Mary Jo Kopechne could not be reached for comment
Reached through sober analysis, [Sheldon M. Stern—who was the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library for 23 years] conclusion that “John F. Kennedy and his administration, without question, bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis” would have shocked the American people in 1962, for the simple reason that Kennedy’s administration had misled them about the military imbalance between the superpowers and had concealed its campaign of threats, assassination plots, and sabotage designed to overthrow the government in Cuba—an effort well known to Soviet and Cuban officials.
In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy had cynically attacked Richard Nixon from the right, claiming that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow in the U.S.S.R.’s favor. But in fact, just as Eisenhower and Nixon had suggested—and just as the classified briefings that Kennedy received as a presidential candidate indicated—the missile gap, and the nuclear balance generally, was overwhelmingly to America’s advantage. At the time of the missile crisis, the Soviets had 36 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 138 long-range bombers with 392 nuclear warheads, and 72 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warheads (SLBMs). These forces were arrayed against a vastly more powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal of 203 ICBMs, 1,306 long-range bombers with 3,104 nuclear warheads, and 144 SLBMs—all told, about nine times as many nuclear weapons as the U.S.S.R. Nikita Khrushchev was acutely aware of America’s huge advantage not just in the number of weapons but in their quality and deployment as well.
Kennedy and his civilian advisers understood that the missiles in Cuba did not alter the strategic nuclear balance.
Moreover, despite America’s overwhelming nuclear preponderance, JFK, in keeping with his avowed aim to pursue a foreign policy characterized by “vigor,” had ordered the largest peacetime expansion of America’s military power, and specifically the colossal growth of its strategic nuclear forces. This included deploying, beginning in 1961, intermediate-range “Jupiter” nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey—adjacent to the Soviet Union. From there, the missiles could reach all of the western U.S.S.R., including Moscow and Leningrad (and that doesn’t count the nuclear-armed “Thor” missiles that the U.S. already had aimed at the Soviet Union from bases in Britain).
Beginning in the late 1980s, however, the opening of previously classified archives and the decision by a number of participants to finally tell the truth revealed that the crisis was indeed resolved by an explicit but concealed deal to remove both the Jupiter and the Cuban missiles. Kennedy in fact threatened to abrogate if the Soviets disclosed it. He did so for the same reasons that had largely engendered the crisis in the first place—domestic politics and the maintenance of America’s image as the indispensable nation. A declassified Soviet cable reveals that Robert Kennedy—whom the president assigned to work out the secret swap with the U.S.S.R.’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin—insisted on returning to Dobrynin the formal Soviet letter affirming the agreement, explaining that the letter “could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future.”
Only a handful of administration officials knew about the trade; most members of the ExComm, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, did not. And in their effort to maintain the cover-up, a number of those who did, including McNamara and Rusk, lied to Congress. JFK and others tacitly encouraged the character assassination of Stevenson, allowing him to be portrayed as an appeaser who “wanted a Munich” for suggesting the trade—a deal that they vociferously maintained the administration would never have permitted.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts.”
The patient spadework of Stern and other scholars has since led to further revelations. Stern demonstrates that Robert Kennedy hardly inhabited the conciliatory and statesmanlike role during the crisis that his allies described in their hagiographic chronicles and memoirs and that he himself advanced in his posthumously published book, Thirteen Days. In fact, he was among the most consistently and recklessly hawkish of the president’s advisers, pushing not for a blockade or even air strikes against Cuba but for a full-scale invasion as “the last chance we will have to destroy Castro.” Stern authoritatively concludes that “if RFK had been president, and the views he expressed during the ExComm meetings had prevailed, nuclear war would have been the nearly certain outcome.” He justifiably excoriates the sycophantic courtier Schlesinger, whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts—”profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive”—were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.
But the Kennedy mythology lives on.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is, as the story says, an “attorney and well-known environmentalist” who has, as the story doesn’t say, apparently spent his years in a search for relevance. Being a Kennedy must be hard work, with unreasonable expectations placed on you.
The burden took its toll on RFK Jr. nearly 30 years ago, when he was arrested for heroin on a flight from Minnesota to South Dakota. He pleaded guilty to possession. It was a felony conviction.