Four years later, Kennedy’s key advisers wrote a Time article on the 20th anniversary of the crisis in which they admitted including the Jupiters in the agreement. They did so, however, in such a way as to diminish its importance, presenting the Jupiters almost as an afterthought while saying that JFK had already decided to remove them from Turkey. Then, they totally contradicted themselves, acknowledging that secrecy surrounding the Jupiter part of the deal was so important that a leak “would have had explosive and destructive effects on the security of the U.S. and its allies.”
These Kennedy aides were so devoted to their triumphal myth that most of them continued to propagate it long after they themselves had turned against its very precepts. Most ended up opposing a Vietnam War that JFK had still been fighting when he was assassinated. They all grew skeptical about the value of military might and big-power confrontations, and they became formidable advocates of diplomatic compromise.
It was not until 1988, however, that one among them clearly and openly acknowledged his decades-long hypocrisy and its costs. In his book Danger and Survival, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, lamented:
“Secrecy of this sort has its costs. By keeping to ourselves the assurance on the Jupiters, we misled our colleagues, our countrymen, our successors, and our allies” into concluding “that it had been enough to stand firm on that Saturday.” It took 26 years, but there it was.
Stunningly, the Russians didn’t reveal the truth far earlier. A well-timed Soviet leak after the Jupiters were removed could have done two things for Moscow. First, the story of the swap would have sharply blunted accounts of their utter defeat. Never mind that JFK was planning to take out the Jupiters anyway and replace them with Polaris missile-firing subs.
Second, it would have caused great consternation in NATO, where the swap would have been portrayed as selling out Turkey. RFK even told Dobrynin that this fear was his major reason for keeping the deal secret. Dobrynin cabled Bobby’s words back to Moscow: “If such a decision were announced now, it would seriously tear apart NATO.” Once the Jupiters had been removed, Moscow could have pounced. One would think the Soviets would have welcomed the opportunity.
Dobrynin fully grasped how the myth chilled U.S. willingness to compromise, something he told me about in the late 1970s when I was ensconced at the State Department. He didn’t say so publicly, however, until his memoirs came out in 1995. He wrote: “If Khrushchev had managed to arrange (a leak ), the resolution of the crisis need not have been seen as such an inglorious retreat.”
Why, then, didn’t the Soviets leak it? It’s quite possible, even likely, that Khrushchev and his Politburo never considered leaking because they had no idea how the crisis would be portrayed — how weak they would look. On the day the crisis was reaching a crescendo, before he knew that Kennedy would offer up the Jupiters, Khrushchev was ready to back down. He told his colleagues that the Soviet Union was “face to face with the danger of war and of nuclear catastrophe, with the possible result of destroying the human race.” He wasn’t thinking about the Jupiters; he just wanted out and was determined to convince his colleagues that a U.S. pledge not to invade would be enough to protect Soviet power and pride.