The Journal of Military History 68.2 (2004) 651-652
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Averting "The Final Failure": John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings. By Sheldon M. Stern. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8047-4846-2. Photographs. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxx, 459. $35.00. [End Page 651]
Do library shelves really need another book on the Cuban Missile Crisis? Sheldon M. Stern would argue that his book is different from all the others and he would be correct. As the historian at the Kennedy Presidential Library from 1977 to 1999, Stern spent years studying the tape recordings of those "thirteen days," before they were even open to the public. Except for a few secondary sources, this book is based upon the transcripts of those tapes.
After the preface and introductory material, the book is organized around each meeting from 16 to 29 October 1962. Although he writes from transcripts, Stern notes that the tapes themselves present the true record since they provide the nuances that enhance understanding of the discussion. In addition, he argues, most participants were unaware that they were being taped. Even the president, he states, often forgot it. Hence, even the transcripts present the true record. But there is no real indication that President Kennedy, who probably planned to write his memoirs from the tapes, ignored the tape player which he personally turned on at appropriate times, and sometimes forgot to turn off.
Stern emphasizes the importance of the tapes and points out that other attempts at transcription are incomplete and even wrong compared to his own. However, he did not produce a book of transcripts. His book is a narrative which requires selectivity and comment. Conversations are often summarized for ease of reading, and he never hesitates to insert his own interpretation when he feels the transcripts are inadequate. For example, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "somewhat naively," offered a suggestion (p. 156). President Kennedy "seemed very doubtful about the political wisdom of suggestions to release his new letter to Khrushchev" (p. 334). Inevitably, this results in a strange hybrid, part transcript, part Stern.
Nevertheless, the discussions of Kennedy's advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (Ex. Com.), were important to resolving the crisis of October 1962. Although there was a core group, the attendance varied. For those unfamiliar with these meetings they provide surprises. The constant concern over Berlin, for example, as a potential hostage of the Soviets; the disparity between Robert Kennedy's memoir (The Thirteen Days) and his outspoken views; the role played by Dean Rusk and the tension-charged meeting with congressional leaders when Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga.) insisted on a rapid invasion of Cuba.
For specialists and historians examining the many facets of the missile crisis, the collection of transcripts being placed into the public record by the Miller Center of the University of Virginia may be of greater interest. But this is the book for those interested in reading a narrative account of the meeting transcripts. If, as Stern maintains, other transcripts are inaccurate, perhaps his next book should be the transcripts themselves.