INT: So, a few days after that speech was given, the blockade was in place, and everyone was waiting, the world was waiting to see what was going to happen to the Soviet ships approaching the blockade line. Do you remember the Excom meeting, or a meeting where you suddenly got information that the ships were stopping or slowing down?
TS: I certainly remember the meeting in which a note came in while we were meeting in the Cabinet Room, which was handed to the President, he smiled and said, "We've just received word that the Soviet ships..." particularly those ships that were most suspect of carrying either nuclear warheads or other missile equipment, had stopped dead in the water. We didn't think it was a final victory: we knew they were probably simply awaiting instructions; we knew that of them had the submarines accompanying them, so that any blockade was a risky choice in its own right. But at least it was a start, it made possible a dialogue, and President Kennedy wanted a dialogue to accompany his use of deterrents.
INT: I believe that Dean Rusk came up with the famous "eyeball-to-eyeball" statement. Do you remember that?
TS: Frankly, I don't.
INT: Fair enough.
TS: I have no doubt that he did, but I don't remember it.
INT: Was there a sense of relief, though, in Excom? Did you think that you had at least taken a step to bringing the world back from the brink of a possible nuclear war?
TS: No. No, we felt that that was at best a temporary respite. There was much more of a sense of relief when all of the countries of the OAS - the Organization of American States - joined with us, making it a collective action of self-defence, and thereby making clear the legal authority under international law and the United States Charter, that the United States could take this action.
INT: How was the decision taken to stop particular ships, such as the Marakula, for instance?
TS: President Kennedy was very much a hands-on president, and that was true in every sphere of his administration. He was accustomed to calling desk officers three levels down to find out about a particular programme, activity or problem. And he was never more hands-on than he was during this crisis, when he, and he alone, made the final decision as to which ship should be stopped and where it should be stopped, and made clear that it was to be stopped in accordance with international law, signalling the flags, the peaceful right to board, and so on. And he did not stop those ships, such as a tanker or a passenger vessel, which clearly could not be carrying offensive weapons, but he did stop those just to demonstrate that we were serious about it, he did stop those from the Eastern bloc countries that could be carrying strategic weapons.
INT: During this period, there was a lot of what came to be known as the "back channel conversations" between Robert Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador. Was that information being relayed to Excom?
TS: Some of it. And we should distinguish now... There were two, or possibly three, meetings between Robert Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador. The Soviet ambassador to Britain was an excellent communications link; he faithfully represented the views of his government and his Chairman, Nikita Khrushchev, but he also spoke and understood English extremely well, and we believe was accurately reporting what Robert Kennedy told him about the American intentions.
INT: Was there any credence given to the conversations that also occurred at that time between John Scali and Alexander Felikskov, also known as Alexander Formin?
TS: Formin... There were two restaurant meetings between ABC news correspondent John Scali, a very good State Department correspondent, and Alexander Formin, who was a KGB representative in the Soviet Embassy in Washington. I'm not sure that I would escalate that to a level of back channel in terms of dealing, but it ultimately confirmed the message we were getting from Khrushchev about a possible solution to the crisis.
But let's go back to the Robert Kennedy... even though I'm not sure here about the order of your questions. The final meeting between Robert Kennedy and Ambassador Dobrynin was absolutely essential to the peaceful resolution of the crisis. A group within the Excom sat with the President when Robert Kennedy was instructed to carry to the ambassador, to hand-carry to the ambassador, our reply to Khrushchev's letter of the previous day, Friday, and to tell him two things: one, the time is growing very short, that those who were of a different mind to those who wanted an invasion or an air strike, were growing in their ferocity, and that the United States, if the blockade did not prove to be a winning remedy, would have to take other measures very soon; and second, to tell him that the bases in Turkey, which had been the subject of the second Khrushchev message that had so discouraged us all, were a problem that the United States had always intended to take care of. The President did not believe that those missiles should stay in Turkey - not for the same reasons the Russians wanted them out, but because they were outmoded, anachronistic, and could be replaced by Polaris submarines in the Mediterranean, and we could not take them out at the point of a gun, we could not take them out under threat, we could not take them out unilaterally, because they were NATO bases, but he had our assurance that they would be gone provided it was not done on a quid pro quo basis and therefore the Russians could not talk about it. The deal was simply they would pull out the missiles, we would pull back the naval quarantine, and not invade Cuba, which we had no intention of invading anyway. And it was that extra oral message, along with our letter, that I believe had a great deal to do with Khrushchev's agreeing to those terms.
INT: If I can lead you back just slightly in the chronology. The first message that you received from Khrushchev was a long telegram, which you received on the 26th, I believe...
TS: Well, yeah, it wasn't the first, actually.
INT: No, well, first sort of official statement. Could you just tell me a bit about the messages that were coming out of Russia?
TS: Yeah. During this... terrible week - terrible in the sense that two superpowers were on the brink of a nuclear war, and one false move could have precipitated the destruction of the world - during that terrible week, the channels between Kennedy and Khrushchev were kept open. These were channels which had begun in the fall of 1961, and that was a very good thing indeed. The messages ... the letters came from Khrushchev, responded to by Kennedy, and it was a way of keeping them engaged, it was a way of probing, of exploring. And finally, on Friday night, came this long message, in which Khrushchev, while somewhat wandering all about the message contained the germ of a solution. And putting the best face on it, and reading it the way that we wanted to read it, so to speak, it said in effect: "We will withdraw those missiles from Cuba if you promise not to invade Cuba - because that's why we put them there - and if you withdraw your quarantine, and let's stop... both sides draw back from this hair-trigger alert that could simply destroy the works on both sides." And while we were discussing that letter, and whether that was a solution that could go forward, we received a second, public message from Khrushchev, which didn't talk about that solution, which had a very harsh tone to it, which said that we would have to give up NATO bases in Turkey if they were to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, and which sounded to us as though it had been approved by his military staff or some larger group, the Presidium or otherwise, and put us in a dilemma, because it was so different in tone from the letter of the previous night.
INT: So when Kennedy heard Khrushchev's harder ... the second message, was there a sense of almost blackmail from Russia? How did he respond to that message?
TS: Well, Kennedy was very disturbed by the second message. First of all, he was disturbed to know that those (.?.) missiles were still there, since the previous year he had learnt that they were anachronistic, unreliable and unnecessary because Polaris nuclear submarines would be coming into the Mediterranean to replace them. But they were still there. He was disturbed because there was no way we could unilaterally take them out, and there was no time to gather a NATO conference to take them out. He was disturbed because wcould not take them out with a gun pointed at our head, or we would be admitting our weakness to the world and to our allies who had a stake in those anti-Soviet missiles as well. But finally, he was disturbed because he said, "If we ignore this and we proceed into a world nuclear war, what is history going to say about what they will interpret as a very reasonable offer that we rejected: they'll withdraw their missiles if we'll withdraw our missil." We couldn't do it, and yet he thought we were in a terrible box here.
INT: So what was the solution?
TS: The solution, finally, was to respond to the first letter and largely ignore the second. And the President asked me to go back to my office, asked the Attorney General to come with me, and to prepare a letter... I'd had the primary responsibility for answering all of these Khrushchev messages during the week for the President's signature... and to prepare a letter which interpreted the previous night's letter as a solution that we could accept, and so worded, and simply say: "Other disarmament measures can then be discussed after this crisis has been resolved." And that was the letter that Robert Kennedy took that evening to the Soviet Embassy.
INT: The following day, the 27th, the U-2 was shot down over Cuba...
TS: No, no, that was the same day.
INT: Same day - beg your pardon. What was it like when the U-2 message came through?
TS: I have to say that during the time that we were debating these two letters, the picture became even more grim. Not only was the second letter casting a pall over the one possibility of hope that the first letter had offered, but at the same time the intelligence reports said that the missiles are now operational and ready to be fired; other ships were proceeding right toward our quarantine barriers, with submarines accompanying them - that meant a possible naval shoot-out. One of our low-level surveillance planes had been fired upon, which could have meant either Russian or Cuban troops at that level. And worst of all, one of our U-2 planes had been shot, the pilot had been killed, he'd been shot down by a Soviet SAM - surface-to-air missile - and we had taken a policy decision earlier in the week that because surveillance was so important, that if that were to happen we would have to respond by bombing a Soviet surface-to-air missile, and that could have escalated the entire situation.