It doesn’t add up

September 9, 1962

What in the hell is going on in Cuba? I don’t know whom I can trust anymore. My intelligence people, beginning with CIA Director McCone, say that all the stuff they have found so far points to a ballistic missile deployment—a nuclear deployment, in other words. But nobody believes Khrushchev gives a damn about Castro and Cuba. Cuba is a little sideshow compared to Berlin, for example. Now Berlin: that is what I think this may be about. Khrushchev puts his hardware in Cuba and then says, “so, we will agree to withdraw our weapons from Cuba if you agree to get rid of your forces in Berlin.” In other words, we can have Cuba back but he’ll take Berlin—that’s what I think Khrushchev may be up to.

But my god, at such a risk. I remember back in June 1961 when we met in Vienna. He was tough. He wanted to convince me that capitalism and democratic countries generally will be dumped into the dustbin of history. We went for a walk in the woods—just the two of us and interpreters, his and mine—and he went on and on about how many tons of steel the USSR is producing, how many astronauts they will put in space, so many of this and so many of that. He reminded me of one of those Japanese sumo wrestlers; he is almost as wide as he is tall. I certainly would not want to meet him in a dark alley. All through those tough meetings he kept the pressure on about Berlin, not Cuba. I can’t remember even talking about Cuba. He kept saying the situation in Berlin is “unnatural,” that it is in violation of Allied agreements reached at the end of the Second World War, and so on. He put up the Wall a couple of months later—an embarrassment to Khrushchev and the whole communist bloc. Imagine, they had to put a wall up to keep their people penned up like animals. If he managed to kick us out of Berlin, they could take the Wall down. Berlin would be entirely controlled by the communists. Maybe that’s what this is about.

Tommy Thompson, who just returned over the summer from his ambassadorial post in Moscow, knows Khrushchev better than any other American. And Tommy says that Khrushchev is a tough guy, and is prone to take risks that other Soviet leaders would never consider. But Tommy doubts that Khrushchev would roll the dice over nuclear weapons in Cuba. Tommy says a move that risky is unlikely to come from Khrushchev or any other Soviet leader, past or present.

It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense, to risk everything by feinting toward Cuba, while he waits to deliver a knockout punch over Berlin. That would be like drawing to an inside straight: it would be crazy. You could lose your shirt. Or your country. Or everything.