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JFK Library Documents Illuminate Brinksmanship

By Andrew P. Corty and The CRIMSON Staff

This is the second of a four-part series on documents from the personal files of President John F. Kennedy '40. The documents are open to the public at the Kennedy Library's temporary facility in Waltham.

Private correspondence between President Kennedy and Soviet Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis shows that Khrushchev vehemently challenged the U.S. quarantine, warning of "catastrophic consequences for world peace."

In a letter of October 23, the day after Kennedy's speech announcing the quarantine, Khrushchev wrote "that the armaments which are in Cuba, regardless of the classification to which they may belong, are intended solely for defensive purposes in order to secure the Republic of Cuba against the attack of an aggressor."

The Khrushchev letter also disputed the legality of the quarantine, saying the "United Nations Charter and international norms give no right to any state to institute in international waters the inspection of vessels bound for the shores of the Republic of Cuba."

Khrushchev's letter and a letter sent to Kennedy three days later were both delivered to the U.S. embassy in Moscow where they were translated and transmitted to the Department of State in Washington.

The documents were classified and labeled "eyes only" until they were declassified in November 1973. They are part of 100,000 documents recently opened to the public at the Kennedy Library.

A reply from Kennedy, also dated October 23, said "I think you will recognize that the step which started the current chain of events was the action of your government in secretly furnishing long-range missiles to Cuba."

He wrote "I am concerned that we both show prudence and do nothing to allow events to make the situation more difficult to control than it already is."

"With this in mind, I hope you will issue instructions to your ships bound for Cuba not to challenge the quarantine legally established by the Organization of American States."

On October 25, several Soviet ships headed for Cuba altered their course to avoid interception by U.S. Navy boarding parties.

The next day, acting United Nations Secretary-General U Thant announced that Kennedy and Khrushchev had agreed to avoid an immediate showdown in the Caribbean.

On that day, as the crisis was waning, Khrushchev wrote Kennedy a long letter quietly chastising the President for his action but saying "Let us normalize relations."

Khrushchev wrote: "You threaten us with war...We must not succumb to light-headedness and petty passions, regardless of whether elections are forth-coming in one country or another."

"You are mistaken if you think that any of our armaments in Cuba are offensive. However, let us not argue at this point, Evidently, I shall not be able to convince you.

"But I tell you: You, Mr. President, are a military man and you must understand: How can you possibly launch an offensive even if you have an enormous number of missiles of various ranges and power on your territory, using these weapons alone?"

Khrushchev said that North American fears of an attack from Cuba were groundless because the Russians were sane people, not barbarians.

He further wrote: "I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba.

"If you have not lost command of yourself, and realize clearly what this could lead to, then, Mr. President, you and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter this knot will become.

"Therefore, if there is no intention of tightening this knot, thereby dooming the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, let us not only relax the forces straining on the ends of the rope, let us take measures for untying this knot.

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