Rallying Around The Flag  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1994

Rallying Around The Flag   

The press never questioned President Kennedy's account of the Cuban missile crisis, and the myth of the brave young president saving the world from nuclear war persisted for years. Coverage of the Persian Gulf War suggests nothing has changed.

By James McCartney
James McCartney is a former Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.     


One of the great myths of our time, created by self-serving political partisans and nourished by an eager, lapdog media, is the one of a young Jack Kennedy courageously facing down Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis, thus saving the world from nuclear war.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy's hired biographer, set the pace. The boss' performance, he wrote afterwards, was a "combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated" that *ennedy had "dazzled the world." Kennedy's brother, Robert, and his White House speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, contributed similar starry-eyed judgments.

For more than 20 years their version of the Cuban missile crisis was accepted wisdom, taught in classrooms, the stuff of legend. It is, unfortunately, a myth. Historians and scholars have pieced together quite another story, far less complimentary. Working with newly released documents and information from recent meetings between ex-Soviet and Kennedy administration officials, they have found that many aspects of the legend are simply not true.

Though there is certainly no absolute consensus, revisionists have drawn a pic-

ture of a misguided Kennedy, caught in a political trap of his own making, perpetrating an unnecessary crisis and nearly plunging the world into nuclear disaster. The late Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's revered secretary of state, privately called Kennedy's strategy a "reckless gamble," according to Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves. Iennedy's emergence unscathed, Acheson believed, was "plain dumb luck."

There are troubling questions: Why did it take so long to begin to learn something of the truth? Where was the American press corps? How was it possible for sycophants of the Kennedy administration to sell their version of the story for so many years?

The answers are even more troubling. In the Cuban missile crisis, as in most foreign policy crises, the American press abandoned its traditional, constitutional role as a forum for debate and became part of the propaganda machine the administration artfully created.

Says William LeoGrande of American University, who has studied press coverage of the crisis: "The press almost never questioned the basic assumptions and arguments advanced publicly and privately by administration spokesmen." It "exhibited no independent judgment and did not treat seriously the views of anyone who dissented from the administration position." The history professor concludes: "The performance of the press during that crisis provides a striking example of how quickly and thoroughly the press can abdicate its role of independent watchdog."

Could such deception happen now? The record shows that something similar has happened in virtually every foreign policy crisis since. The fact is that in such situations the press consistently has joined in supporting whatever policy, misguided though it may be, the reigning administration tried to sell – from the vast buildup in the early stages of the Vietnam War through the Persian Gulf War. For the most part, in foreign policy crises the critical faculties of the news media shut down.

But the Cuban missile crisis is classic. It provides a case study of how an administration can manipulate a pliant press for its own political advantage, a capsulization of how it is done, and where and how the press failed. The story contains many lessons for the press today in preparing itself for coverage of future crises.

Obviously, there was no ?mmediate media awareness of the first act of the Cuban missile drama. The presence of components of medium-range ballistic missiles on Cuba was first reported to President Kennedy by his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, on October 16, 1962, at 8:45 a.m.

Kennedy called an 11:45 a.m. meeting with his high-level advisers, a secret committee of foreign policy elders that later became known as ExComm – the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. The startling discovery was not disclosed to the public until a week later when Kennedy addressed the nation in a televised speech.

What is known now is that Kennedy's version of the threat in that speech was overdramatized for political effect, a point now conceded by surviving top Kennedy administration advisers, including Theodore Sorensen and McGeorge Bundy. Kennedy also failed to disclose a secret American program, called "Operation Mongoose," that he had originated to topple the Cuban government and possibly invade the island. Kennedy also deliberately avoided mention of comparable U.S. missiles on the Soviet border in Turkey. And he was dead wrong on perhaps the most crucial question of all in the crisis, the Soviet motivation for installing the missiles.

Kennedy led the public to believe that the Soviets were threatening a nuclear strike. We know now that the Soviets had no such intention, and in fact were fearful of an American attack on Cuba – for good reason.

We also know something else even more terrifying. We know that the world came closer to nuclear war than was known at the time. The record shows that we were probably within 48 hours of a U.S. attack on Cuba that would almost inevitably have led to a Soviet nuclear counterattack on the United States.

Kennedy's language in his televised speech on October 22 was uncompromising. "Within the past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island," he said. "The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere." He went on to say that missiles with nuclear warheads would be capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area – a truly frightening picture. He called the Soviet move "a clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace." He demanded that the missiles be withdrawn and announced a naval quarantine to stop further shipments.

The record shows that the press did not challenge any of those highly questionable propositions in the days that followed. What Kennedy asserted was assumed to be true. We know now that much of it wasn't.

The story of the Cuban missile crisis did not really begin when the missiles were discovered on October 16. It began during Kennedy's 1960 election campaign against Richard Nixon. On Labor Day Kennedy found himself several points behind in the polls and began a savage attack on Nixon – from the right. On October 6, in a speech at the Cincinnati Garden, he accused the Eisenhower administration, including Vice President Nixon, of creating "communism's first Caribbean base" in Cuba. Later that month Kennedy's staff issued a strong statement that the United States had an obligation to help those Cubans "who offer eventual hope of overthrowing [Prime Minister Fidel] Castro."

Kennedy positioned himself as tougher on Cuba than the Republicans. Thus it was inevitable after he took office that Republicans would pressure him to stand up to Castro – which, of course, he did in the failed effort to depose the Cuban leader with the Bay of Pigs invasion.

The notes of the first secret meeting of ExComm – now on the public record – provide an insight into the political problem Kennedy had created. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was blunt: "I'll be quite frank," he said. "I don't think there is a military problem here. This is a domestic political problem." Kennedy clearly agreed. In an interview in 1987, McNamara said, "You have to remember that, right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those [Cuban] missile sites alone. He didn't say militarily, he said politically ."

As noted by Robert Smith Thompson in "The Missiles of October," published in 1992, "For domestic political reasons, Kennedy simply had to stand up to [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev."

Kennedy had contributed mightily to causing the crisis. He had campaigned so strongly for a tougher policy toward Cuba that he was caught in a political trap of his own making. Yet the press failed to perceive any relationship between the two.

No issue is more central to the crisis than the question of Soviet motivation – whether the missiles were "offensive" or "defensive." Kennedy made clear in his televised speech that he believed the motivation was self-evident. If the missiles could reach the United States they were "offensive." He left no room for debate.

Yet the record shows quite convincingly that Nikita Khrushchev had no such intention. At a meeting between surviving Soviet and American officials in Moscow in January 1989 the moderator asked: "What was the purpose of the deployment of the nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba by the Soviet Union?"

Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister in 1962, immediately volunteered a reply: "I can answer that question with a few words. Their action was intended to strengthen the defensive stability of Cuba. To avert the threats against it. I repeat, to strengthen the defensive capability of Cuba. That is all."

This, of course, was the official Soviet position – including Khrushchev's and Gromyko's – at the time, but it was treated with derision and skepticism by the Kennedy administration and the press.

In its lead editorial on October 23, the morning after Kennedy's speech, the New York Times declared that the president's speech represented "confirmation..that offensive intermediate-range missile sites are now being established in Cuba," adding that "the kind of installations they are constructing are unmistakably offensive in purpose." A page one story in the Christian Science Monitor by William H. Stringer that same day ridiculed the notion that the missiles might be defensive: "Particularly nettling to Washington officials was Premier Khrushchev's boldness" in asserting "that the Soviet military equipment was 'exclusively for defensive purposes.' "

Weeks after the crisis subsided the White House granted exclusive interviews to two well-connected Washington newsmen, Stewart Alsop of Newsweek and Charles Bartlett of the Chattanooga Times, to tell the "inside story" of the crisis in the Saturday Evening Post, then one of the nation's largest circulation general interest magazines. They helped to embellish the myth, declaring that the Soviet assertion that missiles were purely defensive meant: "First, the Soviets tried to lay a trap for the United States in Cuba, using maximum duplicity to that end, in order to achieve maximum surprise. Second, we caught them at it."

The press generally treated the notion that the missiles might be defensive as "a Soviet lie," William LeoGrande says. But there is now a consensus among scholars that Khrushchev's primary motivation was the defense of Cuba. A strong secondary factor, they believe, was his justified perception of Soviet nuclear inferiority. Khrushchev knew that the United States had established overwhelming nuclear superiority by 1962 and was still building up. He wanted to redress the perception of imbalance by establishing a more threatening military posture.

A convincing witness to Soviet motivation is Sergo Mikoyan, who was intimately involved as the crisis unfolded. He was personal secretary to his father, Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas I. Mikoyan, a close friend and confidante of Khrushchev. The Mikoyans and Khrushchevs lived in adjacent houses in Moscow's Lenin Hills, and Anastas Mikoyan and Khrushchev often took long walks together to discuss government problems.

At a 1987 conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, involving both former Soviet and U.S. officials, Sergo Mikoyan was asked why Khrushchev installed the missiles in Cuba. "The main idea was the defense of Fidel's regime," he said. "Khrushchev had some reasons to think the U.S. would repeat the Bay of Pigs, but not make mistakes anymore... So he thought that an invasion was inevitable, that it would be massive, and that it would use all American force."

A secondary factor, Sergo Mikoyan said, was Soviet strategic inferiority. The Soviets then estimated that the Americans had 17 nuclear weapons for every one they possessed.

Former Secretary of Defense McNamara asked Mikoyan if Khrushchev "ever thought it would be in his interest ever to launch these missiles" – a key question in light of Kennedy's description of the threat. Mikoyan replied: "Well, the idea was that their very existence would deter an American invasion. It would not be necessary to launch them."

At the meetings between former Soüiet and American officials, McNamara acknowledged that Khrushchev had every reason to believe that a U.S. invasion might be in the works, but doubted that Kennedy would have ever done it. "If I had been a Cuban leader, I think I might have expected a U.S. invasion..," he said. "I should say as well, if I had been a Soviet leader at the time, I might have come to the same conclusion."

McNamara insisted that the United States had "absolutely no intention of invading Cuba, and therefore the Soviet action to install missiles with that as its objective was, I think, based on a misconception – a clearly understandable one, and one that we, in part were responsible for. I accept that." It was an astonishing admission by McNamara some 25 years later.

It was the super-secret "Operation Mongoose" that lay at the root of Cuban and Soviet fears – a program the American public knew nothing about. Although McNamara insisted that there was no intention to invade Cuba, documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests by the privately funded National Security Archive paint a different picture.

In January 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy is quoted as demanding at a secret Justice Department meeting that "no time, money, effort or manpower be spared" in bringing about "the overthrow of Castro's regime." Moreover, official guidelines for "Operation Mongoose," dated March 14, 1962, contained the following phrase: "In undertaking to cause the overthrow of the Castro government, the U.S. will make maximum use of Cuban resources, internal and external, but recognizes that final success will require decisive U.S. military intervention."

In the book, "The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962," which features documents obtained by the National Security Archive, the editors, Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, note: "The documents lend credence to Khrushchev's claim that a primary Soviet motivation was the defense of Cuba against a U.S. invasion. For years, U.S. analysts have dismissed this as a face-saving, after-the-fact rationale that enabled the Soviets to declare victory in the confrontation rather than admit defeat...

"Although Kennedy never formally authorized an invasion, former administration officials acknowledge that Cuban intelligence had infiltrated the CIA's exile groups and learned of plans for a potential invasion – which, ironically, was scheduled for October 1962."

American University's William LeoGrande observes: "Had the press taken seriously the idea that defending Cuba might actually be the real Soviet motive – as most scholars now believe it was – the righteousness of the U.S. response might not have been so quickly and universally supported."

In fact, the press found the notion that the United States might be considering an invasion of Cuba so outlandish that the question was not addressed. The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor, for example, did not so much as speculate during the week of the crisis that such a fear by the Soviets might be credible. The attitude of Time magazine, in a November 2 article, prevailed. Time said Soviet assertions that their motive was the defense of Cuba constituted "an ingenious but preposterous tale."

This failure by the press seems all the more remarkable in light of the fact that in 1962 some prominent Republicans had been openly calling for an invasion. Sen. Homer E. Capehart of Indiana, for example, had demanded either a blockade or an invasion of Cuba in his reelection campaign to a point where Kennedy attacked Capehart as irresponsible.

The press also failed to focus public attention on an obvious question: Why should nuclear missiles deployed by Kennedy earlier in 1962 in Turkey, on the Soviet frontier, be considered "defensive," while Soviet missiles in Cuba were automatically "offensive?" The minutes of ExComm meetings show that officials were concerned that the public might not see any difference.

The ExComm officials needn't have worried. LeoGrande says the press never questioned the administration's premise. "In fact," he says, "the press went the administration one better, generally taking the attitude that our missiles were acceptable simply because they were ours, while the Soviet missiles were unacceptable because they were theirs."

Time magazine, in its November 2 edition, articulated a typical view: "The U.S. bases..have helped keep the peace since World War II, while the Russian bases in Cuba threaten to upset the peace. The Russian bases were intended to further conquest and domi?ation while the U.S. bases were erected to preserve freedom." The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor explained the administration's view, but never questioned it. In an October 25 news story the Times reported that "missile bases in Turkey, Italy and elsewhere were established by the Western allies with due public notice only after the Soviet Union had let it be known that it had intermediate range nuclear weapons aimed at Western European nations... The United States maintains that the Western powers moved to restore a balance of power and did not move into new territory." In fact, the bases in Turkey were in "new territory."

Clearly the administration did not want the public to know that it was ready to make a deal on the Turkish missiles. A secret deal, nevertheless, is exactly what happened. Robert Kennedy assured Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, that the missiles in Turkey would be removed when the heat was off.

It was yet another public relations triumph by the Kennedy administration, which took the public position that the Soviets backed down in the crisis while the United States gave nothing. When the missiles in Turkey were withdrawn soon after the crisis, without fanfare, the press paid little attention, perceiving no significant connection.

n his televised speech, Kennedy characterized the discovery of the missiles as an unacceptable military danger to the United States, yet there are questions about the degree to which there was a significant new threat. The press never seriously challenged Kennedy's premise. In fact, it exaggerated the danger.

For example, in a CBS News documentary titled "Anatomy of a Crisis," Charles Collingwood intoned that the central reason for the confrontation was that Kennedy "could not brook the presence of Soviet missiles capable of changing the whole balance of power."

And on October 27, John W. Finney of the New York Times reported on page one: "The continued deployment of long range missiles at bases in Cuba would dangerously tip the nuclear balance to the detriment of the United States, in the opinion of high administration officials." The story said that the Soviets were in danger of developing a "first strike" nuclear capability which could reduce, or neutralize, U.S. retaliatory power "to the point where it would no longer serve as a deterrent against Soviet attack."

Such assertions were wrong. Top U.S. officials never believed the balance of power was affected by the Soviet move. At the first meeting of the ExComm group on October 16, White House national security adviser McGeorge Bundy asked the group: "What is the strategic impact on the position of the United States of MRBMs [middle range ballistic missiles] in Cuba? How gravely does this change the strategic balance?"

McNamara replied: "Mac, I asked the chiefs [the Joint Chiefs of Staff] that this afternoon, in effect. And they said, substantially, my own personal view is, not at all."

McNamara never changed his mind. More than two decades later, in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, meeting with ex-Soviet officials, he said: "The assumption that the strategic nuclear balance, or 'imbalance,' mattered in any way was wrong. As far as I am concerned, it made no difference... The military balance wasn't changed."

In fact, according to McNamara and Raymond Garthoff, a State department expert on the Soviet military at the time, U.S. superiority was about 17 to one in deliverable nuclear weapons – just what the Soviets had believed. Garthoff estimates that the Soviets had 44 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the time of the crisis while the United States had several thousand nuclear weapons.

Even Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian who has done so much to advance the Kennedy myth, has written that "looking back, it seems to me that the most plausible reason Khrushchev had for putting missiles in Cuba was to repair his own missile gap."

There are much broader legacies of the crisis. Many historians now believe that top officials of the Kennedy administration, who were retained by Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy's assassination, concluded that the threat of force worked in dealing with the communists, thus setting the conceptual stage for the Vietnam War.

Richard Ned Lebow, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a longtime student of the superpower confrontation, has written: "The link between Cuba and Vietnam is both striking and tragic. That Cuba was the precedent for Vietnam there can be no doubt."

It is also a matter of record now that the Soviets drew another conclusion – that they must build up their nuclear forces. They began to do exactly that soon after the crisis, leading to an uncontrolled nuclear arms race that, by the 1980s, had produced more than 50,000 nuclear weapons on both sides.

Yet the myth lives on, in part because of the brilliance of the Kennedy administration's public relations machine, in part because the full story was hidden for so many years by government secrecy, and in part because the press didn't do its job at the time – and has failed since to reexamine history as the true story became known.

Has press coverage improved since the early 1960s? There is little evidence that it has when foreign crises are involved. Logical questions are not asked. The premises of administration actions are not questioned. Voices of dissent are often ignored or treated skeptically.

The American press corps substantially supported the Vietnam War through all of its early stages. It was not until after the Tet offensive in 1968 that the mainstream press began to ask critical questions. But by 1975 that edge had dulled when President Ford tried to rescue the merchant ship Mayaguez off the Cambodian coast. More U.S. soldiers died than the number of merchant seamen who were saved, but the operation was greeted in the press as a great American victory. Years later, President Reagan's 1983 invasion of Grenada – certainly questionable in retrospect – was also viewed as a triumph. So was President Bush's invasion of Panama in 1989.

A careful examination of the role of the press in the Persian Gulf War raises the same kinds of questions. As is well known, the military imposed the tightest controls on the press in American history, making accurate reporting on the scene improbable if not impossible. Eliot A. Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, reviewed six of the most recent books about the war, concluding that the military won a "victory over journalists."

"The uncomfortable conclusion one might reach" from the latest books, he wrote, is that "the United States blundered into this conflict after pursuing a misguided and ill-informed policy vis-a-vis Iraq."

This is not the picture one would draw from the press coverage. We still know virtually nothing about why Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait or why the administration so drastically overestimated Iraq's military capabilities. Much of the press in the Persian Gulf was still buying whatever the administration had to say as fact, still failing to probe deeply into the causes of the war.

For the press, there are dramatic lessons in the unfolding story of the Cuban missile crisis. One is that politics does not stop at our country's borders. Kennedy boxed himself in by making rash, politically motivated charges in the 1960 election campaign. In 1962 the press failed to examine the politics of the crisis. (Bill Clinton did something similar during the 1992 campaign when he criticized President Bush's policies in Haiti and Bosnia.)

Another lesson is that the press has grave difficulty in questioning the basic premises of administration decisions to use force.

The power of the press is to raise issues, to ask questions, to stimulate public discussion and debate. Legitimate questions were not asked in 1962. Why are our missiles defensive and theirs offensive? Why might Khrushchev believe that Cuba needed to be defended? Had the strategic balance changed?

William LeoGrande believes he knows why these questions weren't asked, at least in part. As he puts it, the Cuban missile crisis "revealed how badly Cold War fears about threats to national security had compromised the press' independence from the state." But the Cold War was over by the time of the Persian Gulf War and the press still had not produced a declaration of independence. And it still hasn't. l

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