Leaders & Controversies

Transcript: Source2

Messages between Britain and the United States, 21-24 October 1962
(Catalogue ref: 2a-b, PREM 11/3689; 2c, PREM 11/4052; 2d, CAB 129/111)

Source 2a

[John Kennedy sent this message to Harold Macmillan on 21 October 1962.]

Cite Cap 5480-62.

Dear Prime Minister:

I am sending you this most private message to give you advance notice of a most serious situation and of my plan to meet it. I am arranging to have David Bruce report to you more fully tomorrow morning, but I want you to have this message tonight so that you may have as much time as possible to consider the dangers we will now have to face together.

Photographic intelligence has established beyond question, in the last week, that the Soviet Union has engaged in a major build-up of medium-range missiles in Cuba. Six sites have so far been identified, and two of them may be in operational readiness. In sum, it is clear that a massive secret operation has been proceeding in spite of the repeated assurances we have received from the Soviet Union on this point.

After careful reflection, this Government has decided to prevent any further build-up by sea and to demand the removal of this nuclear threat to our hemisphere. When he sees you tomorrow, Ambassador Bruce will have at hand the substance of a speech which I will give on Monday evening, Washington time.

This extraordinarily dangerous and aggressive Soviet step obviously creates a crisis of the most serious sort, in which we shall have to act more closely together. I have found it absolutely essential, in the interest of security and speed, to make my first decision on my own responsibility, but from now on I expect that we can and should be in the closest touch, and I know that together with our other friends we will resolutely meet this challenge. I recognize fully that Khrushchev’s main intention may be to increase his chances at Berlin, and we shall be ready to take a full role there as well as in the Caribbean. What is essential at this moment of the highest test is that Khrushchev should discover that if he is counting on weakness or irresolution, he has miscalculated.

I venture to repeat my hope that the nature of this threat and of my first decision to meet it be held most privately until announcements are made here.


Source 2b

[This is an extract from a telegram sent by the British Ambassador in Washington to Prime Minister Macmillan on 22 October 1962. It is an account of his secret meeting with President Kennedy the previous day.]

He was not very specific with regard to figures but he thought that there were perhaps thirty to forty missiles already on the island and they now know that more were on their way by ship. They had to assume that these missiles would be armed with nuclear warheads. They would be more or less useless without them but the Americans had no firm information at this time as to whether nuclear warheads had arrived. They did, however, know of the construction of underground storage facilities. He said that this new information posed a very serious problem for the United States. He had made his position very clear on September 13 when he has said, among other things, that if Cuba became an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union, then the United States would do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its Allies. This straightforward differentiation between defensive and offensive capacity constituted a clear warning of where the United States would draw the line. In these circumstances and in the light of this latest information, the Administration had had to decide what action they could appropriately take.

3. The President said that they had come to the conclusion that there were two alternatives open to them:-

They could order an all-out air strike first thing Monday morning to take out all the known missile sites and the missiles themselves insofar as they had been able to pinpoint their present whereabouts. The military authorities estimated that such a strike would eliminate at least fifty per cent of the Cuban missile potential but it would inevitably cause a large number of casualties to Russians as well as Cubans. The strike would be followed by the imposition of a blockade of Cuba.
(ii) They could impose almost immediately a blockade without first carrying out an air strike. They would stop and search all ships suspected of carrying goods which would help to build up the military potential of Cuba. This would mean leaving the Cubans with their personal offensive capacity, such as it was, but would demonstrate America’s determination not to allow the build up to proceed any further.

4. The President then asked me for my views as to which of these two courses I felt was the correct one. I said that I saw very serious drawbacks in the first course of action he had outlined to me. Very few people outside the United States would consider the provocation offered by the Cubans serious enough to merit an American air strike. I thought that in the circumstances America would be damaged politically, and in any case I could not believe that the missiles so far landed constituted any significant military threat to the United States. Even with these weapons in existence on Cuba the United States could presumably overwhelm the island in a very short time if they decided at some future date that this had to be done. I thought we ought also to bear in mind the possible repercussions on the Berlin situation. American action of this kind might well provide a smoke-screen behind which the Russians might move against Berlin under favourable conditions. Therefore, of the two alternatives he had put to me I would certainly favour the second, although this too would have far-reaching political implications including the probability of a major Russian reaction perhaps in the Berlin context.

5. The President said that he and his colleagues had come to the same conclusion and that they therefore intended to carry out the second course of action. He added that he supposed that there was a third course and even a fourth course open to them. They might, for instance, use the latest developments as an excuse for a full-scale invasion of Cuba and so finish with Castro once and for all. They might never have a better opportunity for such action. Again, they might do nothing at all and go on as before, but he thought that this was not only politically impossible but was in any case too dangerous. It was now clear that their present actions in Cuba constituted a direct challenge by the Soviets to the United States. They knew perfectly well what his own position and that of the United States Government was and if, when confronted by this provocative challenge, he did nothing, his friends and Allies would come to the conclusion that he was afraid to move and Khrushchev would be bound to assume that the Americans, for all their tough words, would be prepared to sit supine and inactive whatever he, Khrushchev, did. This would have its effect in other areas all around the globe and especially in respect of Berlin.

6. In answer to this, I said that I was sure that an invasion at this time would be most unwise. I had seen no evidence that the conditions in Cuba were such that the Americans could expect any widespread popular support for their action and history indicated that an invasion without internal support usually led to endless trouble. The idea of a puppet regime kept in power by American marines was not a happy prospect. In any case, this could provide the Soviets with the opportunity to take over West Berlin at a moment when United States political stock would be at a very low ebb and the Americans could be blamed for triggering off this exchange of pawns in the most reckless manner. Nevertheless, I could well understand the political dangers and the internal difficulties of doing nothing but I supposed that the blockade itself would give us many headaches and we would now have to prepare for vigorous Russian reactions to it. …

8. The President finally said that he could not help admiring the Soviet strategy. They offered this deliberate and provocative challenge to the United States in the knowledge that if the Americans reacted violently to it, the Russians would be given an ideal opportunity to move against West Berlin. If, on the other hand, he did nothing, the Latin Americans and the United States’ other Allies would feel that the Americans had no real will to resist the encroachments of Communism and would hedge their bets accordingly.

Source 2c


Message from the Prime Minister to President Kennedy
1748 ZULU October 22, 1962.

My dear Friend,

Ambassador Bruce called to see me this morning and gave me evidence of the Soviet build-up in Cuba. I quite understand how fiercely American public opinion will react when it knows these facts. I have this moment received through our tele-printer the text of your proposed declaration tonight. Let me say at once that we shall of course give you all the support we can in the Security Council. I hope that you will provide us immediately with the best legal case that can be made in support of the broad moral position so that our representative can weigh in effectively. Of course the international lawyers will take the point that a blockade which involves the searching of ships of all countries is difficult to defend in peace time. Indeed quite a lot of controversy has gone on in the past about its use in wartime. However, we must rest not so much on precedent as on the unprecedented condition of the modern world in a nuclear age.

If, as I assume, the Security Council resolution is vetoed the only appeal is to the Assembly. What the result will be there no one can tell but I doubt whether they will be in favour of any conclusive action or even if they are I do not see how they will enforce it. What I think we must now consider is Khrushchev’s likely reaction. He may reply either in words or in kind or both. If he contents himself with the first he may demand the removal of all American bases in Europe. If he decided to act he may do either in the Caribbean or elsewhere. If he reacts in the Caribbean his obvious method would be to deport his ships and force you into the position of attacking them. This fire-first dilemma has always worried us and we have always hoped to impale the Russians on this horn. No doubt you have thought of this but I would be glad to know how you feel it can be handled. Alternatively, he may bring some pressure on the weaker parts of the free world defence system. This may be in South-East Asia, in Iran, possibly in Turkey, but more likely in Berlin. If he reacts outside the Caribbean – as I fear he may – it will be tempting for him to answer one blockade by declaring another. We must therefore be ready. Any retaliatory action on Berlin as envisaged in the various contingency plans will lead us either in an escalation to world war or to the holding of a conference. What seems to be essential is that you and I should think over and decide in what direction we want to steer things within the alliance and elsewhere. We should take counsel as soon as we have the Russian reaction.

While you know how deeply I sympathize with your difficulty and how much we will do to help in every way, it would only be right to tell you that there are two aspects which give me concern. Many of us in Europe have lived so long in close proximity to the enemy’s nuclear weapons of the most devastating kind that we have got accustomed to it. So European opinion will need attention. The second, which is more worrying, is that if Khrushchev comes to a conference he will of course try to trade his Cuba position against his ambitions in Berlin and elsewhere. This we must avoid at all costs, as it will endanger the unity of the alliance.

With warm regard,

Source 2d

[This is an extract from a memo by the Lord Chancellor to the British Cabinet on the legality of the blockade of Cuba by the USA, dated 24 October 1962.]

5. We think it important that we should make it clear to the United States Government exactly what our views are on the legality of the proposed blockade and emphasise that, while in the present circumstances we will co-operate with them and not stand on our rights, we do not concede that they have any legal right to search or detain British ships on the high seas. I suggest, therefore, that we send to the United States Government a communication on the following lines:-

“Her Majesty’s Government regret that after careful consideration they are not satisfied as to the legality of the blockade measures to be taken by the Unites States against Cuba in the absence of adequate cover from a competent organ of the United Nations. Nevertheless, they fully sympathise with the measures and understand the reasons that have made them necessary. ……

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