As the Attorney General of the United States and President’s Kennedy’s brother and most trusted confidant, Robert Kennedy played a significant role in that critical period. The first-person narrative is organized into titled sections, rather than chapters, and proceeds chronologically, describing the meetings, conversations, developments, and decisions that shaped the American response to the crisis.
The chronicle begins on the morning of Tuesday, October 16, when Robert Kennedy first learns that Russia has been installing nuclear weapons in Cuba. Later that morning, President Kennedy convenes a meeting of top aides, cabinet members and other government officials to advise him on the crisis and charges them with identifying a course of action. This group would meet nearly non-stop throughout the crisis. The members of the committee all participated equally, in rigorous discussion and sometimes heated arguments, as they analyzed potential approaches to the problem. There was a limited period of time to respond before the Cuban missiles would be ready for launch. Secrecy was essential to their endeavor. They needed to determine a strategy before the press alerted the public to the crisis or the Russians discovered that the U.S. government knew about the missiles.
Acutely aware that the Soviets were continuing to build the missile sites as they deliberated, the group struggled to come to a decision. The possibility of establishing a blockade around Cuba was proposed, while some argued for a military strike. No consensus or agreement emerged. Each alternative had flaws and limitations. Robert Kennedy supported the blockade, primarily for moral reasons, as even a limited air strike would inevitably kill large numbers of innocent civilians. The threat of a military confrontation escalating into a nuclear conflict was a significant risk.
A majority of the committee emerged in favor of a blockade on Thursday evening. But when the President began questioning their recommendation, the consensus collapsed. They split into two groups and developed a detailed outline for implementing a blockade of Cuba and initiating military action. The President decided in favor of a blockade. Military preparations were also undertaken immediately, in the event that the blockade proved ineffective or provoked a Soviet response.
The diplomatic process of informing American allies and gaining their support began. On Monday night, President Kennedy gave a televised speech to inform the country of the events in Cuba and the reasons for the blockade. From that point on, the world was watching. After the Organization of American States voted to support the U.S., providing legal justification for the action, President Kennedy authorized the blockade to begin the following morning. There was meticulous planning for any foreseeable eventuality that might be encountered in the blockade.
The committee devised specific procedures to manage the complicated issue of Russian ships approaching the blockade, while also trying to avoid triggering a military confrontation. Russian vessels were continuing towards Cuba, and the U.S. would either have to intercept them or end the blockade. There was a temporary reprieve as the Russian ships stopped short of the blockade line and some turned around; however, soon after, the other ships continued towards Cuba. The subject of which ships to let through and which ships to board was fiercely debated.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis were having little effect, as surveillance film revealed continuing progress on the missile sites. Plans were developed for an invasion of Cuba. The President was concerned that the Soviets and the Americans were on course for a war that neither wanted, and one he was determined to prevent.
On Friday evening, the White House received a personal letter from Chairman Khrushchev, stating that he was willing to work with President Kennedy to de-escalate tensions and prevent a war. Khrushchev suggested that if America ended the blockade and pledged not to attack Cuba, Russia would withdraw the missiles. This was the first real indication that the crisis might be peacefully resolved. The following day, the President received a different, official communication from Khrushchev with a less-politically-viable proposal. Again, there was no consensus in the committee as to how America should respond. As they debated various options, news arrived that an Air Force pilot was killed when his surveillance plane was shot down over Cuba. The initial response from the committee was for military action. However, President Kennedy urged caution and a thorough examination of all potential consequences. Robert Kennedy proposed answering the offer made in the preceding, more personal letter from Khrushchev.
Robert Kennedy met with the Soviet Ambassador, but neither he nor the President felt encouraged by the meeting. In anticipation of a military strike, the President activated the Air Force Reserve. The President had done all he could to avoid a conflict, and it was now up to Khrushchev to respond. By Saturday evening, military engagement with the Soviet Union appeared to be imminent. Sunday morning at 10 am, Robert Kennedy learned that the Soviets had agreed to remove the Cuban missiles. The crisis was effectively over.
In the final two sections of his book, Robert Kennedy reflects on the lessons learned from the missile crisis. He stresses the importance of time for the committee to deliberate in secret. He felt that it was critical to expose the President to a range of perspectives and expertise. President Kennedy’s effort to understand the situation from the Soviet perspective was an essential component of attaining a peaceful resolution of the crisis, as was providing a check on the military. He also cites the importance of having the support of allies and other countries.
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