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The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Trollope Ploy Myth

Response to Matthew Hayes: “Robert Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Reassertion of Robert Kennedy’s Role as the President’s ‘Indispensable Partner’ in the Successful Resolution of the Crisis,” History, The Historical Association and John Wiley and Sons Ltd (May 7, 2019), 473-503 and “RFK’s Secret Role in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Scientific American (August 6, 2019).

I was naturally intrigued when I learned about a purportedly new take on Robert Kennedy’s role in the Cuban Missile crisis. The unique personal/official relationship between President John F. Kennedy and his younger brother Robert has been thoroughly explored in dozens of studies over the last half century. RFK’s “portfolio,” widely understood at the time, was that of JFK’s most trusted adviser and confidant—and, as Hayes suggests, “the president’s de facto chief of staff.” A different attorney general would likely not even have been invited to take part in secret discussions during a dangerous foreign policy crisis. The loyalty and trust between the Kennedy brothers will surely remain a one-off in the history of the American presidency. 

Matthew Hayes’ work confirms the already well-documented story of RFK’s unique role, especially his JFK-approved back-channel contacts with Soviet diplomats before, during and after the missile crisis; he emphasizes, however, the importance of the more than 3,500 recently declassified documents which confirm that the attorney general was overseeing interdepartmental planning for possible contingencies in Cuba—including “the installation of missile sites” and “warning his brother of the possibility over a year before the crisis.” [Scientific American 2 (5 page printout); hereafter SA] Hayes cites Cuba-related documents which undeniably confirm that RFK was not your conventional attorney general. These examples augment the historical record but fail to provide anything genuinely new about the bond between President Kennedy and the brother eight years his junior. [History 32-35, 38,42; hereafter HY]  

“In the first days of the crisis,” referring directly to the ExComm tapes, Hayes contends that RFK “insisted that an invasion remain on the table and even pushed for a reduction in lead time required to initiate one. Until recently (italics added) this approach was held up as evidence for a belligerent, hawkish adviser, promoting the sort of military action that would have led to dangerous escalation.” (SA3) In fact, from 1962 to the declassification of the White House tape recordings in the late 1990s, historians took for granted that RFK was the top dove at the meetings—mainly because of his posthumous 1969 memoir, Thirteen Days (which has never been out of print). Hayes declares that: 

He saw his role as pressing for all alternatives, regardless of where they might lead. … he was instrumental in convincing other advisers of its [the naval blockade’s] merits and, ultimately, the president. In both cases he was able to do so because he was seen as balancing resolve with restraint, bridging the more forceful approach advocated by the military and Joint Chiefs with the optimistic diplomacy pushed by dovish advisers such as U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.”[SA3]

The quote above is a historical rope of sand. RFK only briefly and reluctantly backed the blockade and continued to grumble about it well after the president had endorsed it; he certainly did not convince the JCS to support it: they never did. There is no escaping or rationalizing the facts—the tapes have irrefutably identified RFK as one of the most contentious ExComm hawks—from day one to day thirteen. Hayes is, in effect, turning the historiography of the missile crisis upside down, as if these new documents [“Until recently”] can somehow explain away the substance and tone of what Robert Kennedy actually and repeatedly said in the recorded meetings—but carefully concealed in Thirteen Days. RFK’s role as chair of the Special Group Augmented, even more thoroughly documented since 2012, (https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/RFKAG) is entirely consistent with his hawkish views in the ExComm meetings—in which he certainly did not reveal an “innate understanding of the missile crisis as more a political struggle than a military one, with its own limitations.” [SA2;HY480] Hayes’ nebulous claim that these “declassified private notes and a closer understanding of the brothers’ intimate relationship, now support a more holistic view of RFK,” fails to even dent the indisputable historical record on the White House tapes. 

RFK’s key responsibilities included chairing the Special Group Augmented which coordinated Operation Mongoose in Cuba, overseeing industrial and agricultural sabotage, which some historians have called ‘state-sponsored terrorism,’ as well as attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. Richard Helms, CIA deputy director for operations, recalled: “If anybody wants to see the whiplashes across my back inflicted by Bobby Kennedy, I will take my shirt off in public.” A senior Mongoose planner agreed, “That’s how he [RFK] felt about this stuff. It was unbelievable. I have never been in anything like that before or since and I don’t ever want to go through it again.” [Stern, Averting the Final Failure14; hereafter AV] Hayes never even mentions the Special Group Augmented.  

Hayes’ discussion of the “Trollope Ploy,” (hereafter TP: a reference to a plot device in a 19th century Anthony Trollope novel) is even more problematic. He explains the TP as “a bold strategy for navigating two different proposals from Khrushchev…within the space of a few hours.” The first (late on 10/26) promised to remove the missiles if the US pledged not to invade Cuba; the second (early on 10/27), asserted publicly on Moscow Radio that the missiles would be removed if the US withdrew the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. “RFK took hold of the situation,” Hayes concludes, “assuming the leadership mantle.” He and the president’s chief speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, went into a separate room and came up with what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called an idea of “breathtaking simplicity:” “we ignore the latest [10/27] Khrushchev letter [Hayes incorrectly substitutes “while barely acknowledging receipt of the second”] and respond to his earlier [10/26] letter’s proposal.” [SA4;Thirteen Days,1971 edition,77] “JFK approved the ploy,” and sent RFK to make what Hayes calls a “highly secret assurance to [Soviet Ambassador] Dobrynin that the missiles would be removed ‘at a later date.’” 

This account, however, is not what happened! The tapes reveal conclusively that JFK remained very skeptical and only grudgingly and unenthusiastically agreed “to try this thing [the TP];” but also demanded new contacts with Turkey and NATO to convince them to give up the Jupiters because Khrushchev “had moved on” and could not go back to his earlier demand for a non-invasion pledge after his public statement about a trade. The entire ExComm—very much including RFK—continued to vigorously oppose the trade. The real breakthrough did not occur until the late evening rump meeting (about 20 minutes) of seven ExComm members, chosen and invited by the president himself. (JFK failed to activate the tape recorder and we will never know if he acted deliberately or simply forgot.) Secretary of State Dean Rusk, finally acknowledging the president’s determination about giving up the missiles in Turkey, suggested requiring that the Soviets keep the swap secret; the president accepted this recommendation and everyone finally acquiesced—however reluctantly. The president, in short, never let go of “the leadership mantle.” As Barton Bernstein observed, “they were the president’s men and he was the president.” [AV369]

It was JFK himself who first utilized the TP myth. Just hours after Khrushchev had agreed on 10/28 to the removal of the missiles in Cuba, the president phoned his three White House predecessors (Eisenhower, Truman, and Hoover) and skillfully lied to them, claiming that Khrushchev had retreated from the 10/27 missile trade proposal and had agreed, in the end, to remove the Cuba missiles in exchange for a non-invasion pledge. Eisenhower, who had dealt with Khrushchev, was skeptical and asked if the Soviet leader had demanded additional concessions; JFK coolly repeated the contrived administration cover story. The same version was fed to a gullible press corps and quickly became the conventional wisdom, later enshrined in Thirteen Days. [AV388]

Hayes criticizes my work for “dismissing the accounts of early [missile crisis] historians such as Schlesinger as ‘profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive.’” [HY476] This accusation is irresponsible as well as false. First, the quoted passage actually refers to onedocumentfrom the first day of the ExComm meetings found in RFK’s papers by Schlesinger (granted special access by the family in the 1970s). Second, I explicitly warned readers that “Schlesinger could not have known the full context of the RFK quote” at the time because the tapes were still classified. My judgment has nothing whatsoever to do with the ‘early [missile crisis] historians.’ If there is deception here, the deception was neither Schlesinger’s nor mine. [AM34-5]

“Historians such as Sheldon Stern,” Hayes maintains, “have argued that President Kennedy ‘bore a substantial share of the responsibility’” for precipitating the crisis. Hayes, however, chooses to call the missile crisis one of the Kennedy administration’s “principal moments of glory” and “a heroic and ingenious defense against Soviet aggression.” [HA476]

This “moment of glory,” “heroic and ingenious” language is unprofessional advocacy, bordering on hagiography, and is particularly baffling because there is a huge amount of evidence (including in Soviet archives) which confirms Khrushchev’s claim that the missiles were sent to Cuba to defend Castro against a second US-backed invasion. Hayes, nonetheless, dances around RFK’s dominant role in the Special Group Augmented and Operation Mongoose, which in reality aimed “to undermine the Cuban regime and economy by blowing up port and oil storage facilities, burning crops (especially sugarcane) and even disabling or assassinating Castro himself. … It became the largest clandestine operation in CIA history up to that time, ‘involving some 400 agents, an annual budget of over $50 million.’” [AV15] Hayes acknowledges that RFK was the president’s “eyes and ears in Mongoose,” (HY495) but otherwise ignores RFK’s fervent leadership role in that effort. 

“Stern,” Hayes complains, “continues to quote a second-hand exchange between RFK and Kenneth O’Donnell, JFK’s special assistant and confidant during the crisis, to undermine the veracity of RFK’s memoir Thirteen Days.” After reading the manuscript, “O’Donnell is said to have exclaimed, ‘I thought your brother was president during the missile crisis!’, while RFK replied, ‘He’s not running [for office], and I am.’” Hayes insists that this account “by someone who didn’t participate in most of the ExComm meetings should surely not be given so much prominence.” [HY478] This is an apples and oranges argument: the remark is not about the meetings or the crisis, but instead about O’Donnell’s shrewd insight into RFK’s personal, political motives in writing his memoir. (Of the four people present, the surviving two I consulted vividly recalled and confirmed each other’s account.)

That ambition is precisely what O’Donnell, known for his candor and directness, immediately perceived and RFK promptly admitted. RFK initially intended this crisis memoir for publication during JFK’s 1964 reelection campaign, but changed his purpose after Dallas. Bobby’s ambition, in fact, had even surfaced during the crisis itself. On October 29, Ambassador Dobrynin gave the attorney general a letter from Khrushchev to the president which specifically mentioned the missile trade. RFK consulted with JFK and returned the letter, reminding Dobrynin that the swap was to remain secret—and explaining that he personally could not “risk getting involved in the transmission of this sort of letter, since who knows where and when such letters can surface or be somehow published—not now, but in the future…. The appearance of such a document could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future.” [AV403] The O’Donnell/RFK exchange is an entirely legitimate nugget of historical evidence and Hayes’ objection is disingenuous special pleading. 

“Critics such as Stern,” Hayes continues, [HY483-4]

far from viewing RFK as a leader of the doves (through his support for the blockade route), point to the primary source material and advocate his role as a dangerous hawk advocating invasion from the outset. 

In evidence for this assertion, Stern directly quotes RFK: ‘We should just get into it, and get it over with and take our losses if [Khrushchev] wants to get into a war over this.’… Stern argues that RFK’s memoir of the crisis ‘was an effort to manipulate this history of the missiles crisis and invent the past. A ‘consistently hawkish’ figure emerges from Stern’s analysis of RFK, ‘one in sharp contrast to his brother.’

I don’t “view” RFK as “the leader of the doves” because he was not; he accepted the blockade only after JFK publicly announced it. I plead guilty as charged to pointing “to the primary source material,” the tapes, to prove conclusively (not to “advocate”) that RFK was a hawk on the first day and was still pressing to “take Cuba back” militarily on the thirteenth day. The “consistently hawkish figure” that rankles Hayes was not invented by “Stern’s analysis”—but derived from RFK’s own words captured on the ExComm tapes, words which he spunvery differently in his memoir. The assertion that ‘I was there’ is most often a red flag for historical manipulation, not a superior form of validation. History based on individual memory rarely rises above the personal motives for writing it. Thirteen Days and the tape recordings cannot both be right, and there is absolutely no question which account is reliable. 


Hayes, however, cites a specific case to allege that “this analysis is skewed, for Stern quotes RFK out of context, paring back RFK’s words selectively to support his argument.” The indented quote below, he claims, “actually begins with a series of qualifications, as RFKtentatively hedges his comments.”

Now [think] whether it wouldn’t be the argument, if you’re going to get into it at all, whether we should just get into it, and get it over with, and take our losses. And if [Khrushchev] wants to get into a war over this . . . Hell, if it’s war that’s gonna come on this thing, he sticks those kinds of missiles in after the warning, then he’s gonna get into a war over six months from now, or a year from now…. [HY483]

Accusing a scholar of “selectively” using evidence “to support an argument,” is a serious personal and professional accusation—especially when untrue. This passage is not, as Hayes is determined to “prove”  in spite of the ExComm tapes, some one-off, devil’s advocate musing by Bobby before he settled on a dovish line; rather, it is typical of his approach through the entire crisis. I just relistened to this tape and there is no question that before the “get into it” comment RFK is overtly scoffing at all suggestions of more limited action (such as air strikes) rather than invasion. Indeed, adding the “Now [think]….” sentence makes no change whatsoever in the meaning of his remarks. He is not “tentatively” hedging anything. In fact, Bobby makes his position abundantly clear minutes later, suggesting that the administration could stage an incident that would justify military intervention: “You know, sink the Maine again or something.” I included the ‘sink the Maine’ statement later in my narrative – yet Hayes leaves it out entirely. A reader might reasonably ask just whose version is skewed and selective.

Equally important, the indented quote above first appeared in the 1997 May-Zelikow transcripts, which I was the first to publicly expose as seriously flawed and unreliable. (AV,’ Appendix, 427-439.) Nothing in the Hayes articles suggests that he is even aware of the ensuing controversy. No historian genuinely familiar with the crisis literature would trust the 1997 version, which the editors themselves finally acknowledged has been superseded by the much-improved 2001 Miller Center transcripts. 

Hayes also accepts RFK’s claim in Thirteen Days that “many meetings” of the ExComm took place “without the President.” [HY491] I listened to every recorded meeting numerous times over two years (including the crucial “post-crisis” meetings that continued into late November)—as well as checking passages in the original White House master recordings against the copies used for research and studying the minutes of the unrecorded meetings. JFK definitely attended every ExComm meeting, except during brief campaign trips to New England (10/17) and the Midwest (10/20).  

The November post-crisis lasted longer (32 days) and required more recorded meetings (24 vs. 19) than the iconic Thirteen Days. [AV403-12] The naval blockade remained in place and tensions remained high after 10/28. Negotiations at the UN broke down over Soviet resistance to removing the IL-28 nuclear bombers from Cuba and the deadlock was not resolved until 11/20. JFK then ordered the lifting of the blockade, but not before RFK persuaded him to drop the non-invasion pledge: “I don’t think,” RFK insisted, “that we owe anything as far as Khrushchev is concerned.” The president worried that it would “look too much like we’re welching” on our promise and added that retaining the pledge might “make it politically less difficult for Khrushchev to withdraw his conventional forces from Cuba.” In the end, however, JFK agreed to his brother’s tougher stance. Bobby was Bobby, hawkish to the last. Hayes never even mentions the November post-crisis—in effect leaving out everything after the 9th inning in the account of an extra-inning game—a fitting metaphor for these essays. [AV410]. (1)


(1) When I began listening to the tapes I did not expect that they would fatally undermine the veracity of 13 Days. I had worked in RFK’s presidential campaign, convinced that he was a very different man than in 1962. However, as a historian, I had to confront the evidence on the tapes. I admired Bobby in 1968, and still do.