INT: Is that what the recommendation was from the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
TS: I think it was too early for the President to ask for a hard and fast recommendation. Clearly we needed more facts, we needed more exploration of what it was they were up to; we wanted to find out if at the same time there was any unusual activity around Berlin, because we thought Berlin, being the most vulnerable spot in the free world, and the most important, that this may be a one-two punch to suck us into concentrating on problems in Cuba and then act against Berlin or make some trade-off of the freedom of West Berlin for missiles in Cuba. So, without that kind of information, the President was not yet ready for hard and fast recommendations.
INT: So what was to happen over the next few days, and what did the President do?
TS: Those few days are something of a jumble in my memory, because we met constantly; information, new information, kept flowing in from the surveillance planes, both at high level and at, later on, low level. Once the Russians and Cubans knew that we knew, we put in low-level surveillance planes ... while we agonised over what is the right approach, what will solve the problem, what is an answer that is consistent with America's democratic values and its peaceful intentions toward the world as a whole, what kind of action can we take that will not precipitate World War III?
INT: And was the President present at these meetings?
TS: The President emphasised that all of us in the room should give top priority to this and try to get other problems postponed that may be on our desks, but at the same time that it was important not to let on to the Soviet Union that we knew what they were up to. That would give us some time to think and to plan and to react; and therefore we should not be breaking a lot of appointments, we should not have a mass of black official limousines parked outside the White House at strange hours of the day and night. And the President decided that he would maintain his own schedule of the appointments that he had with visiting heads of state, for example, and a campaign swing that he had already scheduled for the very next day. When he came back from that campaign swing, I said to him - and I can't remember now whether it was a memorandum or orally - that I'd noticed subordinates spoke far more frankly in front of their superiors: shall we say an Under Secretary of State or an Assistant Secretary of State in the presence of the Secretary of State, if the President was not in the room, and these were the people we needed to hear from, and we needed to hear from them frankly, and there was some value in his absenting himself from time to time. So thereafter he did absent himself from time to time, while always, at the end of the day, getting a report on how was our thinking progressing, what kinds of solutions were we formulating.
INT: Excellent answer. His brother Robert was present for most of the meetings, and I believe at one point he was reported to have said that he didn't wish his brother to become another Tojo. Do you remember that...?
TS: (Overlap) I remember that very clearly. The air strike, as I mentioned, was a solution that people, from the most peace-minded to the most bellicose, thought from time to time might be the answer. An air strike, of necessity, had to be by surprise, it had to be without warning. In this case, it would have been an air strike against a small island which was inhabited by people of a different colour, and Robert Kennedy - rightfully, in my opinion - drew the analogy that it would be regarded by the world as a bombing of Cuba, of bases in Cuba, comparable to the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese in 1941. And he said, "I don't think I want my brother to become another Tojo." Some people scoffed at the analogy, but ultimately we drew back from the air strike alternative.
INT: Could you tell me a little bit about how the decision to produce a quarantine or blockade came about? And also, what would be fascinating for me is the way that opinions were never locked in within Ex- people in fact changed their mind, and quite willingly so.
TS: People changed their minds because there were no good solutions: every solution was full of holes and risks. It was the only time during my three years in the White Hthat I would wake up in the middle of the night agonising over what was the right approach, what would work, what would not blow up the world. I remember very clearly when we brought in former Secretary of State Dean Acheson to talk to our group, expert on the Russians, expert on the Cold War, and he recommended the air strike. And someone said, "Mr Secretary, if we bomb these Soviet missiles in Cuba, what will their reaction be?" And he said, "I know the Soviets very well," he said, "they will feel compelled to bomb NATO missile bases in Turkey." And somebody else said, "And then what would we do?" "Oh," he said, "under our NATO covenants, we would obligated to bomb Soviet missile bases inside the Soviet Union." "Oh, and then what will the Soviets do?" "Well," he said, "by that time we hope cooler heads will prevail and people will talk." There was a real chill in that room. In fact, if I may just take things out of sequence for a moment to tell you a true story. On the day that the missiles were withdrawn peacefully, Mr Acheson wrote a wonderful hand-written to President Kennedy, congratulating him on his superb handling of the crisis; but some years later, felt compelled to write in a book or article that the Kennedys had just been lucky in the handling of the Cuban missile crisis. And so I was asked by the President about it, and I said, "He's right: we were lucky; we were lucky we didn't take his advice."
INT: Excellent story.
TS: Now actually, I strayed from your question. But I tell that to indicate why the air strike, which sounded ideal, was scratched from the list of many minds, but not all. Many said, "Well, if we could just have a surgical air strike: the planes swoop in, dock out the missiles and fly off, and we're right back to the status quo and to where we were last summer." The Air Force, of course, admitted "There's no such thing as a surgical air strike. To take those missiles safely, you have to take out the surface-to-air missiles, the anti-aircraft missiles, you have to take out any airplanes that are there, including Castro's small air force, as well as any Soviet planes that are there. You bomb the air bases - soon you're going to be bombing army bases as well, and chaos ensues, and an invasion is almost necessary," and so on and so forth. The diplomatic approach, which everybody said, "Well, that's certainly what we have to try first" - again the Pearl Harbour analogy and so forth - and I was given the assignment of trying to write a diplomatic note and draw up the scenario under which it could be handed to Khrushchev by some special emissary, and it would be so powerfully and logically and tightly written that he couldn't push a button or he couldn't send a note out and say "Go ahead and use those missiles" and at the same time not have an ultimatum that would cause history to blame the United States for a third world war, a nuclear holocaust, if Khrushchev did not bend to an ultimatum - and nobody thought he was the type who bended to an ultimatum. And I came back and reported I had tried, and although I had some confidence in my writing skills, I couldn't write such a diplomatic note. And so we began to divide basically into two camps: the air strike camp, or air strike-cum-invasion camp, and the naval quarantine or blockade camp. And then I was asked to write a... because time was getting short; we didn't know how much longer we had before the missiles were operational and whatever plan the Soviets had in mind might commence, or how much time we had before the Soviets discovered that we knew about it and that might precipitate action on their part. So I was asked to draft both speeches, both the speech for an air strike, because the President would certainly announce it to the world and the nation about the time the planes took off, and the speech for the blockade. And I came back again and said, "Well, now, the blockade speech - how do we explain this, and what's the blockade got to do with the missiles, and how's the blockade going to help?" And by getting answers to those questions, it not only strengthened my ability to write the speech: it strengthened the blockade camp, because we began to put together a much more coherent and, I might add, strong and logical approach. And... it was after that speech had been reviewed that the majority felt that's the way we should go, and we called the President, who was out on a campaign trip, back to hear our recommendation.
INT: Was there a problem when you were writing that speech, with trying to justify the legality of the decision to blockade?
TS: We felt that the blockade was justified on many grounds: first of all, on grounds of self-defence, which was never outlawed under the United Nations or international law. The Soviets had lied to us about putting on the island of Cuba, 90 miles from our shore, strategic weapons which were not defensive weapons but which were intended for offensive, aggressive military action. That was their only real use, and they were capable of reaching all parts of the United States. Certainly we had to take some action in defence. Second, the fact that they had not announced this as a treaty under international law; they had not gone to the United Nations to say "This is what we are doing," by way of justification; and the fact that we hoped to bring the OAS, the Organization of American States, with us in authorising the blockade, even in participating in the blockade, all gave us a stronger hand in international law.
INT: On the night of the 22nd, when President Kennedy gave the speech, what was your feeling when you heard him actually saying the words that you'd written, and what was the feeling within the White House at that moment?
TS: The speech was a very difficult one to write, because the President did not want to panic the American public into diving into bomb shelters and petitioning him to surrender. On the other hand, he did not want to panic the Soviets into taking an immediate military response. He didn't want to alarm our allies to think, well, we were shaking about missiles 90 miles off our shore - how were we going to feel about missiles that they were living under the shadow of? It was a speech that had to address many audiences on many different levels. It went through a good many drafts. Just before he went on the air, he met with the congressional leaders, who had been summoned from all parts of the country because Congress was in recess at the time, and all of them were against the speech, against the blockade approach, all of them wanted an air strike and invasion; and it was not surprising because they had not gone through the same thought processes that we had gone through and not seen the same evidence that we had seen. Nevertheless, the President was shaken, disturbed, angry that they were giving him such a hard time at this last moment. But he didn't change a word in the speech; and a good many of them called in after the speech and said, "Well, now we understand much better why this is the approach that you're taking." I think we all felt in the White House that it was the best approach, it was the right approach. As the President said when he made the choice between blockade and air strike, "This is the limited option, this is the way to begin, and we always have the option of escalating later on, if we must."