Lies My Textbooks Told Me: Cuban Missiles and Kennedy’s Resolve

With the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis approaching and new documents surfacing about just how close to World War III the United States and the Soviet Union came in 1962, it’s interesting to look at how the incident is regarded in the media and, especially, how it’s taught as history.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is commonly portrayed as a firm display of President John F. Kennedy’s resolve in the face of Cold War Soviet aggression. President John F. Kennedy is popularly depicted as a courageous leader who forced the Soviet Union to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuba pointed at the United States.

The full story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is far different. Kennedy did convince the Soviet government to remove their nuclear missiles. But America also removed its own nuclear missiles, based in Turkey and Italy and pointed at the Soviet Union. Kennedy’s supposed assertion of American resolve against Communism was in reality a negotiated compromise with the Soviet Union.

However, as the event is recounted in commonly used American history textbooks, the Soviet Union removed their missiles in the face of President John F. Kennedy’s iron determination without forcing any concessions from the American government. JFK, in the words of one textbook, “had stood up to the Soviets and shown that the United States would not be pushed around.”

Five out of six textbooks the Media Research Center’s Culture and Media Institute (CMI) examined failed to mention Kennedy’s secret compromise with the Soviet government preferring instead to perpetuate the myth of JFK’s.

Crisis and Compromise

A series of international incidents caused relations between the United States and the Soviet Union to steadily deteriorate prior to the crisis. The Soviet Union shot down a United States U-2 spy-plane making a reconnaissance flight over the USSR in May 1960. America supported an army of Cuban exiles in a failed attempt to retake Cuba from a Communist government led by Fidel Castro in April 1961. A disastrous June 1961 summit meeting between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna convincrd the Soviet premier that Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak,” to effectively oppose an aggressive Soviet posture. Two months later, Communist East Germany built the Berlin Wall to prevent citizens from fleeing to free West Berlin.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the culmination of increasingly toxic relations between the Communist Soviet Union and the United States. In 1962, Soviet authorities met with Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro about the possibility of installing nuclear missiles in Cuba; construction of missile sites began in July. On Sept. 11, 1962, the Soviet government declared that an American attack on Cuba or Soviet ships supplying Cuba would be treated as an act of war.

The U.S. government grew increasingly suspicious that the Soviets were placing nuclear missiles in Cuba; on Oct. 14, 1962, a U-2 spyplane obtained photographic proof. On Oct. 22, Kennedy gave a speech announcing those findings to the world, and declared his intention to “quarantine” ships to Cuba. Any ships bearing offensive weapons, Kennedy warned, would be turned back by the American navy. At the time, Soviet ships, including ships carrying military equipment, were sailing toward the American blockade – raising the possibility of nuclear war.

The Soviet government, led by Nikita Khrushchev, sent two messages to the United States government broaching the possibility of removing missiles from Cuba. The Soviet government first sent Kennedy a message on October 26, offering to remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for a US promise not to invade Cuba. The next day, the Soviets sent Kennedy a second message, declaring that they would remove their missiles if the United States removed nuclear missiles pointed at the Soviets based in Turkey and Italy.

Publicly, the United States agreed to the terms of the first cable: the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, while the United States promised not to invade Cuba. However, in a secret agreement, the United States also agreed to dismantle nuclear missiles pointed at the Soviet Union based in Turkey and Italy.

The United States won a propaganda victory, and that’s how the history textbooks still treat it. “Kennedy’s strong stand led the Soviets to compromise,” in the words of one. But it was not the practical victory of legend.

The Legend According to Textbooks

According to American history textbooks, Kennedy uncompromisingly stood up to the Soviet Union. The fact that this supposed assertion of American power was in reality a compromise was ignored or at least downplayed by the textbooks examined; the reality that the United States was forced to give up its own missiles in Turkey and Italy was discussed by only one out of the six textbooks examined, namely Prentice Hall’s America: Pathways to the Present.

Two textbooks made it seem like the Soviet Union backed down completely, without mentioning any concessions made by the United States. Glencoe’s The American Journey suggested that the Soviets removed missiles from Cuba, without mentioning the fact that  the United States made any concessions:

“On October 22, President Kennedy, speaking on national television, revealed the “secret, swift, and extraordinary buildup” of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy ordered the navy to blockade, or close off, Cuba until the Soviets removed the missiles. He threatened to destroy any Soviet ship that tried to break through the blockade and reach the island. The president declared: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched against Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States.” The United States would respond, he warned, with a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.

As the two superpowers neared the brink of nuclear war, people all over the world watched nervously. After five agonizing days, the Soviet ships turned back. Soviet leaders also agreed to withdraw their missiles from Cuba. The United States agreed not to invade Cuba. Nuclear war had been avoided.” (p. 909)

Holt, Rinehart, and Winston’s Call to Freedom also implied that the Soviets backed down under American pressure, without any American compromise:

“The most serious crisis took place in October 1962 when U.S. spy planes discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy demanded that the Soviets remove these weapons. For the next week, the world nervously awaited the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis. It was a tense stand-off. Finally, the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles. The Soviet Union and the United States then worked to improve their relations.” (p. 699)

Three other textbooks left readers with the impression that the United States only promised not to invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviet removal of missiles from Cuba. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston’s American Anthem discussed only part of the final deal:

“On October 22, Kennedy went on television to tell Americans about the Soviet threat. He put U.S. forces on full alert. Some 550 bombers armed with nuclear weapons took to the air and 100,000 troops assembled in Georgia. He wanted to be prepared for war and to show Khrushchev the seriousness of the situation.

As the world nervously watched and waited, several Soviet ships carrying missile parts continued towards Cuba. Khrushchev warned that trying to stop them would mean war. Then, on October 24, as they neared the U.S. blockade, they turned back.

Two days later, Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev offering to remove the missiles if the United States pledged to never invade Cuba. The next day he received a tougher letter from Khrushchev demanding that the United States remove its missiles from Turkey. The Ex Comm advised Kennedy to ignore the second letter and accept the offer in the first letter. The president did so, and Khrushchev announced he would dismantle the missiles.” (p. 885)

Prentice Hall’s A History of the United States also made it sound like Americans only promised not to invade Cuba in exchange for a removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba:

“During the summer of 1962, the Soviets stepped up the cold war. They began to move ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads into nearby Cuba. On October 14, 1962, clear pictures of Soviet missile sites under construction were obtained by one of our U-2 spy planes. How should President Kennedy act against this threat of enemy weapons right on our doorstep? The policy of deterrence seemed to depend upon making the Soviet Union really believe the United States would fight if it was pushed too far.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended an invasion to seize the missiles and bring down Castro. At the very least, they wanted a general air strike – at targets all over the island. Kennedy wisely rejected this advice. Still, he did risk a showdown. In a dramatic television address on Monday, October 22, he denounced this “secret, swift, and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles.” He stated that he had ordered the navy to begin “a strict quarantine [blockade] on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba.”

War now seemed to hang in the balance. Would the Soviet ships that were on their way to Cuba turn back? What would Khrushchev do? Of course, the Soviets denied there were any missiles on the island. Then, at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, our Ambassador Adlai Stevenson proved with photographs that the missiles were there. On Wednesday, five Soviet ships stopped short of the quarantine zone. On Friday, the Russians began to signal that maybe the question could be negotiated. Then Kennedy received two letters from Khrushchev. He decided, on the advice of his brother Robert, to answer the one that held out some hope of peace.

On Sunday Khrushchev broadcast that he had ordered the missiles to be dismantled and removed from Cuba in return for an American pledge not to invade the island. “We should like to continue the exchange of views,” he added, “on the prohibition of atomic and thermonuclear weapons, general disarmament, and other problems relating to the relaxation of international tension.” To the relief of the world, the superpowers had drawn back from the brink of nuclear war.”  (p. 785-786)

Prentice Hall’s The American Nation also resorted to telling only half of the truth regarding Kennedy’s concessions:

“After the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Soviet Union gave Cuba more weapons. In October 1962, President Kennedy learned that the Soviets were secretly building missile bases on the island. If the bases were completed, atomic missiles could reach American cities within minutes.

Kennedy announced that American warships would stop any Soviet ship carrying missiles. The world waited tensely as Soviet ships steamed towards Cuba. At the last minute, the Soviet ships turned back. “We’re eyeball to eyeball,” said Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

Kennedy’s strong stand led the Soviets to compromise. Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba. In turn, the United States promised not to invade the island. Still the Cuban missile crisis had shaken both American and Soviet officials. In all the years of the Cold War, the world never came closer to a full-scale nuclear war.” (p. 823)

Prentice Hall’s America: Pathways to the Present was the only textbook to mention the United States removal of missiles from Turkey:

“The crisis was not yet over, however. In Cuba, construction on the existing missile sites continued. On October 26, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a long letter in which he pledged to remove the missiles if Kennedy promised that the United States would end the quarantine and stay out of Cuba. A second letter delivered the next day demanded that the United States remove its missiles from Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy publicly accepted the terms of the first note. He responded to the second note through secret negotiations and eventually met the demand.

With that, the crisis ended. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk observed to President Kennedy: “We have won a considerable victory. You and I are still alive.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer than ever before to nuclear war. Such a war would have caused unimaginable death and destruction – far more, for example, the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945, in part because more-powerful hydrogen bombs had replaced those early atomic weapons.

Kennedy emerged from the confrontation as a hero. He had stood up to the Soviets and shown that the United States would not be pushed around. His reputation, and that of the Democratic Party, improved just in time for the congressional elections that were only weeks away.” (p. 989)

Kennedy Hagiography as History

Hagiography of President John F. Kennedy is a staple of modern journalism – media figures effusively praise his presidencywhitewash his flaws, and portray him as an uncompromising leader of the free world. This lionization of Kennedy appears to be present in American history textbooks, as well.

It is disingenuous to assert that Kennedy adamantly forced the Soviet government to withdraw nuclear missiles through sheer force of will. The false narrative promoted by American history textbooks regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis gives students an incomplete picture of a complex event with major implications for American and world history.

Kennedy and his Cold War legacy aren’t the only historical subjects the textbooks of today get wrong. CMI previously examined textbooks’ coverage of the Three Mile Island incident and their treatment of recent Supreme Court appointments.