Bobby Kennedy’s Role in the Cuban Missile Crisls

By Larry Tye

Robert Kennedy during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Robert Kennedy during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

HAVANA TIMES — Thirteen Days, Bobby Kennedy’s memoir of the Cuban missile crisis, is the inside story of the most nerve-shattering two weeks in human history. It tells how the Soviet Union, spinning “one gigantic fabric of lies,” smuggled half of its entire stockpile of intercontinental ballistic missiles onto our island enemy a mere ninety miles south of Florida. It recaptures the dread our nation felt in realizing that “within a few minutes of their being fired eighty million US citizens would be dead.” It reminds us that in the final days of October 1962, the world abruptly found itself poised at a crossroads where Armageddon seemed not just possible, but likely.

Fortunately, the USA’s most lionhearted men took charge. Deliberating around an egg-shaped table in the president’s cabinet room, with George Washington peering down from his picture frame, steely-eyed peacemakers outargued and outvoted fire-breathing generals. There would be no bombing raids on the missiles and no invasion of the Communist archipelago. We would begin with a naval blockade, keeping out new weapons and demanding the withdrawal of those already there. But would the Soviet vessels steaming toward our armada of warships reverse course?

“We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk declared when the blockade held and the Soviets acquiesced to U.S. demands. So riveting was the tale Bobby told, and so artful was his narration, that it became the basis not just for the acclaimed docudrama Missiles of October, but for how a generation of Americans understood its scariest moment. A generation of Russians, too.

His story, however, is laced with fictions. As with much of Bobby’s public take on history, Thirteen Days is a fundamentally self-serving account that casts him as the champion dove he would like to have been, rather than the unrelenting hawk he actually was through much of those two weeks. To reinforce that scenario, he mischaracterized many of his fellow deliberators and concealed the fact that U.S. leaders had ignored repeated warnings about the Russian missile buildup. It was the kind of embellishment and misdirection that might be excused if the consequences hadn’t unsettled America’s foreign policy for years to come. It also was the sort of skillful myth building that Bobby had learned from mentors like Joe Kennedy and Joe McCarthy.

Robert Kennedy at an Executive Committee meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis
Robert Kennedy at an Executive Committee meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis

The biggest deceit in Bobby’s narrative of the missile crisis is his failure to level with readers about how we got into it. The actual confrontation wasn’t a story of the devious Russians acting out of the blue and guileless United States responding with what Bobby called “shocked incredulity.” The buildup was a predictable response to U.S. aggression.

In April 1961, just three months after President Kennedy’s inauguration, we had armed, trained, and bankrolled an army of émigrés who tried to reclaim Cuba by staging an invasion at a swampy inlet on its southern coast known as Bahía de Cochinos, or the Bay of Pigs. When that failed, Bobby personally steered a campaign to sabotage Cuban agriculture, incite political upheaval, and chart new schemes for invading the island and deposing its leaders. The myopic attorney general failed to consider how his plotting would be perceived in Havana and Moscow. Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro logically concluded that the United States was hell-bent on eliminating his regime.[1]

It was foreseeable that his primary protector, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, would come to his aid, especially when doing so would underscore Soviet resolve in other Cold War hot spots like Berlin and Laos. “We had to think up some way of confronting America with more than words. . . . The logical answer was missiles,” Khrushchev wrote in a memoir spirited to the West for publication in 1970. “The installation of our missiles in Cuba would, I thought, restrain the United States from precipitous military action against Castro’s government.” It worked. The U.S. should have understood that sort of gambit, since we had signed similar mutual defense pacts—backed up by nuclear weapons—with our allies in Europe.

Bobby Kennedy book coverWhile the Cuban missile crisis wasn’t Bobby’s shining moment, as his book suggested, it did transform him. He hadn’t yet shed his cold-warrior instincts, but spending thirteen days on the brink of extinction sobered him forever. He proved so adept at appropriating other men’s wise ideas that it barely mattered how few were his own. He learned as he went, as he had in Montgomery and Oxford, with the same growing pains. His foreign policy portfolio, which was there from the beginning of the administration, swelled in a way not seen before or since in the office of the attorney general.

The change that mattered most, yet was least noticed at the time, was how those two weeks in October helped Bobby become his own man even as he continued serving as his brother’s adjutant. That process of separation and self-realization had started with his father’s stroke ten months earlier and would accelerate with the death of his brother fourteen months later.

“Exposure to danger strips away the protective covering with which each of us guards his inner thoughts—it quickly and dramatically displays a man’s character,” Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense back then, wrote in an introduction to Bobby’s book. The missile crisis had precisely that effect on the attorney general. He perceived more clearly than ever the essential parts he played for Jack—as sounding board and stand-in, guardian and conscience—and imagined in a way he never had before one more role for himself: successor.
[1].  Former defense secretary Robert McNamara would concede the point at a conference in Havana in 1992 attended by Castro as well as his former Soviet allies and American foes. Based on the Bay of Pigs attack, U.S.-backed covert operations, and the bellicose anti-Castro voices in Washington, the former defense secretary said, “If I had been a Cuban leader, I think I might have expected a U.S. invasion” (Blanton, “Cuban Missile Crisis Isn’t What It Used to Be,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin).

*Larry Tye is the author of seven books, including Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, which is now available from Random House, local bookstores and


13 thoughts on “Bobby Kennedy’s Role in the Cuban Missile Crisls

  • I can tell you Ben, but cannot reveal my source, that in 1955/56 the US was advised in Vietnam to operate a campaign similar to the ten year war which Britain successfully ran in Malaysia in the post Second World War years against the communist infiltration.
    The difficulty experienced in giving such advice was that the US preferred to extol the virtues of their supposedly overwhelming “fire power” and duly paid the price of defeat and the loss of 58,000 lives.
    Their “fire-power” had previously been demonstrated in South Korea when following the UN forces being driven into the south-west corner of the country, General Ridgeway was appointed as Commander-in-Chief. Ridgeway built up an enormous stockpile of weaponry and then when commencing the advance, had a barrage for twenty four hours during which more ammunition was used than during the whole of the North-West Europe campaign.
    The results of the differences of approach in Vietnam and Malaysia can be seen today.

  • Thanks Bob, you have given me good reason for going to the library. One of the fascinations of writing is in searching the background of individuals and finding incidents or events which provide indication of character and abilities. for example Fidel Castro was Cuba’s best all round schools athlete of the year in 1944.
    Fidel’s excellent physique, his education both at Jesuit schools and at University coupled with his personal self-conviction of always being correct made him a natural leader.
    Little brother Raul being of much lesser physique and dropping out of University was on the other hand gifted with what today we refer to as “street smarts” and a mind which would have made him a rich man in the capitalist world. The development of GAESA with all those subsidiary ‘companies’ is a consequence of his commercial talents.
    I say that in reflection of Talbot’s “Brothers, the hidden history of the Kennedy years.” Make a good basis for a similar book upon the Castro’s. But I think would require several volumes as much has not been disclosed!

  • At the Paris Peace Accords, the North Vietnamese signed a treaty to end the war. The US withdrew their troops from South Vietnam, but promised to maintain economic & military support for South Vietnam.

    Unfortunately, in a complete lack of resolve and integrity, the US congress voted to cut off aid to South Vietnam. North Vietnam rearmed, in violation of their treaty agreements, and 3 years later launched an invasion of South Vietnam.

    The US abandoned the people they had promised to help defend. As a consequence, more Vietnamese died in the 10 years following the US withdrawal from Vietnam, than died during the years the US was involved in the fighting.

    Those millions of deaths you can chalk up to the Communists you admire.

    By the way, and because there should always be a Cuban angle to our comments, there was a team of Cuban interrogators in Hanoi who specialized in torturing US POW’s.

    The US/UN mission in Korea succeeded. North Korea invaded South Korea with the goal of conquering it. They failed to do that. Mao supported the invasion as a means of tying down and bleeding the US for a decade. he failed to do that. Therefore, with respect to the goals of the people who launched the war, Kim & Mao, they failed. Another 5 million dead victims of communism.

    Interesting to see the Cuban VP in North Korea last week shaking hands with Fat Kim, praising North Korea as a friend of Cuba. Evil loves company.

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