INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT McNAMARA
INTERVIEWER: I'd like, if I may, Mr. McNamara, to go back before Vietnam, really, and to go back to the results of the Vienna Summit on June 3rd, when Mr. Khrushchev essentially presented Kennedy with an ultimatum. I believe that a few days after that, you were in Hyannis Port, I think, with Mr. Kennedy; there's archive film of you there. According to Michael Beschloss, Kennedy asked for something between a holocaust and a humiliation to deal with the Berlin crisis. Was there anything between the two?
ROBERT McNAMARA: According to NATO's plan, (Recording off for 2 seconds)... strategy at the time, it was conceivable there would only be two alternatives: surrender or use of nuclear force, which might well have brought destruction of both East and West. So the President was very anxious to find a middle course. Out of that, ultimately developed a flexible response, a proposal to NATO, which they debated for five years, that reduced, we hoped, the possibility of nuclear war, and increased the choices that NATO would have confronting a Soviet threat.
INT: Was there ever a real serious threat with the Berlin crisis? I mean, how serious was it?
RM: In the fall of 1961, the Soviets clearly sought to take West Berlin. There was no question as to what their objective was. To do that, they began to increase the pressure on the West. They stopped, in effect, air re-supply of West Berlin. To continue the supply of that outpost, that NATO outpost, NATO sent increased convoys across the land corridor. The Soviets then instructed the East Germans to stop those convoys. We then added military escorts to the convoys. The Soviets then, after a time, instructed the East Germans to stop a NATO militarily escorted convoy between the border with West Germany and Berlin. So we had a militarily escorted NATO convoy stuck in the middle of East Germany. We finally got it released. But about that time, I asked General Norstad, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, to come from Europe to meet with me in my office at the Pentagon. And I said to Larry, "Look, they did A, we did B, they did C, we did D, they did E. How's this thing going to evolve?" And he said, "Well, they'll do F and we'll do G, and they'll do H and we'll do J." And I said, "What do we do then?" "Well," he said, "it's going to be very difficult." I said, "I know that, but what do we do?" He said, "Well, maybe we'll have to use nuclear weapons." Now my point is... it was a very, very dangerous situation. I hope and believe that the President would not have authorized the use of nuclear weapons. But what would he have done if he hadn't done that? Now that's the kind of threat that we faced in the fall of 1961. I should take one second to add that Lord Mountbatten was at the time the chief of the British Defense Staff, and I've forgotten whether Dickie, with whom I'd served in the CBI in World War II - I've forgotten whether he was in Washington at the time, or whether I asked him to come from London to Washington, but I went through the same discussion with him; and when I got down to the point and I said, "What do we do then?" he said, "Well," he said, "I really don't know." "Well," I said, "you haven't suggested the use of nuclear weapons." He said, "Are you insane?" Now the point (Laughs) I want to make is that he was correct, I think, and others were wrong in thinking that the NATO strategy at the time was operational - it wasn't. You could not apply the NATO strategy without endangering... the security of the West. And that's what Kennedy was alluding to when he raised that point at Hyannis Port.
INT: How did we ever get through that period?
RM: With some luck. I think with courage, with steadfastness. You may recall that we in the US mobilized reserves. NATO... We sent the US forces to Europe. NATO showed great determination, it showed unity, and the Soviets eventually withdrew their threat to West Berlin. So I think it was courage, steadfastness, and luck.
INT: Time moved on a little bit, and we get to October 15th, 1962.
RM: One year later. We'd just gotten through Berlin, 12 or 14 months before, and we were again confronted with major Soviet pressure on the West, this time on Cuba.
INT: Was it seriously thought at the time... I believe that it was a feint, that really it wasn't Cuba at all but that... Can you tell me something about that?
RM: Some believed that the Soviets may have been putting pressure on Cuba in order to relieve Western pressure on the East, in a sense to reduce the strength of NATO's effort to maintain West Berlin, for example, as part of NATO. I very much doubt that. I met with Soviet senior officials in retrospective reviews of the Cuban missile crisis, over a period of five years, from 1987 to 1992 - including, by the way, the son of Khrushchev and the son of Mikoyan, as well as a former retired chief of staff at the Warsaw Pact, and Gromyko, their deputy prime minister, and the long-time Soviet ambassador to the US - and at no time did I gain the impression that the Soviet emplacement of missiles in Cuba was related to Berlin. I don't think it was. It was a general move to... either strengthen the Soviet deterrent to US strategic forces, and/or to protect Cuba against what the Soviet believed was a US intent to invade.
INT: I think in your book, or maybe it's elsewhere, I've read that in fact it's now seen that maybe it was an attempt by the Soviets to short-circuit the missile gap which was firmly in America's favor. Do you think that maybe it was a mistake in letting the Russians know how much of an advance America had, of the number of missiles...?
RM: Two points. First, I don't believe that... the Soviet emplacement of missiles in Cuba was primarily a response to US superiority in strategic forces. We did clearly have superiority in strategic forces, but it was not usable; it wasn't a first-strike capability. We knew that we could not launch our superior force against their force without leaving them with sufficient surviving force to inflict unacceptable damage on us, and therefore we had no first-strike capability. We did have a clear second-strike capability. Their emplacement of missiles in Cuba did not change that balance. Now perhaps they viewed us differently than we viewed ourselves; maybe they thought that by putting those missiles in Cuba, they were ensuring that we had no first-strike capability. But I didn't receive that impression from any of the Soviets with whom I met over that five-year period. What I did learn from them is that we had behaved in ways that led them to think the Kennedy Administration intended to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro. And there is no question in my mind but what our behavior might well have led them to think that. We did not have that plan, we did not have that intention, but I can well understand why both the Cubans and they might have interpreted our actions that way. They said they did interpret it that way, and that that was a major factor. I don't want to say it was the only factor, but they said that was a major factor leading them to place the missiles in Cuba. They might also have placed them there to redress the strategic balance.
INT: We could carry on talking, I think, about Cuba... all evening long. I would like to ask you a couple more questions, however. At the Excomm meetings that are talked about... and there's the debate going on about the surgical strike or a blockade. I wonder whether your own views changed over that period, and I wonder in particular whether you could tell me something - a vignette, if you like - about Robert Kennedy's plea on the 18th, that in fact there shouldn't be a surgical strike. Now I would say that Hilsman has been asked this question - I do not know how he's replied - he was also asked about the surgical strike and about Kennedy's impassioned plea that...
RM: Let's go off-camera just for a second.
INT: In the days from October the 15th onwards, until the resolution of the crisis, there were various actions that could be explored, from surgical strike to discuss-things-only, to blockade. Can you tell me how some of those debmoved forward, and how they were resolved?
RM: From almost the beginning of the period, a day or two after the October 14 U-2 flight, there was a strong division among President Kennedy's both military and civilian advisers, regarding how the US should react to the emplacement of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. There was no debate about whether we should get them out. Some believed that their emplacement changed the military balance; others believed it had no effect on the military balance. But all believed that it was essential to force the Soviets to take them out because, if that were not done, it would erode NATO's confidence in the US support for NATO, and might well lead the Soviets to think they could get by with other pressures on NATO elsewhere in the world, that would lead to a potential war between East and West. So there was unity in the belief that we should pressure the Soviets to take them out, but the question was the method. Some believed in what were called "surgical strikes" - that is to say, US air attack on the missiles. But those who believed that were honest enough and candid enough to say that almost surely that would require sea and land invasion. Others believed that that was very, very dangerous, and that we should engage in quarantine. That was the debate, and it raged essentially 24 hours a day for 12 days and nights.