INT: ... Could you just explain to me briefly how the decision to quarantine evolved? I'm quite interested to hear again [about] the change of mood within the ExComm committee, or change of opinion.
RM: The ExComm came I think to the unanimous conclusion that it was necessary, in the interests of NATO security, Western Europe security, US security, to pressure the Soviets in ways that would lead to removal of the missiles. Secondly, we wished to do that with as little military risk as possible, as little military risk in the pressure itself and as little risk of military response after that initial step was taken. It was believed that what was called a "quarantine", which in a sense was a naval blockade, [was] called a quarantine because a quarantine had less of a military connotation than "blockade"... it was believed that the quarantine would convey to Khrushchev the determination of the President to see that those missiles were removed, without stimulating a military response, and that's why the quarantine was approved.
INT: Was there much discussion about what to do if the Soviet Union decided to ignore the quarantine and to let the ships proceed?
RM: Yes, there was, and that led to some very acrimonious confrontations. It was decided that we would make every possible effort to avoid sinking a Soviet ship. There was a famous incident involving the chief of naval operations and myself, because a Soviet ship was approaching this... or would within the next 12 or hours approach this imaginary quarantine line, and the question was: how would we react when it reached the quarantine line? And the chief of naval operations in effect said that if it didn't stop, we'd fire on it. And I responded that there would be no firing on that Soviet ship without my personal permission, and I would not give it without having discussed the action with the President, because he and I were determined to avoid military action if we possibly could. As I suggest, the quarantine we thought of not as military action but as a means of communicating intent and determination, the determination of the President to see the missiles removed with as little military risk as possible.
INT: Excellent. Could I ask you how communication took place between the Soviet Union and America? Firstly how you got the main messages from Khrushchev, and secondly the importance of the back channel communications.
RM: Well, the main messages travelled through the normal process of communication between heads of state, particularly between the Soviet head of state and the US head of state. They were written or dictated by Khrushchev; they were then encoded, transmitted to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, decoded, and delivered to the State Department or the White House, and that process took a lot of time. And at the end, when Khrushchev had finally decided to withdraw the missiles, he sent a message... he didn't wish to rely on the coding process and decoding process because of the time involved; he was so concerned that events might get out of control, that he sent a message to the public radio transmitter in Moscow saying, "Hold that line open, and I'm going to use it," and he sent out over the public transmitter his decision to remove the missiles. But the process of diplomatic communication by cable was supplemented by personal meetings between Bobby Kennedy, the President's brother, and Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. I think that personal contact was very important.
INT: Could I ask you - on what became known as "Black Saturday", on the final day before Khrushchev announced the removal of the missiles, one of the things that's impressed me enormously is reading of Kennedy's reaction to what seemed to be an awful day. How well did Kennedy behave under those pressures?
RM: Oh, I thought he behaved remarkably well. , let me say two things. First, I think the management of the Cuban missile crisis, a crisis that carried with it a very, very high risk of nuclear... the risk was greater than we understood at the time, but Kennedy and I were very concerned about it at the time... but I think the way in which Kennedy organised the US Government to consider all alternative responses and finally decided on how to proceed, was remarkable effective. It's the best managed foreign policy crisis and events crisis in the post-Cold War... in the post-World War II, in my opinion. However, at the end, and with hindsight, one has to conclude we both, we the US and the Soviets - and you as well, I might add - were very, very lucky to avoid nuclear war. We did not understand at the time how close we cameto nuclear war. Kennedy and I believed the risk was greater than our associates, but we vastly underestimated it. It's clear now that, contrary to what the CIA stated at the time - at the time they stated their belief there were no nuclear warheads on the island - it's now they were on the order of 162, of which some 90 were tactical nuclear warheads that would have been used to respond to a US invasion. It was very, very dangerous. And I don't think the world today is sensitive enough to how close we came to nuclear war at the time, and how much that is an inherent risk... of the nuclear forces and the nuclear strategies that the five declared nuclear powers are carrying out today. It's a risk we faced in the past; it's a risk we'll live with as long as we retain our current forces and strategy; it's a risk that I consider totally unacceptable for the future.
INT: Once the crisis had come to, not quite a conclusion but certainly the pressure had gone, Khrushchev said the missiles were to go - I'm again impressed by Kennedy's reluctance, not to gloat but to take pride in the victory.
RM: He specifically instructed all of us, in a sense "Don't gloat, don't boast, don't take any pride in victory." By implication, what he was saying [was], "We've got to live with these people. For God's sakes let's not feel they were pushed into a corner, let's not lead them to feel they've got to lash back at us to overcome a defeat. Let's try to move toward a more peaceful set of relationships, less confrontational than we've been through."
INT: Does that mean then that the Cuban missile crisis was a necessary evil in some respects?
RM: No, (Laughs) it was at too great a cost. It wasn't a necessary evil, but nor do I think it really shaped the remaining years of the Cold War, which went on for - what?- another 20-25 or so, 27. But I do think that both parties learned from it. Among other things, for example, the Hot Line was installed as a clear result of that, and that Hot Line, by the way, was used in a subsequent confrontation between the US and the Soviets in connection with the Six-Day War in June of 1967. So I think that there were some beneficial effects of the Cuban missile crisis, but we carried on the Cold War for another 27 years.
INT: Final few questions then, if I may, sir. ... Just to reiterate slightly, how did Kennedy handle the overall crisis in dealing with... how professional... he was a young President - it must have been an incredible task?
RM: Well, in this particular case, he insisted that his senior people focus solely on the crisis related to the missiles in Cuba, and do nothing else until the senior officials had concluded what should be done, had discussed with him, he had made his decision and implemented it. And that's the way we handled it. Now it was exactly the way you should organise a government to deal with that crisis. And it was, I think, the best-managed crisis in the post-World War II period. However, it was a relatively simple crisis: it occurred in a 12-day period, and there was a very clear issue. But still, I would draw the lesson that that's the way a president should organise a government when considering the application of military force.