INT: How was it resolved?
RM: Had Khrushchev not announced publicly on the 28th of October - a Sunday - that he was removing the missiles, I believe that on Monday the majority of President Kennedy's military and civilian advisers would have strongly urged air attacks, with the likelihood of a sea and land invasion. I think Kennedy would have resisted that. I know I would have. But it was a very, very... deep controversy, and a very, very dangerous period. Some of us thought then the risks were very, very great. We underestimated them. We didn't learn until nearly 30 years later, that the Soviets had roughly 162 nuclear warheads on this isle of Cuba, at a time when our CIA said they believed there were none. And included in the 162 were some 90 tactical warheads to be used against a US invasion force. Had we... attacked Cuba and invaded Cuba at the time, we almost surely would have been involved in nuclear war. And when I say "we", I mean you - it would not have been the US alone. It would have endangered the security of the West, without any question.
INT: How on earth did we survive, and who gets the credit?
RM: Luck. Luck was a factor. I think, in hindsight, it was the best-managed geopolitical crisis of the post-World War II period, beyond any question. But we were also lucky. And in the end, I think two political leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, were wise. Each of them moved in ways that reduced the risk of confrontation. But events were slipping out of their control, and it was just luck that they finally acted before they lost control, and before East and West were involved in nuclear war that would have led to destruction of nations. It was that close.
INT: (Unclear words) How did you and other members of the team actually live through... in hindsight it looks such an amazing and horrific spectacle, one almost wonders how you got sleep at night. I mean...
RM: Well, in one sense it was easy - as compared to Vietnam, for example. I was involved with Vietnam over... essentially over seven years, and I was doing a thousand other things while I was working on Vietnam. In the Cuban missile crisis, I was involved with it 24 hours a day. For 12 days, I didn't go home, I stayed in the Pentagon. I left the Pentagon only to come to the White House or the State Department across the river, across the Potomac River. I spent every single moment of my waking hours thinking about the Cuban missile crisis. It was a concentrated effort. It was difficult, tiresome, nerve-racking, but it was focused. And the President insisted that all of his senior people that were associated with the Cuban missile crisis, all of the senior military people, all of the senior defense people, all of the senior State Department people, all of the senior National Security Council staff, and the CIA, spent 24 hours a day on that single problem, until we had fully debated all of the opportunities, all of the alternatives, until we fully understood the pros and cons of each. And that's what led to what I believe was the best-managed geopolitical crisis in the post-war history. But even then we were successful only because we were lucky, and because at the end both leaders acted with responsibility and intelligence, and considerable courage.
INT: You, I believe, believed that Cuba changed the course of the Cold War. In what way did it change the course of the Cold War?
RM: Again go off the record for a moment.
INT: ... In fact, you list 11 key events, and I'll go through some of them. And I'd like to actually start with... We're not running yet, or are we? OK, we're running now. Moving on to Vietnam now, Mr. McNamara, the theory that the fall of Vietnam would threaten the security of the US and the Western world, encapsulated down into a couple of words: the Domino Theory. How prevalent was it at the time...?
RM: It was the primary factor motivating the actions of both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations, without any qualification. (Pause) It was put forward by President Eisenhower in 1954, very succinctly: if the West loses control of Vietnam, the security of the West will be in danger - "The dominoes will fall," in Eisenhower's words. In a meeting between President Kennedy and President Eisenhower, on January 19, 1961, the day before President Kennedy's inauguration, the only foreign policy issue fully discussed dealt with Southeast Asia. And there's even today some question as to exactly what Eisenhower said, but it's very clear that a minimum he said - and the words were recorded at the time - [was] that... if necessary, to prevent the loss of Laos, and by implication Vietnam, Eisenhower would be prepared to act unilaterally, to intervene militarily, for the US to act unilaterally, to intervene militarily. Uh, and I think that this was fully accepted by President Kennedy and by those of us associated with him. And it was fully accepted by President Johnson when he succeeded as President. The loss of Vietnam would trigger the loss of Southeast Asia, and conceivably even the loss of India, and would strengthen the Chinese and the Soviet position across the world, weakening the security of Western Europe and weakening the security of North America. This was the way we viewed it; I'm not arguing correctly - don't misunderstand me - but that is the way we viewed it. We interpreted as George Kennan's view in 1947, when he put forward his containment policy in that famous "Mr. X" article in Foreign Affairs; and we saw the action in Vietnam, the actions in Southeast Asia, as a step toward containing the advance of Chinese and Soviet communism. Now I'm not arguing whether we were right: what I'm arguing is, number one, that was a motivating factor leading to the actions of Kennedy and Johnson. Number two, there were other events that led us to feel as strongly as we did. One was the Soviet attempt to take West Berlin in August of '61. Another was the Soviet introduction of missiles into Cuba, which nearly led to a nuclear war in October '62. And a third was the Soviet support of Egypt's attempt to eradicate Israel from the face of the earth in June of '67, which led ultimately to the first use of the Hot Line. And one of the messages sent by Kosygin to Johnson, in June of '67, was: "If you want war, you'll get war." My point simply is that we had this historical, if you will, experience of Soviet pressure on the West, Warsaw Pact pressure on the West, extending back to essentially a year or two after the end of World War II. And then we had, in my seven years as Secretary, three attempts by the Soviets to pressure the West that led very to war. So it was in this environment that we formed the conclusion that the loss of Vietnam would be a serious threat to the security of the West.
INT: Looking at it fromour position today - it's difficult to put it back - it seems remarkable that at the time of the Sino-Soviet split, that a tiny, impoverished country could assume this... How was the world still seen as so monolithic in...?
RM: I agree with you, I totally agree with you. I don't believe that the West, and particularly the US, properly evaluated the threat and its opponents. For one thing, I don't think we in the Kennedy/Johnson Administration - more broadly we in the US - I don't believe we fully understood (Coughs) the Vietnamese or the Chinese, or for that matter the Soviets, as they were acting in Southeast Asia. In the Cuban missile crisis, we were blessed with senior officials available to the President and the Secretaries of State and Defense 24 hours a day, seven days a week, who had spent their lives studying the Soviets, who knew their history, their culture, their politics, their personalities, and who were prepared to advise the senior US officials how to interpret Soviet actions, how to respond to them, and how the Soviets would respond to our response. We had no counterparts with respect to Southeast Asia or China, and I think we were... seriously and adversely affected as a result.
INT: I must say, I do know...
(Interruption - Cut)
RM: But I think it's very important to recognize that at the upper echelons - I mean Secretaries and National Security Advisers and Presidents - that the Hilsman Hughes view just was not known or accepted at the time. It wasn't that we were turning back information we refused to listen to - that wasn't the point at all. We were using what we thought to be the most responsive, responsible, experienced information, the NIEs.
INT: OK. ... In late 1961, President Kennedy decides to send 16,000 military advisers...
RM: I'm not sure he decided 16,000 in late '61, but he decided to expand the number of military advisers, which over a period of time led to a total of approximately 16,000 by early October 1963 - and that's a very important date we should come back to.
INT: Well... I'm trying to encompass something quite broad. By 1963, I believe, he was saying that he expected their mission to be complete by 1965 - yes?
RM: There was a very important meeting on October 2nd, 1963, at which it was proposed that the US announce publicly that they expected to complete their military mission in Vietnam by the end of 1965. The mission was focused solely on training and logistics, and they expected to withdraw the force of 16,000 military advisers by the end of '65, and that the first unit of withdrawal would be completed within 90 days, by the end of December 1963. And that was announced; it was hotly debated... in a meeting with the President. On October 2nd, 1963 - it was announced that day. And, by the way, the thousand were withdrawn by the end of 1963.
INT: But they were recycled, I believe, with other people...
RM: No, no, the net force was drawn down by a thousand.
INT: OK. What led him to this view that by this period of time, by December '63, things are likely to be moving so well? I mean, what was it, how...?
RM: Well, it's not quite the situation. There were three groups of individuals among his advisers. One group believed that the situation was moving so well that we could make a statement that we'd begin withdrawals and complete them by the end of '65. Another group believed that the situation wasn't moving that well, but that our mission was solely training and logistics; we'd been there long enough to complete the training, if the South Vietnamese were capable of absorbing it, and if we hadn't proven successful, it's because we were incapable of accomplishing that mission and therefore we were justified in beginning withdrawal. The third group believed we hadn't reached the point where we were justified in withdrawing, and we shouldn't withdraw. Kennedy listened to the debate, and finally sided with those who believed that either we had succeeded, or were succeeding, (Coughs) and therefore could begin our withdrawal, or alternatively we hadn't succeeded, but that our mission was solely training and logistics, and if we hadn't succeeded, we'd been there long enough to test our ability to succeed, and if we weren't succeeding we should begin the withdrawal because it was impossible to accomplish that mission. In any event, he made the decision that day, and he did announce it. It was highly contested.