War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 
WAR AND PEACE IN THE NUCLEAR AGE - TAPES D04003-D04006 ROBERT MCNAMARA
Cuban Missile Crisis and aerial reconnaissance
ARE THE EVENTS OF THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS STILL QUITE CLEAR TO YOU?
Twenty-three years have elapsed, so the answer is no. But certain of
the events are burned into my mind and will never leave me.
WOULD YOU THINK IN MANY WAYS IT WAS THE MOST DELICATE TIME, OR THE
MOST...WHAT ADJECTIVE WOULD YOU USE?
I would use the most dangerous time of the seven years I served as
Secretary of Defense. And I say that because it was a period of great
tension confrontation between East and West. And confrontation in the
nuclear age carries with it risks that the world has never faced
before. And that's what led to the tension. I think it was fortunate
that we had a President who understood that the nuclear age introduced
totally different dimension into political reactions to crises such as
the Cuban Missile Crisis. And not only was it the most dangerous period
in my seven years as Secretary of Defense, but I think it was also the
most expertly handled.
LET'S GO BACK TO THE SORT OF PRE-MISSILE CRISIS TIME FOR A MINUTE, DID
YOU, DID YOU THINK -- IF YOU CAN TRY TO TAKE YOUR MIND BACK THERE --
THAT THERE WAS ANY CHANCE THAT THE SOVIETS WOULD PUT MISSILES IN CUBA?
Certainly I didn't think it was a probability. I don't want to say I
didn't believe there was any chance. But I didn't think it was a
probability. Before the photographs became available in approximately
October 15th or 16th, 1962, we had for two or three months reports that
the Soviets were engaged in some additional activity in Cuba.
Additional military personnel, Soviet ships apparently landing military
equipment in Cuba. We were fairly certain that they were introducing
some form of missiles, presumably anti-aircraft missiles or something
of that kind. We had no indication that they were nuclear-tipped
surface-to-surface missiles capable of striking at intermediate range
the West-- the East Coast of the United States. And as a matter of
fact, when we had queried the Soviet Union on the possibility that they
were introducing offensive weapons into Cuba they indicated that was
not the case. They made categorical statements that they-- there were
no offensive weapons being introduced into Cuba, and there would be
AND YOU BELIEVED THEM?
We believed the statements in the sense that we saw no evidence at that
point of contrary action. But we continued to maintain very heavy
reconnaissance of what was going on. And it was through that
reconnaissance carried out on Sunday the 14th of October, that we
obtained photographs of the missiles being introduced into Cuba.
BEFORE WE GET INTO THE PHOTOGRAPHS, YOU HAD NO-- I MEAN, DESPITE THEIR
PRONOUNCEMENTS THAT THEY WEREN'T DOING IT AND, I MEAN, DID YOU EVER
HAVE ANY FEELING THAT WAS SOMETHING THAT THEY MIGHT DO? I MEAN,
I, myself, didn't think it a likelihood. Because it seemed to me that,
(a) it would not change the military balance I can go into the reasons
for that later if you wish; and (b) it would carry with it very serious
political risks which might actually lead to some form of military
confrontation. And therefore I thought they would be sufficiently wise
to avoid those risks and they would not introduce the weapons. But, I
recognized before -- this isn't just with hindsight -- I recognized
before the possibility that they would, and it was absolutely essential
that we carry out the reconnaissance that would keep us informed of
whether they were introducing offensive weapons.
DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU FIRST HEARD ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS? WHERE YOU
WERE AND WHAT THE SITUATION WAS?
I don't recall when I first heard about the photographs. It was, I
IT WAS THE NIGHT OF THE-
...early Tuesday morning or Monday evening. The photographs were taken
on a Sunday, they were developed and rushed up to Washington on Monday.
I believe the President was informed very early Tuesday morning, 8 or 9
o'clock. I don't recall whether I had been informed late Monday evening
In any event, by Tuesday morning 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning, both
the President and I knew.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST REACTION WHEN YOU SAW THEM? WHAT DID YOU THINK OF
THEM? COULD YOU, COULD YOU SEE ANYTHING ON THEM YOURSELF?
Well, they were interpreted for me by photo-interpreters, and once the
photo-interpreters interpreted them properly, it was very obvious that
offensive weapons had been introduced, both aircraft and missiles. And
it was clear that it was essential we immediately organize ourselves to
decide how to react. And that was, of course, the President's
conclusion. And right on the spot very early Tuesday morning he formed
what came to be known as the executive committee a very small group of
high level officials whom he charged with considering how to react and
whom he instructed to tell no one, other than a very limited number of
people, of the evidence we had of the introduction of offensive weapons
THERE'S ONE OF THE UH, I DON'T KNOW IF THAT RINGS A BELL FOR YOU OR...
Well, sure, it's a picture of a missile site. I don't recall whether
this was one we-
THAT'S ONE OF THE FIRST ONES.
--had on that Tuesday morning.
THAT'S ONE OF THE FIRST ONES.
Well, you can see very clearly the missiles. You don't have to be a
photo-interpreter to see it. What you don't see on here are the nuclear
warheads. And it's my recollection that we never had any photographic
evidence of the existence of nuclear warheads on this soil of Cuba,
even up to the time when Khrushchev said that he would withdraw the
missiles. There was a high probability that the nuclear warheads were
there. Why would they put the launchers there if they didn't have
warheads? But I think it's interesting that there are no warheads
visible on this photograph, nor were there on any other photographs
that I'm aware of that we had throughout the entire period.
CAN YOU REMEMBER JUST WHEN YOU FIRST SAW THOSE PHOTOS, AND THEY WERE
INTERPRETED FOR YOU BY ART LUNDAHL AND THE PEOPLE IN THE MEETING, WHAT
YOUR IMMEDIATE SORT OF REACTION WAS?
Well, my immediate reaction was one of concern, because this at a
minimum, carried very high political implications. It was clear that we
could not tolerate introduction of Soviet offensive weapons into this
hemisphere. And in some way we would have to accomplish their removal.
I didn't believe that the introduction of the weapons shown here or
shown on the other photographs would change the military balance
between East and West. But I did believe, then, and I do believe now,
that it was a politically unacceptable move. We could not allow this
hemisphere to become a base for offensive Soviet forces. And this was
the first step in that direction. It had to be turned back.
Political response to the Cuban Missile Crisis
YOU'VE SAID, YOU KNOW, NOW THERE ARE THESE EXCOMM TAPES THAT HAVE BEEN
RELEASED AND THAT SORT OF THING, AND ONE OF THE QUOTES FROM YOU IS "A
MISSILE IS A MISSILE, AND IT DOESN'T REALLY MATTER WHETHER IT'S..."
That's a very important statement.
SAY IT AGAIN, AND TELL ME WHAT IT MEANS.
My first reaction when I saw the photographs which I expressed in one
of the early EXCOMM meetings -- I think I expressed Tuesday morning as
a matter of fact -- was that the movement of those missiles into Cuba
the introduction of those offensive weapons, and they are offensive
weapons, into the Western Hemisphere, did not change the military
balance between East and West or between the US and the Soviet Union.
Now why did I say that? Because at that time, we had on the order of
6,000 strategic nuclear warheads, mostly bombs, some missiles. The
Soviets had on the order of 300, mostly bombs. We were so far superior
in numbers, you might have thought that we had military superiority in
nuclear arms. That was not the case. Our numerical superiority, great
as it was, on the order of 20-to-1, could not be translated into usable
military power. Before the missiles were put in Cuba! Now why? Because
we knew, having studied the possibility, that there was no way we could
use our 6,000 warheads, if we launched first, against the Soviet Union.
There was no way we could destroy such a high percentage of their 300
as to leave them with a number so small that it could not inflict
unacceptable damage on the US Even a few of those 300, if launched on
target in the U.S., would kill millions of Americans. And no
responsible President and no responsible Secretary of Defense -- and
certainly Kennedy was responsible, and I hope I was -- would expose his
nation to that. And therefore we knew there was no way that we could
utilize, in a military fashion, this tremendous military superiority-
SO WHY DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT?
Well, the important point I want to come to is that conclusion we held
before the missiles were put on the soil of Cuba. Now after they were
on the soil of Cuba, they didn't strengthen the Soviet capability
because the Soviets didn't have a usable nuclear power against us
before they were put there, and they didn't have a usable power in the
sense of a first-strike capability against us after they were put
there. So the military balance didn't change. But politically it was a
different day, a different world. The Soviets had introduced offensive
weapons into the western hemisphere. There was a strong possibility if
we tolerated that they would expand their offensive forces. This was a
political shift that would affect the behavior of our allies, the
behavior of the Latin countries. They would be fearful. They would
change their attitudes their political programs, their political
platforms. We couldn't tolerate that. So it was absolutely essential
that the missiles be withdrawn, but they should be withdrawn with the
lowest possible cost, and the lowest possible risk that the actions
leading to the withdrawal would lead to a military confrontation
between East and West. And that was the initial conclusion I put
forward Tuesday morning, it was the conclusion of the President. It w--
it was the problem we grappled [with] the remainder of that week.
Because there were two totally different points of view amongst us. One
group felt that at any cost, including military cost, those missiles
must be driven out of Cuba. The other group felt we should avoid the
use of military force, except as a last resort, and should use all
forms of political persuasion to remove them, and included in political
persuasion I would include the use of a quarantine which we eventually
put in place.
WHAT WAS THE TONE IN THE MEETINGS? WHAT WAS THE STYLE OF THE MEETINGS?
Well, it's very interesting, because the President made quite clear in
the first hours of the crisis that he wanted this group of high level
officials -- the Secretaries of State and Defense the National Security
Advisor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Director of CIA, and
their immediate associates -- to calmly and quietly and continuously
and secretly consider the problem, consider what options he had open to
him, and not talk to anybody until they were prepared to expose the
options to him, give him a chance to thoughtfully consider them, and
allow him to make their -- make his decision. And he did not want us to
feel under excessive time pressure during those considerations. And
therefore the mood was one of tenseness, but it was not one of
irrational response to a crisis. And I think that it's very important
to understand that in the nuclear age war games rarely lead to one side
or the other initiating the use of nuclear weapons. And the reason is
that in a non-crisis atmosphere the burden of responsibility to an
order initiating the use of nuclear weapons, is so clear in your mind
that as I suggest rational people, operating calmly in a period, a
quiet atmosphere, do not, in war games, except under the greatest of
stimulus, initiate the use of nuclear weapons. But, the danger is that
in a period of confrontation, such as we had, you're not in a quiet
atmosphere, you begin to act emotionally rather than rationally, you
have inadequate information, misinformation, emotion. And these act in
multiplication. They're not additive. And they multiply each other's
force, and you very quickly in a period of crisis -and I've seen this
many times -- you very period-- in a period-- in a crisis make
misjudgments. And you, as illustrated by the Soviet misjudgment when
they shot down the Korean aircraft. I felt at the time no Politburo
member issued the order to shoot down the Korean aircraft. The military
commander who shot it down didn't believe he was shooting down a
civilian aircraft with 269 civilians on it. It was a catastrophe. It
would be a tragedy if one made the same misjudgment in a period of
crisis, because of lack of information, because of misinformation,
because of emotion, but instead of shooting down one civilian airplane,
you launched a nuclear attack that destroyed your civilization. That's
the danger. And the President almost intuitively realized that danger,
and he established an atmosphere of quiet contemplation insofar as you
can think of quiet contemplation recognizing the crisis we faced. But
it was a rational debate. And it was a true debate, that went on for
BUT YOU DID HAVE A TIME CONSTRAINT. I MEAN THEY WERE BUILDING THESE
Well, they were building them up, but we concerned about the buildup
that would occur in, say, another 24 hours if we were to use an
additional 24 hours for debate, as I was that we would lose the
opportunity for quiet debate because of a leak of the information. And
we knew that once this information be-- became known to the world, we
would have to act. We would have to act within minutes after it became
known. Preferably we should make it known after we had decided how we
were going to act. And therefore, there was that time constraint. (?)
it for long. But while we held it, the President insisted that we
consider the problem in a contemplative way, and we did.
ONE OF THE, ONE OF THE QUOTES THAT ONE SEES IN READING ABOUT THIS
DEBATE IS ROBERT KENNEDY'S COMPARISON WITH TOJO AND PEARL HARBOR. DO
YOU RECALL THAT?
Well I don't-- what Robert Kennedy said in partial response to those
who were proposing what was called a surgical air strike, designed to
strike the missile sites, destroy them, but which the advocates of it
were honest enough to note would have to be followed almost surely by a
land invasion. And what Robert Kennedy said was it was ill becoming of
a great power to launch an all-out attack on a small nation such as
Cuba. And it was ill becoming, it was in a very real sense, I think he
used the word, immoral. And he didn't want to see a chapter in history
read by his great grandchildren a hundred years from now that indicated
that this great nation had that level of morality.
[END OF TAPE D04003]
Enforcing the quarantine of Cuban during the Cuban Missile crisis
ONCE THE BLOCKADE DECISION WAS MADE, WAS CONTROL OF-
Well, my concern that the political message, and I want to stress this
was a political message, not a military action that the President had
authorized, that the political message was conveyed exactly as I'm
gonna say it was written. Now, what I'm talking about is the
President's determination that the offensive weapons would be removed
from Cuba and not reintroduced into the hemisphere. That was the
message, just exactly that he wanted conveyed to Khrushchev. The
blockade was put in place to convey that message. The blockade wasn't
put in place to sink ships. The blockade wasn't even put in place to
stop ships. Now obviously, if we let all of the ships moving to Cuba
pass through the blockade, it wasn't a blockade. It would have conveyed
a different message, that he said one thing and did another. And so we
clearly were going to have to stop some ships. But it didn't mean we
had to stop all ships, it didn't mean we had to sink ships. It didn't
mean we wanted to start a war with the blockade. And yet we were
calling upon the military, to use military weapons, to literally convey
a political message. That was something that there was no historical
precedent for. And it was absolutely essential, therefore, that control
in that sense, control in the sense of achieving the President's
purpose and no other purpose, and in exactly the way he intended, be
maintained. And I lived in the Pentagon, literally, except for moving--
going to the meetings in the White House, I lived there for the entire
10 or 12 days of the crisis. I never left. Slept there, whatever.
WHAT WAS THAT LIKE, SLEEPING...?
Well, it was...I'd spend so damn many hours in the building anyhow that
a few more -- particularly when I was able to sleep a few hours a night
-didn't bother me at all--
DID YOU GET ENOUGH SLEEP? I MEAN, YOU WERE OBVIOUSLY UNDER STRESS.
We were under stress, and we were working long hours, certainly 18
hours a day in which you were not going to go to sleep.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR VISIT TO THE NAVY'S-
Well, each evening during those days after the quarantine was put in
place, my deputy, Ros Gilpatric, and I would go up to what was known as
flag plot. Our offices were on the 3rd floor of the Pentagon, and the
Chief of Naval Operations office Admiral Anderson's office, and the
naval I'll call it war room, which was called flag plot, was on the 4th
floor. And we would go up each evening, as I remember around 10
o'clock, and the navy staff would have received the latest reports of
movement of Soviet vessels. At that time, by the way, we had taken many
of the Strategic Air Command's aircraft off of Airborne Alert, nuclear
alert, and put them on a mission of scouring the seas and recording the
movements of all Soviet vessels moving toward the western hemisphere,
moving toward Cuba. This in order to know what to expect to quarantine
during the next 24-48 hours. And on one of these evenings, I've
forgotten exactly which evening it was, probably Tuesday or Wednesday
night we saw on the plot an indication that a Soviet vessel would move
up to this guarantee line, an imaginary line as I recall 600 miles off
the coast of Cuba within the next 24 hours, certainly before we would
meet again with the officers in the flag plot. And I asked George
Anderson, Admiral Anderson, the Chief of naval operations what he
proposed to do when that ship reached this imaginary line, the
quarantine line. He said, well, we're supposed to stop it. Well. I
said. . . that's good, George, but how are you going to do it? Well, he
said, we'll use our customary methods. I said, what are those? Well, he
said, we'll hail it. I said, what language will you hail it in? Well,
he said, how the hell do I know he said, I guess we'll hail it in
English. Well, I said, do you know that the Soviets have individuals on
that Soviet freighter that's moving up there that speak English? He
said, come on, how would I know whether they have anybody. Well suppose
you hail it in English and they don't speak English, what are they
going to do? Well, he said, I suppose they'll move on. I said, what are
you gonna do? Well, he said. we'll stop 'em. I said, how are you going
to stop them now, they don't know what you're trying to say. Well, he
said, there's an international flag code. We'll put up the flags. OK,
what if they don't stop then? He said, well, we'll fire a warning shot
across their bow. I said, what if they don't stop then. He said we'll
fire a shot through their rudder. I said, what kind of a vessel is
that? He said, it's a tanker. I said, what are you gonna-- what will
happen if you fire a shot through the rudder? Well, he said, it might
catch on fire, might miss a little bit, might catch on fire. I said,
let me tell you something, George, we're not trying to start a war,
we're trying to convey a message, a political message. There'll be no
shot fired by anybody, by your order, by the order of the destroyer.
And by the way, the name of the destroyer was the Kennedy. I said,
there'll be no shot fired by anybody, no order issued by anybody to
fire a shot, without my personal authorization, and I'm not going to
give you that without discussing it with the President first, is that
understood? He was absolutely furious, and I don't blame him for being
furious in one sense. But he was absolutely furious. He said, he said,
Mr. Secretary, he said, the U.S. navy has been carrying out blockades
-- he called it a blockade, not a quarantine, we thought there was a
slight difference -but he said, the US navy has been carrying out
blockades for 200 years, since the days of John Paul Jones, and we've
carried them out successfully. If you'll keep your hands off this,
we'll carry this out successfully. I said, Admiral, let me tell you one
thing, and I stood up -- there were 30-odd admirals in the room, wasn't
a chair for him, enough chairs for all of them -- I said, let me tell
you one thing, Admiral, there will be no shot fired without my personal
authority. Do you understand that? Is that clear to you? He said, yes
sir, and walked out of the room. Now that was a rather harsh way of
conveying the message that control would remain in the hands of the
President and in his designated representative, the Secretary of
Defense. Not because we didn't trust the military. I had the most
tremendous respect and admiration for them, then and now, but because
this was a unique operation. It was using military weapons, if you
will, to convey a political message. And it was a very delicate
situation, and it had to be controlled, as the President wanted it. It
EVEN AFTER THAT, YOU WERE ON THE PHONE TO THESE SHIPS.
Oh, yes. During the day. And as a matter of fact, the vessel came up to
the line, and it didn't stop, and it went on for while. But then, my
recollection is, I may be wrong in this, but I think I'm correct, that
before the vessel got-- certainly before it got to the island of Cuba
and before it got very far past the quarantine line, we received word
from our reconnaissance aircraft, including these B-47 bombers that'd
been taken off nuclear-- or had been put on reconnaissance, we received
word that every single Soviet ship moving to the Western hemisphere
went dead in the water.
They obviously, the Soviet Politburo had obviously decided that they
were at least going to have to take the first step, which was to stop
the movement of further forces, presumably offensive forces, into Cuba,
and they were not, in effect, then going to contest the quarantine
line. And I think it showed the wisdom and judgment of our not firing
on that first ship which proceeded past the line.
NOW IN ROBERT KENNEDY'S BOOK -- I SAW YOU HAD IT OUT THERE THIS MORNING
-- HE REMEMBERS THAT AS THE MOST SORT OF CRITICAL MOMENT IN THE WHOLE-
It was a dramatic moment.
HOW DID YOU GET THE NEWS AND HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN-
I don't recall exactly. I was in the Pentagon at the time, and I must
have gotten it from the war room. The war room was manned by a general
officer or an admiral 24 hours a day. And my-- I had a telephone on my
desk direct to the war room-
DO YOU REMEMBER HOW YOU FELT AT THAT MOMENT?
Oh, I felt immense relief. Now, now, it was only the first step. They
weren't taking the missiles out at that point, hadn't agreed to take
them out. But they very clearly were reacting to the quarantine. They
very clearly in a sense wanted to proceed the way we wanted them to
proceed. They did not wish to escalate the level of confrontation,
which was already severe, but which we could have escalated by firing
on that first ship as it came to the quarantine line and which they
could have escalated by continuing to try to pour ships through that
quarantine. And here they had in effect told us, by their actions not
their words, that their ships were stopping. And they went dead in the
water, and they turned around.
DO YOU REMEMBER GETTING ON THE PHONE TO SOME OF THOSE SHIPS, TO THE
CAPTAINS OF THE FLAGSHIPS OF THOSE-
I don't. I don't. But I know we were in direct communication -- I don't
recall that I was -- but I knew we were in direct communication with
the Kennedy, which was the destroyer that was on the spot observing
this Soviet tanker at the time it was passing this imaginary line.
NOW THE NAVY GETS VERY UPSET ABOUT ALL THIS. I'M SURE YOU'VE-
Well I don't-- don't blame them. As I say, I understand them. They have
traditions. They had standard operating procedures. They had manuals.
The manuals say a quarantine line's a quarantine line, stop the
vessels. What does a quarantine mean? It means you don't go through it.
You stop something. Particularly the word blockade connotes it even
more clearly than quarantine. And by the way, the navy was calling it a
blockade, because in a sense it was a blockade. We were calling it a
quarantine, thinking it was something slightly looser than a blockade.
The navy said it's a blockade. Standard operating procedure says, use
your power to uphold the blockade, that means preventing things go[ing]
through it. We have the power. And by the way, this is a very important
point. It is often said that, in effect, the US won, if you want to
call it that, prevailed in the Cuban Missile Crisis because of our
superior nuclear power. That's absolutely wrong. We prevailed not
because of our superior nuclear power. We had a superiority of 20 to
one, but we couldn't use it in any way. It was a militarily unusable
power. We prevailed because we had superior conventional power. And
particularly we had superior conventional power in the region. And this
is one of the things that made the navy even more upset, because it was
absolutely clear we had the power on the scene, to uphold and maintain
the blockade, and we didn't use it. And they couldn't understand why.
And they hadn't yet really understood the delicacy of the situation,
that the use of the military force to convey this political message.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY IN THE NUCLEAR AGE?
As it has always been, to anticipate military confrontation; to prepare
force levels to recommend to the President and the Secretary of Defense
force levels that will protect our security in the face of those
potential confrontations. And then, if the confrontation develops, to
recommend use of that force, and to propose alternative ways of dealing
with a confrontation. The, the role of the military is no different
today than it was prior to 1945. The factors it must take account of
are different. And there is still great debate. Not solely or even
primarily within our own military, but there is great debate within, I
was going to say within the West, I would say within the East and West,
as to the function of nuclear warheads. I maintain nuclear warheads
today are not military weapons. They have no military role whatsoever,
excepting only to deter one's opponent from initiating use of his
nuclear warheads. Others in the military and out maintain that is not
correct, that NATO's present strategy, which contemplates actual use,
initiating the use of nuclear weapons in response to a Soviet
aggression, a Soviet conventional force aggression war fighting
capabilities of nuclear weapons the warheads for example, is a proper
use of those warheads. There's a tremendous debate going on beneath the
surface. Frankly, I think it's swinging in my direction, and within
five or six years I think it'll be quite common to say nuclear warheads
are not weapons. But that was not the view, that was not the common
view at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is not the prevailing
view today, it will be tomorrow, in my opinion.
LET ME SHOW YOU SOMETHING HERE. THIS IS A SECTION FROM -- THE SECTION
ON THE RIGHT THERE -- FROM KHRUSHCHEV'S LETTER. CAN YOU READ A LITTLE
BIT OF THAT PART THAT I MARKED WITH A PENCIL, AND...
Read it to myself?
NO, READ IT ALOUD, AND THEN I'LL ASK YOU TO SORT OF COMMENT.
I presume this is Soviet to Kennedy. "If you, Kennedy, did this as the
first step toward the unleashing of war, well then, it is evident that
nothing else is left to us but to accept this challenge of yours. If,
however, you have not lost your self control, and sensibly conceive
what this might lead to, then Mr. President, we and you ought not now
to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war,
because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied.
And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he
who tied it will not have the strength to untie it. And then it will be
necessary to cut that knot. And what this would mean is not for me to
explain to you, because you yourself understood perfectly what terrible
forces our countries dispose." Now that is a paragraph, I believe, from
a letter we received on a Friday evening a letter or a teletype. It
was-- it was both. It was a letter that had been delivered to our
Ambassador in Moscow who sent it by teletype. I recall it came by
teletype, because it was a yards long teletype, a phenomenal teletype.
It was a teletype written by a man under tremendous emotion as, in a
sense this paragraph implies. It was clearly written by Khrushchev
himself. It expressed his deep, I'll call it deep fears and deep
concerns, but fears and concerns, but also determination. And when we,
when we received it was received in sections, and we read it in
sections. And we recognized it for what it was, an extraordinary
document. A fearful one, by a man in fear, but one which had to be
dealt with very carefully. It was absolutely essential that we
recognize his emotions. That we recognize that we wanted to avoid
pushing him into a corner. Because very clearly a man expressing those
emotions, when pushed into a corner, would lash out, as he implies he
will here. On the other hand, there was an implication also that his
fear would lead him to...in a sense accept what I'm going to call a
reasonable proposition. So we were left with the feeling, and I think
we slept on it that night, that there was both danger and hope inherent
in that message. And then what happened was amazing. Saturday morning,
before we had a chance to respond to this very emotional document, a
paragraph of which I've just read, we received another document. A
long, hard, tough, fully-staffed-out document that left little room for
hope and gave great cause for concern. And then-- I think one of the
most astute decisions made by the President during the entire two weeks
of the crisis was made, and I think it was made on the recommendation
of either Tommy Thompson or Bobby Kennedy or perhaps both, I think
perhaps it was Tommy who said, Mr. President, we have two messages,
they in a sense say different things, they're written by different
people, they express quite different opportunities for us. Why don't we
respond to the one we consider offers us the greatest hope, that's the
first one. And that's what we did. And the President and we all then
worked out an answer to the first, without even indicating we'd
received the second, and without responding in any way to the thought
and theme and context of the second. And that's what finally triggered
Khrushchev's decision to move the missiles.
Khrushchev announces the withdrawal of missiles from Cuba
THAT SATURDAY -- THAT SATURDAY MANY PEOPLE HAVE SAID WAS THE MOST
CRITICAL DAY, THAT'S WHEN-
ANDERSON WAS SHOT DOWN?
Let me think now, that was...
THE DAY BEFORE THE LAST.
Yes, that was the Saturday before the Sunday in which Khrushchev
announced withdrawal of the missiles on a Sunday, and a U-2 was shot
down on Saturday. That would have been the 27th, Saturday the 27th. I
remember leaving the White House at the end of that Saturday. It was a
beautiful fall day. And thinking that might well be the last sunset I
saw. You couldn't tell what was going to follow. It sounds perhaps
excessively dramatic to make such a statement, but the tension was so
high. We knew we had to get those missiles out. Up to that point in the
face of possible escalation to a large-scale conflict, the Soviets
hadn't agreed to take them out. While those of us who had fought hard
to avoid a military strike against Cuba had prevailed up to that point,
there was a possibility if the Soviets didn't remove the missiles we
couldn't continue to prevail and that some form of military action
would take place. And those who had recommended military action in the
first instance had always been forthright enough to say that they
didn't know how it would end. They didn't know what would follow. They
thought that if we had a surgical strike against the missile bases, we
would have to follow that with a land invasion. They thought, and I
felt strongly, that if we were to invade Cuba with armed force, not
only would there be tremendous casualties suffered by the Cubans and by
Americans in the invading force, but almost surely the Soviets would
respond at some point of their choosing. Not in Cuba, because they
didn't have the power to prevail there against our strong balance of
power. But that they might well initiate military action against the
flanks of NATO, for example, against Turkey, even possibly against
Norway, the northern flank. Or even possibly against Berlin, the
center. Or even almost too dreadful to contemplate, an unauthorized
launch of a nuclear weapon from Cuba might not- might take place, not
by order of the Politburo, we thought it very unlikely that-
[END OF TAPE D04004]
Negotiations to end the Cuban Missile Crisis
TELL ME ABOUT ... WHAT WE DIDN'T GET WAS THAT YOUR CONCERN I SUPPOSE
AND THE PRESIDENT'S CONCERN WAS NOT SO MUCH THAT A MISSILE MIGHT BE
LAUNCHED FROM THE SOVIET UNION, BUT THAT-
Let me assume you've got through the possibility of Soviet strikes
against Turkey and
RIGHT, WE DID GET THAT. WE GOT AS FAR AS BERLIN.
And most frightening of all-
YEAH. OK PETER?
And most frightening of all was the thought that one of the nuclear
warheads which we had not yet observed but had every reason to believe
were on the soil of Cuba, would be launched against a major
metropolitan area on the East Coast. And I want to add that we didn't
believe that even in the face of a an air strike on those missile
bases, or even in the face of a land invasion, we didn't believe that
the Politburo would authorize the launch of one of those warheads. They
knew that we had a superiority of 20-to-1. We had 6,000 nuclear
warheads against their 300. No sane political leader under those
circumstances would authorize the launch of a nuclear warhead from the
soil of Cuba against the East Coast. But we were fearful that in the
face of an air attack, or in the face of a land invasion, a Cuban
sergeant or a Soviet second lieutenant under that tremendous pressure
without orders would launch a warhead against one of the metropolitan
areas or several warheads. And in that event millions of Americans
would be killed. And no responsible U.S. President, and no responsible
U.S. Secretary of Defense would put his nation at risk under those
circum--if he could possibly avoid it. And we were seeking to avoid it.
We had avoided it up to that point. The question was, could we continue
to avoid it? That was not clear.
WAS IT A BEAUTIFUL SUNSET?
It was lovely. It was lovely. It was a typical fall sunset in
Washington, mid-October sunset.
DID YOU THINK THAT WAS-
Clear day. Absolutely gorgeous.
THINK THOSE THOUGHTS PASSED THROUGH MANY PEOPLE'S MINDS THAT WERE-
I don't know. It was not a thought I discussed with others.
LET ME ASK YOU BRIEFLY ABOUT THE JUPITERS. WHAT DO YOU THINK THE ROLE
OF THE JUPITERS WERE IN THE CUBAN MISSILE CRI-- EISENHOWER SAID THEY
WORTH-WORTHLESS RIGHT FROM THE START.
The Jupiter missiles became an issue, as I recall, when Khrushchev at
one point late in the period, it would have been Thursday, Friday,
Saturday of the last week in effect made an offer to as I remember it,
remove the Soviet offensive forces, aircraft and missiles from Cuba, if
we would both agree not to invade Cuba and remove what were known as
Jupiter missiles, intermediate range nuclear tipped missiles in the US
forces based in Turkey. Up to that point he had indicated that they
might remove the missiles from Cuba if-- an offensive forces from Cuba,
if we agreed not to invade Cuba. Then he suddenly threw in this new
element. And it was a very shrewd move on his part. Because while the
Soviets feared the missiles, perhaps, they were a pile of junk. They
required hours and hours to bring them to readiness, the were
unreliable, they were obsolete as a matter of fact, President Kennedy
had asked the government particularly the State Department some time
previously to consider ways and means of removing them. This was
delicate because at that point we had nothing to replace them with,
physically, on the spot. And the Turks looked upon them as an important
supplement to the defense of Turkey. It would have been bad enough to
try to negotiate removal of those missiles with the Turks without a
Soviet threat. But to remove the missiles from Turkey under Soviet
threat was just inconceivable. It would indicate to the Turks a loss of
will, a lack of will on the part of the US And they would question the
value of our commitment to their defense. So it was inconceivable that
we would yield to that threat. And yet, should we go to war over an
obsolete weapon that was a pile of junk. There is a great danger that
you will try to deal with and solve political problems with military
action. This was a political problem, it wasn't a military problem.
Nobody in the Defense Department felt the weapons were worth a damn.
Should we ... go to war or run the risk of going to war with the
Soviets because we couldn't take care of a political problem with the
Turks. And essentially we said no. And this was a story that for, I
would say, 20 years wasn't told. And one of the reasons it wasn't told
was that there were only about five people I think knew it the
President, Bobby Kennedy, Dean Rusk, myself, I believe Mac Bundy. I
don't think there were any others. And what we knew was that we had a
discussion similar to what I just related my God, don't initiate
military action to solve a political problem. Try to solve a political
problem by other means. And what we conceived of was saying to the
Soviets, we had intended to take those out. We are not going to take
them out if you say that is one of the conditions of your removing the
missiles and the offensive aircraft of Cuba. You must remove those
weapons from Cuba unconditionally. Now, we will tell you that separate
from that action, we will take the Jupiters out of Turkey. Moreover, if
you ever say or even imply that our removal of those missiles from
Turkey were a condition of your removing the missiles from Cuba our
weapons will go back immediately and yours will never get in Cuba. This
message was passed to the Soviets by Robert Kennedy, first to Dobrynin,
through Dobrynin to Khrushchev personally. The Soviets never violated
the understanding that we then had with them, in the slightest degree.
There was never one hint from the Soviets or one statement from the
Soviets that we removed the missiles from Turkey, which we did, because
of their pressure or threat. What we actually did was I went back to
the Pentagon, and I called one of my most trusted associates, John
McNaughton, who was then the Assistant Secretary of International
Security and I said John, I want you personally to get in touch with
the proper military authorities to instruct them to remove the Jupiters
from Turkey and to take them to Italy, to cut them up, I mean literally
cut them up with acetylene torches, and bring me photographs of the cut
up missiles, and I don't want you to ask me why I'm doing this. And I
don't want you to give any instruction to anybody else as to why it's
being done. Just instruct them to do it, period. It was done. We got
SO IT WAS A DEAL?
No, it wasn't a deal. We had-- the President had instructed State and
Defense prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to get those missiles out of
Cuba. I mean out of Turkey. And he had instructed them to do it because
they were no-- they were worthless. And we in a sense were on the way
of doing it, State was thinking about how to negotiate with the Turks
the removal of weapons that we knew were worthless, but which they put
some mythical value on.
SO THEY TURNED OUT TO BE VERY USEFUL IN A SENSE.
Well, in a sense that it probably facilitated the Soviet decision to
remove their offensive weapons from-
IT HELPED KHRUSHCHEV TO SAVE SOME FACE IN A SENSE.
Yes, I think probably that's the case.
HOW CONCERNED WERE YOU ABOUT THAT? ABOUT KHRUSHCHEV'S SITUATION AND HIS
Well, we were-- we were concerned not with his survival as a political
leader, literally or figuratively, and of course he didn't survive
figuratively, he didn't survive politically. He was forced out some
months after that. And I think almost surely it's a function of his
misjudgment in initiating this action that led to this tremendous
crisis and what I think was widely recognized in the West and in the
East as a crisis in which the US prevailed. We were, we were concerned
not with behaving in a way that related to Khrushchev's political
survival, but rather to something that was in a sense comparable. We
were concerned, and the President was particularly concerned about
behaving in a way that didn't force Khrushchev or his associates in a
corner, in which they felt that, I'll call it the Soviet honor was at
stake. And that regardless of the cost they must act in a, in a
military manner, which might carry with it very heavy costs, both for
them and us. So every possible effort was made to avoid that pressure
on the on the Soviets. I think that is one of the most important
lessons to learn from this crisis. Give your an opponent an out. Look
at the crisis from his point of view. I don't mean to say be weak,
that's not my point at all. My point is, look at the crisis from his
point of view, look at the options that you are considering from his
point of view. Try to pick an option that achieves your purpose at
minimal cost to him, political, military, otherwise to him. That avoids
pushing him into an emotional frame of mind in which he is likely to
lash out irrationally with great cost to him and you.
Responding to crises in the Nuclear Age
DO YOU THINK IF KHRUSHCHEV HAD NOT REMOVED THE MISSILES ON SUNDAY THAT
YOU WOULD HAVE ENDED UP WITH...
I like not to think about that. We, we were successful. I stop there.
HOW GREAT WERE THE PRESSURES-
I stop there except to think of the lessons, because I think there are
many lessons to learn from that episode.
BUT DO YOU -- WE'LL GET TO THOSE IN A SECOND -- BUT WERE YOU FEELING
THAT YOU'D JUST ABOUT RUN OUT OF TIME IN TERMS-
Well, the reason I felt so concerned Saturday evening, as I say, I
wondered whether I'd ever see another Saturday sunset, was that events
were moving out of control. There were forces at work in the Soviet
Union, in the West, that very possibly would have escalated, perhaps
not through initiation or action by the West, I hoped it wouldn't come
that way, perhaps the Soviets would move in some fashion moved. And
they had Castro to think of. Perhaps they weren't entirely in control
of his actions. They had the troops to think of perhaps they weren't
entirely in control of them. At that point neither we nor they had what
are known as permissive action links in all of our weapons, nuclear
weapons. We didn't have them in all of ours, and we were almost certain
they didn't have it in even a few of theirs. These are automatic call
it barriers, preventing troops on the spot from launching nuclear
weapons without an external input of authorization from the President.
And we therefore had every reason to believe that those nuclear weapons
on this soil of Cuba could be launched by personnel on Cuba without any
authority from outside. So all of these factors together were on our
minds, and we would have been less than human if we didn't face the
future with great concern.
BUT IN TERMS OF THESE MEETINGS, I MEAN, WERE THE MILITARY PEOPLE OR THE
SO-CALLED HAWKS IN THESE MEETINGS STARTING TO GAIN MORE-
CREDIBILITY AS THE DAYS WENT ON? BECAUSE--
No. The military were very well disciplined in this situation. They
weren't putting what I'm going to call pressure on me or the President
to change our course. They were carrying out the preparations for
military escalation, should those become necessary. That was perfectly
proper that they should. As a matter of fact, as I remember, we called
up reserves during those last few days both to indicate to the Soviets
will and intent, and also as a perfectly proper preparatory move toward
possible use of military force. And the military were going through
very detailed planning for application of force. But, but I didn't feel
that they were breathing down my neck just panting for the opportunity
to unleash military power, not at all. The military in our society
understand war better than most civilians do. And I never thought that
they were trying to push us into war. I didn't feel it then, and I
didn't feel it on other occasions.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE SUNDAY MORNING WHEN YOU HEARD THE NEWS THAT
KHRUSHCHEV HAD AGREED TO...
Well, I remember the great feeling of relief.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE INCIDENT AT ALL?
No, I don't recall. I think I was in the Pentagon at the time. I was
either there or the White House, and I don't remember which.
WAS THERE A GET TOGETHER AT THE WHITE HOUSE?
Oh I'm sure there was. I'm sure there was afterwards. I-- I don-"t
recall my- I was overwhelmed by joy at the at the recognition that we
would not face the need to decide whether to escalate or not escalate,
in a way that carried with it very ugly risks, and the burden of that
potential decision was removed very suddenly. And it was with a
magnificent sense of relief that I went through the rest of the day.
IT MUST HAVE ALMOST FELT LIKE BEING REBORN IN A WAY.
Really literally reborn, you're right.
AND HAD ANOTHER CHANCE. I UNDERSTAND THAT SOME OF THE MILITARY PEOPLE
WERE UPSET BY THAT. I MEAN, THEY HAD WANTED TO GO IN AND GET IT OVER-
No, no, well-
ON TUESDAY MORNING. THERE ARE STORIES ABOUT LEMAY AND ANDERSON.
Well, there were-- I don't want to comment by name on who thought what.
But I do want to confirm your point that the word "some" connotes many,
it wasn't many, it was a very small group of both military and
civilians. It wasn't by any means only military. Uh. those small group
of civilian and military leaders, civilian particularly in the
Congress, more in the Congress than in anywhere in the government than
anywhere in the executive branch, a small group of both civilian and
military leaders believed that we had missed an opportunity to throw
Castro out of Cuba. And they thought we should have in a sense shaped
our actions to take advantage of that and removed him, which we
certainly had the military power to do.
YOU WEREN'T ONE OF THESE?
I certainly wasn't. And I'd say 80 percent of the senior military, and
I'm speaking of chiefs and senior military leaders were not part of
ONE LAST QUESTION BEFORE WE GET INTO THESE ... YOU THEN YOU TOLD US
WHEN AUSTIN AND I WERE HERE LAST TIME THAT YOUR FEELING AFTER IT WAS
THAT SOME OF THE CHIEFS OF STAFF WOULD HAVE TO BE CHANGED.
Well, I felt that there'd been some misunderstanding between civilian
and military authorities during the crisis. Some indication that
certain military leaders might not fully comprehend the limitations
that one should consider perfectly appropriate on military action in a
nuclear age, and that therefore it'd be wise to make some changes, and
I did recommend certain changes to the President, and he approved, and
we did make them.
YOU TOLD US YOU WANTED TO CHANGE TWO OF THEM, RIGHT?
Well let me simply say that I recommended to the President that he
remove one of the senior officers and he approved.
ANDERSON-- I SPOKE TO ANDERSON BY THE WAY THE OTHER DAY -- AND HE
STILL-- HE HAS QUITE A BIT OF RESPECT FOR YOU-
Well I want to stress I have for him. He's a magnificent officer.
HE GOT ON THE COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE DURING THIS WHOLE EPISODE, DO YOU
REMEMBER THAT? HE'S VERY PROUD OF THAT. THERE'S A PHOTOGRAPH OF HIM ON
THE COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE. BUT HE SAID, I THINK DURING THE CRISIS, HE
FELT VERY HURT IN A SENSE BY-
I think he did.
BY YOU AND BY THE-
I think he did. And as I suggest, I think in a sense he had reason to
feel hurt. Because we were behaving in ways that were not traditional.
And the reason we were behaving in ways that were not traditional is
because this was a crisis of the nuclear age, and I'll call it
traditional behavior had not yet adjusted to the nuclear age. I think
it began to do so. That was in a sense a watershed in behavior response
CAN YOU SAY THAT AGAIN?
Pre-nuclear and post-nuclear.
CAN YOU SAY THAT AGAIN AND SAY THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS IN A SENSE
The Cuban Missile Crisis was, in a sense, a watershed dividing the
pre-nuclear and the nuclear age, and establishing forms of behavior. I
hope norms of behavior that are appropriate for the nuclear age that
were quite different from the norms of behavior in the pre-nuclear age.
And it was that, it was that difficulty in shifting very quickly from a
pre-nuclear form of behavior to a post-nuclear form of behavior that
came quite considerable difficulties certain of the military leaders.
And one can understand why. They'd spent a lifetime training for
response in a pre-nuclear period. Almost none of them had any training
or any experience in forms of response appropriate to a nuclear age.
[END OF TAPE D04005]
Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis
BEFORE WE GET TO THE PARITY-- HOW DID THE MISSILE CRISIS AFFECT YOU
PERSONALLY? DID IT CHANGE YOU IN ANY WAY DO YOU THINK?
Well, it was the first-
CAN YOU START AGAIN?
I'll start over again. The Cuban missile Crisis for the second time,
but very early in my tenure as Secretary of Defense, I was in the
second year of my service, concentrated my attention on the risk-
OK. LET'S GO.
The Cuban Missile Crisis for the second time in my tenure as Secretary
of Defense, the first being the Berlin Crisis of the previous year,
concentrated my attention on the risks of military action in the
nuclear age. The situation is totally different today or then from what
it was in the pre-nuclear period. And I don't think our doctrine then,
and I'm not even sure our doctrine today takes full account of that.
But for 12 or 13 days, we lived with the knowledge that a military
response or a military action initiated by either party might well
escalate into possible use of nuclear weapons. Not that either side
would wish to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, but would possibly
escalate to use of nuclear weapons because of I'll call it the fog of
war that political leaders are enveloped in any confrontation. I don't
think the public can understand the restrictions on I'll call it
rational action, rational response to political and military crises.
The restrictions are lack of information, misinformation, emotion; and
these combine to bring misjudgments. Now misjudgments in any situation
involving political confrontation or military confrontation between two
great powers or two great alliances are potentially very costly and we
must try to avoid them. But misjudgments that conceivably could lead to
initiation of use of nuclear weapons could be disastrous, and they
could occur. And there's a great danger that one side in a nuclear age,
fearing that other may ultimately be forced to nuclear action, will
preempt, even though they know how dangerous that is. And you say,
well, that's, that's not possible. Look at the Middle East in July-- in
June of '67. The Israelis knew as we did that the Egyptians were
building up their forces. The Israelis were fearful that the Egyptians
would launch against them not nuclear but conventional forces. The
Israelis preempted it. Preemption is a perfectly rational military
option in a pre-nuclear age. Preemption through the age of nuclear
forces in the nuclear age is disaster. But it is the kind of risk that
one must avoid. And the way to avoid it is to avoid crisis. And one of
the major lessons we should draw from the Cuban Missile Crisis is
anticipate potential crises ahead of time and take actions that
minimize the risk of those crises developing. Look at the Falkland
issue. Surely Britain didn't wish to go to war with the Argentines.
Clearly the Argentines didn't wish to go to war with Britain. The
people who initiated that war are now in jail. They clearly didn't want
a war with Britain. Britain and the Argentines should have worked ahead
of time to avoid that. The Soviet Union and the US could have made
their intentions clear to each other before the Cuban Missile Crisis
and avoided that crisis. The Israelis and the Egyptians could have made
their intentions clearer before the June '67 crisis. We today could
make clearer what I hope is our determination to defend the existence
of Israel under all circumstances. We have not done so, to this day,
there is no security treaty between the US and Israel. What are the
Soviets to think about that? I say that carries with it an unnecessary
risk. We should try, one of the major lessons of the Cuban Missile
Crisis is anticipate crises, try to avoid them, make clear to the other
side your intended behavior under certain circumstances.
DID IT ALTER YOUR PERCEPTION OF THE ROLE OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS?
Not really. I didn't think before the Cuban missile crisis that nuclear
warheads were weapons. I try to distinguish between the term warheads
on the one hand and weapons on the other. We had nuclear warheads. We
didn't have weapons in the sense that you could initiate the use of
warheads as though they were conventional explosives in a typical
military operation with potential benefit to yourself or with the
intent of achieving a political objective. Weapons are the military
hardware which you can initiate the use of under certain circumstances
to achieve a political objective and a potential advantage to yourself.
There is no circumstance, in my opinion, under which you can initiate
the use of nuclear hardware to achieve a political advantage or with
benefit to yourself. None. And therefore the warheads are not weapons.
They weren't then and they aren't today.
DO YOU THINK IT CHANGED PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S VIEW OF THE ROLE OF
I think he in a sense went through the same thought processes I d-- I
BUT A LITTLE LA-- BUT LATER PERHAPS-
No, I think then.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE-
No, no, I think then. I think one of them, neither one of us at that
date expressed quite as clearly as I hope I have now the distinction
between a warhead and a weapon, or, nor did we divide military hardware
into two categories. Hardware, military hardware that represents
weapons that you can use, initiate the use of to achieve a political
end and a potential advantage for yourself versus military hardware
that you couldn't initiate the use of to achieve a political end and
potential advantage to yourself. The second category not being weapons,
the first category are weapons. That, that is a, I'll call it a
rationalization of my thoughts that developed at the period but I've
expressed since then. But, I think that Kennedy very clearly understood
the necessity of avoiding unintended escalation in a nuclear age. He,
he had earlier, I'm almost sure I'm correct in saying this, he had,
prior to the missile crisis, he had asked each member of the Security
Council to read the first chapter of Barbara Tuchman's book, The Guns
of August, which describes the way that powers bungled into the First
World War without any intention of starting the First World War. And
he, in a sense he said, read that, recognize that it was a tragedy to
bungle into the First World War that way. It'll be the end of
civilization if we bungle into a nuclear war that way.
MANY PEOPLE FEEL THAT THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS HELPED PRECIPITATE THE
ATMOSPHERIC TEST BAN TREATY.
I don't think so.
THAT KENNEDY WAS SO FRIGHTENED-
BY THE MISSILE CRISIS-
No, no. I don't think that was the case. We were thinking of moving
toward a test ban treaty before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we
continued to do so afterwards.
DO YOU THINK THIS WAS THE MOST SERIOUS NUCLEAR CRISIS?
I do. I do-
CAN YOU PUT THAT INTO A SENTENCE?
The, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a very serious crisis, more serious I
would think than the Berlin Crisis of the previous year, although that
also carried with it potential use of nuclear weapons. Not that we
considered that, but under certain circumstances these things can
escalate to that. I think that the June '67 war was a very serious
crisis. At one point Kosygin sent Johnson a message which said, in
effect, if you want war you'll get war. So during the seven years I was
Secretary, we had three occasions on which confrontation between East
and West carried with it the very high risk of military escalation. And
once that starts in the nuclear age, then the risk of use of nuclear
weapons is totally unacceptable to me. Because emotions take hold the
mindsets of emotional people take hold. We have today between the two
of us 50,000 nuclear weapons. We have contingency plans, military
strategy, war plans, force deployments training missions -- all
designed to support the use of those if necessary. Now, if you take
that set of condi-- you take that environment and you see military
escalation moving up in that environment, there is a, to me, totally
unacceptable risk that those weapons will be used. And Kennedy realized
that at the time. It's much greater today than it was then.
Arms build up after the Cuban Missile Crisis
KUZNETSOV IS QUOTED AS SAYING TO JOHN MCCLOY THAT "YOU'LL NEVER DO THIS
TO US AGAIN." MANY PEOPLE HAVE THOUGHT--RIGHT AFTER THE CUBAN MISSILE
CRISIS--MANY PEOPLE HAVE THOUGHT THAT THIS PUSHED THE SOVIETS TO BUILD
Well, I think it did. I think it pushed them to build up both their
conventional forces and their nuclear forces. I think they realized
that, as we did, and that as some of our critics did not -- or
commentators did not -- that we prevailed because of conventional
power. And I think therefore when Kuznetsov said you'll never do this
to us again they believed it necessary to build both their conventional
and their nuclear power, which they have been doing since that time.
Now, as I, as I suggest today there is not Soviet superiority in
nuclear power, there is parity. So as they have built we have built and
we've maintained parity. It existed then, it exists today.
DID ANYONE WIN THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS?
I don't like to use the word "win." I think we prevailed. There's a
slight difference. We prevailed in the sense we achieved our political
objective. We tried not to I'll call it win. We, the President made
very clear, after he received the notice from Khrushchev that he was
removing the missiles that we were not to boast about it. We were not
to convey to the public that we had "won," because almost surely that
would carry with it some Soviet response. And then you're on another
train of potential escalation.
IN A SENSE, THE SOVIETS ALSO ACHIEVED THEIR AIM IF THEIR AIM WAS TO
DEFEND CUBA FROM INVASION.
Well they had no reason to believe we were going to invade Cuba. We had
no plans to invade Cuba.
THE BAY OF PIGS--
Oh, well, my God, we learned -- in the first place that wasn't
invasion, that was-
THERE WERE ALL SORTS OF ATTEMPTS TO KILL CASTRO, YOU KNOW...
Anyhow, the Bay of Pigs was a debacle. And let me just simply say that
the US government, the Kennedy administration, had no plans whatsoever
to invade Cuba, with or without the missile crisis. No plans to invade
Cuba without the missile crisis.
BUT I MEAN THAT'S ONE OF KHRUSHCHEV'S-THAT'S WHAT HE SAYS; THAT HE
WANTED TO DEFEND CUBA.
Well, look, if you'd gone through what he'd gone through, you'd seek
for explanations that you hadn't lost completely.
AND YOU DON'T THINK THAT ALL THE CIA ACTIVITIES IN CUBA, THESE ATTEMPTS
TO KILL CASTRO, THAT HAVE COME OUT SINCE THE..., THAT THEY WERE BLOWING
UP BRIDGES AND ALL THAT TYPE OF THING COULD HAVE...
COULD HAVE PROVOKED THAT KIND OF THING?
No. No, I do not. I do not. And I don't by that answer, I don't wish to
convey that I believe there were attempts to kill Castro. I won't argue
the point, but I just don't want the answer misunderstood.
LET'S NOT GET INTO THAT. LET'S JUST CONCLUDE THEN IN TERMS OF LESSONS,
OTHER LESSONS THAT YOU MIGHT WANT TO DRAW FROM.
Well there's one-There's one lesson I'd like to mention, because I'm
not certain that it's a conclusion accepted even today and it certainly
had not been as vividly in our mind prior to the Cuban missile crisis
as in was in mine and I believe the President's after the Cuban missile
crisis. And that is that, as absurd as it may sound, I believe that
parity in nuclear forces existed in October of 1962. It existed at a
time when we had an advantage of 20 to one. We had 6,000 strategic
nuclear warheads; they had 300. And yet, parity existed. Now why?
Because I define parity as a condition ... of mind, a condition of the
holder of nuclear weapons that believes he cannot initiate the use of
those nuclear weapons against his opponent with advantage to himself,
and that his opponent feels exactly the same way. Now that is parity.
That condition certainly exists today. We have 11,000 strategic nuclear
warheads, they have roughly 10,000. Clearly it exists. Some people say
they have superiority. That's absolutely absurd. But clearly parity
does exist today. It existed then, because we did not believe we could
initiate the use of one or ten or a hundred, or all 6,000 of those
6,000 warheads directed against their 300 with advantage to us. So we
were deterred from initiating their use. Parity existed. And a second
point to make is that the band to parity was then very wide, and it is
very wide today. The band of parity in a sense was measured by 20-to-1.
And what that tells you is that arms control agreements do need to be
drawn to be verifiable, it is absolutely essential that we not enter
into an agreement that can't be verified. It is absolutely essential
that we verify adherence. It is absolutely essential that we insist on
adherence. But it is not correct to believe that deviations from arms
control agreements will occur so covertly, so suddenly as to endanger
our security. They will not, because the band of parity is so wide that
before the deviations from an arms control agreement destroyed parity
and put us at risk, we will have detected it. Now that is a very
important lesson affecting arms control negotiations. I don't think
it's yet learned, I don't think it's yet accepted.
APART FROM THE FEW PARTICIPANTS WHO ARE STILL ALIVE AND WENT THROUGH
THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS OF THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS THAT PEOPLE
TODAY HAVE PARTIALLY FORGOTTEN-- THE KIDS WE SPOKE TO, KIDS WE SPOKE TO
JUST BEFORE WE CAME OVER HERE AT THE CEMETERY WERE SAYING, OH, THE
AMERICANS WON THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS. WE WERE TOUGH AND WE STOOD THEM
DOWN, AND TOUGH GUYS CAN WIN, IN A SENSE.
I think that today, the American people almost intuitively accept the
basic lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We must behave in ways to try
to avoid confrontations. Because confrontations in the nuclear age
carry the risk of nuclear war. Secondly, in the event of
confrontations, we must minimize the risk that anyone of our actions,
political or military, will escalate to nuclear war. I think the
American people quite clearly certainly intuitively understand those
lessons. And they are very important lessons. What I don't think they
understand are the particulars of how to apply those lessons. Because
we are behaving in way with respect to arms control, with respect to
weapons development, with respect to weapons deployment, that run
counter to those lessons. We should change the application of the
lessons. We should change our behavior to more closely conform to the
DO YOU THINK THE ADMINISTRATION HAVE FORGOTTEN THE LESSONS OF THE-
Well, I don't want to charge this administration with greater
insensitivity that previous administrations. Neither our military nor
political leaders have thought carefully enough intensively enough
continually enough about affecting and modifying our strategy, our
weapons development programs, our weapons deployment programs, our arms
control agreements to take account of those lessons and to be more
appropriate for this very dangerous period we're living in.
[END OF TAPE D04006 AND TRANSCRIPT]
- Raw Footage
- Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 
- Contributing Organization
- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- When Robert McNamara moved from president of Ford Motor Company to secretary of defense in 1961, he brought his very active management control and systems-planning philosophy to the Kennedy administration. Reports from mid October 1962 confirmed that the Soviet Union was installing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, ninety miles off the shore of Florida. McNamara recalls this pivotal moment in the Cuban missile crisis and reads from the first of two letters that Soviet general secretary Nikita Khrushchev sent President John F. Kennedy. After careful deliberation, the president and his advisers crafted a reply that became the turning point in the crisis: it triggered Khrushchev's decision to remove missiles from Cuba. The period from November 1962 to the end of the Cuban missile crisis is generally seen as the most dangerous period of the entire Cold War. In his interview conducted for War and Peace in the Nuclear Age: "At the Brink," McNamara traces the thirteen-day crisis that closed this chapter: the secret, high-level debates within the Executive Committee; his firm oversight of the quarantine of Soviet ships heading to Cuba; the U-2 reconnaissance plane lost over Siberia; and the pressures for prompt military action that mounted daily. McNamara concludes with lessons he learned from the crisis, which he regards as the "watershed that divides the pre-nuclear and the nuclear age."
- Asset type
- Raw Footage
- Flexible response (Nuclear strategy); U-2 (Reconnaissance aircraft); Kennedy, Robert F., 1925-1968; Bundy, McGeorge; McNaughton, John T. (John Theodore), 1921-; Castro, Fidel, 1926-; LeMay, Curtis E.; United States. Air Force. Strategic Air Command; United States. Navy; North Atlantic Treaty Organization; Massive retaliation (Nuclear strategy); Middle East; Israel; turkey; mutual assured destruction; Nuclear arms control; nuclear weapons; Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963; Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971; United States; Soviet Union; Cuba; Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962; Intermediate-range ballistic missiles; Photographic reconnaissance systems
- Rights Note:,Rights:,Rights Credit:WGBH Educational Foundation,Rights Type:All,Rights Coverage:,Rights Holder:WGBH Educational Foundation
- Media type
- Moving Image
Interviewee2: McNamara, Robert S., 1916-2009
Publisher: WGBH Educational Foundation
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: 5550d3077d1e12f87a2af4ccb0d688d3a827c3ba (ArtesiaDAM UOI_ID)
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- Chicago: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 ,” 1986-02-20, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 4, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-4f1mg7fx30.
- MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 .” 1986-02-20. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 4, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-4f1mg7fx30>.
- APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Interview with Robert McNamara, 1986 . Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-4f1mg7fx30