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5 decades on, truth about Cuban crisis emerges

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 7:48 p.m.

HAVANA — The world stood at the brink of Armageddon for 13 days in October 1962 when President John F. Kennedy drew a symbolic line in the Atlantic Ocean and warned of dire consequences if Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev dared to cross it.

An American U-2 spy plane flying high over Cuba had snapped aerial photographs of Soviet ballistic missile sites that could launch nuclear warheads with little warning at the United States, just 90 miles away. It was the height of the Cold War, and many people feared nuclear war would annihilate human civilization.

Soviet ships carrying nuclear equipment steamed toward Kennedy's “quarantine” zone around the island but turned around before reaching the line.

“We're eyeball-to-eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously said, a quote that largely came to be seen as defining the crisis.

In the five decades since the nuclear standoff between Washington and Moscow, much of the long-held conventional wisdom about the missile crisis has been knocked down, including the common belief that Kennedy's bold brinkmanship ruled the day.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, historians now say it was behind-the-scenes compromise rather than a high-stakes game of chicken that resolved the face-off, that both Washington and Moscow wound up winners and that the crisis lasted far longer than 13 days.

Declassified documents, oral histories and accounts from decision makers involved in the standoff have turned up new information for scholars.

Kennedy resisted pressure from aides advising that he cede nothing to Moscow and even consider a pre-emptive strike. He instead engaged in intense behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the Soviets, other countries and the United Nations secretary-general.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy met secretly with the Soviet ambassador on Oct. 27 and conveyed an olive branch from his brother: Washington would publicly reject any invasion of Cuba, and Khrushchev would withdraw the missiles from the island.

The real sweetener was that Kennedy would withdraw Jupiter nuclear missiles from U.S. installations in Turkey, near the Soviet border. It was a secret pledge known only to a handful of presidential advisers that did not emerge until years later.

“As the historical record has expanded, the image of the resolute president has given way to the resolution president,” Cuba analyst Peter Kornbluh wrote in an article in the November issue of Cigar Aficionado, an advance copy of which was made available to The Associated Press.

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