High Noon in
The Cold War

Kennedy, Khrushchev, and
The Cuban Missile Crisis

Max Frankel
(Ballantine Books)
One would have to be born before 1950 to recall in full three-dimension agony the national fright generated by the Cuban Missile Crises of 1963.

America and Russia had been rattling nuclear swords at each other for over a decade. Those of us who lived in the shadows of the valley of death for so many years were growing more and more concerned (no, that's the wrong word --- more and more terrified) that there would come a time when Molotov, Eisenhower, Dulles, Stalin, Khrushchev, Kennedy --- one of them --- would lift a telephone, push a button, give the word: and the missiles would be flying, from east to west, from west to east.

And it wouldn't matter which of them gave the word, for both sides were fitted with reactive devices which would lumber into the sky, carrying nuclear warheads towards Washington, Moscow, New York, Stalingrad, San Francisco and dozens of other cities across America and Russia.

And you and I would awaken in a bed of smoldering radioactive ashes, the whole world rendered uninhabitable, whole cities, whole peoples wasted, our future a slowly growing radioactive sickness that would destroy ourselves and our children, ruin the land for a thousand thousand years, poison the very air with such a poison that our days on earth would be a nightmare, all creatures great and small dying in the most cruel of wasting diseases, ones that would make Hiroshima and Nagasaki but tiny playact preludes to this final, startling end of humanity.

All the while our representatives and military, the very men who had created the mayhem, would be safely ensconced in vast fully-equipped underground bunkers in the Urals (for the Russians), in a luxurious underground hotel in Virginia (for the American politicians, generals, admirals, members of the government and military) --- those very hotheads who had made the fatal decision to send our lovely world into radioactive decline, there to repopulate the land with their vicious spawn.

<>      <>      <>

Thank god, even at the heights of those ten days of the crises, we did not know the Strangelovian horrors going on behind the scenes. If we had, our general fears would have been transformed into madness, knowing that the end was at hand.

We find in High Noon in the Cold War, in the final days of October, 1962, that the U. S. military were uniformly urging immediate out-and-out attack on Russian ICBMs now in place in Cuba.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff --- represented by Robert McNamara, the man soon to be mismanaging the Viet-Nam war --- told Kennedy that they were opposed to "any delay for negotiation; they wanted to attack before the Soviet missiles could fire back at the United States,"

    And they were opposed to bombing only missile bases: The Chiefs wanted to hit all Soviet and Cuban planes, airfields, guns, and nuclear storage sites, then erect a naval blockade to prevent new weapon deliveries and finish the job with a full-scale invasion.

With this knife at his throat, John F. Kennedy had to deal not only with Khrushchev and the Soviet military, and the wild card of the Cubans (who actually began shooting down American reconnaissance planes) --- but a near-open revolt by his own military, those who wanted to embark on World War III posthaste.

They --- the likes of Curtis LeMay and Earle Wheeler and David Shoup --- told the president that negotiation "would only lead to war," so our hostilities against Russia and Cuba had to start, unilaterally, at once.

    "In other words," LeMay concluded, "you're in a pretty bad fix at the present time."

    "What did you say?" the startled president asked.

    "You're in a pretty bad fix."

    With a forced laugh, Kennedy answered, " You're in there with me --- personally."

LeMay probably didn't get it.

And there was a Marx Brothers side to the equation. To get JFK's diplomatic responses back to Moscow, the Russian Embassy had to use Western Union:

    As the Soviet ambassador in Washington remembered, his cables home had to be painstakingly coded into columns of numbers, then handed to a Western Union messenger on a bicycle. "Usually it was the same young black man," Dobrynin remembered, and the ambassador could only hope the cyclist would not stop "to chat on the way with some girl."

"Telephones were quicker but scorned by diplomats as too easily overheard. Then again, no one has ever explained why the Kennedy-Khruschev exchanges had to be encoded when delay was surely a greater danger than Chinese or French eavesdropping."

And as the Russian and U. S. military were in the last stages of red alert, preparing for war, Khrushchev (graciously, we may note), offered to back down in a speech given over Russian television. The text had to get to Washington as quickly as possible.

"Although the Communist party's chief propagandist, Leonid Ilychev, had volunteered to personally carry the Khruschev script to Radio Central, his chauffeur got lost on the half-hour drive into town."

    When Ilychev finally reached the studio ... his elevator got stuck between floors and the fateful message had to be passed through the cage's grille, one page at a time.
Who were the heroes in this high drama? Frankel claims three that you and I have to thank for keeping you and me and our children from turning into glowing ghosts.

One, obviously, was Khrushchev, who threw in the towel, denying all the while that he was backing down. The second was Kennedy himself, not only for his moderation, but for his firm resistance to the barking of the dogs at the Pentagon.

Finally, there was Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson, a former ambassador to Russia and a Kennedy advisor, who did not know for sure --- but correctly guessed --- that Khrushchev had ordered his ambassadors in Washington "to resist temptation when provoked,"

    "He plainly told me," Anatoly Dobrynin remembered, "that I should always bear in mind that war with the United States was unthinkable --- this was above all."

It was Thompson who devised the scheme of a porous blockade of Cuba, with a secret codicil to the withdrawal agreement that would, months later, cause the dismantling of American missiles aimed at Moscow at the Turkish border. His suggestions to a receptive Kennedy saved the day; no, saved the world.

I lived in Seattle at the time, just getting ready to put a radio station on the air, the kind of radio station (I imagined)(foolish me) that would make Americans less volatile, more willing to make accommodations to other visions of governance --- those in Russia, China, some of the newly-freed nations of Africa, some of the left-leaning countries of Central and South America.

One of my professor friends was so alarmed by the crises and possibility of nuclear war that he packed his wife, children, and a few belongings into a station wagon and took off for the Olympic Peninsular so they would be as far away as possible from the bombs. On the second day of his trip, as he was skirting Port Townsend, he came around a bend and smashed into a truck. He and his wife were badly injured in the crash.

--- L. W. Milam
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH