- Historic Sites
How My Father And President Kennedy Saved The World
The Cuban Missile Crisis as seen from the Kremlin
October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
But at almost the same time Father sent orders not to shoot down American planes, Fidel Castro issued a command to open fire on them. Castro’s injured pride demanded revenge: Yankee aircraft were making themselves at home in Cuban skies, just as in Batista’s day, and he had no doubt that his northern neighbor would recognize only force. He had no intention of consulting the Kremlin. He was the president of Cuba, and the planes were flying over his, not Soviet, territory.
Told about the downing of the U-2, Kennedy rejected a proposal for an immediate attack on Soviet anti-aircraft batteries in Cuba. The President wanted to know if it was a chance attack or if Moscow had hardened its position. One possibility he did not admit was that Castro, whom everyone in Washington thought was nothing more than a puppet of the Kremlin, might act independently.
The White House did not cancel surveillance flights. On Saturday, at 3:00 P.M. , six F-8Us took off on schedule. The pilots hugged the ground and hid behind every hill, but upon their return technicians counted several holes in their wings made by 30-millimeter shells. This was reported to Kennedy. Everything indicated that the U-2 had been shot down deliberately. Still, the President decided not to act impetuously. Instead he asked his brother to meet with Dobrynin again and to explain that firing at American planes only strengthened those advocating an immediate invasion. One more incident and all would be lost.
JUST WHEN FATHER SENT ORDERS NOT TO SHOOT DOWN AMERICAN PLANES, CASTRO COMMANDED THE OPPOSITE.
The next flight of low-flying surveillance aircraft over Cuba was scheduled for 10:00 A.M. on Sunday, October 28. That would give Moscow time to make a decision. But Father had already decided, as had Castro. Nobody in Washington paid any attention to Castro, but the fortunes of the world now depended on him, not on Father or Kennedy.
American mythology about the Cuban Missile Crisis paints the second meeting between Robert Kennedy and Ambassador Dobrynin in harsh tones, with Kennedy presenting an ultimatum demanding the immediate removal of the missiles or else. That is how Kennedy tells it in his book Thirteen Days . But we should remember that the book was written a few years later, when everything had been resolved successfully, and that it inaugurated the 1968 presidential election campaign. Naturally, the candidate had to portray himself as a tough guy, and his memoirs were edited to make him seem so (one of the editors said as much in my presence).
Father described the same episode in very different terms in his memoirs, written after he had retired. He wrote that Dobrynin reported in his coded message: Robert came to the meeting extremely tired, with red eyes, complained that he hadn’t spent a night at home in a week, that tension was very great at the White House, and that the President was being pressured from all sides to invade. The President had not yet made a decision, but he was in a very difficult position. Obviously, there’s no hint here of an ultimatum. Each side draws a curtain over its own actions, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
So how was the crisis resolved? On Sunday, October 28, Soviet leaders gathered at 10:00 A.M. not in the Kremlin but in the government guesthouse at Novo-Ogarevo, near Moscow. Father decided that this would demonstrate our composure to the world: The Kremlin was empty, government leaders relaxing.
Father was the last to arrive. He greeted those waiting in front without his usual smile and then quickly asked his aide, “What’s new?”
“There’s a letter from Kennedy. During the night it was broadcast on American radio,” answered an aide. “And there’s something else.”
“Let’s go in. We’ll look at everything there,” said Father.
They met in a large dining room used for receiving highranking guests. Its long table was covered with folders in red, pink, green, and blue-gray. Each participant picked up his mail, which had been delivered by courier early that morning. Father proposed that they begin with the President’s letter.
They decided to have it read aloud, even though a meticulously typed copy lay before everyone. Father’s aide for international affairs, Oleg Troyanovsky, began to read in his flat, monotonous voice. It took about half an hour before he came to “Signed John Kennedy.”
Glancing into a thick folder, Troyanovsky added: “We also received a report from Ambassador Dobrynin about a conversation with Robert Kennedy. Very curious.”
FATHER’S DOUBTS NOW VANISHED: “REMOVE THEM, AND AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.”
“Read it,” ordered Father.
Troyanovsky picked up some thin, transparent pages resembling cigarette papers, with a warning at the top of each against making copies, and resumed reading aloud. Father stared at him intently, listening to every word and several times asking him to repeat passages. Later, in retelling the story of how Robert Kennedy looked when he met with Dobrynin, Father would always add with a smile: “And we didn’t look any better.”
The President was asking for help; that was how Father interpreted Robert Kennedy’s talk with our ambassador. The tone of the conversation was evidence of the fact that to delay would be fatal. “That’s everything,” said the aide, closing the folder.
“So, what do you think?” Father asked those seated around the table.