Reflection on; Robert Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Reinterpretation.

Author:White, Mark
Position:Commentary and Analysis - Essay

September 2016

As the most dangerous episode in the history of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis has inevitably attracted the attention of many diplomatic historians. With the two superpowers teetering on the brink of war, and possibly a nuclear war at that, the issue of how to remove Russian missiles from Cuba in October 1962, while maintaining the peace, represented the greatest challenge of John F. Kennedy's presidency. With ever increasing quantities of documentation declassified, including transcribed tapes of many key meetings between John Kennedy and other senior officials, historians in recent years have been able to provide more precise, nuanced accounts of the missile crisis. (1)

This article seeks to clarify one issue: the role played by JFK's brother and closest adviser, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. This is a subject that has generated a literature of considerable proportions. In addition to the various monographs and articles on the missile crisis, numerous books on Robert Kennedy have been published since the 1990s, adding to what had hitherto been a rather slim historiography, one dominated by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s adoring 1978 biography. (2)

[continue to the 2007 article]

I was gratified to learn that my 2007 article on Robert Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis has been among the most widely read essays published in the American Diplomacy e-journal. I would like to introduce the reposting of this article by discussing the rationale behind it, and by reflecting on the arguments I made almost a decade ago.

My approach to the subject of Robert Kennedy and the missile crisis has been and is influenced by my response to the historical literature on the Kennedy administration. In the years immediately following John Kennedy's assassination, authors such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Theodore Sorensen penned books that defined the Camelot school, which made the case that JFK, ably assisted by Robert Kennedy and others, provided a brand of exceptional leadership. In short, the Kennedy administration was one of the greatest in American history. In retrospect, that Camelot history of the Kennedy years was skewed. In addition to the successes of those years, major legislation on education and medical care for the aged failed to pass in Congress, the Bay of Pigs invasion was an ignominious failure, and JFK's escalation in Vietnam--given how events in Southeast Asia unfolded later in the decade--could hardly be...

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