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Reviewed by:
  • Averting “The Final Failure”: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings
  • Fred I. Greenstein
Sheldon M. Stern , Averting “The Final Failure”: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings ( Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). 459 pp. $35.00.

One might have thought that by now everything that can be said about the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 has been said. Not so argues Sheldon Stern, who served on the staff of the Kennedy Presidential Library from 1977 to 1999. For much of that time Stern had the task of deciphering the secret recordings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), which Kennedy convened in mid-October 1962 to deliberate on how to respond to the shocking discovery that the Soviet Union had covertly deployed in Cuba a substantial number of ballistic missiles capable of striking much of the Western Hemisphere.

Kennedy had arranged for a recording system to be installed in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room in the summer of 1962, and he activated it during the ExComm meetings at which he was present. Transcripts of the resulting tapes have already been published in two works that appeared not long before Stern's book: Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); and Ernest R. May, Philip D. Zelikow, and Timothy Naftali, eds., The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, 3 vols. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), which includes a CD-ROM of the tapes. Why, then, a new volume based on the same tapes? [End Page 145]

Stern makes a number of claims for his effort. One is that the above-mentioned transcripts have many flaws, an assertion he supports by listing five pages of "representative" transcription errors (pp. 431–439). Stern's more fundamental claim is that the ExComm meetings can be better understood if the reader is provided with a narrative of their highlights rather than being immersed in the complexities and obscurities of the verbatim record. Stern also stresses the value of a narrative for bringing out the aural evidence of recordings—such matters as tone of voice, phrasing, and emotional tenor. In narrating the tape-recorded ExComm meetings, Stern provides a running interpretation of them, summarizes what occurred in the unrecorded meetings, and reviews the other main developments of the missile crisis. Among these developments are Kennedy's strongly worded address of 22 October demanding that the Soviet Union withdraw its missiles from Cuba and the highly confidential meeting on 27 October between Soviet Ambassador Anatolii Dobrynin and Robert Kennedy, who informed the ambassador that the United States would in effect accept the Soviet Union's offer to withdraw its missiles from Cuba in exchange for withdrawal of the U.S. missiles in Turkey.

Stern's account begins with 16 October, the day Kennedy was informed of the presence of the missiles, and continues through 29 October, the day after the Soviet Union announced it would remove them. He frames his narrative with a highly condensed account of the history of the Cold War, a more detailed review of the events during Kennedy's presidency that led up to the missile crisis, and a ten-page characterization of Kennedy himself, stressing the antithesis between the president's strident public Cold War rhetoric and his deep private aversion to war.

Averting "The Final Failure" provides important insights into the dynamics of the ExComm meetings and the personal styles and contributions of their participants. But its most significant contribution is the light it sheds on President Kennedy and his decisive contribution to bringing the missile crisis to a peaceful conclusion. Kennedy proves to have been remarkably forbearing in the ExComm meetings, encouraging vigorous give-and-take and tolerating challenges to his own positions that another president might have rejected as insubordination. He exposed himself to demands from the military, key members of Congress, and even his brother Robert to order an air strike against the missile sites, an action we now know might have triggered a nuclear war. He also was attentive to the assertions...