INT: When did you know that?
RH: We knew that...
INT: From the U-2 plane?
RH: yeah. it's a...
INT: That same week.
RH: Well, I'll tell you. in this book, the Cuban Missile Crisis, I mean, you check that, you've got a copy of it, if you want that exact time, that's in there. I mean, I know... it's a difference between relying on my memory. Some time before... it may have been as early as Wednesday or Thursday that the MRBMs went operational.
INT: Right, they went operational at that time, right?
RH: They were...
INT: They were operation.
RH: The MRBMs, not the IRBMs. The IRBMs never arrived, but the MRBMs were there and at the time we didn't know whether the missiles, the warheads had arrived or not. We didn't learn about that until much later and that was at... what happened was that after the crisis was over... well, I should say that when Khrushchev, you know, caved, the first thing that happened was a Soviet freighter came in to Marielle and there was some very funny activity. and the activity was that a bunch of very peculiarly shaped vans, very funny trucks, you know, came out of the woods near Marielle and were loaded on to this ship. So the CIA, this crisis is all over now, the CIA then goes back and looks at their old pictures of U-2... of missile sites all over the Soviet Union and here are those same little vans and it became obvious that the vans were the warhead carriers, that they were designed to carry the warheads.
INT: Right, so we've got Bobby Kennedy's ploy, we've got... deciding to focus only on the important things from the Khrushchev memo. What actually happens next, how does Khrushchev back down?
RH: Well, what happens is that after the... you know, after the Fomin Scali Hilsman exchange and the subsequent things, you know, that is Rusk writes his little piece in handwritten letter saying, you know, we will instruct that. That goes back to Khrushchev, etc., those go back and forth, then Bobby Kennedy and Jack Kennedy and the security council, the Excom, draft a cable picking up things that they like about the Fomin's exchange and about the Khrushchev cable and send it off. The next morning, there is a Radio Moscow broadcast saying stand by for an emergency high level broadcast and Khrushchev caves.
INT: What did he actually say?
RH: He says we will withdraw what you call offensive missiles.
INT: And that's what Rusk and Kennedy had asked him to do?
RH: Yeah. Where's a copy of the book?
INT: Yeah, well let's come back to that.
INT: So Roger how close did the world come to nuclear war at that point?
RH: Well, there were going to be a few more steps I think. In other words, I think one of the reasons that the Soviets put the missiles in Cuba was that they felt that they could control the pace of events, that they could always pull them out, you know. And as it turns out, that was true. and so I would say that you know we weren't that close, but if you look at the record, you know, a post-mortem as I have done in this book, you see so many occasions where we came very close to making a fatal mistake. They came close or we came close, you see. let me give you one example. We had decided that they probably would not ship the warheads by sea, because, you know, they were vulnerable to be boarded and captured. So they were probably going to send them by air. So we went to the African countries and told them all this and said, please don't give the Soviets permission to land or refuel. And so the African stations were very co-operative on this. So in the middle of the (unintelligible) crisis, a super jet leaves Moscow with extra fuel tanks and so on and so forth, so we think, God, these are the warheads, you see. And Bobby Kennedy said there's nothing we can do, we have to shoot the damn thing down, we cannot let those warheads arrive. And finally the compromise was that we put airplanes all over the sky, around Cuba, with photographic planes and everything else you see, and the idea was that when the plane landed in Havana and warheads started to come out, we'd go in and destroy them on the ground, that was the compromise. The damn plane was loaded with three hundred newspaper correspondents from the Soviet Union, inaugurating a new Aeroflot service to Cuba. Jesus, you know, that's the kind of thing... how close we came, you know, how close we came. And that was our fault. Now, the Soviets, you know, shot the U-2 down there were just all sorts of slips all over the place.
INT: When the whole thing was over you said Kennedy kept his elation to himself and you shouldn't allow people to gloat and you just put that in your...
RH: (Interrupts) Well, he was already thinking about what became his great American university speech. you know, the peace in our time sort of speech and he didn't want the Americans to gloat, because he wanted to... this was the nuclear test ban speech, and he already had this in mind and it's one of the tragedies of his assassination is that Kennedy had made this speech, as I say, he already had it in mind, so he didn't want anybody to gloat or to make it difficult for the Soviets, so he made his speech and the agreement that they had was there'd be a nuclear test ban treaty and inspections. Now the Soviets, you know, a totalitarian system, inspectors are just not acceptable. Khrushchev was agree... agreed to three inspections a year and this was unprecedented, it really would have been a major breakthrough. The damned American military insisted on six and Kennedy, you know, was afraid that the treaty would be shot down in the Senate, because the Pentagon was objecting and he didn't count on being assassinated. He thought, well, we'll make the first treaty and then next year I'll come back and we'll make another treaty and have inspections. But unfortunately he was killed.
INT: Was the Cuban Missile Crisis the most dangerous thing in the Cold War, do you think?
RH: I don't think there's any question it was. I mean, we were... as I say, it was not... you see I'm trying to be very responsible and careful here. We had a number of other steps we would have taken before war, but those steps might have been gone through in five days or four days, you see, or it might have been five months, I don't know, you see, but all I'm saying is that we had a lot of intermediate steps before we actually invaded Cuba, but on the other hand, you know, events (unintelligible) and if they had shot down some more planes or something like that...
INT: How did the Cuban Missile Crisis change the course of the Cold War?
RH: Well, I think... two things. I think it made everybody aware that Churchill's balance of terror, two scorpions in a bottle, if either one strikes, both will die, unreal, you know, you can't put all of your face on a nuclear balance of terror. There are too many ways it can slip. So that shook a lot of people's faith in that. Now what disturbs me about it is that we still have nuclear arsenals. The Cuban Missile Crisis I think was because of that we got the nuclear test ban treaty, because of that we got a lot of other treaties, all of which are good, but that's not enough, you see and I think the bad side of it is that because it was so horrible that nobody wants to think about nuclear war, you see. Now, for example, this book I've written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the publisher to my horror put a huge price on it, forty five dollars, and I said why did you do that? And he said the mass of the public doesn't want to read about nuclear war, even if it has a happy ending. they don't want to think about it. The only people that are going to buy your book are people who have to think about it, you know, and they don't care what they pay for it! They'll pay... So I tthat's true. Essentially what's happened is because of the horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that scared everybody and governments as well, people got complacent and I think that I've got another book that I hope to publish next year, which is really a (unintelligible) for getting rid of nuclear weap, but for getting rid of war itself. But it's just that people don't want to think about it, they don't want to talk about it. and so, you know, in a sense the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us a lot of peace and a lot of awareness of the danger of nuclear weapons, but on the other hand it also has postponed the day we do something really definitive.
INT: Do you think the Cold War was necessary?
RH: Well, you're now coming to the province of historians who, you know, everything is inevitable, most historians, it happened, therefore it had to happen. I don't believe that, you know, I don't believe that. I don't think the Vietnam War had to happen, I think that was a mistake stupid mistake. and I think the same's probably true of World War Two, that you know, if the allies, the French and the British should have moved when the Rhineland was occupied, they should have moved. Better a small war then than a big war later. I don't think anything is inevitable in human history.
INT: And what do you think the lessons are from the Cold War, what do you think we've actually learned and achieved?
RH: Well, we didn't fight the Soviet Union. I mean, it was a huge success. I mean, here's a war that everybody thought was inevitable didn't happen and that's a great success, you know. There was another such thing in history. You know around the year 1900 everybody thought that the big war was going to be between Russia and Britain and that the major site of it would be in Afghanistan, in that part of the world, you know. And what happened was... the British government decided this was silly and I've forgotten the name of the guy... the British ambassador, his son who was also an author and wrote a very important book, but now it's escaped me for the moment. But around the turn of the century, you sent this ambassador out there and of course in those days, ambassadors had more authority, 'cos they didn't have jet aircraft, and he essentially negotiated a peace with Russia so that that war didn't happen. And everybody thought it was inevitable. Look at some of Kipling's stuff, you know,... that was the inevitable war, it didn't happen. Then the Kaiser made the stupid mistake of trying to build a navy and challenging Great Britain on the seas. And you know there had been a stable peace with Germany being the land power... Germany and France being the land power and Britain being the sea power. But when the Germans decided to challenge Britain at sea, I'm sure the Kaiser had no intention of war, but if you're going to build a navy, you know, he challenges the whole balance of power. So there's no war that's inevitable.
INT: Thanks very much.
(END OF INTERVIEW WITH ROGER HILSMAN)