Benjamin Schwarz: Everything You Know About the Cuban Missile Crisis is Wrong

Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantics literary editor and national editor.

...Scholars ... have ... known a very different story [of the Cuban Missile Crisis than the traditional pro-Kennedy narrative]: since 1997, they have had access to recordings that Kennedy secretly made of meetings with his top advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “ExComm”). Sheldon M. Stern—who was the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library for 23 years and the first scholar to evaluate the ExComm tapes—is among the numerous historians who have tried to set the record straight. His new book marshals irrefutable evidence to succinctly demolish the mythic version of the crisis. Although there’s little reason to believe his effort will be to any avail, it should nevertheless be applauded.

Reached through sober analysis, Stern’s conclusion that “John F. Kennedy and his administration, without question, bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis” would have shocked the American people in 1962, for the simple reason that Kennedy’s administration had misled them about the military imbalance between the superpowers and had concealed its campaign of threats, assassination plots, and sabotage designed to overthrow the government in Cuba—an effort well known to Soviet and Cuban officials.

In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy had cynically attacked Richard Nixon from the right, claiming that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow in the U.S.S.R.’s favor. But in fact, just as Eisenhower and Nixon had suggested—and just as the classified briefings that Kennedy received as a presidential candidate indicated—the missile gap, and the nuclear balance generally, was overwhelmingly to America’s advantage. At the time of the missile crisis, the Soviets had 36 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 138 long-range bombers with 392 nuclear warheads, and 72 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warheads (SLBMs). These forces were arrayed against a vastly more powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal of 203 ICBMs, 1,306 long-range bombers with 3,104 nuclear warheads, and 144 SLBMs—all told, about nine times as many nuclear weapons as the U.S.S.R. Nikita Khrushchev was acutely aware of America’s huge advantage not just in the number of weapons but in their quality and deployment as well.

Kennedy and his civilian advisers understood that the missiles in Cuba did not alter the strategic nuclear balance.

Moreover, despite America’s overwhelming nuclear preponderance, JFK, in keeping with his avowed aim to pursue a foreign policy characterized by “vigor,” had ordered the largest peacetime expansion of America’s military power, and specifically the colossal growth of its strategic nuclear forces. This included deploying, beginning in 1961, intermediate-range “Jupiter” nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey—adjacent to the Soviet Union. From there, the missiles could reach all of the western U.S.S.R., including Moscow and Leningrad (and that doesn’t count the nuclear-armed “Thor” missiles that the U.S. already had aimed at the Soviet Union from bases in Britain)....

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