in the Cabinet Room with his 5-year old daughter, Caroline, when the advisors filed in, accompanied by Arthur Lundahl from NPIC [National Photo Interpretation Center], and another CIA expert, Sidney Graybeal. CIA as a whole was represented by Acting Director Marshall Carter. McCone was on the West Coast, arranging the burial of his stepson. As Caroline left and the meeting began, Kennedy turned on the tape recorder…”
Missile Analysist Sidney Graybeal briefed President on Soviet missiles in Cuba using maps, photos and briefing boards prepared by the National Photo Interpation Center (NPIC), which also prepared two sets of briefing boards using Zapruder film photos of the assassination of President Kennedy.
Homer McMahon and his assistant Ben Hunter were color photo technicians at the NPIC at the time of the assassination and prepared one set of briefing boards. Another set of briefing boards were prepared by Dino Brugioni, which were used by Arthur Lundahl, who also briefed the President during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Sidney Graybeal, the analysist of the missile photos, was also responsible for directing the flight path of the U2s that flew over Russia, including Gary Power’s ill fated fight. Here is an excerpt of a heavily redacted interview with Sidney Graybeal in which he describes in detail his briefing of President Kennedy, which set off the 13 days of what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Sidney Graybeal: Well, when the mission flew on the fifteenth of October and provided the photographs, they came into the National Photo Interpretation Center at around four, five o’clock in the afternoon. The photo interpreters started looking at these pictures and one of my branch chiefs was there and when he looked at ’em, he called me on the phone and said, we have something very hot, you’d better come down here immediately.
So I went to the Photo Interpretation Center. When I got there, the photo interpreters laid out the photographs of these canvas-covered objects. There was no question in my mind that we had offensive missiles in Cuba. The question was, what type of offensive missile is this and they could give very precise measurements of the length of this canvas-covered object. Now if this were a missile without its nose cone – you see nose cones are normally mated later – then it would be one type of missile, but if the nose cone was on, it would be a different one. So essentially, that measurement said if this is a complete missile with the nose cone, it would be an SS-3, a relatively short-range missile. If the nose cone is not on, it would be an SS-4, which is an eleven hundred-mile range missile. Now, knowing from Penkovsky and others that the nose cone is normally not mated, it was my judgment that this was an SS-4 and then if you look at a map, an SS-4 with a thousand, eleven hundred mile range can reach Washington and so my view was if the Soviets are going to deploy offensive missiles into Cuba, they would not deploy something that could only hit the southern part of the US when they had a missile that could hit Washington and that would be a real deterrent. So my judgment immediately was that this is an SS-4 missile, even though we didn’t actually see the missile, we saw a canvas-covered object and we could see the erector that went with it and we could see all the information that we thought unambiguous, that we had an offensive missile and working with the PI’s and looking at the range and looking at the data we had from Penkovsky, and looking at the data from the Moscow parades, where we had pictures of the missiles, we discerned that this was an SS-4 and that’s when I advised my boss that night.
SG: Well, you’re doing an evaluation of a ballistic missile’s capabilities, specifically the missiles that we saw on photography in Cuba, it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You have a piece of information here that comes from human sources that tells you about it, of which Penkovsky was clearly a critical aspect on the manuals and how these missiles operate. You had photographic information, both of missiles in the parade in Moscow, but photographic information of the test range where these missiles had been tested. You had telemetry information which told you the characteristics of the missile, that it was a liquid fuel missile, how you would have to operate the missile, so these combined, give you a sufficiently clear picture that when we looked at the missiles in Cuba and when we get the question about how will they operate, how long will they operate, all the things that were asked during that first Ex-Comm committee meeting, it was a combination of intelligence sources put together by intelligence analysts, including the photo interpreters and the missile experts, which gave you an understanding to be able to, one, identify the missile, two, determine its characteristics, it carries a three thousand pound payload which could be two megaton warhead on the front end of the missile, so all of these things fit together which an intelligence officer uses to provide the conclusions.
SG: There is no question in my mind that finding offensive missiles in Cuba was an extremely important, startling development here within the US government, because it put a whole new perspective on the threat to the continent of the United States when the ICBM program in the Soviet Union was small, but here you’re putting in ballistic missiles with range sufficient to hit a good part of the United States, so you have essentially doubled your capabilities of the Soviet Union to threaten the US. So as soon as we saw these were ballistic missiles, I knew we had something that was critically important process, but you don’t panic in these type of situations, because you have to deal with facts and as an intelligence officer you recognize sometimes you will be wrong. But now you’ve got hard facts, so now you have to deal with these. These were provided to the DDI, which at the time Deputy Director for Intelligence was Ray Cline and he knew it was extremely important. The word was being passed that night to various senior officials.
The next day when I went to the White House with Art Lundahl to brief McGeorge Bundy, McGeorge Bundy knew exactly that this was extremely serious. There was no laugh, there was no joking about anything to do with this situation. McGeorge Bundy wanted to know the facts, are you sure these are missiles? Yes, we’re absolutely sure these are missiles. Are you sure of the type of missile? Yes, we know the type of missile this is, what we don’t know is the operational status of these missiles right now. Dillon came in, Dillon took it extremely seriously, no joking, left. Bobby Kennedy clearly knew that this was a major because Bobby Kennedy had been the person dealing with Dobrynin and others who were assuring the President there will be no offensive missiles in Cuba. So Bobby Kennedy’s view immediately was they’d been lying to us. I mean, so immediately he understood the significance and he took off to go upstairs to speak to the President about the situation…
SG: Well, after we had identified the missiles in Cuba and reported these to the senior officials, we met with the Deputy Director of Intelligence at about seven o’clock in the morning, the next morning, and we prepared a three paragraph introduction to the subject which General Carter, who was acting Director of CIA because McCone was on the West Coast, for him to give at the Ex-Comm committee that meeting that morning. Art Lundahl, the Director of the Photographic Interpretation Center, and Sidney Graybeal, myself, were sent to the White House with our briefing boards of the missiles in Cuba to brief McGeorge Bundy, the head of the National Security staff, so we went to the White House, we laid out the pictures, the briefing from McGeorge Bundy. Dillon came in and we gave the same briefing to Dillon. Bobby Kennedy came in, we gave the same briefing to Bobby Kennedy and he took off to go upstairs to the personal quarters of President Kennedy to tell him.
We stayed in the White House all morning until the first Ex-Comm committee meeting took place at around eleven o’clock and then we all went into the Cabinet Room and we waited for the President. The President came in, good morning gentlemen, sat down and a side light, which is kind of interesting to me personally, is the door that the President had come through all of a sudden burst open and Caroline Kennedy came in and essentially said, Daddy, Daddy, they won’t let my friend in. The President got up, went over, put his arm around her, took her out of the room, came back within a minute and says, gentlemen, I think we should proceed. The meeting started. What transpired at the meeting is General Carter read the three paragraphs, essentially what was the status, suggested the President should look at the evidence. Art Lundahl, head of the NPA, had these very large briefing boards which he laid on the table in front of President Kennedy, McNamara on the right, Rusk on the other side, so the three of ’em could see them and Lundahl said this is Cuba, this is San Forego , so forth. Then he mentioned, these are offensive ballistic missiles and he specifically pointed to them on the chart. The first question the President asked was, how long before they can fire those missiles? And Art Lundahl said, well, Mr. Graybeal is the missile expert. So he turned to me, I stood up behind the President, McNamara and Rusk and for the next probably five to ten minutes fired one question after the other. In answer to the President’s question, how long can they fire these missiles, I relied primarily on the combination of intelligence sources…
The Ex-Comm committee meeting we had that morning was all business after the little… well there was all business in the sense that the President was extremely serious, he wanted to get the facts His first question clearly was how long before they can fire those missiles, ‘cos he knew I’ve got an extremely serious situation here. These are offensive missiles threatening the United States. How much time do I have to act. And of course, as developed later, during those Ex-Comm meetings, do we go in and take them out? How do we get them out of there and there’s a whole litany of debates within Ex-Comm which very, very well reported in various other publications. So the meeting was serious, the people were serious, the President wanted to know how much time he had, McNamara wanted to know where were the nuclear warheads. Rusk was worried about the political implications, what exactly had taken place here, what had they said to us, what did you say in your last speech Mr. President. So there was a whole variety of very good exchanges that took place.
Now Lundahl and I were excused from that first meeting after we had presented the facts, after we had answered all the questions that they asked about the operational characteristics of the missiles. So I was not present during the time where they started debating what do we do and if you want to get a good record of that get the book The Kennedy Tapes which has got an excellent description of what transpired in all of those meetings…
From: The Kennedy Tapes :
LeMay, Air Force General Curtis
“The Pacific War that had commenced at Pearl Harbor ended with Japan’s surrender in August 1945….Curtis LeMay, who would be the Chief of Staff of the Air Force in October 1962, and Kennedy’s most hawkish advisor, had been transferred from the European theater to take over the 20th Air Force, based on Guam. Slightly older than Rusk, he had joined the Army Air Corps in 1928, leaving Ohio State University without a degree. The mission of LeMay’s command was strategic bombing of the Japanese home islands. After analyzing the command’s operations, LeMay ordered a complete change in tactics. The B-29s had been flying at high altitude in order to be safe from antiaircraft fire. LeMay calculated that at much lower altitudes there might be a somewhat greater loss of aircraft, but that this disadvantage would be more than offset by increases in bomb loads and in bombing accuracy. Experience seemed to prove him right….”
“An admiring observer of LeMay’s management of the 20th Air Force was Army Air Force Lt. Colonel Robert S. McNamara, who would later be Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, and LeMay’s civilian boss. McNamara was less than a year older than Kennedy. He, too, came from Irish immigrants, but his forebears had taken the Panama route to California…McNamara and LeMay didn’t see eye to eye during the missile crisis. Indeed, they may not have seen eye to eye in 1945, when LeMay was clearly gratified not only the cost-effectiveness of his operations but by their consequences. Of the March 1945 raid, LeMay boasted later, ‘We burned up nearly sixteen square miles of Tokyo,’ then quoted the official report…’There were more casualties than in any other military action in the history of the world.’ LeMay also had command responsibility for the special bomber group that attacked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his attitude toward the first atomic bombs was dismissive. He rejected the notion that they were somehow special, morally or otherwise. ‘The assumption seems to be,’ he wrote, ‘that it is much more wicked to kill people with a nuclear bomb, than to kill people by busting their heads with rocks.’ At least in later years, McNamara would come to argue vehemently that nuclear weapons were special and ought never to be used.”
“McNamara, [Robert] Lovett’s nominee for Defense, was president of the Ford Motor Company, where he had gone after World War II…
“On October 14 a high flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft of the American Strategic Air Command flew a limited photographic mission over Cuba…During October 15, experts at the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), in a nondescript building at 5th and K in Washington, pored over photos from the October 14 U-2 flight…”
October 19th Cabinet Room.
Taylor: Well, I would just say one thing and then turn it over to General LeMay. We recognize all these things, Mr. President. But I think we’d all be unanimous in saying that really our strength in Berlin, our strength anyplace in the world, is the credibility of our response under certain conditions. And if we don’t respond in here in Cuba, we think the credibility is sacrificed.
President Kennedy: That’s right. That’s right. So that’s why we’ve got to respond. Now the question is: What is our response?
LeMay: Well, I certainly agree with everything General Taylor has said. I’d emphasize, a little strongly perhaps, that we don’t have any choice except direct military action. If we do this blockade that’s proposed, a political action, the first thing that’s going to happen is your missiles are going to disappear into the woods, particularly your mobile ones. Now, we can’t find them, regardless of what we do, and then we’re going to take some damage if we try to do anything later on.
President Kennedy: Well, can’t they put some of these undercover,….now that they’ve been alerted?
LeMay: there is a possibility of that. But the way they line these others up – I’ll have to say it’s a small possibility…I don’t think there are any hid….Now as for the Berlin situation, I don’t share your view that if we knock off Cuba, they’re going to knock off Berlin. If we don’t do anything in Cuba, then they’re going to push on Berlin and push real hard because they’ve got us on the run….
President Kennedy: What do you think their reply would be?
LeMay: I don’t think they’re going to make any reply if we tell them that the Berlin situation is just like it’s always been. If they make a move, we’re going to fight. I don’t think it changes the Berlin situation at all, except you’ve got to make one more statement on it. So I see not other solution. This blockade and political action, I see leading into war. I don’t see any other solution. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.
LeMay: Because if this whole blockade comes along, MiGs are going to fly….and we’re just going to gradually slip into a war under conditions that are at great disadvantage to us, with missiles staring us in the face, that can knock out our airfields in the southeastern portion of the United States. And if they use nuclear weapons, it’s the population down there. We just slipped into a war under conditions that we don’t like. I just don’t see any other solution except direct military intervention RIGHT now.
Anderson [Adml. George ] : Well, Mr. President, I feel that the course of action recommended to you by the Chiefs from the military point of view is the right one. I think it’s the best one from the political point of view….
LeMay: ….There’s one other factor that I didn’t mention that’s not quite our field, which is the political factor…I think that a blockade, and political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And I’m sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way, too. You’re in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President.
President Kennedy: What did you say?
LeMay: You’re in a pretty bad fix.
[Transcript note: Kennedy makes an unclear, joking reply.]
[In the film “13 Days” Kennedy’s reply is: “If I’m not mistaken you’re in the fix with me.” ]
THIRTEEN DAYS REVISITED
The Cuban Missile Crisis movie “13 Days” serves as a prequil to Oliver Stone’s “JFK”
As a testament to the idea that the things that happen to real people are more interesting and sometimes more incredible than anything you can possibly make up, the film “13 Days” takes the events of October, 1962 – the Cuban Missile Crisis, and presents them in a credible and fascinating way.
It’s interesting that President George W. Bush invited some of the Kennedy family to watch the film with him at the White House, a newsworthy situation that tells us that at least the new Pres saw the film even if he might not get the movie’s message, though it’s frightening to even ponder how the President today would be able to disregard the advice and desire of practically all of his generals.
Leaving the theater however, thoughts and conversations weren’t about how things would play out today, as most people didn’t even talk about the movie or the Missile Crisis, but instead, the focus of interest was on the assassination of President Kennedy. “13 Days” provides a motive as to why the assassination happened and who was really responsible. As researcher John Judge noted, “13 Days” is kind of a prequel to Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” as it lays out the groundwork and sets the stage for what was to come.
Of course the primary producer, Kevin Costner and actor, probably wouldn’t have made this film if he didn’t make “JFK,” but there’s more than just Costner’s starring roles in both film that brings these two startling events and movies together.
Since most of the viewers of both films weren’t even alive when the events portrayed actually happened, and those of us who were only know the secondary participants by name, “13 Days” gives good insight into the character and personalities of some major players in the JFK assassination drama, especially Air Force General Curtis LeMay, Maxwell Taylor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, defense secretary Robert McNamara and UN ambassador Adele Stevenson, as well as the Kennedy brothers themselves.
The movie opens at Kenny O’Donnell’s home breakfast table where Costner quizzes his kids on the names and titles of Kennedy’s cabinet, of which he is a part. An important part of this movie is seeing how the Kennedy administrators thought and talked with each other, sometimes doubting and questioning each other’s judgment and then implicitly trusting other decisions while questioning the advice and motives others, especially those who tried to box them into a forced military reaction. Withholding that option and continuing a reasoned diplomacy was probably one of the most pivotal decisions that has shaped our society, while the assassination of JFK became a watershed event from which democracy has yet to recover.
Gearing up for a fight, and then not having one was harder on the military than we had been led to believe. A bar owner once told me that he hired bouncers, not to fight or eject unruly patrons, but to keep things cool and not have any fights. But sometimes bouncers don’t see it that way and don’t think they’re earning their money if they don’t punch somebody out every once in awhile. It’s sort of like a “Jack Ruby-Sparky Syndrome,” except in a more institutionalized form.
You see it in the wrath of the eyes of General LeMay, (played by Kevin Conway) the strategic “Bomb’m back to the stone age,” Air Force commander who was used to giving orders, not following the demands of a couple of punk rich kids a few years out of college. The generals weren’t even trusted by Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), who had to sleep in his office at the Pentagon because he was afraid if he left the military would make a move without him, and McGeorge Bundy, the national security aid who served as a “buffer” between the military and the administration. Both were eventually taken in by the assassination and Vietnam.
It was the Cuban Missile Crisis and how Kenned handled it, which made the national security forces recognize that they weren’t going to be able to force their hand during a crisis, when they were paralyzed from holding a coup d’etat when it would be particularly visible and blatant. So they had to do it during a lull in the action, at Dealey Plaza, when the palace guard was down and most vulnerable.
After JFK permitted the producers of Fletcher Nebel’s “Seven Days In May” to film scenes in the White House, he was asked by journalist Joe Alsop if he thought such a coup attempt as depicted in the fictional story could ever actually happen, and Kennedy said it could, “if there was such an event such as the Bay of Pigs,” and then a similar event, then a military takeover of the government could happen.
The motive for the military’s acquiescence for the assassination, if not the actual execution, stems from the failure of the Bay of Pigs, together with the triumph of diplomacy over military action during the Cuban Missile Crisis, iced by the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the American University “Peace Speech,” all together ensured the removal of the Kennedy administration and replacing it, constitutionally, with one headed by Lyndon Johnson. This military take-over included McNamara and Bundy, who got the message, helped devise the necessary strategy and ensured the redirection of national security policy away from detente and diplomacy and towards war and covert and overt aggression.
The acceptance of this general outline and framing of the assassination of President Kennedy is one generally accepted by most people, but vehemently denounced by mainstream historians, politicians and the media, though it is one that will be born out by the evidence when all the facts are in and the total truth is known.
The association of the Missile Crisis and the assassination is not made as clearly in the otherwise excellent made-for-tv movie “The Missiles of October,” which stars Marty Sheen and also clearly delineates the back room dealings that went on during the crisis. The association may come out even more clearly with a closer reading of the actual transcripts of the taped conversations published in The Kennedy Tapes – Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, (Edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow; Belknap Press of Harvard, 1997).
These recently declassified and released papers are now available at the National Security Archives (NSA), at George Washington University, which was established by a group of journalists who researched and wrote books on national security matters based on government documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Many of these documents are published on their web site, which makes note of the fact that few, if any of the official documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis even mention Kenneth P. O’Donnell, whose role played by Costner is a featured attraction in “13 Days.”
Some critics have said that O’Donnell’s actual limited role takes some legitimacy away from the truthfulness of the film, while the producers, in the aim of accuracy, pulled some early New York Times advertisements that included photographs of missiles that had yet to be developed in 1962. While the extent of O’Donnell’s role can be questioned, if not measured, you can’t get around the fact that he was there, in the room, when most of the significant events occurred, and I intend to explore his role further.
According to The Kennedy Tapes, “On Monday morning, October 22, Kennedy convened his advisors…in the Cabinet Room. One of those who had probably attended earlier meetings but who spoke for the first time at this meeting was Kenneth O’Donnell. A Harvard classmate of Robert Kennedy and an aide to John Kenney since the senatorial campaign of 1952, O’Donnell was Special Assistant to the President, charged especially with managing the President’s time…”
As described in A Common Good – The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O’Donnell, by daughter Helen O’Donnell (William Morrow, N.Y., 1998), “Kenny’s desk was right outside the Oval Office. As special assistant and appointments secretary, he was the gatekeeper to the president. He was relentless and tough in his new job as had ever been on the campaign. He was widely known as Kennedy’s political chief of staff,…won the nickname ‘the Cobra’….There were three words that epitomized Kennedy O’Donnell in Jack Kennedy’s White House….’Cut the crap.’…That attitude made him valuable to President Kennedy, who knew he could rely on Kenny to handle what needed to be handled, preserve the president’s time, and protect the president’s back.”
As seen through the eyes of O’Donnell, “13 Days” takes you into the White House, the Pentagon war room and cockpits of the Surveillance planes, but leaves the reactions of the Cubans and Russians, other than backchannel KGB contact, totally out of the picture. Before they put in the Hot-Line red phones in the White House and the Kremlin, so both leaders can talk one-on-one in times of crisis, the official bureaucratic channels were so cumbersome that the best and quickest way to communicate a message to Khrushchev in Moscow was either through the press, which in this case meant a KGB officer who they knew had the direct ear of the Russian leader.
In the movie, the KGB officer’s bonafides as a close associate of Khrushchev are checked by comparing career chronologies of both men, which came up with a match of them having served in the same place at the same time during WWII, and shows the importance of compiling such chronologies when conducting such research.
One message RFK gives to to his KGB friend that’s not in the movie is that JFK is afraid that he can no longer keep the military leaders at bay and if he doesn’t take a more aggressive stance, they may even attempt to get rid of him and take over the government. Khrushchev knew the feeling well, as he too was under the same pressures from his military commanders, who eventually did contribute to the removal of Khrushchev within a year of JFK’s murder.
Rather than the Soviets, it is the U.S. Military commanders who come off as the Bad Guys they apparently were. In discussing the possible options the U.S. had in response to the placement of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba, about one fourth of the advisors, mostly military men, advocated an immediate surgical, tactical air strike and full scale invasion of Cuba. As we know today, that would have resulted in a total thermonuclear war since the Russians already had tactical nuclear weapons in place in Cuba under the command of field Colonels who would have used them if attacked. [We didn’t know this at the time however, and only learned of the tactical nukes at a unique conference on the Missile Crisis that was held in Havana in the 1990s and included Cuban, Russian and American scholars and participants, including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The Cubans have already engaged in two similar conferences with American researcher in regards to the JFK assassination.]
JFK mentioning these tactical nukes in the movie is one of the few historical gaffs in the film. Another technical inaccuracy is press secretary Pierre Salinger shown giving a press conference – “The President has a cold,” without a cigar in his hand, while General LeMay is never shown without one, which brings up an interesting anecdote.
LeMay is reported to have been at JFK’s autopsy at Bethesda by attending technician, Paul O’Conner, who told me that one of the physicians performing the autopsy ordered him to tell whoever was smoking a cigar in the room to leave. When O’Conner told him it was Gen. LeMay, the order was withdrawn.
LeMay comes off as a particularly bad guy before the first day is over, when he storms out of a meeting saying, “Those Kennedy boys are going to destroy this country!”
LeMay wants the Air Force to be given the ball so they can throw their bombs, but instead, JFK, RFK and O’Donnell make personal phone calls to the pilots of reconnaissance planes to order them not to even get shot at so as not to instigate a forced retaliatory strike. When one pilot returns with the photos, his ground grew marvels at the bullet holes in the wing, which the pilot says were made by a flock of sparrows. “Were they .20 or .40 caliber sparrows?” the ground crewman asks, but LeMay is more forceful in his questioning, “Did they shoot you with so much as a BB gun?” LeMay wants to know, but the good soldier, true to his Commander-in-Chief, just says it was a “cakewalk.”
It was a good way of emphasizing the desire and determination of the military brass to get into a scrum, while at the same time showing how President Kennedy operated, and how his administrative style included making personal contact with the players on the front lines, making sure they knew the game plan and what their role was, as well as the fact that the guy issuing the orders was really on top of things.
The Kennedys, as they did in their personal as well as professional lives, looked towards challenges as they did the game of football. In the movie, as in their lives, events overtook them, but they still made time to joke a little, throw the ball around the meeting room or backyard and confront crisis as a team effort.
Rather than a close associate of the President, Kenny O’Donnell was one of RFK’s guys, the quarterback on Bobby’s Harvard team, and so he was given a quarterback position in the White House, the Appointments Secretary. O’Donnell was the greater at the door, the Sgt-at-arms who you had to get past in order to get to the President.
Bobby, as the Attorney General, was the nation’s Top Cop, but also served as JFK’s right-hand-man and chief crisis coordinator. While the Cuban Missile Crisis was probably RFK’s greatest moment, everyone in the entire country and probably the civilized world eventually became caught up in the anxiety of the crisis, as it concerned the continuation of our society as we know it.
In the middle of it all, Coster’s O’Donnell takes time out to see his son play some high school football. Then back at the office he has to run physical interference and step in for a block to keep LeMay from putting his chest into Kennedy’s face.
The football analogy is brought into play again later when JFK tells Bobby to get ready to take Adlai Stevenson out of the UN and put in someone more force full (John J. McCloy), but when nuclear push comes to shove Stevenson comes through in the clutch. Asking quite succinctly if the Russian Ambassador denies that there are long range offensive ballistic missiles in Cuba, Stevenson says, “I’ll wait for an answer until Hell freezes over.” Stevenson stayed in the game, then got roughed up by a gang of thugs in Dallas on UN Day and urged JFK not to go to there.
Kennedy however, did take General Walker out of the game, as he did CIA chief Allen Dulles along with Richard Bissell, the Godfather of the U2 and the architect of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Also pulled from his position was “America’s James Bond,” William Harvey, who experienced the wrath of RFK when Bobby learned that Harvey had sent in a commando team to Cuba after RFK had ordered a halt to all such operations.
Oswald was in the Great Game too, only a less significant player, but a player nonetheless. He had previously been associated with the U2 program as a USMC radar operator in Japan, before he defected to the Soviet Union, where his knowledge of the U2 (altitude and speed) would have been of interest to the Russians. Gary Powers said that he believed Oswald gave them the information they needed to shoot him down, thus averting the Eisenhower-Khrushchev detente meeting and postponing the end of the Cold War for decades. It’s possible Oswald attended Powers’ trial in Moscow.
At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October, 1962, Oswald was back home in Texas with his Russian bride and baby daughter, and just beginning a technicians job at Jaggers-Chiles-Stoval, a graphics art firm that employed Oswald for six months. Besides doing routine advertising work for corporate clients, this company also did classified work for U.S. Army Intelligence, reportedly placing marks, arrows and captions on photographs, including aerial photos taken from the U2.
So it is conceivable that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, some of the U2 photos of the missiles in Cuba may have been tagged with their place names by Lee Harvey Oswald before they were seen by the President and his national security advisors. [See : Oswald at JCS – “Legend – The Secret Life of Lee Harvey Oswald” by E.J. Epstein.]
The possibility that the Russians would place long range offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba had been suggested years earlier by Gen. Walker, who claimed that such a scenario was played out in war games as long as seven years earlier, before Castro even came to power, and the prelude for crisis was enunciated quite clearly by Clair Booth Luce in Life Magazine a week before the actual crisis.
So the number of possible options they had to work with should have been more numerous than were available at the time, and the administration shouldn’t have had to think on it’s feet and devise their own plays once the crisis got underway, which is when the U2 photos showed undeniable, irrefutable and certifiable evidence of the presence of the missiles in Cuba.
From the transcripts of the tapes, Kennedy seemed to approach it like a chess match:
“President Kennedy: Let me just say a little, first, about what the problem is, from my point of view. First, I think we ought to think of why the Russians did this. Well, actually, it was a rather dangerous but rather useful play of theirs. We do nothing, they have a missile base there with all the pressure that brings to bear on the United States and damage to our prestige.
“f we attack Cuban missiles, or Cuba, in any way, it gives them a clear line to take Berlin, as they were able to do in Hungary under the Anglo war in Egypt….We would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin. We would have no support among our allies….After all, Cuba is 5 or 6,000 miles from them. They don’t give a damn about Cuba. But they do care about Berlin and about their own security…So I think they’ve got…I must say I think it’s a very satisfactory position from their point of view…And clearly, if we do nothing then they’ll have these missiles and they’ll be able to say any time we ever try to do something about Cuba, they’ll fire these missiles. So that I think is dangerous, but rather satisfactory, from their point of view…
“Now, that’s what makes our problem so difficult. If we go in and take them out on a quick air strike, we neutralize the chance of danger to the United States…On the other hand, we increase the chance greatly, as I think – there’s bound to be reprisal from the Soviet Union, there always is – [of] their just going in and taking Berlin by force. Which leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons – which is a hell of an alternative – and begin a nuclear exchange, with all this happening…
“So I don’t think we’ve got any satisfactory alternatives…On the other hand, we’ve got to do something. Because if we do nothing, we’re going to have the problem with Berlin anyway…So that’s why we’ve got to respond. Now the question is: What is our response?”
During the course of the crisis, the lessons of history are mentioned throughout the great debate that would set the course of action – JFK mentions the failures of the strategic policy makers of World War I when he cited The Guns of August, which explains how the technology of warfare outpaced outdated and obsolete policies, which led to the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of soldiers and civilians.
LeMay brings up “Munich,” after which there is a long, discernable pause in the conversation, since that is where the British under Lord Chamberlain, and the U.S. behind Joseph Kennedy, Sr., the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, attempted to avoid World War II by adopting a policy of appeasement towards the militaristic Nazi German government. JFK, as Joe Kennedy’s son, showed however, that he didn’t share his father’s position on isolation, nor his allegiances to his old bootlegger friends.
JFK: “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth – but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”
Both George Ball and Bobby bring up Pearl Harbor, and how the U.S. had not nor should pull off such a sneak attack, while others, like LBJ, didn’t want to “telegraph” the fact that we’re coming.
JFK even quotes Sun Tzu’s The Art of War when he says, “The war is won or lost in the temple, years before the battle is fought,” to emphasize the point that there’s something wrong about doing something against your own basic ethics and instincts.
LBJ, who is undisputedly the ugliest person in the entire show, gets in the last word, congratulating the President on his handling of the crisis with some offhand remark about “passing the mid-terms,” which I think he means by the positive effect the whole episode will have on the next election, which of course, he will win.
It must have been difficult to cram in so much in just a few hours, but the movie’s script, by David Self, is really well done, and such writers seldom get the credit when their work is so good.
It all quite fittingly ends with a voiceover of JFK giving the punch line of his American University speech of June 10, 1963, that many credit as laying the groundwork for detente, which ends with the final truth, “…and we are all mortal.”
O’Donnell and Dave Powers wrote their recollections of the Kennedy campaigns and administration in Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye, (Little, Brown, 1970), but the book ends before Dallas, though both men were in the motorcade and were witnesses to Kennedy’s death, as recalled in A Common Good, by Helen O’Donnell (Wm. Morrow, 1998).
“When we were riding through Dallas on our way from Love Field to the Trade Mart luncheon, the sun was shining brightly and warmly. The crowd at the airport had been warm, enthusiastic, and friendly. The crowds lining the street were equally warm and friendly. In the backup car, next to Dave Powers, I turned to Dave and said, ‘There is certainly nothing wrong with this crowd.’…Sitting on the two jump seats of the Secret Service backup car, only about ten feet behind the president and Jackie, we could see their faces clearly when they turned to nod and wave to screaming people pushing into the street beside them. The president seemed thrilled and fascinated by the crowd’s noisy excitement. I knew he had expected nothing like this welcome.”
“When we were making the sharp turn around Dealey Plaza in front of the School Book Depository building, I asked Dave Powers what time it was. Ahead of us in the back seat of the Lincoln, the president was sitting on the right side of the car with his arm outstretched, waving to the crowd in front of the Depository. Mrs. Kennedy, in her pink suit with matching pink pillbox hat perched on the back of her seat was beside him on his left with red roses presented to her at the airport on the seat between them….’It’s twelve-thirty,’ Dave said, looking at his watch. “Fine,’ said Kenny. ‘It’s only five minutes from here, so we’re only running five minutes behind schedule.”
“I had just finished speaking when we heard shots, two close together and then a third one. There must have been an interval of at least five seconds before the third and last shots, because, after the second shot, Dave said to me, ‘Kenny, I think the president’s been shot!’ I made a quick sign of the cross and said, ‘What makes you think that?’ ‘Look at him,’ said Dave. ‘He was over on the right, with his arm stretched out. Now he’s slumped over toward Jackie, holding his throat.’”
“While we both stared at the president, a third shot took the side of his head off. We saw pieces of bone and brain tissue and bits of reddish hair flying through the air. The impact lifted him and shook him limply, as if he were a rag doll, and then he dropped out of our sight, sprawled across the backseat of the car. I said to Dave, ‘He’s dead.’”
At Parkland Hospital, LBJ deferred the first few decisions to O’Donnell, then when JFK was officially pronounced dead, LBJ left to commandeer Air Force One, saying O’Donnell told him to take it instead of his own plane, Air Force II.
“Kenny O’Donnell often said, ‘We mustn’t live on might-have-beens.’ Sadly, he didn’t follow his own advice. He became trapped by the deaths of John and Bobby Kennedy in a realm of lost possibilities. My father never recovered from Bobby’s death….After those two tragedies, he never cared about politics again, and he never gave his heart over to another politician again…the fight in the man was gone. Though it was alcoholism that would be the technical cause of both my mother’s and father’s deaths, in reality they died long before their last breath was released.”