Differences in the accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis between Christopher Andrew and Tim Weiner
Before we analyze the differing accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis by the two authors Christopher Andrew and Tim Weiner, let us understand its general background. In the western hemisphere, the peak cold war confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union manifested in the form of the Cuban Missile crisis. It was the year 1961, under the leadership of President John F. Kennedy; the world came perilously close to a deadly confrontation between the two major powers. The Soviet Union was under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. Lying only 145 km from the coast of the USA, Cuba had always been of concern to the United States (America still maintains a naval base there to the present day at Guantanamo Bay). The relations between the two nations nosedived with the onset of the communist revolution in 1959. Fidel Castro’s consequent rise to power made Cuba a real and present danger. The pressing concern for the United States was the potential symbolic threat that a communist neighbor would prove to be. The fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs invasion, intended to dispel and if possible eliminate Castro, was an affair of big embarrassment for the Kennedy Administration (Allison & Zelikow, 1999). This further strained the diplomatic relations between the two countries. At this juncture Castro was left with little option but to strengthen relations with the Soviet Union, the consequence of which had what led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The comparative merits of the viewpoints put forth by Christopher Andrew and Tim Weiner has to be studied in this context.
Christopher Andrew asserts in his work that the photographic evidence provided by the U2 spy-planes were sufficient proof of Cuba’s collusion with Soviet designs for infiltrating into the democratic western bloc. While Tim Weiner does not dismiss this evidence as irrelevant, he does point to the inconsistencies associated with it and its inability to conclusively indicate that the weapons indeed nuclear missiles. Further, Weiner goes on to suggest that John F Kennedy had been hesitant in fully deploying the services of U2 spy planes after what happened in China. This is one area where the two authors disagree. While Christopher Andrew does not implicate the Kennedy Administration for the lack of conclusive intelligence, Tim Weiner on the other hand implies that the Kennedy Administration was more focused on the political consequences of their actions and that they did not utilize all the resources at their disposal for gathering intelligence and acting upon it. This argument provides a convenient explanation for the CIA initiative to eliminate Fidel Castro, under Kennedy’s orders. Of these two accounts of history, Weiner’s version seems more persuasive for the fact that it peruses declassified information pertaining to the event and also takes a macroscopic view of the emerging scenario. Another reason why Tim Weiner’s interpretation sounds more plausible is due to its consistency with the public statements issued by the Kennedy Administration during the crisis, including the following excerpt from President Kennedy’s speech on 22nd October, 1962:
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“This secret, swift, and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles … in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy … is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe. … Should these offensive military preparations continue … further action will be justified … It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” (Library of Congress Archives)
The diplomatic communication between the two leaders, namely John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in trying to mitigate the crisis is seen as crucial to the outcome by Christopher Andrew, where as Tim Weiner perceives them as insubstantial and amounting to mere rhetoric. The particular documentation being emphasized by Andrew is the two letters sent by Nikita Khrushchev to his counterpart in Washington, D.C., which attempted to reconcile the differences between the two leaders. The author cites the conciliatory tone of the first of these letters to support his claim that the ultimate peaceful resolution to the crisis is in large part creditable to the lenient words and non-confrontational tone assumed by Khrushchev. Based on evidence available from other secondary sources, it has to be said that Christopher Andrew’s interpretation is closer to the truth in this case. For example, in the first letter Khrushchev talks of the International laws of the oceans and Russia’s integrity in abiding by these laws. The letter interrogates Kennedy to state the Soviet offence. It is an argument for the Soviet Union’s rightful navigation of international waters and its intention of helping Cuba, a fellow communist client state. In it, Khrushchev requests Kennedy “not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war” (Library of Congress). He also mentions that his weapons in Cuba were always intended to be “defensive,” and if Cuba’s safety were guaranteed, “the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.” (Library of Congress) It is believed that Khrushchev personally composed these letters, without assistance from his advisors. Khrushchev’s two letters to President Kennedy were certainly not masterpieces of literature by any means. These somber notes assumed a rambling style. Yet, the gravity of the situation is reflected by the emotional tone that is manifest in the passages. Khrushchev implores Kennedy to see the issue from the Soviet point of view and tries to justify his recent actions. The scholarship of Max Frenkel, published in the Smithsonian magazine also seem to concur with Christopher Andrew’s view that these communiques from the leadership in Kremlin had had a significant role in preventing a potential catastrophe in the form of full-fledged nuclear warfare. (Frankel, 2002)
Elsewhere in the reading, Tim Weiner asserts that John F. Kennedy’s authority to take informed and independent decisions was undermined by the Chief of CIA John McCone. Weiner goes on to say that McCone was cognizant of important intelligence information on par with the President and was instrumental in imposing the quarantine for Soviet ships, suggesting to the reader that Kennedy’s role was subordinate to that of the CIA chief. Controversial as it might sound, this point of view put forward by Tim Weiner does appear credible on account of the fact that he bases his inferences on declassified information of the period that was not perused by Christopher Andrews at the time of researching for his work. To understand the true nature of Kennedy’s style of functioning and his authority as the Commander-in-Chief, the Journal article by Thorpe and Staerck in Modern History Review is very useful. From this article we learn that the approach of the Kennedy Administration in dealing with the crisis combined obstinacies with intimidation. It was a battle off the battle fields. In this climate both psychological and strategic advantages were sought. President Kennedy’s immediate response to the developments was to commission an advisory body, ExComm it was called. In it were members of the administration of the most import, including Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Robert Kennedy, etc. The discussions held within the confines of the White House between the committee members were very heated and passionate. However, Kennedy’s calm and collective disposition assured that order prevailed amid the chaos. Hence, we understand that Kennedy engaged his team members, support staff and other aides in a constructive dialogue and did not impose his authority as the Commander-in-Chief (Thorpe and Staerck, 2000). This delegated and deliberative leadership style of the President might have led Tim Weiner to interpret it as weak leadership, while as a matter of fact he was always in control of the situation.
The other area of contention between the two scholars is regarding the importance of Col. Penkovsky’s intelligence inputs to the CIA, especially his role in eliciting accurate information about the size, type and mode of transportation of the nuclear warheads stationed in Cuba. Penkovsky’s inputs are deemed crucial by Tim Weiner, whereas Christopher Andrew underplays his value for the Kennedy Administration to make informed decisions and in choosing the right approach to the crisis. There were also some factual disparities in the accounts of the two authors. While Andrew estimates the nuclear warheads to reach any place within a 1000 mile radius, Weiner reckons that the reach of the missiles is even further, leaving all major cities in the United States exposed to a potential attack except Seattle, Washington.
In the final analysis, one has to conclude that Weiner’s arguments are better informed and to that extent more accurate for the simple fact that the author had available to him a whole bundle of declassified information that was not available to Christopher Andrew. This also serves to question the traditional modes of information dispersal to the general public, namely the journalistic enterprise and its effectiveness in fulfilling its social purpose. But, there are other complexities induced by the revelations made by declassified documentation. For example, Tim Weiner, after expounding his arguments, seems to tie the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis to that of September 11, 2001. Such “coincidental correlations” might help persuade the reader but betrays the writer’s hidden agenda. While Weiner’s application of declassified information adds merit to his writing, it has to be evaluated in a fair and balanced way.
Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush.
Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.
Frankel, Max. “Learning from the missile crisis: what really happened on those thirteen fateful days in October.(Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962).” Smithsonian 33.7 (Oct 2002): 52.
Thorpe, Keir, and Gillian Staerck., “The Cuban Missile Crisis.” Modern History Review 12.2 (Nov 2000): 28(4).
GT Allison, P Zelikow, “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis”, Published in 1999 by Longman
The Library of Congress Archives., “Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis”,