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Peter Kornbluh

The Cuban Missile Crisis took place 40 years ago this week. We talk with historian and former Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Peter Kornbluh who directs the National Security Archive's Cuba Project. The organization obtained newly declassified documents about the Crisis. They've published the information in the new book The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. The National Security Archive also helped organize the historic 40th anniversary conference held in Cuba last week.

42:04

Other segments from the episode on October 16, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 16, 2002: Interview with Peter Kornbluh and Arthur Schlesinger; Review of Maeve Binchy, "Quentins."

Transcript

DATE October 16, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive and
historian Arthur Schlesinger discuss the Cuban missile crisis in
light of recently declassified documents
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today begins the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, which brought
us to the brink of nuclear war. On October 16th, 1962, President Kennedy was
informed that CIA aerial spy photos revealed Soviet missiles had been secretly
moved into Cuba, missiles with a far enough range to strike the United States.
For the next 13 days, we moved closer to confrontation until the Soviets
agreed to withdraw the missiles. On the seventh day of the crisis, President
Kennedy told the American public about the missiles. Here's a brief excerpt
of his speech.

(Soundbite of speech)

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: (From October 22, 1962) Good evening, my fellow
citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest
surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the
past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of
offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The
purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike
capability against the Western Hemisphere.

The characteristic of these new missile sites indicate two distinct types of
installations. Several include medium-range ballistic missiles capable of
carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 nautical miles.
Each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, DC, the
Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City or any other city in the
Southeastern part of the United States.

To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military
equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. I have directed the
continued and increased close surveillance of Cuba and its military buildup.
Should these offensive military preparations continue, thus increasing the
threat to the hemisphere, further action will be justified. I have directed
the armed forces to prepare for any eventualities.

It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched
from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the
Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon
the Soviet Union.

Finally, I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this
clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable
relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this
course of world domination and to join in an historic effort to end the
perilous arms race and to transform the history of man.

GROSS: This past weekend, surviving members of the Kennedy and Khrushchev
administrations, as well as Fidel Castro himself, met in Cuba for a conference
marking the 40th anniversary of the missile crisis. Part of the agenda was
discussing recently declassified top secret documents that help explain what
really happened behind the scenes. The conference was organized by Cuban
institutions and the National Security Archive at George Washington
University, a group that works to declassify historically important documents.

My guest Peter Kornbluh directs the Archive's Cuba Project, and edited a book
of declassified documents published on the 30th anniversary of the crisis.
Also with us is historian Arthur Schlesinger. He was a special assistant to
President Kennedy throughout his administration.

I asked Peter Kornbluh to describe the missile crisis.

Mr. PETER KORNBLUH (National Security Archive): It didn't just start in
October of 1962. The context of the crisis was a kind of a protracted US
hostility towards Cuba, starting really in late 1959, almost a year after
Castro's revolution, when the CIA first wrote memorandums suggesting that
Castro and Che Guevara and other Cuban leaders should be assassinated,
obviously escalating with the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961, and
continuing with covert operations like Operation Mongoose, which was a massive
effort to destabilize and undermine the Castro revolution.

This led to a threat perception, and not an unreal one in Cuba, that they
needed support from the Soviet Union in terms of military aid, and in terms of
military guarantee. The Soviet Union had its own interests. It faced US
missiles positioned in Italy and in Turkey. It saw Castro as an ally in the
Caribbean and Latin America, and in May of 1962, under the guise of an
agricultural delegation, Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union,
sent a nuclear delegation to Cuba and suggested that one way to guarantee
Cuba's safety would be to install missiles on the island.

Arthur could certainly describe events from there, but the United States did
not discover these missiles until actually October 15th, 1962, when aerial
photography taken by a U-2 reconnaissance plane was interpreted, and the
evidence came from these photographs that there were these installations being
rapidly built.

John Kennedy spent almost a week--six days--deliberating in secret what to do
about this, finally decided, rather than invade Cuba as many of his military
advisers wanted him to do, to give the Soviets some time to negotiate on this
and to find a solution without an invasion, without a pre-emptive strike, and
imposed a naval quarantine to stop Soviet ships from coming to Cuba with
further nuclear equipment. That speech he gave to the nation on October 22nd.
Over the course of the next six days, it was extremely tense.

On October 27th, the most dangerous day, a U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot
down over Cuba by a Soviet battery. There was an extraordinary exchange
between US and ships and Soviet submarines that were carrying nuclear-tipped
torpedoes. It wasn't clear in the White House whether Khrushchev really
wanted a solution on that day, and things seemed to be escalating out of
control. By the 28th, it appeared both leaders were ready to come to an
agreement. Khrushchev actually did just announce that he would pull the
missiles out.

GROSS: Arthur Schlesinger, you were advising President Kennedy during the
Cuban missile crisis. I'm going to ask you, if you could choose one of the
documents that was recently declassified and tell us if there is something
that you learned that even you didn't know at the time.

Mr. ARTHUR SCHLESINGER (Historian; Adviser to JFK): I think role of Cuba
deserves a certain amount of emphasis, particularly because the meeting took
place in Havana, and Fidel Castro was the only man--chief of state involved in
the crisis who's still around. Castro did not want to accept the missiles.
He felt that this would make Cuba a strategic target. It would complicate
Cuba's relationship with other countries in the Western Hemisphere. He would
welcome Soviet troops; he would even welcome membership in the Warsaw Pact,
but he didn't want the missiles.

As Khrushchev put it in his own memoirs, `We argued and argued, and finally
Fidel gave in.' Castro then proposed that the transaction be made public.
There was no reason why, under any international law, the Soviet Union should
not send nuclear missiles to Cuba. However, Khrushchev believed in secrecy.
He sent emissaries, sent messages, lying messages, denying that the Soviet
Union was sending offensive missiles, offensive arms to Cuba, and the stealth
and deceit which accompanied the Soviet deployment of missiles in Cuba gave a
moral advantage to the United States.

GROSS: Did you not realize at the time of the Cuban missile crisis that Cuba
didn't want those missiles?

Mr. SCHLESINGER: We did not realize that. We assumed that Castro welcomed
the missiles as a means of deterring a US invasion. This recent conference
gave much greater emphasis than the previous conference and the previous
understanding to the real tension, the friction between Cuba and the Soviet
Union. In fact, Castro seemed madder at Khrushchev last week than he seemed
mad at Kennedy. Having accepted the missiles on the terms of socialist
solidarity he was appalled that Khrushchev had neglected to inform him of the
withdrawal of the missiles. Castro himself heard that over the radio, and
having made this great sacrifice because of the Russian avowals of the
solidarity of the socialist bloc, the solidarity did not extended to
consultation or even notification of the withdrawal of the missiles. He was
furious.

GROSS: Peter Kornbluh, what's one of the recently declassified documents that
makes you see the story in a slightly different light?

Mr. KORNBLUH: It's impossible, Terry, out of several thousand documents that
we brought to Cuba to identify any single one, but let me just say that there
were a series of Russian documents that recorded conversations between Castro
and Soviet emissaries, particularly Anastas Mikoyan, whom Khrushchev sent to
Cuba in early November to try and mollify Castro who was, as Arthur
Schlesinger just said, extremely angry about Khrushchev had done in
withdrawing the missiles. And we now have the actual record of their
conversations over a two- or three-week period, which really, I think, show
beyond a shadow of a doubt that Cuba was never a client state of the Soviet
Union. Cuba was never a client state of the Soviet Union, disagreed very
forcefully on the decisions during the missile crisis. It disagreed very
forcefully on other Soviet positions regarding revolution in Latin America,
economic planning, etc. And at this conference last week, he certainly
detailed meetings with the Soviets in a way that we had never heard before,
and now we have documents that actually record his conversations with Soviet
emissaries as well.

We have many, many other documents. We have Soviet orders on various missile
deployments, on various missile withdrawals. We have declassified Cuban
documents that the Cuban government itself located, reviewed and released for
this conference that contain information on Castro's military strategy in the
face of what he thought was an imminent US invasion, on his efforts to shoot
down low-level reconnaissance planes that were flying at what he called
`grass-cutting' altitude.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: Peter, you presented on document which startled all the
Kennedy advisers around. That was the document showing President Kennedy's
effort to use Brazil as a mediator to communicate a message to Castro. That
shows...

Mr. KORNBLUH: Yes.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: ...the extent to which President Kennedy was prepared to go
to avoid conflict, armed conflict. But the secretary of Defense, McNamara,
Ted Sorensen, Dick Goodwin and I never heard--or if we had ever heard of this
effort on Kennedy's part, we had forgotten about it.

Mr. KORNBLUH: Terry, there was one set of documents on the so-called Brazil
Initiative(ph) that have been unearthed by my colleague James Hershberg at
George Washington University, and these included a message that Dean Rusk,
secretary of State, passed to Kennedy and got his authorization to secretly
give to the Brazilians. The idea was to create a direct channel between the
United States and Fidel Castro during the missile crisis. Kennedy feared any
revelation that he was actually trying to communicate directly with Castro, so
he authorized this US message to be given to the Brazilians on the grounds
that the Brazilians would present it as a message of theirs, a Brazilian
message, and we were able--James Hershberg was able to find the actual text of
the message.

For the first time, he read this message to Fidel Castro, because, in fact, by
the time the Brazilians got to Havana with the message, Khrushchev had decided
to withdraw the missiles and announce this, and events had superseded the
message itself, but we now have the message. We now know, as Arthur
Schlesinger said, the efforts that John Kennedy was making to avoid a
pre-emptive strike, avoid the unforeseen circumstances that could come from
invading Cuba while nuclear weapons were poised to be shot.

GROSS: My guests are Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive and
historian Arthur Schlesinger, who was an adviser to President Kennedy. More
on the Cuban missile crisis after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis.
Let's pick up where we left off, with historian Arthur Schlesinger, who was a
special assistant to President Kennedy.

How afraid were you during the Cuban missile crisis? And I'm wondering if you
and other members of the Kennedy administration were telling their families to
leave town. Were you telling your families at all anything that was happening
behind the scenes? Were you sharing your fears once you realized how
frightening the scenario was?

Mr. SCHLESINGER: We were receiving evacuation notices, those members of the
White House staff, for example. But I think the general feeling was expressed
by Robert Kennedy when he said that he was damned if he was going to abandon
his wife and children, and that he would confront any crisis with his family.
I think that's the way most of us felt.

GROSS: So you were being advised to evacuate Washington and leave your
families behind?

Mr. SCHLESINGER: No, in case of war we had evacuation instructions, where to
go...

GROSS: To go to a safe place so that you could keep planning?

Mr. SCHLESINGER: As they now say, a `safe, undisclosed location.'

GROSS: Right. And...

Mr. SCHLESINGER: Where the vice president seems to be spending most of his
time.

GROSS: How close do you think we came to nuclear war? And is there one thing
that you could put your finger on that you would isolate as having averted
nuclear war?

Mr. SCHLESINGER: I think the one thing that averted nuclear war was the
understanding on the part of Khrushchev that he would lose the war. He was
not a leader, he was a gambler, a plunger, but he didn't want to commit
suicide. So I think, looking back, he was bound to withdraw the missiles. We
did not know at the time how clearly he saw the situation. But I think the
great fear on Kennedy's part, and probably on Khrushchev's part, too, also,
was not that either of these great powers would deliberately initiate nuclear
war, but it was that something would go badly wrong down the line somewhere,
the "Dr. Strangelove" situation where the crazy general decided on his own to
launch a missile and so on. It was that--the issues of command and control
were very much on Kennedy's mind and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's
mind, too.

GROSS: Arthur Schlesinger, if you could give any advice to President Bush now
as he leads us toward a possible war in Iraq, what would that advice be?

Mr. SCHLESINGER: Well, I would advise him to continue the processes of
containment and deterrence which have kept Saddam Hussein behind his borders
for a decade, that he return the inspectors with strong--a strong team of
inspectors, calling Saddam Hussein's bluff on unconditional inspection. I
would think that Saddam Hussein is a monster. He has undoubtedly been
building a ghastly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. But he will not
use them, because if he commits an act of aggression that provides the
American government with the pretext for massive retaliation, he will only use
his ghastly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction when we invade Iraq.

GROSS: In the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy administration wasn't
negotiating directly with Cuba. They were talking with Russia and with
Khrushchev and Khrushchev's men. And, you know, there was a long standoff
between the United States and the Soviet Union, and I think both of the
superpowers understood what was at stake perhaps a little better than Castro
did. In the case of Iraq, we're negotiating directly with Saddam Hussein. Do
you think that we're in a different position negotiating directly with Saddam
Hussein than, say, Kennedy was negotiating with a superpower like Russia?

Mr. SCHLESINGER: Yes, I do think we're in a very different situation. And
it's therefore more problematic. But Saddam Hussein isn't immortal. To try
to anticipate the cunning of history takes--you know, it's like the Steven
Spielberg movie "Minority Report" about the precogs who were psychically
equipped to foretell crimes that were about to be committed in time to avert
those crimes. So far as I can see, Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney
see themselves as precogs. They know the future. Well, history is filled
with surprises, and not with all our certitudes, and for us to assume a
foreknowledge of the future seems to me a gross act of delusion.

GROSS: Well, Arthur Schlesinger, I'm going to let you go. I know you have a
busy day ahead of you. So I want to thank you for talking with us about the
Cuban missile crisis.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: Thank you. And I will award plenipotentiary powers to Peter
Kornbluh.

Mr. KORNBLUH: And I accept them.

GROSS: Peter Kornbluh will remain with us. And Peter Kornbluh directs the
National Security Archive's Cuba Project, and he was one of the organizers of
the 40th anniversary conference of the Cuban missile crisis, which took place
in Cuba this past weekend. And, Arthur Schlesinger, before you go, let me
wish you a happy 85th birthday.

Mr. SCHLESINGER: Thank you.

GROSS: Historian Arthur Schlesinger was a special assistant to President
Kennedy. More with Peter Kornbluh on the missile crisis in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, more on how nuclear war was averted during the Cuban
missile crisis. We continue our conversation with Peter Kornbluh of the
National Security Archive. And Maureen Corrigan reviews "Quentins," the new
novel by Maeve Binchy.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Cuban missile crisis began 40 years ago today when President Kennedy was
informed that CIA photos revealed Soviet missiles had been secretly moved into
Cuba. My guest, Peter Kornbluh, directs the Cuba Project of the National
Security Archive. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he has worked to
declassify top-secret documents that reveal what went on behind the scenes
during the crisis. And he helped organize the 40th anniversary conference
that was held last weekend in Cuba.

Peter Kornbluh, now that there's so much debate within the United States about
Iraq and whether we should go to war with Iraq or not, I'd like to compare
that to what happened within the CIA and the military and the Kennedy
administration during the Cuban missile crisis. What kind of debate was there
between people who wanted to launch an attack or a pre-emptive attack and the
more cautious point of view?

Mr. KORNBLUH: Well, the first factor of the Cuban missile crisis history that
really is--I think, can illuminate public policy debate over Iraq is the issue
of intelligence failures. The CIA went back and forth for almost two months,
in August and September, about whether the intelligence it was gathering
showed that missiles were coming to Cuba. And there was a significant
intelligence failure during the Cuban missile crisis. Even by the end of the
crisis the CIA had only identified 30 of the 42 missiles that were actually
there and so intelligence itself is fallible on both sides. It can
underestimate the degree of danger; it can overestimate the degree of danger.

The second factor of the Cuban missile crisis was the decision by the
president to present the concrete evidence that he had to the public, to the
international community, at the United Nations, and to the American public.
Inside the administration, there was a significant debate and I can actually
read you the options paper that Theodore Sorensen drew up where he evaluated
the two options that President Kennedy was considering. And these two options
were, one, a massive air strike and then invasion of Cuba. And this was
debated extensively behind the scenes with most of the military personnel and
the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocating fortunately that the president go in
there and try and wipe out all these installations.

Kennedy actually asked the head of the US Air Force, `Can you guarantee me if
I authorized an air strike, we would get all the missiles?' And the general,
the head of the Air Force, said, `Mr. President, I cannot guarantee that we
could get every one.' And that, I think, helped convince Kennedy to move
towards the second option he was considering, which was a quarantine, a
massive naval blockade of Cuba to stop Soviet ships from continuing on and
create some time for communications with the Soviet Union to organize a
withdrawal of the missiles. But I think this document shows the commitment of
the president of the United States to pick the option that provided him with
the most flexibility, that did not set him on a course that could lead to
unintended consequences when he knew the perils of launching these nuclear
weapons, where things seemed to be spinning out of control, and where his main
objective was to avoid an invasion, give the Soviet Union both incentive and
time to withdraw the missiles and end this crisis peacefully.

Kennedy's military advisers were saying there's no reason to wait. You can't
wait. If you wait, well, you'll be in a more dangerous situation. For
Kennedy, it was even more dangerous to go in there not knowing whether--where
the warheads were and not knowing whether we could actually get all of the
missile installations destroyed. We might still face an operative missile in
that case and obviously with massive attacks on Cuba and the bloody loss of
Soviet personnel in Cuba, Khrushchev would be under tremendous pressure by his
own military advisers to fire whatever weapons systems he had ready to come to
the United States.

GROSS: As President Bush seems to lead us closer to war with Iraq, we face a
big election coming up in November. Now Kennedy, too, during the Cuban
missile crisis was facing big elections in America. The crisis was in late
October, with elections coming up in early November. Was there a discussion
within the Kennedy administration about how the crisis was going to affect the
elections? In other words, was there a political slant on the strategy for
handling the Cuban missile crisis?

Mr. KORNBLUH: You know, Terry, politics and that November congressional
election come up in many forms in the midst of this crisis. And one form was
Operation Mongoose, this comprehensive set of covert operations which was
supposed to destabilize Cuba and create an atmosphere for an uprising, which,
according to Edward Lansdale, who was the manager of Operation Mongoose, could
then provide the catalyst and opportunity for a US invasion and he laid out a
timetable when all of these covert efforts would come to fruition right before
those elections in October of 1962. And his time table was drafted in
February of 1962, and his aim was to inspire an invasion, a US invasion of
Cuba in October of 1962, in order to give some political benefit to the
president for those November congressional elections.

Khrushchev himself told Castro `I'm going to put those missiles in secret into
Cuba. I will come to Cuba in November, after the congressional elections in
the United States, and we will announce together that these missile
installations are a fait accompli. Therefore, we won't affect those
elections. We'll wait till they're over. And Kennedy will have less
political pressure on him.'

In fact, your question that you just posed to me was asked by the Cuban
delegation at this conference last week. They wanted to know if Kennedy was
motivated by politics in his response to this crisis. And the president's
advisers who were at this conference--Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger and
Robert McNamara--made it absolutely clear that Kennedy had told his staff and
told his advisers that politics were not to enter into any calculation of how
we should respond to this situation.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis.
My guest Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Project of the National Security
Archive. He helped organize the 40th anniversary conference in Cuba last
weekend.

Peter, what moment would you pinpoint as the moment that averted nuclear war?

Mr. KORNBLUH: We've obtained tremendous documentation and tremendous
information about the Cuban missile crisis, particularly over the last 10
years. And one of the things that has come out from this information, this
documentation, that is so important is the degree in which John F. Kennedy was
determined not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Cuba. He actually
opened three different channels to the Soviets to say to them, behind the
scenes, secretly, `We will actually withdraw our missiles in Turkey in
exchange for you withdrawing the missiles in Cuba.' We've obtained the
declassification finally of the transcripts and of the actual tapes of his
conversations with his aides, and at one point the conversation of swapping
these missiles came up and his aides said to him, you know, `You can't do that
to NATO. You'll undermine NATO. The Turks will be angry.'

And his response was `Look, it's easy to be courageous before the blood has
really been shed in Cuba. But what do I say later when somebody comes to me
and says, "You could have just traded those missiles in Turkey that are
obsolete for the missiles in Cuba, and tens of thousands of people would have
been spared." What would I say then?' basically, his point was. And he
thought ahead. He thought ahead of the consequences of the various options
that he was examining and decided that it would be best to do everything that
is possible to try and get a message directly to Castro, to send a secret
message to the United Nations saying if the United Nations proposes this swap
as its own initiative, we will agree to it. We will never say that we
initiated this swap, but we will agree to it if you propose it. And through
two different emissaries to Khrushchev he send the message. We will take
those missiles out of Turkey if you take these missiles out of Cuba. We will
not sign anything that says we're doing this. In four months you have my word
it will be done.

And I think that is a key thing. Khrushchev understood that things were
spinning out of control and he decided to withdraw the missiles. But John F.
Kennedy gave him what he needed to save face, to say, `I got something out of
this.' And that is, I think, why war was, in the end, averted.

GROSS: During the Cuban missile crisis, the military was pushing for a
pre-emptive strike, and the president didn't want to do that. Right now it
looks like highly placed people in the military and in the CIA have serious
reservations about war with Iraq, but the president seems to be pushing
forward with that. Can you compare those two, those two situations?

Mr. KORNBLUH: Well, certainly President Bush has not proven to be a good
student of the Cuban missile crisis. As Arthur Schlesinger put it recently,
he would flunk him in history. But I've--our hope with this conference, since
it has such immediate relevance to the issues confronting US policy-makers and
the American public today, and, indeed, the whole world, is that this history
can inform the present. One of the things that Robert McNamara said that
certainly resonates today is that, you know, policy-makers are human beings
and human beings are fallible, but there is no room for error in a nuclear
world. You don't get a second chance to correct your mistakes once those
weapons have been fired. As Richard Goodwin pointed out, the greater the
risk, the more hesitant we need to be to act, the more prudent we need to be
in deciding how we will move forward.

And, finally, you know, Fidel Castro himself spent considerable time talking
about various lessons for Cuba. But one of the things he said that was
important, and he said it very emphatically, `War does not solve any
problems.' That was his position, that war has never solved significant
problems in human history.

GROSS: In some ways, Fidel Castro was in a very similar position that Saddam
Hussein is in now. Saddam Hussein knows that the United States wants to
overthrow him. Castro knew that we wanted to overthrow him. He knew that
there were plots against him. I mean--you know, the Bay of Pigs was just a
year before the Cuban missile crisis, when we tried to invade Cuba to
overthrow him. And there were plenty of other things in the works that the
CIA had cooked up to overthrow Castro. And I wonder if, you know, 40 years
after the Cuban missile crisis if you feel that you've come away with any
insights about how somebody behaves when they know a country is preparing to
overthrow them.

Mr. KORNBLUH: Fidel Castro and his Cuban advisers, the rest of his
government, firmly believed that the United States was preparing to invade
Cuba again, and they had had every reason to think that. There were
assassination missions that they knew about; there was the actual paramilitary
assault at the Bay of Pigs in April of 1961; there was Operation Mongoose that
they were gathering intelligence on; they were capturing exile infiltrators
who were telling them under interrogation about the plans that the United
States had; there was the trade embargo, the diplomatic isolation at the OAS.
There was everything they needed to firmly believe that the United States
would not rest, that the Kennedy brothers were committed to the destruction of
the Cuban revolution.

And one of the things that came out of this conference was an acknowledgment
and an apology. Theodore Sorensen, who was one of Kennedy's closest advisers,
actually apologized to Fidel Castro in the middle of this conference for the
violent side of Operation Mongoose. And there was an acknowledgment by Robert
McNamara that if he had been a Cuban, he would have thought that the United
States was preparing once again to invade Cuba, as well. And he basically
said this, and it was extremely important: `We--those of us who supported
Operation Mongoose and other aggressive acts toward the Cuban government, even
though the president was not going to invade Cuba, we did not think through
the logical conclusion of our actions, the logical impact on the Cubans of
these various covert operations, sabotage operations and diplomatic and
economic pressures.'

And that, I think, is so important. We have had--we must think through the
consequences of our actions and look into the future, if we can, to what
they've led to. Saddam Hussein has obviously been under intense pressure. I
don't think Fidel Castro, by the way, and Saddam Hussein really bear any
comparison as leaders. Cuba never sought weapons of mass destruction, never
had control of them and never used poison gas or other types of awful weapons
on their enemies, and certainly never invaded any of their neighbors as Saddam
Hussein invaded Kuwait just 10 years ago.

But certainly, one of the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis, and of all of
US--the last 42 years of US policy towards Cuba, is that small countries like
Cuba aren't going to just roll over like a dead dog. They are proud people;
these are proud countries. They have their own long--they have their own
histories and they're just like we are: committed to defending their
sovereignty, their independence and their very existence. And Cuba, in the
end when the Soviets proposed these missiles, was ready to accept them both
for the solidarity of the socialist bloc and for the defense of Cuba. And
Saddam Hussein, unfortunately, may be prepared to do all sorts of things to
defend his country. And that is the unforeseen consequences, that is the
unknown factor that must weigh heavily in future decisions in that region of
the world.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to be in a room with
Fidel Castro and the surviving members of the Kennedy administration, who
nearly went to war against each other, nearly went to nuclear war against each
other, and are now willing to read declassified documents and to talk through
what actually happened and what the consequences were?

Mr. KORNBLUH: You know, history is not only about re-evaluation, it's not
only about lessons learned. It can also be a factor of reconciliation. It's
an amazing experience to sit in a conference room with Fidel Castro and other
members of his government on one side of the table and members of the Kennedy
administration, including members who actually suggested the assassination of
that very Cuban leader 40 years ago, and have them talk to each other in an
atmosphere of mutual respect, with the common intention of understanding this
history better and leaving it behind us. The deep acrimony and hostility in
US-Cuban relations in the early '60s has now been aired and discussed; issues
of wrongdoing on the part of the Kennedy administration have been
acknowledged; the Castro government itself has acknowledged its role in
intervention in other parts of Latin America. This is the past. The future
can be different. And I think that using history to inform the future and
putting the history behind us is a very important thing in US-Cuban relations,
where there is still great conflict.

GROSS: Peter Kornbluh, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KORNBLUH: It's been a great pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Project of the National Security
Archive. Declassified documents pertaining to the crisis are on the National
Security Archive Web site.

Here's the record that was the number-one hit during the Cuban missile crisis.

(Soundbite of "Monster Mash"; door creaking open; cauldron bubbling; music)

Mr. BOBBY "BORIS" PICKETT: (Singing) I was working in the lab late one night
when my eyes beheld an eerie sight, for my monster from his slab began to
rise and suddenly to my surprise...

Backup Singers: He did the mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) He did the monster mash.

Backup Singers: The monster mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) It was a graveyard smash.

Backup Singers: He did the mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) It caught on in a flash.

Backup Singers: He did the mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) He did the monster mash.

From my laboratory in the castle east, to the master bedroom where the
vampires feast, the ghouls all came from their humble abodes to get a jolt
from my electrodes.

Backup Singers: They did the mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) They did the monster mash.

Backup Singers: The monster mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) It was a graveyard smash.

Backup Singers: They did the mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) It caught on in a flash.

Backup Singers: They did the mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) They did the monster mash.

The zombies were having fun.

Backup Singers: In a shoop, wa-hoo!

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) The party had just begun.

Backup Singers: In a shoop, wa-hoo!

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) The guest included the Wolf Man...

Backup Singers: In a shoop, wa-hoo!

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) ...Dracula and his son.

Backup Singers: Wa-hoo!

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) The scene was rockin', all were digging the sounds.
Igor on chains, backed by his baying hounds. The coffin-bangers were about to
arrive with their vocal group, The Crypt Kicker Five.

Backup Singers: They played the mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) They played the monster mash.

Backup Singers: The monster mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) It was a graveyard smash.

Backup Singers: They played the mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) It caught on in a flash.

Backup Singers: They played the mash.

Mr. PICKETT: (Singing) They played the monster mash.

Backup Singers: Wa-hoo!

GROSS: That was Bobby "Boris" Pickett and The Crypt Kickers.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Maeve Binchy's new novel. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New book by Maeve Binchy, "Quentins"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Best-selling Irish author Maeve Binchy has just published a new novel; it's
called "Quentins." But critic Maureen Corrigan says Binchy is certainly no
James Joyce, and that undeniable literary fact may be its own cause for
celebration.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Here's what's always happened in the past when I've gotten my hands on a
review copy of a new Maeve Binchy novel. I'd inhale the first few pages,
maybe a chapter, immediately, then duty called. I'd give the Binchy book
pride of place on my nightstand, but during daylight hours, I'd read the books
I had to review. I'd keep sneaking little visits back to Binchy's novel, but
I'd never consider reviewing it. Binchy's fiction is an abiding, guilty
pleasure: not challenging enough to be considered literature, not nearly
unself-conscious and awful enough, like Harold Robbins' or Danielle Steel's
books, to be reclaimed as kitsch.

But this time around, I've decided to come clean, do the right thing, take
Binchy out in public and not punish her critically for being the master
storyteller she's all but universally acknowledged to be. After all, I owe
her. Maeve Binchy's books have sat with me beside a lot of hospital beds,
soothed my jitters during many an airplane flight. Hers are the perfect
novels to read in tense and enervating times, and I mean that as a great
compliment.

Binchy's plots are complex enough that they lift me out of my world into hers,
and she has enough a sense of the meanness and sadness in everyday life that
her characters and her outlook don't repel by being saccharine. `Tell me a
story,' we beg of our parents when we're kids, hoping to be transported out of
the moment. Maybe it's because Binchy so generously answers that enduring
yearning for a good story that I've critically diminished her for reducing me,
a certified professor of literature, back to a rapt child.

Binchy's latest book is called "Quentins," and it's as good as she gets, which
is very good, indeed. I even, I swear to you, teared up as I read the last
page, the only fitting response, of course, to an Irish tale of wronged women,
faithless men, martyred mothers and kindly benefactors who save the day with
generous pots of Eurodollars. Yet somehow--and this is where Binchy's
storytelling magic enters in--she manages to make this well-worn material seem
as fresh as a smock of Irish linen. To paraphrase one of Binchy's own
characters, it's not a story full of shamrockery, the `How are things in
Glachamora-Top(ph) of the morning' approach. There's nobody doing leprechaun
duty in this novel.

"Quentins" tells the tale of 40 or so years in the life of a fictitious famous
restaurant by that same name in Dublin. Loyal readers will salivate at the
news that Binchy is returning us back to the world of food, glorious food; a
world she detailed in her last novel, "Scarlet Feather." Tom Feather and
Cathy Scarlet, the likable catering team from that book, perform a few
walk-ons here, as do other familiar characters. The main narrative, though,
focuses on a pretty young teacher named Ella Brady, who falls for a 40-ish,
married-with-children financial consultant named Don Richardson. Don, Ella
lectures herself after their first meeting, is a known charmer; a professional
who made his money by saying `Trust me' to people, by holding their hands for
a little too long, by letting his eyes lock into theirs. Nevertheless, good
girl Ella stumbles into his arms.

Their first illicit lunch takes place at Quentins. Months later, Ella waits
naively for him at Quentins again after he's already fled the country, tax men
at his heels. Shortly after, she begins waitressing at Quentins to pay her
parents back for the life savings they've lost by investing with Don.

And that's not the half of it. Ella begins helping out on a documentary film
that uses Quentins as a focal point to chart the dynamic changes in the Irish
economy and self-image; from watery soup and beans and toast to creme brulee
and computer chips. Consequently, we hear the life stories in miniature of
Quentins' chef, hostess, waitstaff and scores of its customers. Binchy
performs a flashy storytelling step dance here, keeping the main tale of Ella
spinning while twirling around about 25 other brief, but compelling narrative
partners.

This past weekend, I was at the National Book Festival here in Washington, and
I found myself explaining Maeve Binchy's attractions to someone who'd never
read her. `She's the Irish Susan Isaacs, but a bit less comical,' I heard
myself say. This other woman nodded enthusiastically as her lip curled
slightly in derision; mixed critical body language. Both Binchy and Isaacs
fall into that somewhat disreputable book bin labeled `great reads.' They'll
never be canonized, but they're beloved, and I suspect that both writers laugh
about their exiled status all the way to the bank.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Quentins" by Maeve Binchy.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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