Ted Sorensen's Fallible Memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis


Mr. Stern, historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 1999, is the author of Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, 2003, and The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis, 2005, both in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.

Ted Sorensen’s new memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, is, as expected, beautifully written and unfailingly engaging. His story demonstrates that “the best and the brightest” can serve loyally in the White House without sacrificing their integrity or compromising their intelligence and idealism.

The prologue to Sorensen’s 531 page personal story begins with his role in the Cuban missile crisis—which he rightly regards as the most unforgettable and consequential event during his public career. His account is familiar to students of the Cold War. On Friday evening, October 26, 1962, Nikita Khrushchev sent JFK a secret letter proposing to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba in return for an American pledge not to invade the island nation. The following morning, however, the Soviet leader made a public proposal that upped the ante—demanding that the U.S. also remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Several key members of the ExComm, including  Sorensen, urged the president “to ignore the second letter…conveying a much stiffer tone” and to accept the proposal in the first, more “hopeful” letter. 1

Sorensen justifiably recalls that he “felt the weight of the world on my shoulders” as he began, at the direction of JFK and with the aid of RFK, to draft the letter to Khrushchev. “It was a giant gamble on our part. … [But] we succeeded…[and] the world stepped back from the very brink of destruction and has never come that close again. I am proud that my letter helped contribute to that conclusion.” 2

This diplomatic strategy came to be called the “Trollope Ploy”—a reference to a plot device by nineteenth-century British novelist Anthony Trollope, in which a woman interprets a casual romantic gesture as a marriage proposal. But, is that what really happened? Sorensen frankly acknowledges “the hazards of memory, inevitably influenced by selectivity and hindsight.” 3 Today, however, historians can get it right by turning to the ultimate historical deus ex machina—the verbatim recordings of the ExComm meetings.

The tale of this shrewd maneuver for responding to Khrushchev’s letters began with Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett, writing in the Saturday Evening Post less than two weeks after the crisis and exploiting leaks from the Kennedy brothers themselves. Their article launched the notion that Robert Kennedy “had dreamed up the ‘Trollope Ploy’ to save the day.” Several years later, anticipating a run for president in a nation bitterly divided by the Vietnam war, RFK was eager to take credit for hitting upon a path to peace in 1962: “I suggested, and was supported by Ted Sorensen and others, that we ignore the latest Khrushchev letter and respond to his earlier letter’s proposal…that the Soviet missiles and offensive weapons would be removed from Cuba under UN inspection and verification, if, on its side, the United States would agree with the rest of the Western Hemisphere not to invade Cuba.” 4

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing several years after the crisis, also claimed that RFK “came up with a thought of breathtaking simplicity and ingenuity: why not ignore the second Khrushchev message and reply to the first?” Ted Sorensen had initially suggested in 1965 that JFK himself had “decided to treat the latest [October 27] letter as propaganda and to concentrate on the Friday night [October 26] letter” and had delegated RFK and Sorensen to come up with the right wording. However, when Sorensen completed the manuscript of Thirteen Days, published in 1969 after RFK’s assassination, he did not challenge Bobby Kennedy’s claim to have first suggested this strategy.5

Several historians have insisted that “the idea was hardly Robert Kennedy’s alone … [and] entered the discussion gradually and was embraced by several members” and that the Trollope Ploy “is a little too elegant to explain the muddle and confusion of the debate on Saturday, October 27.” There has, nonetheless, been a long-standing consensus that the Trollope Ploy was “a brilliant way to handle it,” “an ingenious ploy,” “an extraordinary diplomatic move,” and that RFK met with the Soviet ambassador on the evening of October 27 “to execute the Trollope Ploy.”6

President Kennedy himself immediately seized on the political benefit in this simple and dramatic explanation of the settlement of the crisis. Only hours after Khrushchev publicly agreed to remove the missiles, JFK phoned former Presidents Eisenhower, Truman and Hoover—and deliberately misinformed them. He accurately reported that Khrushchev, on Friday, had privately suggested withdrawing the missiles in exchange for an American promise not to invade Cuba; but, on Saturday, the Kremlin leader had sent a public message offering to remove the missiles if the U.S. pulled its Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. Kennedy informed Eisenhower, “we couldn’t get into that deal”; assured Truman, “they … accepted the earlier proposal”; and told Hoover that Khrushchev had gone back “to their more reasonable [Friday] position.” Eisenhower, who had dealt personally with Khrushchev, asked skeptically if the Soviets had tried to attach any other conditions. “No,” Kennedy replied disingenuously, “except that we’re not gonna invade Cuba.” The surprised former president concluded, “this is a very, I think, conciliatory move he’s made.” The Trollope Ploy became the key to the administration’s cover story—which was indelibly fixed in public consciousness by the 1974 television film, “The Missiles of October,” based on RFK’s Thirteen Days.

Despite the availability of the ExComm tapes since 1998, the Trollope Ploy remains an all but immovable fixture in the legend and lore of the Cuban missile crisis—much like the resilient fable that Lincoln dashed off the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. However, the crisis was not resolved so neatly and the actual story is far more subtle and complex.

At the morning ExComm meeting on Saturday, October 27, barely twelve hours after receiving Khrushchev’s Friday evening letter—the first of the two celebrated letters—JFK read aloud a press statement just handed to him: “Premier Khrushchev told President Kennedy in a message today he would withdraw offensive weapons from Cuba if the United States withdrew its rockets from Turkey.” The president and the ExComm were clearly startled and puzzled. “He didn’t really say that, did he?” Sorensen recalled. “No, no,” Bundy insisted. But JFK speculated, “He may be putting out another letter,” and called in press secretary Pierre Salinger. “I read it pretty carefully,” Salinger asserted, “and it didn’t read that way to me either.” “Well,” the president concluded, “let’s just sit tight on it.” Rusk finally articulated the emerging realization in the Cabinet Room: “This appears to be something quite new.”

President Kennedy had actually been probing the Turkish option for more than a week and asked, “where are we with our conversations with the Turks?” Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Nitze responded firmly, “The Turks say that this is absolutely anathema” and view it “as a matter of prestige and politics.” JFK understood the world of prestige and politics as well as anyone in the room, but told Nitze, “Well, I don’t think we can” take that position “if this is an accurate [report].” Bundy argued that if Khrushchev had backed away from the “purely Cuban context” in last night’s letter, “There’s nothing wrong with our posture in sticking to that line.” “Well maybe they changed it overnight,” JFK persisted. “He’s in a difficult position to change it overnight,” Bundy reasoned, “having sent you a personal communication on the other line.” “Well now, let’s say he has changed it,” JFK snapped, “and this is his latest position.” “Well, I would answer back,” Bundy retorted testily, “saying that ‘I would prefer to deal with your interesting proposals of last night.’” Someone egged Bundy on, whispering, “Go for it!”

JFK’s reply represents a turning point in the discussions—leaving no doubt about his evolving position: “Well now, that’s what we oughta be thinkin’ about. We’re gonna be in an insupportable position on this matter if this becomes his proposal. In the first place, we last year tried to get the missiles out of there because they’re not militarily useful, number one. Number two, it’s gonna—to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade.” “I don’t think so,” Nitze countered, as someone muttered “No, no, no” in the background. “Deal with this Cuban thing. We’ll talk about other things later.”

Salinger soon brought in a news ticker report which JFK read aloud, confirming Khrushchev’s new public offer to link the missiles in Cuba and Turkey. “Now we’ve known this might be coming for a week,” Kennedy asserted impatiently, “This is their proposal.” “How much negotiation have we had with the Turks this week?” JFK grumbled again, “Who’s done it?” “We haven’t talked with the Turks,” Rusk tried to explain, “The Turks have talked with us.” “Where have they talked with us?” JFK demanded. “In NATO,” Rusk replied. “I’ve talked about it now for a week,” the president protested again. “Have we got any conversations in Turkey with the Turks?” Rusk reiterated, “We’ve not actually talked with the Turks.”

Under Secretary of State George Ball declared that approaching the Turks on withdrawing the Jupiters “would be an extremely unsettling business.” “Well,” JFK barked, “this is unsettling now George, because he’s got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people will regard this as not an unreasonable proposal. I’ll just tell you that.” “But, what ‘most people,’ Mr. President?” Bundy asked skeptically. The president shot back: “I think you’re gonna have it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba … when he’s saying, ‘If you get yours out of Turkey, we’ll get ours out of Cuba.’ I think you’ve got a very tough one here.” “I don’t see why we pick that track,” Bundy repeated, “when he’s offered us the other track in the last 24 hours.” JFK interrupted irritably, “Well he’s now offered us a new one! … “I think we have to assume that this is their new and latest position, and it’s a public one.”

Rusk speculated that the personal Friday night letter had been sent by Khrushchev “without clearance,” and a consensus quickly developed that “The Politburo intended this one.” “This should be knocked down publicly,” Bundy demanded. “Privately we say to Khrushchev: ‘Look, your public statement is a very dangerous one because it makes impossible immediate discussion of your private proposals and requires us to proceed urgently with the things that we have in mind. You’d better get straightened out!’” CIA director John McCone, backed by several others, affirmed, “This is exactly right!”

Ball subsequently revealed that the Soviet UN Ambassador had told Secretary General U Thant that Khrushchev’s private Friday letter had been “designed to reduce tension but so as far as he was concerned,” the public Saturday message, just as the president had argued that morning, “contained the substantive proposal.” Bundy continued to resist, “I think if we sound as if we wanted to make this trade to our NATO people and to all the people who are tied to us by alliance, we are in real trouble.” The national security adviser admonished the commander-in-chief: “I think that we’ll all join in doing this if this is the decision. But I think we should tell you that that’s the universal assessment of everyone in the government that’s connected with these alliance problems.”

Sorensen noted that “practically everyone here would favor the private [Friday] proposal.” RFK  likewise argued that the Turkish trade “blows the possibility of this other one, of course, doesn’t it?” “Of what?” JFK asked impatiently. “Of getting an acceptance of the [Friday] proposal,” RFK replied. Rusk proposed new language for JFK’s message to Khrushchev: “‘As I was preparing this letter, I learned of your broadcast message today. That message raises problems affecting many countries and complicated issues not related to Cuba or the Western Hemisphere.’” After the crisis in Cuba is resolved, “‘we can make progress on other and wider issues.’”

President Kennedy recognized immediately that Rusk’s wording did not reflect his own persistent stance on pursuing a Turkey-Cuba trade—his advisers appeared to be trying a rather transparent end run around his position. “Well, isn’t that really rejecting their proposal of this morning?” JFK countered irritably. “I don’t think so,” Bundy replied, supported by Rusk. “It’s rejecting the immediate tie-in [on Turkey],” Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon affirmed, “But, we’ve got to do that.” “We’re not rejecting the tie-in,” President Kennedy responded forcefully.

“Mr. President,” Ambassador Thompson admonished, “if we go on the basis of a trade, which I gather is somewhat in your mind, we end up, it seems to me, with the Soviets still in Cuba with planes and technicians and so on. Even though the missiles are out, that would surely be unacceptable and put you in a worse position.” President Kennedy replied with practical and determined logic: “But our technicians and planes and guarantees would still exist for Turkey. I’m just thinking about what we’re gonna have to do in a day or so, which is 500 sorties in 7 days and possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take missiles out of Turkey.” Perhaps recalling his own wartime experience, JFK continued, “And we all know how quickly everybody’s courage goes when the blood starts to flow and that’s what’s gonna happen in NATO.” If the Soviets “grab Berlin, everybody’s gonna say, ‘Well, that was a pretty good proposition.’ Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s the difficulty. Today it sounds great to reject it, but it’s not going to after we do something!”

If the Turks were adamant, JFK continued, then the U.S. ought to get NATO to “put enough pressure on them. I just tell you,” he lectured, “I think we’re better off to get those missiles out of Turkey and out of Cuba because I think the way of getting ‘em out of Turkey and out of Cuba is gonna be very, very difficult and very bloody, one place or another.” Bundy finally seemed to be coming to terms with the president’s resolve: “If you…are yourself sure that this is the best way out, then I would say that an immediate personal telegram of acceptance [of the trade] was the best thing to do.” But JFK objected to forcing the deal on Turkey and NATO. “I’d rather go the total blockade route which is a lesser step than this military action. What I’d like to do is have the Turks and NATO equally feel that this is the wiser move.”

Sorensen pressed the president to delay replying to Khrushchev’s public Saturday offer and instead respond privately to the secret Friday letter: “There’s always a chance that he’ll accept that. … We meanwhile won’t have broken up NATO over something that never would have come to NATO.” “The point of the matter is,” Kennedy snapped again, “Khrushchev’s gonna come back and refer to his thing this morning on Turkey. And then we’re gonna be screwing around for another 48 hours. … He’ll come back and say, ‘Well we’re glad to settle the Cuban matter. What is your opinion of our proposal about Turkey?’ So then we’re on to Monday afternoon, and the work goes on. … He can hang us up for three days while he goes on with the work.” “For three weeks!” Dillon muttered. “Let’s start with our letter,” JFK continued. “It’s got to be finessed … we have to finesse him.” President Kennedy, nonetheless, had no illusions about Khrushchev’s response to U.S. pressure to go back to Friday’s proposal, “which he isn’t gonna give us. He’s now moved on to the Turkish thing. So we’re just gonna get a letter back saying, ‘Well, he’d be glad to settle Cuba when we settle Turkey.’”

Thompson repeated that Khrushchev might still accept the Friday deal since he could still say that he had removed the U.S. threat to Cuba. “He must be a little shaken up,” RFK pointed out, “or he wouldn’t have sent the [Friday] message to you in the first place.” “That’s last night,” JFK retorted impatiently. “But it’s certainly conceivable,” RFK replied, “that you could get him back to that. I don’t think that we should abandon it.” JFK halfheartedly agreed that there was no harm in trying. “All right,” he finally conceded, “Let’s send this” letter dealing with Cuba first. But, he cautioned that the key question remained, “what are we gonna do about the Turks.”

“Actually, I think Bobby’s formula is a good one,” Sorensen observed; “we say, ‘we are accepting your offer of your letter last night and therefore there’s no need to talk about these other things.’ ” The president seemed willing to go along with this scheme on the slim chance that Khrushchev would at least agree to a cessation of work, but he clearly remained unconvinced and unenthusiastic: “As I say, he’s not gonna [accept] now [after his public offer on Turkey]. Tommy [Thompson] isn’t so sure. But anyway, we can try this thing, but he’s gonna come back on Turkey.” Bundy jumped on the bandwagon as well: “That’s right, Mr. President. I think that Bobby’s notion of a concrete acceptance on our part of how we read last night’s telegram is very important.”

After news arrived that a U-2 had been shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air missile, the president tried to placate the opponents of a Turkish deal by reiterating that “first we oughta try to go the first route which you suggest and get him back [to the Friday offer]. That’s what our letter’s doing.” But, at the same time, he again underscored his lack of conviction about that strategy and made clear that he was determined to keep the Turkish option alive: “Then it seems to me we oughta have a discussion with NATO about these Turkish missiles.”

At the end of the late afternoon ExComm meeting, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Deputy Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatric, Ball, Bundy, RFK, Rusk, Sorensen and Thompson joined President Kennedy, at his invitation, in the Oval Office. JFK revealed that his brother Bobby was about to meet with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and requested advice on what to tell the Soviet diplomat. The group quickly agreed that RFK should warn Dobrynin that military action against Cuba was imminent and make clear, consistent with Khrushchev’s Friday letter, that the U.S. was prepared to pledge not to invade Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn. But, the president continued to press for a deal on the Turkish missiles. Rusk, finally recognizing JFK’s determination, suggested that RFK advise the ambassador that a public quid pro quo for the missiles in Turkey was unacceptable, but the president was prepared to remove them once the Cuban crisis was resolved. The proposal was quickly accepted. Robert Kennedy was instructed to tell Dobrynin that any Soviet reference to this secret proposal would make it null and void.

JFK clearly had no faith in the strategy of accepting Khrushchev’s Friday offer and ignoring his public Saturday message. Instead, he worked secretly with Rusk to put together an emergency fall-back plan. The secretary of state arranged to have former deputy UN Secretary General Andrew Cordier put in place a covert back channel strategy by which U Thant would announce, after receiving private word from Rusk that U.S.-Soviet negotiations had failed, a UN plan through which the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would mutually agree to remove their missiles from Turkey and Cuba. JFK was prepared to gamble that if the U.S. publicly accepted this supposedly neutral plan, it would be very difficult for the Soviets to reject it. Khrushchev’s unexpected decision the following morning made the Cordier gambit moot and Rusk did not reveal this closely-held secret for over twenty-five years.

The October 27 meeting tapes prove that ExComm participants and scholars have read far too much cunning and coherence into the discussion of the so-called Trollope Ploy. President Kennedy, as the tapes document, stubbornly and persistently contended that Khrushchev’s Saturday offer could not be ignored precisely because it had been made public. In fact, JFK’s eventual message to Khrushchev did not ignore the Saturday proposal on Turkey, but left the door open to settling broader international issues once the immediate danger in Cuba had been neutralized. JFK ultimately offered the Kremlin a calculated blend of Khrushchev’s October 26 and 27 proposals: the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba, an American non-invasion pledge (contingent on UN inspection), a willingness to talk later about NATO-related issues and a secret commitment to withdraw the Jupiters from Turkey.

Robert Kennedy did tirelessly press his brother not to give up on Khrushchev’s Friday proposal. JFK, although skeptical and reluctant, finally agreed to try this scheme despite repeatedly predicting that the Soviet leader would inevitably “come back” to his public offer on the Turkish missiles. The president had no illusions about forcing Khrushchev to settle for the terms in his earlier message and assented to this strategy largely to placate unyielding ExComm opposition. In fact, as revealed by RFK’s meeting with Dobrynin and the other secret steps taken later that day and kept from much of the ExComm, JFK was determined not to allow this chance to avert nuclear catastrophe slip away. As he had reminded the gung-ho Joint Chiefs on October 19, an attack on Cuba could prompt the firing of nuclear missiles against American cities and result in 80-100 million casualties—“you’re talking about the destruction of a country.”

In fact, President Kennedy’s inclination to pursue the Turkish option actually seems to have hardened in response to the dogged intractability of his advisers at the October 27 meetings. The ExComm toughened JFK’s determination simply by repeatedly and all but unanimously opposing his preferred course of action—a deal on the Turkish missiles. This celebrated diplomatic slight of hand, in essence little more than a cosmetic concession to the full ExComm by JFK, ultimately served to conceal the real agreement that secretly—and peacefully—resolved the Cuban missile crisis. The ExComm tapes prove conclusively that the Trollope Ploy is a myth.

Related Links

  • Sheldon Stern: The Cuban Missile Crisis Myth You Probably Believe (12/25/04)
  • 1 Ted Sorensen, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, Harper Collins, 2008, 1-2.

    2 Op cit., 3, 8.

    3Op. cit., xvi.

    4 Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life, Simon and Schuster, 2000, 438; Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Norton, 1999, 77.

    5 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, 828; Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy, Harper and Row, 1965, 714-5.

    6 James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis, Noonday, 1990, 162, 179, 369; Thomas, Robert Kennedy, 438; Robert W. Merry, Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop—Guardians of the American Century, Viking, 1996, 389; Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, Little, Brown, 1971, 227; David A. Welch and James G. Blight, “The Eleventh Hour of the Cuban Missile Crisis: an Introduction to the ExComm Transcripts,” International Security,Winter 1987/88, 16.

    7 The following account of the October 27 meetings is adapted from the author’s ExComm narrative, Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings. The original version appeared on HNN as “The Cuban Missile Crisis Myth You Probably Believe,” October 25, 2004.

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    Oscar Chamberlain - 7/2/2008

    Even if Kennedy had known, and I have not seen evidence to suggest that he did, a blockade in advance of evidence would have been an international disaster, and the seizure of a ship to find the proof would have risked a war on what would have seemed ephemeral grounds.

    Sheldon M. Stern - 6/29/2008

    US intelligence did not know about the shipment of missiles until the partially completed sites were discovered by a U-2 on October 14.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/27/2008

    Dallek, too, has selective amnesia about the Turkish quid pro quo in the Cuban crisis, as do probably most Kennedy hagiographers... It is a disgrace so much of the U.S. public has never heard about the secret agreement, and thanks all the false movie treatments, and histories, and inaccurate reminiscences like Sorensen's, it never will. Your inside report from the ExComm tapes, revealing that Kennedy himself demanded this against the advice of all of his advisers, was news to me and quite interesting. By that time, of course, it was not that bad a deal for us. But how does one explain why Kennedy allowed the Soviets to install the missiles in Cuba in the first place? Sen. Keating of NY was complaining publicly for a long time before Kennedy admitted it was happening. He should have ordered the Navy to chase those ships back to Russia before they planted any missiles in Cuba, and cited the Monroe Doctrine.