Edited by Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh
Foreword by Robert S. McNamara
(2nd Edition, New York: The New Press, 1998)
Ordering information for this book is available at the W.W. Norton & Co. website.
Or by phone:
800-233-4830 (U.S.)
717-346-2029 (Outside U.S.)
At midday, and again in the early evening of October 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy called together a group of his closest advisers at the White House. Late the night before, the CIA had produced detailed photo intelligence identifying Soviet nuclear missile installations under construction on the island of Cuba, some ninety miles off the Florida coast; now the president and his men confronted the dangerous decision of how the United States should respond.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara outlined three possible courses of action for the president: "the political course of action" of openly approaching Castro, Khrushchev, and U.S. allies in a gambit to resolve the crisis diplomatically, an option that McNamara and others considered unlikely to succeed; "a course of action that would involve declaration of open surveillance" coupled with "a blockade against offensive weapons entering Cuba"; and "military action directed against Cuba, starting with an air attack against the missiles." Much of the conversation that day centered on the military option and the hazardous unknowns of Soviet retaliation, including the possibility of nuclear escalation. "I don't believe we have considered the consequences," McNamara told the president. "I don't know quite what kind of a world we live in after we've struck Cuba, and we, we've started it.... How, how do we stop at that point?"(1)

Thankfully, the Kennedy administration never had to answer that extraordinary question. Ultimately, President Kennedy chose to initiate a naval blockade against Soviet ships carrying missile equipment. His strategy proved successful; the Soviets withdrew the missiles end nuclear war was averted.

Three decades later, however, Soviets, Cubans, and Americans learned how close the world had come to a nuclear conflagration. At a unique conference held in Havana, Cuba, in January 1992—attended by former Kennedy administration members, Soviet participants in the crisis, and a Cuban delegation led by President Fidel Castro—Soviet General Anatoly Gribkov informed participants that, in addition to their intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the Soviets had deployed nine tactical missiles in Cuba to be used against any U.S. invasion force. Even more significant, General Gribkov stated that Soviet field commanders in Cuba had the authority to fire those tactical nuclear weapons without further direction from the Kremlin!(2)

What might have happened had the United States invaded Cuba, as some advisers had recommended to President Kennedy throughout the missile crisis? "We can predict the results with certainty," former secretary of defense McNamara answers in his Foreword to this book: "no one should believe that had United States troops been attacked with tactical nuclear warheads, the United States would have refrained from responding with nuclear warheads. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster."


Thirty-six years after the respective actions of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba brought the world to the brink of the unthinkable, new and important information about the Cuban missile crisis continues to emerge. No event during the Cold War has generated more popular and scholarly attention; indeed, with hundreds of articles, books, and essays already written on this episode, it has become perhaps the most studied international confrontation of the twentieth century. And so it should be, for the missile crisis represents the one time that world leaders and the international community stared down what Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen called "the gun barrel of nuclear war," the death of history as we know it. Despite the end of the Cold War, the process of exploration and discovery remains necessary to understand more fully what caused this crisis and, more important, to learn how to avoid such potentially cataclysmic events in the future. "Having come so close to the edge," observes Kennedy's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, "we must make it our business not to pass this way again."(3)

Toward that goal, the National Security Archive began a concerted campaign in 1987 to advance the historical record on the missile crisis. The objective was to build a major collection of declassified U.S. government documents, through the systematic use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and to make them available to scholars, students, journalists, and concerned citizens in order to enhance the public discussion over what actually happened in 1962 and why. In the early 1970s, many key internal documents had been made public at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. But thousands of other secret documents remained beyond the access of the public at large. Despite the passage of time, the U.S. government refused to declassify these documents, citing reasons of national security.

In the aftermath of the missile crisis, the papers from all the national security agencies involved were scattered throughout the executive branch. Some important records, for example, were found in a shopping cart in the basement of the State Department. Other documents, however, were gathered together and centralized. Researchers at the National Security Archive discovered, through interviews with former U.S. officials, that in 1965 the Johnson administration had retrieved some seventy-five files from various agencies and stored them in Room 7512 on the seventh floor of the State Department. This mini-archive of approximately three thousand records, totaling ten thousand pages in all, included contingency plans, military scenarios, minutes of Kennedy's Executive Committee, intelligence reports, analyses, chronologies, cables, and a wide variety of other highly sensitive State Department, Defense Department, National Security Council, and Central Intelligence Agency documents on the missile crisis.

In April 1987, the National Security Archive filed a series of FOIA requests for these files.(4) When the State Department proved unresponsive, the Archive filed a FOIA lawsuit nine months later seeking to compel the release of all requested documents. Pursuant to that suit, by mid 1989 the State Department had declassified two thousand documents in full or in part. These documents, supplemented by hundreds of additional declassified records obtained through other FOIA requests by Archive analysts and other scholars of the missile crisis, or from presidential and military libraries, were published in the National Security Archive's microfiche documents collection, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: The Making of U. S. Policy. Since the publication of that collection in 1990, the Archive has continued to pursue and obtain the declassification of hundreds of important State, Defense, CIA, and NSC documents relating to the Cuban missile crisis.


The availability of previously classified material has enabled scholars both to challenge the conventional wisdom and to revise long-standing historical interpretations of the events that took place before, during, and after October 1962. Despite the wealth of books and articles published on this subject, until only a few years ago the historiography of the crisis was built around the memoirs of former Kennedy administration officials, in particular Robert Kennedy's Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similarly, scholarly works on the crisis were dominated by Graham Allison's seminal book, Essence of Decision, which drew heavily on the official memoirs to cast the episode as the "classic" model of crisis management.

The declassified U.S. records have allowed scholars to highlight the inevitable distortions, limitations, and inaccuracies in the narratives of former Kennedy administration officials, and to augment and supplement these officials' memories. The most striking example of this dynamic occurred between 1987 and 1992, during a series of retrospective conferences sponsored by Harvard and Brown universities and organized by professor James G. Blight, which brought together former policymakers and scholars from the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba to reconstruct the perilous events of 1962 and to reevaluate why they happened.(5) Applying a research technique that he calls "critical oral history," Blight used the documents to supply facts and details that the former policymakers had distorted or forgotten while the participants supplied the missing context of the documents.(6) The result was a new body of information that provides a much fuller picture of events and fundamentally alters how the scope and meaning of the missile crisis has been and will be considered.

The very definition of the missile crisis has changed. Rather than a sudden episode, the crisis now emerges as the culmination of deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, and between the United States and Cuba. Moreover, no longer can the confrontation be understood as confined to Robert Kennedy's "thirteen days," beginning with the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba on October 16 and ending with Khrushchev's decision to withdraw the missiles on October 28. A series of letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev, declassified and released to the National Security Archive in January 1992, demonstrates that the crisis lasted through late November of 1962, at the very least.

New revelations about the missile crisis have also undermined its image as a paradigm of successful crisis management. For years Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s description of President Kennedy's decision-making as "so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated" reflected a mythology that the successful outcome of the missile crisis derived from Kennedy's masterful management of both the making and implementation of U.S. policy.(7) In reality, as Robert McNamara notes, the decision-making process in Washington, as well as in Moscow and Havana, was characterized by "misinformation, miscalculation, and misjudgment." Despite management efforts, according to Theodore Sorensen, the crisis "came close to spinning out of control before it was ended."(8)

For example, during the crisis, U.S. officials mistook a number of Soviet political and military actions as deliberate "signals" from the Kremlin when, in fact, they had not been cleared by Khrushchev. Unbeknownst to the White House, officials of the CIA and the U.S. military undertook, in the midst of tense negotiations, a number of threatening operations— among them the dispatch of covert sabotage teams into Cuba—which were similarly misunderstood by the Soviets and Cubans. There were also dangerous accidents, such as the straying of a U.S. aircraft into Soviet airspace at the height of the crisis. This combination of unauthorized military and covert actions, misinterpreted military and political signals, and significant failures in intelligence—all of which threatened to set a war in motion—not only challenges earlier depictions of this event as a model of a "controlled crisis" but calls into question the fundamental assumption that severe international crises can, in fact, be "managed" at all.

The new documentation, combined with recent testimony by Soviet and Cuban officials, also sheds light on what is perhaps the most important puzzle of the missile crisis, namely, what motivated the Soviets to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba. The declassified record shows that U.S. officials were well aware that their deployment of Jupiter missiles near Soviet borders in Turkey and Italy in 1959 would be deeply resented by Soviet officials; even President Eisenhower noted that it would be a "provocative" step analogous to the deployment of Soviet missiles in "Mexico or Cuba.(9) A declassified military history of the Jupiter system reveals that the rockets became operational in April 1962—an event that may have contributed to Khrushchev's proposal, made the very same month, to deploy similar weapons in Cuba.(10)

In addition, the documents lend credence to Khrushchev's claim that a primary Soviet motivation was the defense of Cuba against a U.S. invasion. For years, U.S. analysts have dismissed this as a face-saving, after-the-fact rationale that enabled the Soviets to declare victory in the confrontation rather than admit defeat. But formerly top-secret documents, released to the National Security Archive in January 1989, provide a detailed description of a 1962 U.S. covert action program known as OPERATION MONGOOSE, which combined sabotage, infiltration, and psychological warfare activities with military exercises and contingency operations for a possible invasion to overthrow the Castro government. Guidelines for OPERATION MONGOOSE, tacitly approved by President Kennedy in March 1962, noted that the "final success" of the program would "require decisive U.S. military intervention." Although Kennedy never formally authorized an invasion, former administration officials acknowledge that Cuban intelligence had infiltrated the CIA's exile groups and learned of plans for a potential invasion—which, ironically, was scheduled for October 1962.

If the new documents illuminate how the crisis began, they also clarify how it ended. For years, conservative analysts have alleged that, in return for the Soviet withdrawal of the missiles, Kennedy made a secret deal with Khrushchev not to invade Cuba. The recently declassified Kennedy-Khrushchev correspondence published here, reveals that no such U.S. commitment was made. Khrushchev repeatedly urged Kennedy to "formalize through the U.N." a noninvasion pledge to end the crisis. The letters show Kennedy repeatedly refused, citing the Soviets' inability to meet U.S. inspection and verification demands. Highly classified State Department memoranda, released in April 1992 to the National Security Archive, reveal the Kennedy administration's internal arguments against finalizing an agreement on the crisis: a settlement would limit the United States in its ongoing efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro. In the end, U.S. officials preferred free rein to intervene in Cuba over an international accord that would settle the Cuban missile crisis.


This book is an effort to tell the story of the Cuban missile crisis through a selection from the many documents that were generated by these extraordinary events. Not every interested person has the time or resources to sift through the vast quantity of secondary and primary materials available; this book is designed, then, to provide access to some of the most important declassified documentation, thereby permitting the broader public to explore, understand, and discuss this critical episode. Those who want to study the crisis further are urged to consult the comprehensive bibliography included in this volume, and to make use of the National Security Archive's holdings of over four thousand documents, totaling some eighteen thousand pages.

The records in this documents reader are drawn from the Archive's indexed microfiche collection, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: The Making of U. S. Policy, and from hundreds of other documents subsequently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Most of these documents are original photoreproductions; a few have been transcribed—for example, Khrushchev's letters to Kennedy—for reasons of legibility or length. Almost all of the selected documents were once highly classified internal U.S. government records; however, important public communiqués or speeches have been included to render as complete an account of events as possible. Important documents generated by the Soviet and Cuban governments are also included.

The documents are divided into four sections, each of which is prefaced by a contextual introduction, in which the documents are cited by number. Generally, the records are organized chronologically, although in a few cases, materials on one specific aspect of the missile crisis have been gathered together for continuity. Those readers who prefer to start with a comprehensive overview of events are urged to read the chronology at the back of the book in order to place the individual documents in the broader context of events.

Admittedly, the documents reproduced here do not present a complete picture of the extraordinary events surrounding the missile crisis. For reasons of space limitations, we were forced to select records that, in our judgment, represented important aspects of the crisis, and in some cases to edit them for length. Even more important, the vast majority of these documents are U.S. government records that reflect only the view from Washington. The recent conferences in Moscow and Havana have contributed critically needed Soviet and Cuban information and perspectives to the history of the crisis. To date, though, few Soviet or Cuban documents have been released. Until these nations' archives are opened to the public, U.S., Soviet, and Cuban historians will be unable to present anything approximating a full account of the crisis, and books on the crisis will necessarily remain incomplete.

Public discourse on the Cuban missile crisis, however, need not wait, for there is more than enough accessible information to advance our collective education and sustain an ongoing discussion on how to prevent similar confrontations in the future. In his memoir, Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy ascribed the successful outcome of the crisis to the ability of the president and his aides to discuss, consider, and reconsider the most prudent U.S. approach: "The fact that we were able to talk, debate, argue, disagree, and then debate some more was essential in choosing our ultimate course."(11) A broader public discussion of issues such as intervention, nuclear weapons, and the use of military power is similarly essential to chart the future foreign policy course of the nation. We hope this volume will contribute to just such a debate.

Peter Kornbluh Laurence Chang October 1, 1998


1. Transcript of the ExComm meeting on the evening of October 16, 1962.

2. "Small Missiles Heightened Peril in 1962 Cuban Crisis," Washington Post, Jan. 14, 1992.

3. McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1989), p. 462.

4. The requests were filed in the name of Professor Philip Brenner, a Cuba specialist and member of the Archive advisory board.

5. These conferences have resulted in three major books and numerous articles by Blight and his colleagues. See James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989); James G. Blight, The Shattered Crystal Ball: Fear and Learning in the Cuban Missile Crisis (Savage, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1ggo); Bruce J. Allyn, James G. Blight, and David A. Welch, Back to the Brink: The Moscow Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991), and Cuba On the Brink: Fidel Castro, the Missile Crisis and the collapse of Communism (New York: Pantheon; 1993). Among their many articles, see Allyn, Blight, and Welch, "Essence of Revision: Moscow, Havana and the Cuban Missile Crisis," International Security 14, no.3 (1989/1990), pp. 136-172.

6. For a discussion of using the documents and critical oral history, see Blight and Welch, On the Brink, pp. 5, 6.

7. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: JFK in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), p.841.

8. Quoted in Blight, On the Brink, p. 3 1 5.

9. "Memorandum of Conference with the President," June 6, 1959. Available in the National Security Archive's microfiche collection, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: The Making of U. S. Policy.

10. James N. Grimwood and Francis Strowd, "History of the Jupiter Missile System," July 27,1962. Available in the National Security Archive's microfiche collection, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: The Making of U. S. Policy.

11. Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), p.111.