This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union closer to nuclear war than any other event during the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy put the odds of war at “somewhere between one out of three and even.” Over the next two weeks I will be posting daily on the crisis as it unfolded.
Here are the other posts so far in this “TWE Remembers” series on the crisis:
- “Andrei Gromyko Tells a Lie at the United Nations” (September 21, 1962)
- “Maj. Richard Heyser Flies a U-2 Over Cuba” (October 14, 1962)
- “The United States Discovers Soviet Missiles in Cuba” (October 15, 1962)
- “JFK Learns that Soviet Missiles Are in Cuba” (October 16, 1962)
- “The Executive Committee of the National Security Council”
- “JFK Solicits Ike’s Advice” (October 17, 1962)
- “Andrei Gromyko Lies to John Kennedy” (October 18, 1962)
- “JFK Campaigns While the ExCom Debates Cuba” (October 19, 1962)
- “John Kennedy Fakes a Cold” (October 20, 1962)
- “John Kennedy Prepares to Tell the Nation About Soviet Missiles in Cuba” (October 21, 1962)
- “John F. Kennedy Tells the World that Soviet Missiles Are in Cuba” (October 22, 1962)
- “The OAS Endorses a Quarantine of Cuba” (October 23, 1962)
- “Eyeball to Eyeball and the Other Fellow Just Blinked” (October 24, 1962)
- “Adlai Stevenson Dresses Down the Soviet Ambassador to the UN” (October 25, 1962)
- “John Scali has Lunch, Khrushchev writes Kennedy, Castro writes Khrushchev” (October 26, 1962)
- “Black Saturday – Near Calamities Abound as JFK Offers Khrushchev a Deal” (October 27, 1962)
- “Kennedy and Khrushchev Agree to a Deal” (October 28, 1962)
- “Secret Soviet Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Cuba” (Cuban Missile Crisis, A Coda)
Many books have been written on the Cuban missile crisis. Several U.S. officials involved in the crisis wrote firsthand accounts of their experience:
- A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1966). Arthur Schlesinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of the Kennedy presidency provides two chapters on the Cuban missile crisis.
- Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1969). In a memoir published one year after his assassination, Robert Kennedy reveals the inner workings of the ExCom as it worked to avert nuclear war.
- Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988). McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, devotes seventy pages in his history of the world’s most dangerous weapons to the Cuban missile crisis and its lessons for today.
- As I Saw It: A Secretary of State’s Memoirs (1990). Dean Rusk, Kennedy’s secretary of state, devotes a chapter of his memoirs to the crisis.
- Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1993). Dino Brugioni, a CIA photo analyst who helped identify the Soviet missiles, gives an insider’s account of the inner workings of aerial reconnaissance.
- Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (2008). Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter and one of his closest advisers, devotes a chapter to Kennedy’s decisions during the Cuban missile crisis.
Scholars and journalists have explored the crisis in great depth. Here are some of the best:
- Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (1971, 1999). Harvard University professor Graham Allison wrote the classic political science study of the Cuban missile crisis in 1971, which he updated after the end of the cold war with the help of University of Virginia professor Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision is one of the best-selling political science books of all time, and it remains a must-read for students of international relations and political science.
- One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 (1998). Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali explore the Soviet side of the crisis, using internal Kremlin documents to explore the Soviet leadership’s decision-making process throughout the crisis.
- The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader (1999). Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh offer up a blow-by-blow account of the crisis using declassified government documents from before, during, and after the crisis.
- Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003). Sheldon M. Stern, an historian with more than two decades of service at the Kennedy Presidential Library, surveys the crisis through the ExCom meetings, highlighting what individual officials did as well as the broader themes that emerged during the crisis.
- One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (2008). Michael Dobbs, a long-time foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, describes the series of near-misses and almost-catastrophes that illustrate just how close the world came to nuclear war.
- The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy, Khruschev, Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis (2012). James Blight and Janet Lang dramatize the crisis through the letters that Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro wrote, and in doing so highlight the role that the Cubans played in the crisis.
- The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2012). David Coleman looks beyond the agreement that Kennedy and Khrushchev struck on October 28, 1962 to remove Soviet missiles in Cuba and examines the challenges JFK confronted in making sure that the deal was in fact carried out.
Two movies have been filmed about the Cuban missile crisis. The Missiles of October , which was released in 1974 and stars William Devane and Ralph Bellamy among others, was based on Robert Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, Thirteen Days. Hollywood’s first crack at the Cuban missile crisis was shot on video tape to give it a “you are there crispness,” but it misses some of the crisis’s critical events because they weren’t known at the time the film was shot. Thirteen Days , which was released in 2000 and stars Kevin Costner, has more of a big-budget Hollywood feel. Although it is based on more recent scholarship, the movie has some historical inaccuracies. University of Virginia historian and Cuban missile crisis expert Philip Zelikow says, however, that it is “accurate where it counts.”
If you don’t trust how Hollywood portrays the events of October 1962, you can take advantage of one of the things that makes the Cuban missile crisis so unusual, and so attractive to scholars and journalists: President Kennedy secretly taped the meetings he had with his advisers in the White House. Almost none of his advisers knew that their remarks were being taped, so we have a frank, fly-on-the-wall view of their deliberations. Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow collected the transcripts of the secret tapes in The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (2002). You can listen to audio clips of the meetings online at the National Security Archive.
PBS is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis by airing two sixty-minute special programs: The Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War, which debuts on your local PBS affiliate on October 23, 2012 at 8:00 p.m. ET, and Secrets of the Dead: “The Man Who Saved the World”, which airs on October 23, 2012 at 9:00 p.m. ET.
The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard has created a website to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary. It offers historical context for the crisis, including information on the people involved, primary documents, and lessons learned.
Ten years ago, the National Security Archive at the George Washington University commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the crisis by creating a website that includes declassified documents, audio clips, photographs, and chronologies.
Finally, if you want a timeline of the crisis, choices abound. Some of the best timelines can be found at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and the New York Times. The Times has also compiled some of the articles it published during the crisis.