INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT McNAMARA
INTERVIEWER: Can I ask you first off: when President Kennedy came to power, what was the position that he inherited from Eisenhower with respect to Cuba?
ROBERT McNAMARA: Well, I think he inherited two things. One was an antagonism toward Cuba. It wasn't particularly President Eisenhower's antagonism, it was an antagonism of the American people toward what appeared to be happening in Cuba. The common view was that Cuba was under the control of the Soviets, that Castro, following the overthrow of Batista in 1958 [sic], had moved into the Soviet camp, and that the Soviets were likely to use Cuba as a base, if you will, literally and figuratively, to subvert established governments in the hemisphere, and possibly to project Soviet military power in the hemisphere. That was a rather commonly held belief in the United States. Secondly, President Kennedy inherited a force, a small military force of Cuban exiles who had been organised under the Eisenhower Administration and trained in Central America, and who had volunteered to undertake an invasion of Cuba - an invasion which, when it came off, came to be known as the Bay of Pigs.
INT: We talked earlier... you said there was one fundamental flaw with the way it was organised, which was to do with the responsibilities of Dick Bissell. Could you explain that to me?
RM: The Bay of Pigs, so-called, the Bay of Pigs invasion, was a total failure, for which President Kennedy took full responsibility. He stated in a television programme that he was responsible for the decision to launch the failed enterprise. The morning after he said that, I went to him and I said, "Mr President, I was present when you made that decision. There wasn't a single one of your executive branch advisers who recommended against it. It's true that neither Dean Rusk nor the Secretary of State nor I were enthusiastic about it, but we didn't recommend against it; nor did any of the others, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was not a military operation, it was a CIA operation, but the Joint Chiefs expressed their opinion, and the Joint Chiefs and every one of your civilian advisers" - of whom there must have been 12 or 14 at the table - "supported the launching of the enterprise that failed. And I'm prepared to say that." He said, "Bob, it was my responsibility, and I will accept that, and I've stated to the American people I accept it." Now why did it fail? There were many reasons, but among them is that a basic error was made in the way it was organised. One man, Dick Bissell, a brilliant person - he was the father of the U-2, he was the father of the satellite programme which we are all the world is benefiting from today... one man was responsible for both planning the operation, carrying it out, and evaluating whether it would succeed. And that is a basic organisational error: you never put in the hands of one person the job of operating and advising in advance whether his plan will succeed. That was the basic error. And it included several different sub-errors. Dick Bissell believed that the military force would be far more effective than it turned out to be. He believed that the Cuban resistance would be far less than it was. He believed that the Cuban people would rise up and welcome this expatriate Cuban force. And he believed that if those beliefs were wrong, that the expatriate Cuban force, having landed at the Bay of Pigs, could infiltrate into the mountains and survive as a guerrilla force. And he was wrong on that as well. But he was a brilliant individual, a dedicated patriot. I had tremendous affection and regard for him. It was just an error of organisation.
RM: And I think, by the way, that we all learnt from it, and thereafter President Kennedy and President Johnson certainly always separated operational responsibility from evaluation responsibility. That has not always been the case. Even today, at times, a president will turn to the director, intelligence director, CIA, and say, "Mr Smith, I've read your reports, your evaluations. What do you think we ought to do?" And if the director of CIA is wise, he will say, as Dick Helms did in my presence - when Johnson asked him that question many times, he would say, "Mr President, my job is to evaluate. I will not participate in formulation of policy or recommend action." That was not understood in connection with the Bay of Pigs.
INT: Excellent answer. Did the impact of the Bay of Pigs alter Kennedy's perception of Cuba and how to deal with it?
RM: No, I don't think so. ... Cuba was a problem before the Bay of Pigs, it was a problem after the Bay of Pigs: a year or so later we had the Cuban missile crisis. For this nation it's a problem today; for your nation it's a problem today. Essentially the world today opposes US policy with respect to Cuba. Why is US policy today so... in the minds of others irresponsible? Because our views are still coloured by those concerns that led to the Bay of Pigs.
INT: Excellent. If I can now move forward to the October crisis of 1962. We discussed earlier the problems that were facing the ExComm committee in the early stages, where air strike or invasion seemed to be the principal route that the military wished to take. Could you explain to me a bit about the problems that that air strike scenario would cause?
INT: ... Could you explain to me - in the first meetings that you had after the missiles had been discovered on Cuba, what the options that the committee that became known as ExComm were to face, and how they were to be dealt with?
RM: Well, let me preface my answer by saying that the views of the members of the ExComm, or at least the views of several of the members of the ExComm, changed over the period of time. For 12 days we essentially devoted every single w..., hour that we were awake to thinking about Cuba. When I say "we", I'm talking about the Secretaries of State and Defence, the Director of the National Security Advisory Group, the Director of CIA, the Joint Chiefs and the other senior security experts. And as we thought and probed each other's views, the views of many of the members of the ExComm changed. Initially there were some that said, "Well, it isn't too serious a problem; we can live with it." By the end, there was nobody that I can recall that was taking that view. Initially there were some who said, "Well, let's deal with it through negotiations." By the end, we'd concluded there was no reasonable course of negotiations that would likely succeed. And therefore, by the end we were focused on several military alternatives. One was what was called a surgical strike. The problem was that there were medium-range missile sites - I've forgotten the number, but perhaps 24 - being installed on the island of Cuba, with the intention of targeting their missiles on the eastern coast of the United States, putting at risk... as I remember it, we calculated about 90 million people. And it was thought by some, and the Air Force in particular, that they could, with a limited number of air strikes, destroy those missiles. And that's what became known as the "surgical strike alternative". And how many sorties would be required? Well, they were thinking of perhaps 100 or... a relatively small number. The more that alternative was probed, the more the commanders concluded they had to have a much larger number of strikes to have a high confidence of success that would destroy the missiles. And I critted the commanders with great honesty, because at a very important meeting with the President, President Kennedy, in the White House, in the family drawing room on a Sunday morning - I think it must have been about the 21st of October - the President turned to General Sweeney, who was to command the air strike force, and said, "General, now tell me what will you accomplish with this strike? Can I have high confidence you will destroy all the missiles?" And the President... and Sweeney said, with great , "Mr President, we have the finest air force in the world. My pilots are highly skilled. I guarantee you we'll por...perform well, but I cannot guarantee that we destroy all the missiles." At the time, the CIA thought there were no nuclear warheads there, but we weren't sure there weren't and we weren't sure that there wouldn't be by the time the air strike occurred. And the President therefore was hearing in a sense Sweeney say, "Mr President, it'll be a superb military effort - we'll deserve marks of A for the skill with which we carry it out. But very likely there will be one or more missiles with nuclear warheads left," and the President had to assume those would be launched against a US city, and of course he immediately concluded that was not a programme that he would support, and neither was it one that I would support. And therefore, the military options moved further toward a much larger strike which would very likely have to be accompanied by a land and sea invasion. And my recollection is that which was to be carried out by Admiral Denison... commanded, I should say, by Admiral Denison, the Commander-in-Chief of NATO forces in the Atlantic - that plan called for a first-day air strike of 1080 sorties and the embarking and landing of 180,000 US troops which we had mobilised in south-eastern US ports. It would have been a huge military operation.
INT: ... In hindsight, what do you think the ramifications of that potential invasion would have been?
RM: Almost certainly it would have led to a Soviet military response somewhere in the world. The majority of those who would have recommended that to the President, both military and civilian - and by the way, on October 28th, Sunday, the day that Khrushchev announced publicly that he was withdrawing it, the majority of President Kennedy's military and civilian advisers on that day, and certainly on the following day, had Khrushchev not withdrawn the missiles, would have recommended carrying out that attack. What would have been the ramifications? The majority of those who would have recommended the attack believed the Soviets would not respond militarily. Why did they believe that? Because clearly we had a preponderance of power in the Caribbean; there was no way the Soviets would respond militarily in the Caribbean. Would they have responded elsewhere in the world? I believed then they probably would have. I believe today they almost certainly would have. Why do I believe today they almost certainly would have? Because Khrushchev's son with whom I have discussed this, Mikoyan's son with whom I have discussed it, and other Soviet leaders with whom I have discussed it in a series of meetings that lasted from 1987 to 1992, all said almost surely the Soviets would have responded militarily. And when we asked where, they said, "Well, perhaps against Berlin or perhaps against the US Jupiter missiles which were stationed in Turkey, or somewhere else on the NATO perimeter." It was a very, very dangerous situation. Now before I leave this question, let me go back and say there was one other military alternative which was considered at the time, and that was a quarantine, and that of course is what the President decided on. It was believed that this would be seen by Khrushchev not in a sense as a military action, but as a message. It was meant to convey the President's determination to see those weapons removed from Cuba.