The famous “thirteen days” of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 transpired that October, of course, but most people probably do not know that President John F. Kennedy had been tipped off to missiles or missiles parts possibly (the key word) arriving, or on the way, to Cuba at least since August. These reports, and other rumors, and Republicans raising alarms, reached a new level in September, fifty-four year ago.
JFK is a key character in my new book The Tunnels, which chronicles escapes under the Berlin Wall in 1962 and the Kennedy administration’s attempts to kill NBC and CBS coverage of them. I was surprised to learn in my research, and reading most of the transcripts of Oval Office meetings secretly taped by JFK. that the missile crisis was just as much about Berlin as it was Cuba. This was suggested over and over but here’s just one excerpt from the book of a key September meeting:
Some in the room exited, leaving JFK, Bundy, Robert Kennedy, McNamara, and Rusk to take up the Cuba question. The President had to respond to rumors in the press and claims by Republicans that nuclear missiles had already arrived on the island. The President urged caution, but two of his cabinet officers wanted to discuss what to do if and when the CIA confirmed that surface-to-surface missiles were indeed on the island.
“I think we’d have to act,” Rusk declared. “For example, I would suppose that if you’re going to take on a bloodbath in Cuba, you’d precede it by a systematic blockade to weaken Cuba before you actually go to put anybody ashore.”
“See, I wonder why…if we’d do it then,” McNamara replied, “why wouldn’t we do it today? This is one of the actions that we can consider today, as a matter of fact. There’s no question the Soviets are shipping arms to Cuba, that’s clear. They said so. Now we can—”
The coolest person in the room interrupted. Fortunately that person was the commander in chief. “The reason we don’t is that—is because we figure that they may [then] try to blockade Berlin,” Kennedy observed. That would immediately cause a horrific crisis for the U.S. while a blockade wouldn’t do much harm to Cuba “for quite awhile.” That settled it, for the moment.
Later that day, Kennedy briefed congressional leaders. He outlined what he knew about the Soviet buildup, but added that “even though I know a lot of people want to invade Cuba, I would be opposed to it today.” Again he invoked Berlin. After any U.S. move on Cuba, “Berlin obviously would be blockaded also.” And what timing: “Listen, I think Berlin is coming to some kind of a climax this fall, one way or another….We have to weigh our dangers. I would say the biggest danger right now is for Berlin.”
What the White House did not know was that the first Soviet shipment of medium-range R-12 missiles, capable of carrying a thermonuclear device, was about to reach Cuba by sea. Another was expected in mid-September. Anticipating new warnings from the White House, the Soviet forces would go on their highest alert ever.