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RFK: A legacy of peace through strength

What if he had lived?

Posted: June 9, 2008 1:36 a.m.
Updated: August 10, 2008 5:03 a.m.

President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy confer in the Colonnade outside the West Wing at The White House on Oct. 3, 1962. Two weeks later, the brothers would be embroiled in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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For many Americans alive and conscious in the 1960s, the decade's most soul-crushing events were the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in autumn 1963, then the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and U.S. Senator Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy four and a half tumultuous years later in spring 1968.

The day Bobby died, a nation increasingly polarized over the war in Vietnam (pro-war "hawks" vs. anti-war "doves"), and by age, race and economic status, lost what little innocence and hope it had left.

In news reports the past week, marking the 40th year since RFK's murder, we've seen numerous replays of the speech he gave to delirious, elated supporters packed into a banquet hall at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

It was just past midnight on June 5, 1968, after Sen. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) bested Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) in the California Democratic primary election.

Kennedy had jumped into the race for president in March, vowing to end the war in Vietnam if elected. A couple weeks later, a war-weary President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek, nor would he accept, the nomination for president at the Democratic Party's convention in August.

McCarthy was the original anti-war candidate, but he was older and lacked the youthful Kennedy charisma. Now, with Johnson out of the picture and a big win in the California primary, Kennedy appeared to be the one who could beat the hawkish Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) and win the party's nomination at its convention in August.

"My thanks to all of you, and it's on to Chicago!" were the last words the public heard RFK say, as he casually flipped his hand through the wave of hair covering his forehead, flashed a peace (or victory) sign, and left the podium.

Moments later, Bobby lay in a pool of his own blood on the hotel kitchen floor, mortally wounded by multiple gunshots, surrounded by family, advisors, bodyguards and eyewitnesses, all in a state of horror and shock, some wrestling the .22-caliber pistol-wielding gunman, later identified as Sirhan Sirhan, to the ground.

Chaos and pandemonium erupted throughout the hall as word spread of the shooting, and after RFK died a day later, at age 42 with a wife and 10 kids with an 11th on the way, the nation plunged into a period of anger, grief and depression.

In August, instead of a Kennedy nomination at the Democratic Convention, there was a much-publicized clash between the Chicago police and anti-war activists, leading to the notorious post-election trial of the Chicago 8 (ultimately the Chicago 7). Democratic delegates chose Humphrey, who in the November election faced Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon, and lost.

We all know what happened during the Nixon years, from 1969 to 1974, when he got caught with the smoking gun in the Watergate scandal, and resigned in disgrace.

What would have happened had those been the RFK years?

On the brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis
Beyond speculation lies the reality of Bobby's storied life and his legacy, which have also been well-documented through his own writings, first-hand accounts of family, friends and confidants, and in the press.

Over the years, once-classified top-secret presidential documents released by the JFK Library and through the Freedom of Information Act have also shown how Bobby, as the nation's Attorney General and the president's most trusted confidant, played a pivotal role in decision-making during his brother's nearly three years in the White House.

In particular, RFK was in the thick of resolving the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis - the closest the world has come to nuclear war, before or since.

In a nutshell, capitalist America's arch-rival in the post-World War II Cold War era, the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the U.S.S.R., and its leader, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly had vowed to "bury" the United States, were secretly building medium-range ballistic missile launching sites in Cuba. The Soviets were also secretly shipping missiles to the sites by sea to the island nation, run by communist dictator and Soviet ally Fidel Castro.

U.S. intelligence officials perusing photos of Cuba taken by U2 spy planes discovered the missile sites, and on Oct. 16, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy informed President Kennedy.

The president immediately formed an executive committee of members from the National Security Council, and ExComm, as it was dubbed, met to discuss how to respond to this threat just 90 miles south of Key West, Fla. and fewer than 300 miles south of Miami.

There were three goals: to stop the Soviets from building launch sites; to get them to dismantle and remove sites built so far; and to keep the Soviets from shipping any more missiles to Cuba. ExComm's members discussed options ranging from launching air strikes and blowing the sites off the face of the earth to a military blockade or quarantine.

So began the infamous 13 Days in October, two weeks of nuclear superpowers standing chin to chin, staring each other down.

Bombs or breaks?
By Sunday, Oct. 21, the situation had worsened. Public and back-channel negotiations with Khrushchev were getting nowhere. There was increasing pressure on the president to act.

At 11:30 that morning, JFK called a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, attended by General Maxwell Taylor, General Walter C. Sweeney, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Central Intelligence Agency Director John McCone joined the meeting about 15 minutes after it started, according to the minutes, top-secret but later declassified and now in the JFK Library.

They assessed their latest intelligence. McNamara reported that new info received overnight indicated Cuba now had equipment for approximately 40 mid-range missile launchers, but the locations of eight of them were still unknown.

McNamara, Sweeney and Taylor detailed a plan to hit the known sites with major air strikes, then follow up with mop-up strikes and an all-out invasion. This strategy would be necessary because there was no guarantee all sites could be taken out in an initial attack, and U.S. forces would also have to locate and destroy the eight mystery sites.

"The President directed that we be prepared to carry out the air strike Monday morning (the next day) or any time thereafter during the remainder of the week," the meeting minutes read. "The President recognized that the Secretary of Defense was opposed to the air strike Monday morning (he wanted more time), and that General Sweeney favored it.

"(The President) asked the Attorney General and Mr. McCone for their opinions," the minutes continue.

"The Attorney General stated he was opposed to such a strike because (1) ‘It would be a Pearl Harbor-type of attack' and (2) ‘It would lead to unpredictable military responses by the Soviet Union which could be so serious as to lead to general nuclear war.'

"(RFK) stated we should start with the initiation of the blockade and thereafter ‘play for the breaks.'"

The CIA's McCone agreed with the Attorney General, "but emphasized he believed we should be prepared for an air strike and thereafter an invasion," according to the minutes.

Immediately following this meeting, President Kennedy met privately at the White House with British Ambassador Ormsby Gore. Asked which option he would favor, Ormsby Gore recommended the blockade, not an air strike. JFK said his top advisors - primarily McNamara, McCone and Bobby - had come to the same conclusion.

Convinced, the president officially adopted the strategy only hours before the Monday air strike the generals had proposed.

Cool head, tough hand
Instead of bombs, Monday, Oct. 22, 1962 began with an explosion of domestic and international diplomacy and intrigue. Kennedy told key congressmen about the blockade plan, officials at the State Dept. briefed foreign leaders, the Strategic Air Command put its bombers on alert, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered all military forces on DEFCON 3 (DEFCON 5 is peace, DEFCON 1 is imminent war) at 7 p.m. For the first time in history, Air Defense Command armed aircraft with nuclear weapons, mobilizing 161 aircraft at 16 bases.

Meanwhile, JFK speechwriter Theodore ("Ted") Sorensen finalized text for an address about the crisis the president wanted to deliver to the American people that evening. Dean Rusk provided an advance copy of the speech to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and in Moscow, U.S. Ambassador Foy Kohler delivered a letter from JFK to Khrushchev demanding the Soviets pull all missiles out of Cuba. At 7 that night, the president appeared on national television to deliver his 17-minute speech, and the world held its breath waiting for the premier's response.

The next day, Tuesday, Oct. 23, Khrushchev refused to remove the missiles, Castro called the quarantine an act of war, and the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies also put their military forces on heightened alert.

The U.S. ordered lower-level reconnaissance flights, and that evening, JFK signed a proclamation formally establishing the quarantine based on the Organization of American States' charter, which called for the U.S. to defend the western hemisphere (JFK wisely opted to call the action a "quarantine" instead of a "blockade"; the latter would have been an act of war under international law). Kennedy sent another letter to Khrushchev urging him to honor the quarantine's 500-mile line around the island.

The quarantine officially went into effect Wednesday, Oct. 24 at 10 a.m. A few minutes later, U.S. intelligence reported that 16 of 19 Soviet ships then en route to Cuba had turned around. However, two ships and a submarine continued to sail toward the 500-mile line. The USS Essex, a World War II-era aircraft carrier then stationed at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, was ordered to intercept.

At 10:25 a.m., fresh intelligence indicated the ships and sub had stopped, and Dean Rusk uttered the famous observation: "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked."

But Khrushchev continued to talk tough, publicly denouncing the quarantine as a "pirate action" and "an act of aggression" that wouldn't stop Soviet ships from getting through, so, for the first time in history, the Joint Chiefs upped the alert status to DEFCON 2.

In the early morning of Day 10, Oct. 25, one of the ships was inspected, determined to be missile-free, and allowed to continue to Cuba. Late in the day, the carrier USS Kennedy prepared to intercept and board the other ship, a Lebanese freighter.

At this point, well-connected media people were getting involved in seeking a diplomatic solution. Walter Lippman, the syndicated columnist, suggested the U.S. offer to pull missiles out of its bases in Turkey in exchange for a Soviet pullout from Cuba.

A day later, Aleksandr Fromin, head of the KGB (Russian secret police) in Washington, requested a meeting with journalist John Scali, and proposed that the USSR would remove the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. promised not to invade the island. That evening, the ExComm received a lengthy letter from Khrushchev making the same proposal.

Critical moment
In what many historians consider the most critical moment of the crisis, JFK asked his brother to meet with Ambassador Dobrynin the night of Oct. 26. At the Soviet Embassy, Bobby conveyed this offer from the president: If Khrushchev removes the missiles from Cuba, the U.S. will publicly agree not to invade Cuba, and pull its missiles from Turkey as long as the latter part of the deal remains a secret. The idea was to avoid alarming U.S. allies in the North American Treaty Organization (NATO), which technically should be involved in any decision to remove missiles from Turkey.

The morning of Day 12, Saturday, Oct. 27, Khrushchev escalated tensions by going public with JFK's unwritten offer to remove NATO missiles from Turkey. ExComm got this news about the same time it received word that a U2 spy plane based in Alaska had flown off course over USSR airspace on the Chukotski Peninsula, and Soviet MiG fighters and American F-102 fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles were scrambling to the Bering Sea. Fortunately, the U2 flew back into U.S. territory before a confrontation.

Not so back over Cuban airspace. Local Soviet officers fired an SA-2 missile at an American U2 and shot it down, killing the pilot. Cuban troops fired upon and damaged another U.S. reconnaissance plane. JFK asked his brother to meet again with Ambassador Dobrynin that evening.

"We met in my office at 7:45," Bobby wrote in "Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis," published in 1969, a year after his death (New York: New American Library). "I told (Dobrynin) 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 U2s 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, RFK told Dobrynin, but the Soviet Union and Cuba had forced America's hand.

"We had to have a commitment by (the next day) that those bases would be removed," Bobby wrote. "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 (also) dead Russians as well."

Dobrynin asked what offer the U.S. was making, and Bobby told him the president would not order an invasion of Cuba if the Soviets removed the missiles.

"(Dobrynin) raised the question of our removing the missiles from Turkey," RFK wrote. "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."

Time was running out, Bobby told Dobrynin. "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."

Ambassador Dobrynin transmitted this to Moscow. While waiting for a response, as a hedge, JFK ordered 14,200 Air Force reservists to suit up.

Khrushchev backs down
Early the next morning, Sunday, Oct. 28, 1962, CIA officials reported that the Soviets had completed construction of 24 medium-range ballistic missile sites. But at 9 a.m., Radio Moscow went on the air with a message from Khrushchev, ordering all missiles removed from Cuba.

After 13 days, the Russians had backed down, and the people of Earth could breathe again.

If Robert F. Kennedy had not so strongly urged his brother pursue the blockade strategy, and JFK had not trusted Bobby to convey and sugar-coat that ultra-sensitive ultimatum to Khrushchev via Dobrynin, it could have been the end of the world as we know it.

Helping bring the world back from the brink of nuclear holocaust: Now, that's a legacy.


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