The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myth versus Reality.

Author:Kuklick, Bruce
Position:Book review

The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myth Versus Reality. By Sheldon Stern. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. 196 pp.

Sheldon Stern, a former historian at the John E Kennedy Presidential Library, has spent much of his career studying the Cuban Missile Crisis. His particular interest is the audio tapes of the deliberations of October 1962. These secret conversations of "the Ex-Com," the committee President Kennedy created to deal with the issue, concerned how the United States should respond to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's installation of nuclear rockets in Cuba. This is Stern's third book on the topic.

In this volume, Stern is committed to discrediting various self-serving recollections by members of the Ex-Com. Stern demonstrates that the president wanted to end the crisis by dismantling missiles in Turkey, under the control of the United States and aimed at the USSR, in exchange for getting rid of the Cuban missiles. Kennedy persistently promoted this solution. Yet, at the time, his advisors almost unanimously recommended more belligerent assertions of American interests, with no concessions made to the Soviet Union. When the crisis was defused, and Kennedy was heralded as a prudent and skilled strategist, his Ex-Com collectively reimagined what had happened. The more important participants later remembered that they had supported the president. Contrasting the tapes to accounts elaborated in hindsight, Stern examines and dismisses the expedient memoirs of functionaries like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, but also of John Kennedy's brother Robert in Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1969), his chronicle written in 1968. Robert Kennedy is Stern's bete noir.

Stern will get no argument from me in debunking the convenient retrospective views of these arrogant and politically unastute men. I also have praise beyond measure for Stern's attention to the archives. In an age that is debased by a cavalier postmodern denigration of old-fashioned historical research, Stern's work is a shining beacon.

Nonetheless, the author makes assertions about the recordings that are unjustified, even naive, and thus, are unwarranted assertions about events. Stern says that "the tapes promise the tantalizing prospect of history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" (p. 3), and exclamations of faith in them occur regularly in the text--as transcending other sources, definitive...

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