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The written transcripts provided below are
The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House
During the Cuban Missile Crisis
Edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)
[All times indicated are approximate]
On the morning of October 16, CIA imagery
analysts brief the president on the results of U-2 photo
reconnaissance overflights of Cuba on Sunday that had
discovered the existence of Soviet medium-range ballistic
missiles (MRBM) in Cuba. The briefing begins with
an interpretation of the images by Arthur Lundahl from
CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC),
who speaks loud and clearly, with supporting analysis
from the CIA's Acting Director Marshall Carter, whose
voice is low and often difficult to hear. The president
then asks Lundahl several questions about the images.
Lundahl then introduces Sidney Graybeal ("our missile
man") who shows the president photos of similar weapons
systems taken during Soviet military parades. Obviously
concerned, the president then asks Graybeal when the missiles
will be ready to fire. Secretary of Defense Robert
McNamara then joins the discussion, adding that he doubts
that the missiles are yet ready to fire since there is
no indication that nuclear warheads are present.
Following the CIA briefing, McNamara and
then General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, brief the president on his military alternatives.
Taylor's presentation is followed by Secretary of State
Dean Rusk. Rusk's voice is faint, but he warns the
president that an air strike on the missile installations
may actually trigger a "general nuclear war" if the event
that they are in fact armed and the Soviets decide
to launch them before they are destroyed on the ground.
McNamara disagrees. The president then questions
the Soviet motive for establishing the missile sites,
with subsequent comments from McNamara and then Taylor.
National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy then asks whether
a military strike on Cuba would include all airfields.
McNamara responds. Rusk is then faintly heard asking
again about the Soviet motive, suggesting that Soviet
Premier Nikita Khrushchev may want the U.S. to "live under
the fear" of Soviet nuclear weapons the same way the Soviets
live with missiles in Turkey. The clip ends with
the president asking how many missiles are in Turkey.
Later in the same meeting the president
sums up the military options. His brother, Attorney
General Robert Kennedy, adds that a full invasion is also
an option, but warns that this would probably provoke
a response from the Soviets. A short conversation
then ensues in which McNamara and Taylor explain how much
time is needed to prepare for a full invasion of Cuba.
At the end of the Tuesday session, the
president states that the group should consider the various
proposed responses to the situation, adding that photo
reconnaissance flights should continue and that preparations
for strikes against the missile installations should continue
since "that's what we're going to do anyway . . . We're
going to take out these missiles." He is not yet
sure, however, whether to proceed with a larger air strike
or an invasion. Bundy then asks whether they have
ruled out a political solution, and discussion then ensues
about various tracks that could be followed. Bundy
and the president then discuss the importance of keeping
the plans secret. McNamara mentions the importance
of careful contact with Khrushchev. The president
then asks how long it will be before preparations for
air strikes are complete. Carter and Lundahl respond
that cloud cover makes the reconnaissance mission difficult.
Near the end of the clip, Robert Kennedy inquires as to
how long it would take invading U.S. military forces to
gain control of Cuba.
By the morning of October 18 CIA analysts had discovered
that, in addition to the medium-range missiles spotted
two days earlier, the Soviets were also installing intermediate-range
ballistic missiles (IRBM) on the island, with twice
the range of the MRBMs. While this discovery hardened
the positions of those advocating a swift military response,
others, like Under Secretary of State George Ball, warned
about the consequences of such an escalation "without
giving Khrushchev some way out."
This clip begins with a discussion between
Ball and McNamara about the consequences of an unannounced
U.S. air strike on the military installations. Ball
argues that they need to consider the consequences of
such an attack and the likely reaction of Khrushchev in
Turkey or elsewhere. Treasury Secretary Douglas
Dillon states, "I think they'll take Berlin." The
president replies that Khrushchev will "take Berlin" whether
or not the strikes are announced ahead of time.
McNamara echoes this point. After an unidentified
speaker mentions that a blockade might buy some time,
the president again asserts that Khrushchev will "grab
Berlin" over missiles that do not even threaten the NATO
allies. Soon thereafter, McNamara raises the specter
of a Soviet invasion of Berlin which Ball says will lead
to "general war." This prompts the president to
ask, "You mean a nuclear exchange?" After some more
discussion the president tries to bring some focus to
the discussion suggesting that they try to determine what
course of action would most lessen the chance of nuclear
war, "which," he notes, "is obviously the final failure."
Discussion then turns to the option of a blockade of Cuba,
and the president asks whether this would require a declaration
On the evening of October 22 the president publicly
announced that Cuba would be subject to a U.S. naval
blockade. The next evening, shortly after the
signing of the blockade order, the president met with
At the end of this meeting the president and his brother
are left alone for a private discussion. The recording
is of very poor quality, but the conversation is notable
for its intimacy and candor. The president, after
telling Robert about a dinner date, discusses the blockade
JFK: It looks really mean,
doesn't it? But on the other hand there wasn't
any choice. If he's going to get this mean on
this one, in our part of the world [unclear], no choice.
I don't think there was a choice
RFK: Well, there isn't any choice.
I mean, you would have been, you would have been impeached.
JFK: Well, I think I would have been impeached.
If there had been a move to impeach, I would have been
under [unclear], on the grounds that I said they wouldn't
do it, and . . .
RFK: [Unclear] something else. They'd
think up some other step that wasn't necessary.
You'd be . . . But now, the fact is, you couldn't have
done any less.
Shortly thereafter, the president asks his brother
about Georgi Bolshakov, a Soviet defense attaché
who had until recently been an important channel for
passing messages to Moscow:
JFK: [Unclear] Georgi?
RFK: We had lunch today.
JFK: What did he say?
RFK: He said they are going to go through
JFK: The ships are going to go?
RFK: He said this is, this is a defensive
base for the Russians. It's got nothing to do
with the Cubans.
JFK: Why are . . . They're lying [unclear]
that. Khrushchev's horseshit about the election.
Anyway, the sickening thing that's so very bad is what
this revealed about . . . This horror about embarrassing
me in the election. Who said [unclear]?
RFK: Well, you know, he [Bolshakov] probably
heard it. I hadn't seen him. Then he came
back to see me, and he said Khrushchev had a message
for you. And I followed it up. The [Soviet]
ambassador kept telling me: "Don't pay attention to
JFK: But they didn't tell you that there
were missiles there.
RFK: No. Remember, I told you that.
On the early afternoon of Saturday, October 27, as
the Soviet freighter Grozny approached Cuba toward
the now inevitable confrontation with the blockade force,
an American U-2 spy plane was reported overdue from
a reconnaissance flight over Cuba. With these
issues impending, the president and his advisers grappled
with how to respond to conflicting messages from Khrushchev;
one received the night before and another received that
morning. The first indicated that Khrushchev would
be willing to remove the missiles in exchange for Kennedy's
pledge not to invade Cuba. The second, however,
proposed that the removal be contingent upon the removal
of similarly placed U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey.
The president begins with a discussion of NATO and concerns
that European allies might have with the removal of the
Jupiters from Turkey. Rusk is hopeful that NATO
solidarity might shake Khrushchev "off his pony."
Ball then proposes that they simply ignore Khrushchev's
second letter [regarding the exchange] and simply respond
to the first. As guidance for Thomas Finletter,
U.S. ambassador to NATO, the president suggests that he
tell them, if they don't support the removal of the Jupiters,
to prepare for some retaliatory action from the Soviets
in Berlin or Turkey. Rusk raises the possibility
that the missiles (both U.S. and Soviet) be turned over
to the United Nations for destruction. The president
is most concerned with the reaction of the Turks to which
Several more issues are raised, and Bundy
at one point suggests an enlargement of the blockade.
At the end of the clip, in response to a point raised by
Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, the president warns of what
might happen if an invasion takes place. "We all know
how quickly everybody's courage goes when the blood starts
to flow," he notes, adding that, the removal of the Jupiters
might later seem like "a pretty good proposition" after
the Soviets take Berlin.
On Saturday evening, October 27, with the Soviet freighter
Grozny rapidly approaching the blockade, the
president sent off a letter to Moscow accepting the
terms of the October 26 letter, the removal of the missiles
in Cuba in exchange for a U.S. non-invasion pledge.
At the same time, the president instructed his brother
to privately assure Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin
that the Jupiter missiles in Turkey would be removed
but that this pledge could not be made publicly.
Just before he left for his meeting with Dobrynin,
Robert Kennedy had this exchange with McNamara:
RFK: How are you doing
McNamara: Well. How about yourself?
RFK: All right.
McNamara: You got any doubts?
RFK: Well, no. I think that we're
doing the only thing we can do, and well, you know.
McNamara: I think the one thing, Bobby,
we ought to seriously do before we act is be damned
sure they understand the consequences. In other
words, we need to really show them where we are now,
because we need to have two things ready: a government
for Cuba, because we're going to need one--we go in
with bombing aircraft; and, secondly, plans for how
to respond to the Soviet Union in Europe, because sure
as hell they're going to do something there.
The conversation continues as Dillon rejoins the discussion:
Dillon: You have to pick
out the things they might--
McNamara: Well, I think, that's right.
McNamara: I would suggest that it will
be an eye for an eye.
Dillon: That's the mission.
Unidentified: I'd take Cuba back.
Unidentified: I'd take Cuba away from Castro.
Unidentified: Suppose we make Bobby mayor