If the Cuban Missile Crisis was the most
dangerous passage of the Cold War, the most dangerous
moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the evening of
Saturday, 27 October 1962, when the resolution of the
crisis—war or peace—appeared to hang in the balance. While
Soviet ships had not attempted to break the U.S naval
blockade of Cuba, Soviet nuclear missile bases remained
on the island and were rapidly becoming operational, and
pressure on President Kennedy to order an air strike or
invasion was mounting, especially after an American l
-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba that Saturday
afternoon and its pilot killed. Hopes that a satisfactory
resolution to the crisis could be reached between Washington
and Moscow had dimmed, moreover, when a letter from Soviet
leader Nikita S. Khrushchev arrived Saturday morning demanding
that the United States agree to remove its Jupiter missiles
from Turkey in exchange for a Soviet removal of missiles
from Cuba. The letter struck U.S. officials as an ominous
hardening of the Soviet position from the previous day's
letter from Khrushchev, which had omitted any mention
of American missiles in Turkey but had instead implied
that Washington's pledge not to invade Cuba would be sufficient
to obviate the need for Soviet nuclear protection of Castro's
On Saturday evening, after a day of tense
discussions within the "ExComm" or Executive Committee
of senior advisers, President Kennedy decided on a dual
strategy—a formal letter to Khrushchev accepting the implicit
terms of his October 26 letter (a U.S. non-invasion pledge
in exchange for the verifiable departure of Soviet nuclear
missiles), coupled with private assurances to Khrushchev
that the United States would speedily take out its missiles
from Turkey, but only on the basis of a secret understanding,
not as an open agreement that would appear to the public,
and to NATO allies, as a concession to blackmail. The
U.S. president elected to transmit this sensitive message
through his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy,
who met in his office at the Justice Department with Soviet
ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.
That meeting has long been recognized as
a turning point in the crisis, but several aspects of
it have been shrouded in mystery and confusion. One concerned
the issue of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey: U.S. officials
maintained that neither John nor Robert Kennedy promised
to withdraw the Jupiters as a quid pro quo, or concession,
in exchange for the removal of the Soviet missiles from
Cuba, or as part of an explicit agreement, deal, or pledge,
but had merely informed Dobrynin that Kennedy had planned
to take out the American missiles in any event. This was
the version of events depicted in the first published
account of the RFK-Dobrynin meeting by one of the participants,
in Robert F. Kennedy's Thirteen Days: A Memoir at the
Cuban Missile Crisis, posthumously published in 1969,
a year after he was assassinated while seeking the Democratic
nomination for president. While Thirteen Days depicted
RFK as rejecting any firm agreement to withdraw the Jupiters,
this was also the first public indication that the issue
had even been privately discussed.
With Dobrynin obviously unable to publish
his own version—he remained Moscow's ambassador in Washington
until 1986, and Soviet diplomats were not in the habit
of publishing tell-all exposés prior to glasnost—the
first important Soviet account of the event to emerge
was contained in the tape-recorded memoirs of deposed
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, which were smuggled to
the West and published in 1970 (after Khrushchev's death,
additional installments saw print in the West in 1974
and 1990). The account of the RFK-Dobrynin meeting in
Khrushchev Remembers, in the form of a paraphrase
from memory of Dobrynin's report, did not directly touch
upon the secret discussions concerning the Jupiters, but
did raise eyebrows with its claim that Robert F. Kennedy
had fretted to Dobrynin that if his brother did not approve
an attack on Cuba soon, the American military might overthrow
him and seize power." The second volume of Khrushchev's
memoirs (Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament),
published posthumously in 1974, touched only briefly on
the Robert Kennedy-Dobrynin meeting, but included the
flat statement (on p. 512) that "President Kennedy said
that in exchange for the withdrawl of our missiles, he
would remove American missiles from Turkey and Italy,"
although he described this "pledge" as "symbolic" since
the rockets "were already obsolete."
Over the years, many scholars of the Cuban
Missile Crisis came strongly to suspect that Robert Kennedy
had, in fact, relayed a pledge from his brother to take
out the Jupiters from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet
removal of nuclear missiles from Cuba, so long as Moscow
kept the swap secret; yet senior former Kennedy Administration
officials, such as then-National Security Advisor McGeorge
Bundy and then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk, continued
to insist that RFK had passed on no more than an informal
assurance rather than an explicit promise or agreement.
The first authoritative admission on the
U.S. side that the Jupiters had actually been part of
a "deal" came at a conference in Moscow in January 1989,
after glasnost had led Soviet (and then Cuban) former
officials to participate in international scholarly efforts
to reconstruct and assess the history of the crisis. At
that meeting, former Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen
(and the uncredited editor of Thirteen Days) admitted,
after prodding from Dobrynin, that he had taken it upon
himself to edit out a "very explicit" reference to the
inclusion of the Jupiters in the final deal to settle
Now Dobrynin's original, contemporaneous,
and dramatic cable of the meeting, alluded to in some
accounts by Soviets (such as Anatoly Gromyko, son of the
late foreign minister) with special access, has been declassified
and is available at the archives of the Russian Foreign
Ministry. It is reprinted in translation below, along
with relevant excerpts from the other publications mentioned
above. The Dobrynin cable's first publication in English,
a copy obtained by the Japanese television network NHK,
came last year in an appendix to We AII Lost the Cold
War, a study by Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Stein, whose
commentary is also excerpted.
* * * * *
Robert F. Kennedy's (edited) Description
I telephoned Ambassador Dobrynin about 7:15
P.M. and asked him to come to the Department of Justice.
We met in my office at 7:45. I told him first that we
knew that work was continuing on the missile bases in
Cuba and that in the last few days it had been expedited.
I said that in the last few hours we had learned that
our reconnaissance planes flying over Cuba had been
fired upon and that one of our U-2s had been shot down
and the pilot killed. That for us was a most serious
turn of events.
President Kennedy did not want a military
conflict. He had done everything possible to avoid a
military engagement with Cuba and with the Soviet Union,
but now they had forced our hand. Because of the deception
of the Soviet Union, our photographic reconnaissance
planes would have to continue to fly over Cuba, and
if the Cubans or Soviets shot at these planes, then
we would have to shoot back. This would inevitably lead
to further incidents and to escalation of the conflict,
the implications of which were very grave indeed.
He said the Cubans resented the fact that
we were violating Cuban air space. I replied that if
we had not violated Cuban air space, we would still
be believing what Khrushchev had said— that there would
be no missiles placed in Cuba. In any case, I said,
this matter was far more serious than the air space
of Cuba—it involved the peoples of both of our countries
and, in fact, people all over the globe.
The Soviet Union had secretly established
missile bases in Cuba while at the same time proclaiming
privately and publicly that this would never be done.
We had to have a commitment by tomorrow that those bases
would be removed. I was not giving them an ultimatum
but a statement of fact. He should understand that if
they did not remove those bases, we would remove them.
President Kennedy had great respect for the Ambassador's
country and the courage of its people. Perhaps his country
might feel it necessary to take retaliatory action;
but before that was over, there would be not only dead
Americans but dead Russians as well.
He asked me what offer the United States
was making, and I told him of the letter that President
Kennedy had just transmitted to Khrushchev. He raised
the question of our removing the missiles from Turkey.
I said that there could be no quid pro quo or any arrangement
made under this kind of threat or pressure and that
in the last analysis this was a decision that would
have to be made by NATO. However, I said, President
Kennedy had been anxious to remove those missiles from
Italy and Turkey for a long period of time. He had ordered
their removal some time ago, and it was our judgment
that, within a short time after this crisis was over,
those missiles would be gone.
I said President Kennedy wished to have
peaceful relations between our two countries. He wished
to resolve the problems that confronted us in Europe
and Southeast Asia. He wished to move forward on the
control of nuclear weapons. However, we could make progress
on these matters only when the crisis was behind us.
Time was running out. We had only a few more hours—we
needed an answer immediately from the Soviet Union.
I said we must have it the next day.
I returned to the White House....
[Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days:
A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York:
New American Library, 1969), 107-109.]
* * * * *
The climax came after five or six days, when
our ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, reported
that the President's brother, Robert Kennedy, had come
to see him on an unofficial visit. Dobrynin's report
went something like this:
"Robert Kennedy looked exhausted. One
could see from his eyes that he had not slept for days.
He himself said that he had not been home for six days
and nights. 'The President is in a grave situation,'
Robert Kennedy said, 'and does not know how to get out
of it. We are under very severe stress. In fact we are
under pressure from our military to use force against
Cuba. Probably at this very moment the President is
sitting down to write a message to Chairman Khrushchev.
We want to ask you, Mr. Dobrynin, to pass President
Kennedy's message to Chairman Khrushchev through unofficial
channels. President Kennedy implores Chairman Khrushchev
to accept his offer and to take into consideration the
peculiarities of the American system. Even though the
President himself is very much against starting a war
over Cuba, an irreversible chain of events could occur
against his will. That is why the President is appealing
directly to Chairman Khrushchev for his help in liquidating
this conflict. If the situation continues much longer,
the President is not sure that the military will not
overthrow him and seize power. The American army could
get out of control."'
[Khrushchev Remembers, intro.,
commentary, and notes by Edward Crankshaw, trans. and
ed. by Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970;
citation from paperback edition, New York: Bantam, 1971),
* * * * *
...the president [Kennedy] recognized that,
for Chairman Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles from
Cuba, it would be undoubtedly helpful to him if he could
say at the same time to his colleagues on the Presidium,
"And we have been assured that the missiles will be
coming out of Turkey." And so, after the ExComm meeting
[on the evening of 27 October 1962], as I'm sure almost
all of you know, a small group met in President Kennedy's
office, and he instructed Robert Kennedy—at the suggestion
of Secretary of State [Dean] Rusk—to deliver the letter
to Ambassador Dobrynin for referral to Chairman Khrushchev,
but to add orally what was not in the letter: that the
missiles would come out of Turkey.
Ambassador Dobrynin felt that Robert Kennedy's
book did not adequately express that the "deal" on the
Turkish missiles was part of the resolution of the crisis.
And here I have a confession to make to my colleagues
on the American side, as well as to others who are present.
I was the editor of Robert Kennedy's book. It was, in
fact, a diary of those thirteen days. And his diary
was very explicit that this was part of the deal; but
at that time it was still a secret even on the American
side, except for the six of us who had been present
at that meeting. So I took it upon myself to edit that
out of his diaries, and that is why the Ambassador is
somewhat justified in saying that the diaries are not
as explicit as his conversation.
[Sorensen comments, in Bruce J. Allyn,
James G. Blight, and David A. Welch, eds., Back to
the Brink: Proceedings of the Moscow Conference on the
Cuban Missile Crisis, January 27-28, 1989 (Lanham,
MD: University Press of America, 1992), pp. 92-93]
* * * * *
Accounts of Former U.S. Officials:
... Later [on Saturday], accepting a proposal
from Dean Rusk, [John F.] Kennedy instructed his
brother to tell Ambassador Dobrynin that while there
could be no bargain over the missiles that had been
supplied to Turkey, the president himself was determined
to have them removed and would attend to the matter
once the present crisis was resolved—as long as no one
in Moscow called that action part of a bargain. [p.
...The other part of the oral message
[to Dobrynin] was proposed by Dean Rusk: that we should
tell Khrushchev that while there could be no deal over
the Turkish missiles, the president was determined to
get them out and would do so once the Cuban crisis was
resolved. The proposal was quickly supported by the
rest of us [in addition to Bundy and Rusk, those present
included President Kennedy, McNamara, RFK, George Ball,
Roswell Gilpatrick, Llewellyn Thompson, and Theodore
Sorensen]. Concerned as we all were by the cost of a
public bargain struck under pressure at the apparent
expense of the Turks, and aware as we were from the
day's discussion that for some, even in our own closest
councils, even this unilateral private assurance might
appear to betray an ally, we agreed without hesitation
that no one not in the room was to be informed of this
additional message. Robert Kennedy was instructed to
make it plain to Dobrynin that the same secrecy must
be observed on the other side, and that any Soviet reference
to our assurance would simply make it null and void.
.. There was no leak. As far as I know,
none of the nine of us told anyone else what had happened.
We denied in every forum that there was any deal, and
in the narrowest sense what we said was usually true,
as far as it went. When the orders were passed that
the Jupiters must come out, we gave the plausible and
accurate—if incomplete—explanation that the missile
crisis had convinced the president once and for all
that he did not want those missiles there.... [p. 434]
[from McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival:
Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years
(New York: Random House, 1988]
Even though Soviet ships had turned around,
time was running out. We made this very clear to Khrushchev.
Earlier in the week Bobby Kennedy told Ambassador Dobrynin
that if the missile were not withdrawn immediately,
the crisis would move into a different and dangerous
military phase. In his book Khrushchev Remembers, Khrushchev
states that Robert Kennedy told Dobrynin that the military
might take over. Khrushchev either genuinely misunderstood
or deliberately misused Bobby's statement. Obviously
there was never any threat of a military takeover in
this country. We wondered about Khrushchev's situation,
even whether some Soviet general or member of the Politburo
would put a pistol to Khrushchev's head and say, "Mr.
Chairman, launch those missiles or we'll blow your head
...In framing a response [to Khrushchev's
second letter of Saturday, October 27], the president,
Bundy, McNamara, Bobby Kennedy, and I met in the Oval
Office, where after some discussion I suggested that
since the Jupiters in Turkey were coming out in any
event, we should inform the Russians of this so that
this irrelevant question would not complicate the solution
of the missile sites in Cuba. We agreed that Bobby should
inform Ambassador Dobrynin orally. Shortly after we
returned to our offices, I telephoned Bobby to underline
that he should pass this along to Dobrynin only as information,
not a public pledge. Bobby told me that he was then
sitting with Dobrynin and had already talked with him.
Bobby later told me that Dobrynin called this message
"very important information."
[Dean Rusk as told to Richard Rusk, As
I Saw It (New York: Norton & Co., 1990), pp.
* * * * *
Dobrynin's Cable to the Soviet Foreign
Ministry, 27 October 1962:
TOP SECRET Making Copies Prohibited Copy No.
Late tonight R. Kennedy invited me to
come see him. We talked alone.
The Cuban crisis, R. Kennedy began, continues
to quickly worsen. We have just received a report that
an unarmed American plane was shot down while carrying
out a reconnaissance flight over Cuba. The military
is demanding that the President arm such planes and
respond to fire with fire. The USA government will have
to do this.
I interrupted R. Kennedy and asked him,
what right American planes had to fly over Cuba at all,
crudely violating its sovereignty and accepted international
norms? How would the USA have reacted if foreign planes
appeared over its territory?
"We have a resolution of the Organization
of American states that gives us the right to such overflights,"
R. Kennedy quickly replied.
I told him that the Soviet Union, like
all peace-loving countries, resolutely rejects such
a "right" or, to be more exact, this kind of true lawlessness,
when people who don't like the social-political situation
in a country try to impose their will on it—a small
state where the people themselves established and maintained
[their system]. "The OAS resolution is a direct violation
of the UN Charter," I added, "and you, as the Attorney
General of the USA, the highest American legal entity,
should certainly know that."
R. Kennedy said that he realized that
we had different approaches to these problems and it
was not likely that we could convince each other. But
now the matter is not in these differences, since time
is of the essence. "I want," R. Kennedy stressed, "to
lay out the current alarming situation the way the president
sees it. He wants N.S. Khrushchev to know this. This
is the thrust of the situation now."
"Because of the plane that was shot down,
there is now strong pressure on the president to give
an order to respond with fire if fired upon when American
reconnaissance planes are flying over Cuba. The USA
can't stop these flights, because this is the only way
we can quickly get information about the state of construction
of the missile bases in Cuba, which we believe pose
a very serious threat to our national security. But
if we start to fire in response—a chain reaction will
quickly start that will be very hard to stop. The same
thing in regard to the essence of the issue of the missile
bases in Cuba. The USA government is determined to get
rid of those bases—up to. in the extreme case, of bombing
them, since, I repeat, they pose a great threat to the
security of the USA. But in response to the bombing
of these bases, in the course of which Soviet specialists
might suffer, the Soviet government will undoubtedly
respond with the same against us, somewhere in Europe.
A real war will begin, in which millions of Americans
and Russians will die. We want to avoid that any way
we can, I'm sure that the government of the USSR has
the same wish. However, taking time to find a way out
[of the situation] is very risky (here R. Kennedy mentioned
as if in passing that there are many unreasonable heads
among the generals, and not only among the generals,
who are itching for a fight'). The situation might get
out of control, with irreversible consequences."
"In this regard," R. Kennedy said,' the
president considers that a suitable basis for regulating
the entire Cuban conflict might be the letter N.S. Khrushchev
sent on October.26 and the letter in response from the
President. which was sent off today to N.S. Khrushchev
through the US Embassy in Moscow. The most important
thing for us,' R. Kennedy stressed, "is to get as soon
as possible the agreement of the Soviet government to
halt further work on the construction of the missile
bases in Cuba and take measures under international
control that would make it impossible to use these weapons.
In exchange the government of the USA is ready, in addition
to repealing all measures on the "quarantine," to give
the assurances that there will not be any invasion of
Cuba and that other countries of the Western Hemisphere
are ready to give the same assurances—the US government
is certain of this."
"And what about Turkey?" I asked R. Kennedy.
"If that is the only obstacle to achieving
the regulation I mentioned earlier, then the president
doesn't see any unsurmountable difficulties in resolving
this issue," replied R. Kennedy. "The greatest difficulty
for the president is the public discussion of the issue
of Turkey. Formally the deployment of missile bases
in Turkey was done by a special decision of the NATO
Council. To announce now a unilateral decision by the
president of the USA to withdraw missile bases from
Turkey—this would damage the entire structure of NATO
and the US position as the leader of NATO, where, as
the Soviet government knows very well, there are many
arguments. In short. if such a decision were announced
now it would seriously tear apart NATO."
"However, President Kennedy is ready to
come to agree on that question with N.S. Khrushchev,
too. I think that in order to withdraw these bases from
Turkey," R. Kennedy said, 'we need 4-5 months. This
is the minimal amount of time necessary for the US government
to do this, taking into account the procedures that
exist within the NATO framework. On the whole Turkey
issue," R. Kennedy added, "if Premier N.S. Khrushchev
agrees with what I've said, we can continue to exchange
opinions between him and the president, using him, R.
Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador. ''However, the president
can't say anything public in this regard about Turkey,"
R. Kennedy said again. R. Kennedy then warned that his
comments about Turkey are extremely confidential; besides
him and his brother, only 2-3 people know about it in
"That's all that he asked me to pass on
to N.S. Khrushchev," R. Kennedy said in conclusion.
"The president also asked N.S. Khrushchev to give him
an answer (through the Soviet ambassador and R. Kennedy)
if possible within the next day (Sunday) on these thoughts
in order to have a business-like, clear answer in principle.
[He asked him] not to get into a wordy discussion, which
might drag things out. The current serious situation,
unfortunately, is such that there is very little time
to resolve this whole issue. Unfortunately, events are
developing too quickly. The request for a reply tomorrow,"
stressed R. Kennedy, "is just that—a request, and not
an ultimatum. The president hopes that the head of the
Soviet government will understand him correctly."
I noted that it went without saying that
the Soviet government would not accept any ultimatums
and it was good that the American government realized
that. I also reminded him of N.S. Khrushchev's appeal
in his last letter to the president to demonstrate state
wisdom in resolving this question. Then I told R. Kennedy
that the president's thoughts would be brought to the
attention of the head of the Soviet government. I also
said that I would contact him as soon as there was a
reply. In this regard, R. Kennedy gave me a number of
a direct telephone line to the White House.
In the course of the conversation, R.
Kennedy noted that he knew about the conversation that
television commentator Scali had yesterday with an Embassy
adviser on possible ways to regulate the Cuban conflict
[one-and-a-half lines whited out]
I should say that during our meeting R.
Kennedy was very upset; in any case, I've never seen
him like this before. True, about twice he tried to
return to the topic of "deception," (that he talked
about so persistently during our previous meeting),
but he did so in passing and without any edge to it.
He didn't even try to get into fights on various subjects,
as he usually does, and only persistently returned to
one topic: time is of the essence and we shouldn't miss
After meeting with me he immediately went
to see the president, with whom, as R. Kennedy said,
he spends almost all his time now.
27/X-62 A. DOBRYNIN
[Source: Russian Foreign Ministry archives,
translation from copy provided by NHK, in Richard Ned
Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, We All Lost the Cold
War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
1994), appendix, pp. 523-526, with minor revisions.]
Lebow and Stein comment,
We All Lost the Cold War (excerpt):
The cable testifies to the concern of John
and Robert Kennedy that military action would trigger
runaway escalation. Robert Kennedy told Dobrynin of
his government's determination to ensure the removal
of the Soviet missiles in Cuba, and his belief that
the Soviet Union "will undoubtedly respond with the
same against us, somewhere in Europe." Such an admission
seems illogical if the administration was using the
threat of force to compel the Soviet Union to withdraw
its missiles from Cuba. It significantly raised the
expected cost to the United States of an attack against
the missiles. thereby weakening the credibility of the
American threat. To maintain or enhance that credibility,
Kennedy would have had to discount the probability of
Soviet retaliation to Dobrynin. That nobody in the government
was certain of Khrushchev's response makes Kennedy's
statement all the more remarkable.
It is possible that Dobrynin misquoted
Robert Kennedy. However, the Soviet ambassador was a
careful and responsible diplomat. At the very least,
Kennedy suggested that he thought that Soviet retaliation
was likely. Such an admission was still damaging to
compellence. It seems likely that Kennedy was trying
to establish the basis for a more cooperative approach
to crisis resolution. His brother, he made clear, was
under enormous pressure from a coterie of generals and
civilian officials who were "itching for a fight." This
also was a remarkable admission for the attorney general
to make. The pressure on the president to attack Cuba,
as Kennedy explained at the beginning of the meeting,
had been greatly intensified by the destruction of an
unarmed American reconnaissance plane. The president
did not want to use force, in part because he recognized
the terrible consequences of escalation, and was therefore
requesting Soviet assistance to make it unnecessary.
This interpretation is supported by the
president's willingness to remove the Jupiter missiles
as a quid pro quo for the withdrawal of missiles in
Cuba, and his brother's frank confession that the only
obstacle to dismantling the Jupiters were political.
"Public discussion" of a missile exchange would damage
the United States' position in NATO. For this reason,
Kennedy revealed, "besides himself and his brother,
only 2-3 people know about it in Washington." Khrushchev
would have to cooperate with the administration to keep
the American concession a secret.
Most extraordinary of all is the apparent
agreement between Dobrynin and Kennedy to treat Kennedy's
de facto ultimatum as "a request, and not an ultimatum."
This was a deliberate attempt to defuse as much as possible
the hostility that Kennedy's request for an answer by
the next day was likely to provoke in Moscow. So too
was Dobrynin's next sentence: "I noted that it went
without saying that the Soviet government would not
accept any ultimatum and it was good that the American
government realized that."
Prior meetings between Dobrynin and Kennedy
had sometimes degenerated into shouting matches. On
this occasion, Dobrynin indicates, the attorney general
kept his emotions in check and took the ambassador into
his confidence in an attempt to cooperate on the resolution
of the crisis. This two-pronged strategy succeeded where
compellence alone might have failed. It gave Khrushchev
positive incentives to remove the Soviet missiles and
reduced the emotional cost to him of the withdrawal.
He responded as Kennedy and Dobrynin had hoped.