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

  • July 6, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    Interesting, not a word about Vietnam. Wasn’t it the Korean War where President Truman, who had the balls to drop two Atomic Bombs on two Japanese cities, but fired General Douglas MacArthur for taking the American Army up to the Chinese Border against his orders. Yup, a little too much resolve on the General’s part. Also, sounds more like an American operation to me. The General was ordered to withdraw all American forces south. The United Nations vote was just a cover.

  • July 6, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    My point Bob was that the primary problem was the impression that JFK left upon Nikita Krushchev in Vienna following the Bay of Pigs (Giron) debacle and that the nuclear crises and the Berlin Wall were consequences. Secondly that the cost was the removal of part of the NATO allies nuclear shield in Turkey and a guarantee of no military intervention in Cuba. (But not reported at the time!)
    Those were the ”costs” of the agreement made with Krushchev.
    Let no one forget however that whereas President Harry S. Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb to end a World War, Fidel Castro urged Nikita Krushchev to use it to start a one.

  • July 6, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    Thanks to the United Nations entry in the Korean war, South Korea today is a democratic economically successful country with a GDP of $22,590. North Korea in comparison is a Kim family communist dictatorship with a GDP OF $589. It’s obvious that the tyrants of the Korean peninsula are the Kim family of North Korea. The United Nations found it necessary to impose sanctions on North Korea because of the belligerent nuclear ambitions of the Kim dictatorship.

  • July 6, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    During the time of the missile crisis, I lived 8 miles north of the #1 US target, McCoy Air Force base in Orlando. McCoy AFB, only 400 miles away from the Cuban missile sites was the home of half of the US nuclear deterrent carried on B-52 bombers. For a week there was a constant overfly of departing aircraft as half of the 15 B-52s, half of the 15 KC-135 refueling tankers, and a good part of the 130 fighters were in the air at all times. It was a memory that one will never forget.

    JFK and Bobby Kennedy’s primary achievements in my mind will always be that they kept us out of nuclear war. Had they not done that basically everything else, and I mean EVERYTHING, would be irrelevant.

  • July 6, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    The Vietnamese War is a good example of this.. Over 500 thousand American troupes involved.Not nearly enough. Too much reluctance! 58,000 Americans dead. Millions of tons of napalm. No where near enough. Not enough American resolve? Who really are the tyrants of which you speak? The Korean War is a close second. A stalemate. Reluctant warriors?

  • July 6, 2016 at 9:26 am

    As has been the case with tyrants around the world who have interacted with American Presidents, they always underestimate American resolve. They mistake the lack of bluster and hyperbole for weakness. American Presidents who have respected the will of the American people to move slowly toward military conflict are seen as reluctant. President Obama’s inaction in Syria faced the same criticism. The Castros, like other tyrants see this reluctance as an opportunity to be exploited. History however remains on the side of the “reluctant” warrior. When Americans do resolve to fight AND to win, victory has always been the result.

  • July 5, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    The Cuban missile crises was a consequence of John F Kennedy’s first meeting with Nikita Krushchev in Vienna in 1961. Krushchev managed to dominate Kennedy and concluded that coupled with Kennedy’s failure to support the Bay of Pigs foray (Giron) that he was weak. Within months he commenced building the Berlin wall and then followed his assessment by placing nuclear weapons in Cuba. Even John F. Kennedy himself later admitted that at the Vienna meeting Krushchev “Beat the hell out of me.”
    Although Bobby Kennedy made much of the agreement made with Krushchev to withdraw nuclear weapons from Cuba – contrary to the advice of Fidel Castro who encouraged a first nuclear strike upon the US in a cable of 27th October – the long term beneficiaries were the USSR as Kennedy agreed to withdraw US nuclear weapons from Turkey which formed part of the NATO shield and Cuba as Kennedy agreed that the US would not in the future attack Cuba militarily.
    Naturally Bobby Kennedy endeavored to re-arrange and put a protective coat of varnish upon the debacle, but Nikita Krushchev outwitted both brothers. As he would have said: “The dumbest peasant knows the horse best.”

  • July 5, 2016 at 8:14 pm

    Great book promo. Skillful use of the missile crisis to tie the book promo into Cuba so it could be included in Havana Times.

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