On 22 October 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised speech, arguably “the most serious speech delivered in his lifetime” and the “most frightening presidential address” in U.S. history.’ Soviet missile-launch sites had been discovered under construction in Cuba. The response resuIted from deliberations among the President and his ad hoc Executive Committee (ExCom).
Its final draft was improved significantly by an unlikely person: the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral George W. Anderson, Jr.
As is now known, “back-channel” negotiations achieved a quid pro quo. In return for Russian offensive missiles not being placed in Cuba, President Kennedy would remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey and promise not to topple Fidel Castro’s communist regime militarily. Nevertheless, while negotiations took place, Russian missiles were en route as cargo on Soviet ships for placement in Cuba. A naval blockade or “quarantine” would interdict them. At the White House, President Kennedy told Admiral Anderson: “Admiral, this is up to the Navy.” And Anderson avowed that we “will not let you down.” The Navy did not let the United States down, but pages of history – particularly from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – did let the admiral down. And so has the recent Hollywood film about the crisis, Thirteen Days. Admiral Anderson deserves better.
Before he was CNO, Anderson had assets. When the proverbial chips were down, his hand had an ace showing in what Kennedy called “great tact” and a “reputation as a shrewd military commander and naval diplomat.” His paired ace in the hole was having been an “exceptionally bright student” in his pre-Naval Academy days at the Jesuit Brooklyn Preparatory School, which emphasized communication skills. But Anderson’s CNO term became “the most frustrating and difficult in his 40 years of naval service” because of “difficulties” with McNamara over the B-70 bomber, the TFX tactical fighter, and McNamara’s “activist manager” control over the Pentagon “down to the minutest detail.” The nadir of their stormy relationship was a “clash” on 24 October “so nasty that the two men never again enjoyed a decent relationship.” Anderson admitted encountering McNamara afterward, when the Secretary offered a hand and was told, “Shake hands with you? Hell, no.”
Secretary McNamara’s portrayal of Admiral Anderson loomed large in print. In 1987, scholars of the Cuban Missile Crisis convened to reassess the event with surviving ExCom members, including the former Secretary of Defense. In the book published from their conference, On the Brink, McNamara demonstrated his “activist” managerial role at the Pentagon. His published version of the “clash” warrants repetition:
We had pinpointed the location of every single Soviet ship approaching the quarantine line, and it was clear one of the ships would reach the line the next day. I asked Admiral Anderson, “When the ship reaches the line, how are you going to stop it?”
“We’ll hail it,” he said.
“In what language-English or Russian?” I asked.
“How the hell do I know?” he said, clearly a little agitated by my line of questioning. I followed up by asking, “What will you do if they don’t understand?”
“I suppose we’ll use flags,” he replied.
“Well, what if they don’t stop?” I asked.
“We’ll send a shot across the bow,” he said.
“Then what, if that doesn’t work?”
“Then we’ll fire into the rudder,” he replied, by now clearly very annoyed. “What kind of ship is it?” I asked. “A tanker, Mr. Secretary,” he said. “You’re not going to fire a single shot at anything without my express permission, is that clear?” I said. That’s when he made his famous remark about how the Navy had been running blockades since the days of John Paul Jones, and if I would leave them alone they would run this one successfully as well. I rose from my chair and walked out of the room, saying that this was not a blockade but a means of communication between Kennedy and Khruschev; no force would be applied without my permission; and that would not be given without discussion with the President. “Was that understood?” I asked. The tight-lipped response was “Yes.”
Admiral Anderson’s oral history differs and also warrants repetition:
We have standardized tactical publications for almost every conceivable type of naval operation… . A commanding officer has those on board ship. It’s his doctrine, and he has to follow it, and McNamara was getting into the instructions that these people had. I said: “They have these things, they’ve had them for years in the doctrine publications that they have as a basis to follow.” Somebody-it was not I and not one of the naval officers there, there was no reference on our part to John Paul Jones, but reportedly it is said that … I said to McNamara, “We’ve had them since John Paul Jones.” It was the reverse that had occurred.
Also consider Admiral Anderson’s account of McNamara’s “over preoccupation of detail” concerning Russian-speaking officers:
I sent out a directive to make sure that there were qualified Russian-language officers on each ship involved in the quarantine, in case there had to be interrogation, and I made available through the Bureau of Naval Personnel … Russian-language people, for example from the Naval Academy…. As CNO, I didn’t go around and personally try to check on every ship to find out if a Russian-language officer was aboard…. But McNamara wanted me to get into every detail, he wanted me to interrogate each ship as to whether language officers were actually on board.
Unfortunately for Anderson, an oral history in Navy archives cannot compete with books subsequently quoted by other historians. For instance, H. R. MacMaster relates the Pentagon encounter verbatim from McNamara’s words and characterizes Anderson as “the recalcitrant admiral.” But buried at the back of MacMaster’s book – in a footnote – is admission of “a good bit of contention over who said what in the Flag Plot.” Another account of this “clash” about “standardized tactical publications” for blocade procedures finds McNamara saying: “I don’t give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done.” To help resolve contention about the CNO’s character, authoritative evidence resides in Anderson’s important contribu~ tions to the final draft of President Kennedy’s epochal Missile-Crisis speech. The process was “terribly risky,” because a “mix of personality, expertise, influence, and temperament” can yield “misperception” and “miscommunication.”
In large measure, President Kennedy’s rhetorical alter ego, Theodore Sorensen, drafted the television speech. By 21 October, Sorensen wrote a memo summarizing several days of ExCom meetings:
I. There are 2 fundamental objections to air strike which have never been answered:
1) Inasmuch as no one has been able to devise a satisfactory message to Khrushchev to which his reply could not outmaneuver us, an air strike means a U.S.-initiated “Pearl Harbor” on a small nation which history could neither understand nor forget.
2) Inasmuch as the concept of a clean, swift strike has been abandoned as militarily impractical, it is generally agreed that the more widespread air attack will inevitably lead to an invasion with all of its consequences.
II. There are 2 fundamental advantages to a blockade which have never been answered:
1) It is a more prudent and flexible step which enables us to move to an air strike, invasion or any other step at any time it proves necessary, without the “Pearl Harbor” posture.
2) It is the step least likely to precipitate general war while still causing the Soviets – unwilling to engage our Navy in our own waters – to back down and abandon Castro.
This memo complemented another influence on the President’s decision at that time. During the Missile Crisis, President Kennedy recalled reading Barbara Tuchman’s well-crafted history of the opening of World War I, The Guns of August. Epitomizing its impress to Sorensen, his brother Robert, and Kenny O’Donnell, Kennedy expressed his fear of “miscalculation” that might lead to conflict far more catastrophic than World War I. Moreover, he desired flexibility, whereby neither side was in a “position from which it could not back down.” In her chapter about blockade, Tuchman began, epigrammatically: “Risk was the least favorite concept of the British Admiralty in 1914. “The “missiles of October” did not become “the guns of Au~ gust” because “quarantine” could ensure flexibility while avoiding miscalculation. President Kennedy’s speech had to fulfill that essential criterion.
To ensure the best wording possible, Sorensen submitted his “3rd Draft” to Admiral Anderson at the Pentagon. When three versions of sentences are set side by side: Sorensen’s, Anderson’s, and Kennedy’s – the CNO’s long-hand suggestions demonstrate “great tact” by “a shrewd military commander and naval diplomat.”
First, Sorensen was specific: “four and possibly five of those sites, containing 4 launchers each, are Medium Range Ballistic Missile sites, with two missiles to be loaded on each launcher. Each of these 32 missiles would be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 miles.” Reflecting his latest intelligence data, Anderson first responded to an impulse for accuracy and changed the numbers “four and possibly five” to “five and possibly six.” Then, realizing that his revision revealed too much about U.S. intelligence capabilities, Anderson wrote with underscoring in the margin, “change to be less precise.” Accordingly, President Kennedy said, “The characteristics of these new missiles indicate two distinct types of installations. Several of them include medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 nautical miles.”
The CNO wanted Navy intelligence technology kept secret, particularly for tracking Soviet submarines. Unfortunately, that imperative caused another clash with McNamara. Anderson recounted what happened when a Soviet submarine neared the quarantine line:
We knew where one of these particular submarines was located …. We had a destroyer sitting on top of this submarine. One evening, McNamara, Gilpatric [Ross], and an entourage of his press people came down to flag plot and, in the course of their interrogations, they asked why that destroyer was out of line [the picket line of quarantine]…. After some discussion, I said to McNamara – he kept pressing me ”Come inside,” and I took him into a little inner sanctuary … and I explained the whole thing to him and to his satisfaction, as well. He left, and we walked down the corridor, and I said: “Well, Mr. Secretary, you go back to your office and I’ll go to mine and we’ll take care of things,” … which apparently was the wrong thing to say to somebody of McNamara’s personality …. The story was leaked to the press through his own public information people that I had insulted him by making this remark over the incident in flag plot.
The Flag Plot, with a Marine guarding the door, is no place for reporters observing, listening, and asking questions. Actually, security was a long-standing source of contention between Anderson and McNamara. The CNO at one point requested a formal conference with the Secretary ‘about one of his staff people, a German pilot during World War II, who “cannot even pass a U.S. security clearance” but nevertheless requested sensitive information from Anderson’s office. The CNO “put the secretary of defense’s staff on report” and recalled the aftermath: “I was not going to be re-appointed” to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and McNamara “strongly opposed my being given anything in government [Ambassador to Portugal] …. McNamara had put it up to the president, ‘either Anderson has to go or I have to go.”‘
Despite those clashes, Anderson’s tact was manifest in the way his revisions for Sorensen did not limit possible armed response by the United States, whether in Cuba or elsewhere. Sorensen’s “3rd Draft” would have President Kennedy say: “We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute an ‘armed attack’ under Article 51 of the UN Charter.”
Concerned about “armed attack,” which he underlined on Sorensen’s text, Anderson suggested substituting “breach” or “threat” instead, thereby giving President Kennedy more flexibility to determine circumstances under which armed force might be used. The suggestion found fruition in the President’s televised statement as “a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril.”
Sorensen also wrote: “Our own weapons systems have never been secretly transferred to the territory of any other nation.” Knowing of U.S. arms supplied around the world, Anderson recommended changing “weapons” to “missiles” and expressed concern about “secretly.” Accordingly, President Kennedy stated: “Our own strategic missiles have never been transferred to the territory of any other nation under a cloak of secrecy and deception.” Placement of other U.S. weapons was not at issue.
To give President Kennedy the greatest flexibility, Anderson suggested another change. Sorensen had drafted “the nations of Latin America have never previously been included as communist nuclear targets.” Anderson underlined “included as communist nuclear targets” and suggested “included under a potential nuclear threat,” thereby implying that the United States might use nuclear weaponry against any intransigent Latin American country. In the part of his speech directed to Cubans, President Kennedy warned that their country might “become a target for nuclear war.” Nevertheless, Anderson’s suggestions for the most part suggested a less bellicose stance on the part of the United States.
By the time of Sorensen’s third draft, ExCom had recommended a naval blockade rather than air strikes against missile sites. ExCom was concerned, however, because international law regards blockades as acts of war. Commenting about that “violation of intemational law,” Dean Acheson was blunt: “The hell with international law…. There aren’t any real precedents for this. And if you’re troubled with what the books say about the blockade, then change the name.”
Likely recalling President Franklin Roosevelt’s call in the advent of World War II to “quarantine the aggressors,” President Kennedy used FDR’s metaphor. In Sorensen’s third draft, however, “blockade” still was used, and Anderson corrected him three times by substituting “quarantine.” To avoid being antagonistically categorical to the Soviet Union, he also altered Sorensen’s reference to turning back Soviet ships with “cargoes of weapons” to “cargoes of offensive weapons.” With that wording, less chance of confrontation would occur. President Kennedy incorporated the change. Finally, Sorensen suggested the Soviet Union might have to “choose between fighting the U.S. Navy in American waters or abandoning its build-up on Cuban soil. Anderson deemed this confrontational. President Kennedy’s speech never raised that possibility of naval warfare.
Despite McNamara’s portrayal of him – which found its way into a Hollywood film – Anderson was professional and cautious as CNO during the Missile Crisis. When the right words counted, President Kennedy counted rightfully on Admiral Anderson’s words.
When the Right Words Counted by Ronald H. Carpenter was published in the October 2001 issue of Naval History magazine. Dr. Carpenter is a Professor of English and Communication Studies at the University of Florida. He is the author of several books and numerous articles.
The complete text of Admiral Anderson’s oral history is available from the U.S. Naval Institute.