Robert McNamara reflects on the Cuban missile crisis (2003)

In 2003 former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara appeared in a documentary programme called The Fog of War. Here he reflects on the decisions and outcomes of the Cuban missile crisis:

“Under a cloak of deceit, the Soviet Union introduced nuclear missiles into Cuba, targeting 90 million Americans. The CIA said the warheads had not been delivered yet. They thought 20 were coming on a ship named the Poltava. We mobilised 180,000 troops. The first day’s air attack was planned at 1080 sorties, a huge air attack.

[I said to Kennedy] Mr. President, we need to do two things, it seems to me. First, we need to develop a specific strike plan. The second thing we have to do is to consider the consequences. I don’t know quite what kind of a world we’ll live in after we’ve struck Cuba. How do we stop at that point? I don’t know the answer to this…

Kennedy was trying to keep us out of war. I was trying to help him keep up out of war. And General Curtis LeMay, whom I served under as a matter of fact in World War II, was saying ‘Let’s go in, let’s totally destroy Cuba’.

On that critical Saturday, October 27th, we had two Khrushchev messages in front of us. One had come in Friday night and it had been dictated by a man who was either drunk or under tremendous stress. Basically, he said, ‘If you’ll guarantee you won’t invade Cuba, we’ll take the missiles out’. Then before we could respond we had a second message that had been dictated by a bunch of hardliners. And it said, in effect, ‘If you attack, we’re prepared to confront you with masses of military power’.

So, what to do? We had, I’ll call it, the soft message and the hard message.

At the elbow of President Kennedy was Tommy Thompson, former US ambassador to Moscow. He and Jane, his wife, had literally lived with Khrushchev and his wife upon occasion. Tommy Thompson said ‘Mr. President, I urge you to respond to the soft message’…

In the first message, Khrushchev said this: ‘We and you ought not to pull on the ends of a rope which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom, they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence’.

I want to say, and this is very important: in the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.

The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7,500 strategic offensive nuclear warheads, of which 2,500 are on 15-minute alert, to be launched by the decision of one human being?

It wasn’t until January 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, ‘Mr. President, let’s stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I’m not sure I got the translation right’…

In a sense, we’d won. We got the missiles out without war. My deputy and I brought the five Chiefs over and we sat down with Kennedy. And he said, ‘Gentlemen, we won. I don’t want you ever to say it, but you know we won, I know we won’.

And LeMay said ‘Won? Hell, we lost. We should go in and wipe ’em out today’. LeMay believed that ultimately we’re going to confront these people in a conflict with nuclear weapons. And, by God, we better do it when we have greater superiority than we will have in the future…

It’s almost impossible for our people today to put themselves back into that period. In my seven years as Secretary, we came within a hair’s breadth of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions. Twenty four hours a day, 365 days a year for seven years as Secretary of Defence, I lived the Cold War.”