John F. Kennedy: Cutting a deal with Khrushchev to save the world

This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.

Michael Dobbs, author of “One Minute to Midnight,” spoke to Yahoo News about JFK’s defining moment of presidential leadership: preventing nuclear war with Russia during the Cuban missile crisis.



We came closer to World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis than at any time before or after.

Khrushchev had a kind of romantic view of Cuba. It was a way of demonstrating superpower equality with the United States and showing that communism was capable of being successful in many other countries, including backward Third World countries. And [Castro] agreed to accept Soviet missiles in Cuba because he saw them as a means of preventing a U.S. invasion of the island [which had already been attempted with the Bay of Pigs and] which he was convinced was coming sooner or later.

Khrushchev thought he would succeed in sending nuclear missiles to Cuba without the U.S. becoming aware of it until it was too late. But he miscalculated because the U.S. discovered these plans while they were still in progress, before the missiles were ready to fire.

There was a secret phase of the crisis, a week before that information was made public, when Kennedy had the luxury of deciding what to do about it, how he was going to respond. Kennedy set up a group of 13 people which he called the ExComm, and they met every day, all day practically, deciding the American response.

After a few days discussing all of the options, Kennedy wanted to know from his military advisers whether it would be possible to take out all the Soviet missile sites. They told him they’d have a good chance at taking out 90 percent, 95 percent, but they couldn’t guarantee 100 percent. That raised the possibility that the Soviets could land a nuclear missile on an American city, which was unacceptable to the president. So he was looking for some alternative. The solution he adopted was a policy of a naval quarantine, or blockade, that at least won time for the diplomats to do their job.

Kennedy goes on television and says that the Soviets have to pull their missiles out of Cuba. The nuclear forces on both sides were on high alert. The Soviet missiles were very close to becoming operational. It’s easy to conceive of scenarios in which some kind of accident or miscalculation would have resulted in World War III.

In the end, Kennedy and Khrushchev turned out to be on the same side. Even though they were natural antagonists, they understood that they needed to bring the crisis to an end before events got completely out of control. Kennedy sends his brother Bobby Kennedy to the Soviet Embassy and privately agrees that if Khrushchev takes his missiles out of Cuba the U.S. will remove similar missiles from Turkey. The Kennedys insisted on total secrecy, which the Soviets accepted.

Khrushchev withdrew from Cuba, and there was no direct confrontation between the superpowers.

Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.

Cover thumbnail photo: President John F. Kennedy announces a naval blockade of Cuba in 1962. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP)