By Sheldon M. Stern | Boston Globe | Opinion
WHEN PRESIDENT George W. Bush looked into American history to justify his decision to invade Iraq, he quoted John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962: “We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security.” Bush failed, in fact, to grasp the larger context of Kennedy’s remarks.
New insights from the tapes of the secret ExComm meetings confirm that President Kennedy repeatedly rejected a unilateral invasion of Cuba despite indisputable proof of the presence of Soviet “weapons of mass destruction.”
The Soviet missile deployment provided a justification for invading Cuba—a step favored by many JFK advisers. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, as the tapes of the first day reveal, declared that the United States must be prepared to bomb the missiles and follow up with a full air and sea invasion within a week.
Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother and a key adviser, called for standing up to Khrushchev by invading: “We should just get into it, and get it over with and take our losses.” McNamara later endorsed the position of the Joint Chiefs: Since all the missiles could not be destroyed from the air, “we consider nothing short of a full invasion as practicable military action.”
President Kennedy countered that an invasion would increase military pressure on the USSR and threaten the NATO alliance. The allies, he admitted for the historical record on the secret tapes, regarded Cuba “as a fixation of the United States and not a serious military threat . . . they think that we’re slightly demented on this subject . . . a lot of people would regard this [invasion] as a mad act by the United States.”
The tapes also disclose that when the president met with the Joint Chiefs, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay denounced the blockade as “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich” and called for “direct military intervention, right now!”
Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup agreed, “You’ll have to invade the place [and] we must go in with plenty of insurance of a decisive success and as quick as possible.”
JFK held his ground, “Well, the logical argument is that we don’t really have to invade Cuba. That’s just one of the difficulties that we live with in life, like you live with the Soviet Union and China.”
At the president’s meeting with the leaders of Congress during the second week, the tapes reveal that Senator Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, angrily demanded an invasion: “You have told ‘em not to do this thing. They’ve done it. And I think that you should assemble as speedily as possible an adequate force and clean out that situation.”
President Kennedy objected, “If we go into Cuba, we have to all realize that we are taking a chance that these missiles, which are ready to fire, won’t be fired. Is that really a gamble we should take?”
J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sided with Russell: “I’m in favor on the basis of this information, of an invasion, and an all-out one, and as quickly as possible.”
The president warned the former Rhodes scholar that thousands of Russians would be killed in an invasion and that the missiles might still be fired at the United States.
“We are gonna have to shoot them up,” he said. “And I think that it would be foolish to expect that the Russians would not regard that as a far more direct thrust . . . When you start talking about the invasion, it’s infinitely more offensive.”
President Kennedy, perhaps mindful of the failure of the much smaller landing at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961, had already decided against an invasion: “Nobody knows what kind of a success we’re gonna have with this invasion. Invasions are tough, hazardous. Thousands of Americans get killed in Cuba, and I think you’re in much more of a mess.”
In the end, convinced that a unilateral invasion “would be very, very difficult and very bloody,” he opted for a secret agreement that included withdrawing Soviet missiles from Cuba and American missiles from Turkey.
It is often tempting for presidents to reach back to the dramatic crises of the Kennedy administration when defending their foreign policy. But the facts incontrovertibly revealed on the ExComm tapes prove that the Bush administration should look elsewhere for presidential or historical precedents for the Iraq invasion.
Sheldon M. Stern, historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 1999, is author of “Averting `The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings.”