COLD WAR FACE OFF
October 16, 1997
For two weeks in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union stood at the brink of nuclear war. Thirty-five years later, the Cuban Missile Crisis is viewed as one of the "hottest" moments of the Cold War. After a background report by Kwame Holman, Jim Lehrer discusses the significance of these events with the presidential historians and Sergei Khrushchev, the son of the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
JIM LEHRER: NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist/author Haynes Johnson, joined by Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev. He's now a senior fellow at Brown University. I talked with him earlier in the week. Doris, how real was the fear that we were on the brink of nuclear war?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
October 16, 1997:
A background report on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
January 23, 1997:
Lloyd Axworthy, Canada's Foreign Minister, discusses the impact of Helms-Burton.
July 11, 1996:
Canada's Trade Minister and an US congresswoman debate the legitimacy of Helms-Burton.
March 5, 1996:
Secretary of State Warren Christopher discusses the US foreign policy toward Cuba.
March 1, 1996:
Two policy experts analyze the United States' policy toward Cuba.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Latin America
The text of the Helms-Burton Act
"In the White House, it felt very real."
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, there's no question in the White House it felt very real. My husband, Richard Goodwin, who worked there at the time, said there was this immense race among all the government high officials to see who was on the real list to be able to be evacuated to the emergency shelter. It would be a real A-list to be on. The emergency helicopters were waiting outside the White House.
And there are some people now looking back on it say that maybe there weren't as much--like World War I. One step leads to the next. If Khrushchev had decided not to respond to that quarantine and we would have to fire on one of his ships, he lost prestige, we lost faith. That's the way wars come in those little steps. And I think that's what really could have led us to a nuclear confrontation, even though it would have been an irrational thing on all sides.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read the fear 35 years later?
Russia and the U.S.: poised against each other.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: The same way exactly, Jim. I mean, the sense here in Washington--I was a reporter then on the Washington Star, and I remember following this process--we all did--and the sense it was developing, building. And you had the sense not only from the White House but around the country and here particularly, you really did believe that this might go up. And in a way it almost seemed inevitable because to understand the Cold War mentality at the time that we fought this war, a Cold War, from Berlin, all the way through the Berlin Wall, going up, all these things were happening, and this process --and finally we're coming in this process where the two sides are poised at each other.
JIM LEHRER: It had to happen.
HAYNES JOHNSON: You know, there were people in this country--Doris is so right about miscalculation. We had these enormous powers on either side unrivaled in history. And you had people who were pushing. We had to take out a first strike. And there were people in this country that talked about better dead than red, and the same thing was true on the Soviet side, where you have a situation where there were people pushing that we had to sort of move in this way. So I think it was very real.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think it was very real, Mr. Khrushchev, from the Russian point of view?
The Russian point of view.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: I think that our feeling was a little bit different because in this--your case the press of public opinion created much more fear about all these events, and in Russia everything was fully controlled.
JIM LEHRER: Somebody knew about it.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: Openly people knew that only Americans violated the freedom of the navigation of the ocean, nothing more. And in Kremlin I think that my father was very scared not to be pushed in the corner, but until doors open, nothing will happen, but he wanted to be prepared. And there were no preparations to the escape, no helicopters, even in the evening he decided to make the meeting of the Politburo--and his official at the home--at the residence--instead of at the Kremlin because he knew American journalists were searching around Red Square for what we are doing, we don't want to show them that we are nervous. He said let's go and let's sit there where they will not see us.
JIM LEHRER: Did your father ever say anything to you or other members of the family, hey, look, we got a problem on our hands?
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: He more talk to me because at that time I worked with the missiles, and I knew something about these. I was designer--the missiles--Cruise missiles for the submarines against American Navy. So each day it was like usually he kept his work around our house and I was with him. Sometimes he was silent. Sometimes he told me some things. Sometimes I feel that I kept asking questions and he told me--give me some answers.
JIM LEHRER: Did you personally feel that your country was on the verge of nuclear war with the United States?
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: Well, I was too young, but I don't remember real fear. It was some fear that something can happen. But because when I ask my father, he never told me, he told yes, we're trying to solve this problem; we're trying to understand each other. I sent this letter. I sent another letter.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, you've looked at the records on a lot of this written about this incident and particularly involving Mr. Khrushchev, as well as President Kennedy. What does the record say about this?
Was the U.S. prepared to strike?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, the record, including my interviews with Sergei--and we talked about it years ago--suggest that there was a very big chance that this could have spiraled into a general nuclear war, just as we heard Dean Rusk saying on the taped piece that we just heard. And one way it could have happened could have been if, let's say, John Kennedy had had to make a decision within 24 hours, rather than having six days of secrecy to deliberate. Because if he had made an immediate decision, it might have been to attack the missile sites and invade Cuba. And if there was an intention by the Soviets and the Cubans to use nuclear weapons in response to that kind of an invasion, to save Cuba for the Soviet bloc, that could have very quickly gone to nuclear war.
JIM LEHRER: What is your reading of that? Was the Soviet Union prepared to do that? If the United States had decided to take out those missile sites, would they have responded, do you think?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: There is a lot of evidence on the Soviet side that there was not the kind of control down to the local level that we would have liked to see, in retrospect, and the great irony is that--and this comes back to what Doris said at the beginning--it's one thing if you've got a war that's over real issues, but in 1962, there were no particularly greater issues between John Kennedy and Sergei's dad than there were between Truman or Stalin or other leaders of the Cold War. So if it did happen and if a balloon had gone up, it would have happened for reasons that were really not that momentous.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what do you make of Haynes' point that there was in the air a kind of an inevitability to this, that we had had this Cold War, we've had this confrontation that had to be resolved some way and the way you resolve these things is through conflict?
Growing up in the shadow of the Bomb.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I mean, that's true. You think of a whole decade that has preceded this. I mean, I was the first of that generation that grew up with the fear that a nuclear war could end everything we knew at an instant, that generation that had to go under the desk for those instant atomic fallings. I never could figure out how the desk with its ink well and scratchings are going to protect me from the atomic bomb. (laughter) But, nonetheless, I went under the desk. And at night I would somehow practice these fallings out of my bed. Between saying all of my prayers and practicing these fallings I hardly ever got to sleep.
But, nonetheless, it was a whole generation conditioned to this on the public level, and then on the policy making level you had Kennedy feeling that he had to take a stand, that he couldn't lose prestige, and the sense that perhaps Khrushchev was under similar constraints, that it had come to a forced confrontation--even, as Michael says--even if this issue may not have needed to bring it back but it did.
JIM LEHRER: But, Mr. Khrushchev, then in the Soviet Union there was none of that under the desk kind of mentality at all, right, in terms of whether or not there's going to be a nuclear war?
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: You know, we can all be drilled in school but because we were the generation of the Second World War our feeling was different than people who lived in your safe country. We thought that we went through the Second World War--it was German--they bombed, they destroy our country--maybe it will be a little bit different. You know, we must understand that mentality of the nation was very different.
White House tapes documented the secret meetings.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, there have been a lot of tapes released lately. Isn't it fascinating to realize that nobody in that room knew that those meetings here in the United States were being taped, except the President?
HAYNES JOHNSON: And Robert Kennedy, who also knew that they were being taped--two of them--two leading participants in this case. And what's fascinating to listen to those words now and to hear them and you have all this Texan that is real, palpable, and yet, you know it's also going to be if they survive at the end of this do no--this great human drama taking place, there's going to be a marvelous piece of history because all of these conflicting participants are telling how they felt at that moment. And it's particularly riveting in the conversation we're having here that the first response, as Michael said, from the military--or Doris--the military was strike.
JIM LEHRER: Strike, go.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Take them out. We have to take them out; brought in Dean Acheson, the old secretary of state for Truman. His first response: Take them out. When they brought it to the congressional leaders, Bill Fulbright, whom I wrote a biography of, "Architect of Peace in Vietnam," take them out. So the immediate, first reaction in these private rooms was to strike.
JIM LEHRER: What was that pressure like?
What would happen if the Cuban Missile Crisis took place in 1997?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It was enormous, and it was immediate. And you have to think if it had taken place in 1997, there might have been an attack, an invasion, and there might have been a nuclear war because in 1962, you could keep a secret like this for six days. They were able to do this behind closed doors. Nowadays you'd probably have a television network satellite discovering the missiles at the exact same moment the CIA did, and you had angry Senators on television saying John Kennedy promised us this would never happen. He said he would invade an attack in retaliation for something like this. Under that kind of political pressure, JFK would have had a very hard time taking the moderate stance he did. As it was, he had the luxury of being the person who could announce to the nation and the world that there were these missiles in Cuba that he promised would never be there, and couple that with the best possible presentation of his reaction. And that made him a lot more stronger politically, and the result is that he had almost total support among the American people.
Probing Nikita Khrushchev's state of mind.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Khrushchev, did your father just miscalculate what the United States' reaction to this would be?
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: Yes. It was one of the--maybe not miscalculation--a misunderstanding of the two different cultures--because for my father like the European country, the presence of the missiles near your borders was something unpleasant but usual; all the time we have this. And you all the time were safe and you still have this feeling. When you see them near your borders, you can do everything to dig them out. And I am agree that all the left and right, the hopes and all of them tried to do this push them out because it was fear of the nation. And I think it is most dangerous because it was not really calculated political decisions because the people in the White House understood if they will accept these missiles, they will be kicked out of the White House the next day, what you just told us. It was the biggest miscalculation of my father and he had to make improvisation later after the beginning of the crisis.
JIM LEHRER: And in the final analysis he turned those ships around and he took those missiles off because he thought that United States really was going to bomb Cuba, really was prepared to start a war--
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: --if the strike will begin, he will lose the control of the situation and then nobody knows who would push the button, general, sergeant, colonel, and all this fire on this distraction. At that time there was no technical possibility to prevent it. You can turn the key, like in the car, push the button, and destroy New York City and then begin the war. So he wanted to prevent that.
JIM LEHRER: And it was remarkable, the final analysis, was it not, Michael, how quickly this whole thing started and was over.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And it ended like a historical fable. Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy both made very bad mistakes that brought about this unnecessary crisis but they were both extremely wise and courageous in ending it just before it was on the verge of going to nuclear war and possibly ending civilization.
JIM LEHRER: Alright, wow, well, Doris, gentlemen, thank you very much.