Sheldon M. Stern: The Cuban Missile Crisis 45 Years Later ... A Personal and Professional Remembrance

Roundup: Talking About History

[Sheldon M. Stern, a member of the editorial board of Washington DeCoded, served as historian at the John F. Kennedy Library from 1977 through 1999. He 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.]

For those who lived through it, the 1962 missile crisis was surely the most terrifying event of the Cold War.

After President Kennedy’s sober revelation on the evening of October 22, I was so unsettled that I took a long walk through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I thought it might be my last, or at least my last with the city’s infrastructure intact. All the while I glanced skyward, believing—incorrectly—that I would be able to see incoming, nuclear-tipped Soviet missiles before they detonated.

As a 23-year-old graduate student in history, primarily interested in civil rights, I could never have imagined that 19 years later, I would be the first non-member of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) permitted to listen to all the secret tape recordings of the missile crisis meetings.[1] The mere existence of surreptitious Kennedy tapes was not publicly known until 1973, when the revelations about Nixon’s White House taping system forced open the issue of whether other post-war presidents had also secretly taped conversations.[2] Even so, the arduous processing of the ExComm recordings, and recognition of what the more than 22 hours contained, did not begin until 1981, four years after I became historian at the John F. Kennedy Library.[3]

Once I began listening to the ExComm tapes, it quickly became evident that they would alter many presumptions about the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War. In the early 1980s, for example, a prominent Cold War historian with deep knowledge of the missile crisis told me that JFK’s recklessness in October 1962 would ultimately prove that he was “more dangerous than Nixon.” At that point, I had already gleaned enough from the tapes to know he was dead wrong, but was, of course, prohibited by law from speaking or writing about still-classified material. I simply replied that he might be in for some big surprises once the tapes were released—a slow process which began in 1983 and concluded early in 1997.[4]

The ebbing, and then end, of the Cold War brought forward significant archival evidence from Communist sources about the missile crisis, or “Caribbean crisis” as it was termed in Moscow, and “October crisis” as it was (is) called in Havana. These new primary sources predictably resulted in valuable additions to, and corrections of, the historical record, which previously had a decided Washington tilt to it.[5] That was unavoidable, of course. For the first quarter century after the missile crisis, essentially the only primary evidence had come from American sources.

But not even hard-to-get archival documents from the Kremlin, which no Cold War historian reasonably imagined would ever see the light of day, have influenced our understanding of the missile crisis quite as much as Kennedy’s secret tape recordings. The tapes are the closest thing imaginable to a verbatim record of the crisis. In the famous formulation of Leopold van Ranke, the 19th century historian, the tapes promise the tantalizing prospect of history “wie as eigentlich gewesen ist”—as it really was....

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Sheldon M. Stern - 10/23/2007

Operation Northwoods was never implemented but the Russians probably knew about it.
If you were not scared, you were clearly the exception. I recommend Alice George, Awaiting Armageddon.

Stephen Kislock - 10/19/2007

Mr. Stern,
How does "Operation Northwoods", fit into the Cuban Missle Crisis?

As for those who lived through it, the 1962 Cuban Missle Crisis, you say it was Terrifying. I was US Marine Corps M.P., stationed at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico (1962-1963). I can honsetly say, No one in the M.P. Barracks was scared or terrified, just mad at the extra hours spent on duty and no off base liberty...