Jan 15

Defusing a Crisis

Friday, January 15, 2016 12:01 AM

By

Probably the closest this nation has come to engaging in nuclear war was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. After U.S. reconnaissance planes spotted Soviet nuclear missiles being set up in Cuba—not far from our shores—the stage was set for a tense international confrontation.

The public face of the situation in the United States was President John F. Kennedy, who addressed the nation on television to lay out the plan for a naval quarantine—in effect, a blockade to prevent further missile shipments into Cuba. One of the actors behind the scenes during those dramatic days was Captain Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., who became far better known eight years later as the chief of naval operations.

After playing a key role during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Elmo Zumwalt Jr., at age 49, became the youngest four-star admiral in U. S. naval history. He passed away in 2000. (U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE PHOTO ARCHIVE)

After playing a key role during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Elmo Zumwalt Jr., at age 49, became the youngest four-star admiral in U. S. naval history. He passed away in 2000. (U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE PHOTO ARCHIVE)

More than 25 years ago, in a Naval Institute oral history interview, retired Admiral Zumwalt unspooled his memories of the time he was serving as executive assistant to Paul H. Nitze. Nitze, a civilian, was assistant secretary of Defense for
International Security Affairs; he had added Zumwalt to his staff as the result of a paper on Soviet leadership succession that Zumwalt wrote while a student at the National War College. The two soon bonded, both personally and professionally.

During the interview, Zumwalt remembered with a smile that his own participation in dealing with the crisis began with a hangover. He and some of his former shipmates had been partying late the night before. Nitze’s secretary summoned Captain Zumwalt from bed at 0600, telling him he had to be at a meeting in the Pentagon an hour later. He rolled in on three hours’ sleep as part of an action team put together by Nitze, who had come from a meeting of the National Security Council. Nitze’s team also included his policy deputy, Henry Rowen, and Daniel Ellsberg, who several years later leaked the “Pentagon Papers” study to the news media.

From the outset, as policy options were debated back and forth, the emphasis was on secrecy. Zumwalt told his wife only that he was dealing with an important issue that required his presence; other participants came up with their own cover stories. He and others throughout the Pentagon—including, as he remembered, the Joint Chiefs—had to grab naps on couches as they grappled with the problem.

As Nitze shuttled back and forth between his office and high-level meetings, he parceled out assignments to Zumwalt, Rowen, and Ellsberg. As the days proceeded, he asked the three to analyze various options and give him their ideas. Zumwalt did most of his thinking while dictating to his secretary. After the various inputs were collated, Nitze would take the resulting position papers to his meetings at the White House. Later he would return to the Pentagon with feedback. Zumwalt remembered hearing that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs seesawed during the process. At first McNamara wanted to bomb Cuba to take out the missiles, with the Chiefs in opposition. Later they switched. Some in the meetings wanted to accept the fact that the missiles were in place without taking overt action. Gradually the pendulum swung to a compromise position of cordoning the island without attacking it. Zumwalt observed that two proponents of middle ground all along were Nitze and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Both had advocated doing neither too little nor too much.

For Captain Zumwalt there were a few rough patches along the way. In one instance he was walking down a Pentagon corridor when he learned that he had been called to McNamara’s office. Since the summons was unexpected, he wasn’t prepared to take notes. When he arrived, McNamara began dictating the contents of an order to go to the commander-in-chief of Atlantic Fleet to carry out the blockade. By the time the secretary got about halfway through his numbered items, he observed that Zumwalt was just standing and listening. Angrily, he threw paper and pencil at Zumwalt and said, “Here!” Zumwalt, who had been memorizing the order point by point, became angry as well and refused to pick up the note-taking materials from the floor. When McNamara had finished, Zumwalt went back to his office and wrote down the contents he had memorized. Nitze then studied the result and said, “Bud, it’s all there, take it up to McNamara, but I want you to know that he said, ‘If he missed a single point, fire him.’” Zumwalt laughed as he told the story and then added, “That was probably as close as I came to losing a career.”

In another case Zumwalt got caught in the middle when McNamara directed the sequence in which the quarantine was to be carried out, and Vice Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, who was deputy CNO, gave Zumwalt an order to do it differently, perhaps because that was the direction he had received from Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson. Nitze pointed out that civilian authority trumped military, and the operation was undertaken as McNamara ordered—a way of using military power to send a signal without beginning hostilities.

Eventually, as the world learned, the Soviets backed down in the face of the quarantine, and the tension abated. But there was one more uneasy moment for Bud Zumwalt. On a pleasant October evening, as he walked the streets of Washington toward the Pentagon, he went three blocks without seeing any sign of life. Into his mind popped a thought: “I wonder if those missiles are en route.” But, as he continued his account, he recalled something else: “Then about a block ahead, I saw a young couple walking toward me, stopping about every five paces to smooch, and suddenly I knew the world was all right.”