The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963

The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963

by Michael Beschloss

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The groundbreaking and revelatory tale of the most dangerous years of the Cold War and the two leaders who held the fate of the world in their hands.

This bestselling history takes us into the tumultuous period from 1960 through 1963 when the Berlin Wall was built and the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and Soviet Union to the abyss. In this compelling narrative, author Michael Beschloss, praised by Newsweek as “the nation’s leading Presidential historian,” draws on declassified American documents and interviews with Kennedy aides and Soviet sources to reveal the inner workings of the CIA, Pentagon, White House, KGB, and politburo, and show us the complex private relationship between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Beschloss discards previous myths to show how the miscalculations and conflicting ambitions of those leaders caused a nuclear confrontation that could have killed tens of millions of people. Among the cast of characters are Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Adlai Stevenson, Fidel Castro, Willy Brandt, Leonid Brezhnev, and Andrei Gromyko. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vienna Summit, the Berlin Crisis, and what followed are rendered with urgency and intimacy as the author puts these dangerous years in the context of world history.
“Impressively researched and engrossingly narrated” (Los Angeles Times), The Crisis Years brings to vivid life a crucial epoch in a book that David Remnick of the New Yorker has called the “definitive” history of John F. Kennedy and the Cold War.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504039376
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 08/16/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 818
Sales rank: 160,704
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Michael Beschloss is a historian and the New York Times–bestselling author of nine books, including Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance (1980); Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair (1986); The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960–1963 (1991); The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman, and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany (2002); and Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789–1989 (2007). Born in Chicago and educated at Williams College and Harvard University, Beschloss is a contributor to NBC News, PBS NewsHour, and the New York Times, and has been called “the nation’s leading presidential historian” by Newsweek. He lives with his wife in Washington, DC.


Washington, D.C.

Date of Birth:

November 30, 1955

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


Williams College, Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

The Crisis Years

Kennedy and Krushchev 1960â"1963

By Michael Beschloss


Copyright © 1991 Michael R. Beschloss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3937-6


Almost Midnight

On Sunday morning, October 14, 1962, John Fitzgerald Kennedy awoke at the Penn Sheraton Hotel in Pittsburgh, there to campaign for Democrats running in the 1962 elections. He did not know it yet, but this was the eve of a military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that was potentially the most dangerous ever.

The President attended Sunday Mass and flew to Niagara Falls, New York, where he climbed into an open car for a motorcade into Buffalo. A girl jumped up and down, shouting, "I can see his hair! I can see his hair!" After speaking on the steps of the Buffalo City Hall, he was scheduled to fly back to Washington in midafternoon.

Then his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, told reporters that there had been a "sudden shift of plans": now the President would stop in New York City on Sunday evening to consult with Adlai Stevenson, his Ambassador to the United Nations.

Stevenson had been spending a weekend with friends at Rhinebeck on the Hudson when asked to rush to the President's side. Flown by helicopter to New York City's Idlewild Airport at 6:35 P.M., he was still wearing a country tweed jacket and sweater when he shook Kennedy's hand and followed him into the presidential limousine.

The two men were driven to the Carlyle Hotel, where the President kept a thirty-fourth-floor duplex with antique French furniture and glittering night views of Manhattan. He chatted with Stevenson for an hour about Cuba and the Congo. Then Stevenson left the hotel, telling reporters, "Just a routine briefing."

The newsmen did not discover that Stevenson was quietly followed into Kennedy's suite by the President's gregarious old Harvard roommate, Torbert Macdonald, a Congressman from Malden, Massachusetts. Dinner was brought in. After three hours, Kennedy and Macdonald emerged from the Carlyle and were driven to La Guardia Airport, where they boarded Air Force One, bound for Washington.

Far below the presidential plane as it swept over Washington was an outpost of the Central Intelligence Agency, hidden on an upper floor of a car dealership five blocks from the floodlit U.S. Capitol. Inside the darkened suite, photo experts leaned over light boxes, staring at images taken that morning of Fidel Castro's Cuba. A U-2 spy plane had provided the first close look in five weeks at the western reaches of the island.

Secret agents and Cuban exiles had reported to the CIA that the Soviet Union was moving missiles into western Cuba capable of launching nuclear warheads against the United States. Kennedy had sent the U-2 to assure himself that these reports were wrong.

His Sovietologists had reminded him that Nikita Khrushchev had never allowed Soviet nuclear missiles to go outside the Soviet Union. They had insisted that the Chairman would never be so reckless as to send them in secret to an area so close to the United States and an island ruled by a leader so erratic and unpredictable as Castro.

On Monday, weary from campaigning and his late night at the Carlyle, the President did not arrive at the Oval Office until 11:27 A.M., almost three hours later than usual. As he sat down at the famous desk carved from the timbers of the H.M.S. Resolute, his back hurt. On the South Grounds of the White House, the Army Band was tuning up and crowds were gathering for the landing by Marine helicopter of Ahmed Ben Bella, Prime Minister of newly independent Algeria.

Every morning, in bed or in his office, Kennedy donned the horn-rimmed reading glasses he never wore in public and looked through a top-secret document called The President's Intelligence Checklist. The CIA tailored this paper to the reading habits of each President it served. Under Kennedy, the Checklist used the almost wise-guy language that the President and his intimates used in private.

This morning's edition said, "The Saudis, fed up with the unending overflights of their territory by Egyptian aircraft, have obliquely warned Cairo to knock it off. ... A well-placed source in Vientiane tells us that the cabinet on Friday was treated to a blistering harangue by Phoumi Vongvichit of the Pathet Lao."

The men at the Agency knew that this President's attention could be caught by salacious secrets about foreign leaders. Kennedy was intrigued to hear that the President of Brazil, Joào Goulart, had had his wife's lover shot to death. He was given a transcript showing what the belligerent West German Defense Minister, Franz-Josef Strauss, "talks like when drunk."

Ben Bella's chopper landed on the South Grounds at Monday noon. As the President and his dark young state guest marched past an honor guard, the nearly five-year-old Caroline Kennedy and her kindergarten class watched from an upstairs window of the White House. Each time the cannon boomed in its twenty-one-gun salute, the children cried out, "Bang!" The President looked up at the window and barely managed not to smile.

Charles de Gaulle, with his exquisite conception of statesmanlike behavior, would have been outraged. The Algerian was charmed. Kennedy led him into the Rose Garden, where his wife, Jacqueline, was crouching with her arms around little John, Jr., who was frightened by the sound of the cannon. Grinning, Ben Bella pinched the cheek of the President's son.

In the aerie above the car dealership, a CIA man cried, "Take a look at this!" Bleary-eyed colleagues looked over his shoulder at a blowup of San Cristóbal, one hundred miles west of Havana. He showed them a rude series of tents, propellant vehicles, missile transporters, erectors, and a launching pad. His superior, Arthur Lundahl, said, "Don't leave this room. We might be sitting on the biggest story of our time."

Lundahl dialed Ray Cline, the CIA's Deputy Director for Intelligence, who said, "You know all the shit is going to hit the fan when you tell him that." Feeling that he lacked the seniority to give Kennedy the grim news, Cline called the President's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, whom he had known since they were both Junior Fellows at Harvard in 1941.

Bundy and his wife, Mary, were giving a small dinner for Charles and Avis Bohlen, who were about to sail for Paris, where the lifelong diplomat and Soviet expert was to accept the difficult mission of serving as Kennedy's envoy to de Gaulle. When the telephone rang, Bundy left the room to take the call. Cline spoke guardedly: "Those things we've been worrying about — it looks as though we've really got something."

Bundy asked, "You sure?" Cline was sure. Bundy said, "I'll handle it at my end. Will you guys be ready in the morning?"

Bundy knew that within hours the United States and Soviet Union would probably be "closer to nuclear war than at any time during the age of the atom." His telephone call to the President could prove more fateful than the call to Franklin Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor or to Harry Truman after North Koreans swarmed across the Thirty-eighth Parallel.

Then he thought again: why call the President now? Among the dinner guests talking and laughing in the next room were French diplomats and at least one reporter. The group "would clearly be startled if the dinner party broke up, or if I spent the evening on the phone, because it could only be the President and nobody else." The highest officials of the U.S. government were "scattered around town." If the President convened them all tonight, everyone in the city could learn the secret.

Bundy knew that his boss was tired after his late flight from New York. As he told Kennedy much later, "I decided that a quiet evening and a night of sleep were the best preparation you could have in the light of what would face you in the next days."

At eight-thirty on Tuesday morning, October 16, Bundy took the tiny elevator up to the family quarters on the second floor of the White House. He walked down the wide hall past paintings by Catlin, Homer, Prendergast, and Sargent and paused before the oaken door to the President's bedchamber. Once inside the room, he saw Kennedy sitting in a wing chair, wearing a nightshirt and slippers and eating breakfast from a tray.

Bundy told him that the worst had come to pass. The angry President's first reaction was a sense that Khrushchev "can't do this to me." He was certain that "one way or another, the missiles have to go." Both he and Bundy knew without saying it that bombing the missile sites could sentence millions of Americans, Europeans, and Soviets to their deaths.

Kennedy lowered himself into a steaming bath with his children's toy yellow dogs and pink pigs along the rim of the tub. Then, as he quickly dressed, he told Bundy to call an urgent secret meeting in the Cabinet Room and rattled off names to be invited. He telephoned his brother Robert, Attorney General of the United States, and told him they were facing "great trouble."

At the Justice Department, Robert Kennedy kept a morning appointment with Richard Helms, the CIA's poker-faced Deputy Director for Plans. Helms had asked to see the Attorney General about a recent Soviet defector, knowing that Kennedy rarely minced words. Once when Helms told him of a plan to use a Latin American Jesuit order in a CIA operation, the Attorney General shook his head: "You can't trust the Jesuits."

As Helms walked into the vaulted office, his piercing eyes took in the crayon drawings by Kennedy's children tacked onto the mahogany-paneled walls. The shirtsleeved Kennedy looked up from behind his big desk. "Dick, is it true they've found Russian missiles in Cuba?"

"Yes, Bob, they have."


Helms and Kennedy discussed the defector, but their attention remained on Cuba. Later in the morning, the two men went to the old Executive Office Building, across from the White House, for a scheduled engagement with the Special Group (Augmented), a group invented by the President to oversee covert action against the island. Few of its members were cleared to know about the missiles in Cuba. Helms and Kennedy knew that canceling the meeting might arouse suspicions.

Since the failed effort to retake the island by landing at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, Helms had felt what he called "white heat" from the President about Cuba. In the absence of intolerable provocation by Castro or the Soviets, Kennedy lacked the stomach to approve a full-scale American military invasion that could cost more than a hundred thousand lives. The American war against Castro would thus have to be a secret campaign.

As Helms recalled, "The whip was on the Agency all the time from the President through Bobby: 'Get on with this thing! God, you've got to do something about it!' He wanted Castro out of there." In January 1962, Robert Kennedy had called Helms to his office and told him that getting rid of Castro was "the top priority in the U.S. government. All else is secondary. No time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared."

The result was Operation Mongoose, which soon became the largest of the CIA's covert operations. The program consisted of at least thirty-three different schemes intended to culminate in Castro's removal — paramilitary raids, espionage, counterfeiting of money and ration books, and attacks on oil refineries and farms that would make the Cuban economy scream. The CIA contaminated Cuban sugar fields, detonated bombs in department stores, set factories aflame.

For two years, Helms and his men had also collaborated with Mafia leaders like Sam Giancana of Chicago to murder Fidel Castro. By October 1962, Helms had concluded that the plots were going nowhere. He suspected that at least one of the Mob's hit squads in Cuba had been captured and tortured by Castro's forces. But as he recalled years later, he saw little harm in letting the gangsters keep on trying to kill the dictator in order to see whether the Mafia actually had any valuable intelligence assets on the island.

During this morning's Special Group session, to avoid betraying the secret of the missiles on Cuba, Robert Kennedy behaved as if there were no special news from the island. With more heat than usual, he complained that the job of Castro's removal had been "botched." Mongoose had been going for a year without success. Why couldn't they do something? The President was not happy.

After the meeting, he went to Bundy's office in the White House basement to look at the U-2 pictures for himself. Bending over the pictures with a magnifying glass, he hissed, "Shit! Shit! Shit!"

In the Oval Office, the President asked his close aide and speech writer Theodore Sorensen to look up what kind of public warning he had issued against Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba. The answer: before July 1962, Kennedy had never formally cautioned the Soviet Union against such an installation on the island. By then, the missiles had to have been already on their way.

White House aides not cleared to know the Cuba secret wondered why Kennedy was so edgy this morning. He kept pulling at the wattle under his chin, tracing his lips with his index finger, jamming his foot against the drawers of his desk, and bouncing his knee up and down. David Powers, the man-of-all-work who had served the President since his first campaign for Congress in 1946, thought, God, he looks like someone has just told him the house is on fire.

Salinger assumed that Kennedy was angry about Ben Bella. After the imposing White House welcome and what the President had thought was an amiable conversation in the Oval Office, the Algerian had confirmed Kennedy's private prejudices about the opportunism of nonaligned leaders by flying straight to Havana and joining Castro to demand that the United States abandon the ninety-nine-year lease to its Guantanamo naval base on the island.

At 11:50 A.M., Kennedy walked into the Cabinet Room and sat down with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and other liege men around the coffin-shaped table. The President was the only one present who knew that he had ordered this session secretly recorded by a tape machine connected to microphones hidden in the draperies.

As the reels began to turn, Kennedy asked Arthur Lundahl and a CIA missile expert, Sidney Graybeal, to explain the U-2 pictures to the laymen present. The tape of the dialogue has been preserved:

LUNDAHL: This is a result of the photography taken Sunday, sir.


LUNDAHL: There's a medium-range ballistic missile launch site and two new military encampments on the southern edge of Sierra del Rosario in west central Cuba....

KENNEDY: How do you know this is a medium-range ballistic missile?

LUNDAHL: The length, sir.

KENNEDY: The what? The length?

LUNDAHL: The length of it. ... Mr. Graybeal, our missile, uh, man, has some pictures of the equivalent Soviet equipment that has been dragged through the streets of Moscow....

KENNEDY: Is this ready to be fired?

GRAYBEAL: No, sir.

KENNEDY: How long have we got? We can't tell, I take it.

GRAYBEAL: No, sir....

This same morning in Moscow, Kennedy's new Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Foy Kohler, had gone to the Kremlin for his first official audience with the man who was both Chairman of the Council of Ministers and First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee.

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev's face was still pink and glowing from two months of swimming, sunbathing, and badminton-playing with his wife, son, daughters, and grandchildren at his estate at Pitsunda on the Black Sea. The two months were not merely frivolous. Since the days of Stalin, who rarely left Moscow, Soviet leaders had been almost honor-bound to spend long periods away from the capital as earnest of their intention not to reimpose a Stalin-style rule.

While relaxing at Pitsunda, Khrushchev liked to stroll the beaches and woods and ponder what he insisted was the "radiant future" of the Soviet Union. With his eyes half closed, he stayed up late into the night with friends and family, singing folk songs from his Ukrainian childhood like "The Wide Dnieper Roars and Moans," "Black Lashes, Brown Eyes," and "I Wonder at the Sky." Semiliterate into his thirties, he now professed to read War and Peace at least once a year.

At the Kremlin, standing behind Khrushchev as he greeted Kohler and his political counselor, Richard Davies, were Vasily Kuznetsov and Mikhail Smirnovsky of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and the Chairman's crack young translator, Viktor Sukhodrev. As always, the Americans were seated across from Khrushchev at the green-baize-draped table, the sun streaming into their eyes.

Khrushchev complained that American spy planes were "harassing" Soviet merchant ships heading for Cuba. Why was the United States so worried about Cuba? The Soviet government had "no intention of putting any offensive weapons in there." Kohler explained that one reason Americans were so worried about Cuba was Castro's recent announcement that the Soviet Union was building a new port on the island.

The Chairman said, "Just because I am building a fishing port in Cuba, you want to go to war. After all, I'm not doing anything you haven't done to me in Turkey and Iran." He inveighed against the Jupiter missiles placed by the United States in 1959 along the Soviet border in Turkey. While insisting that the Cuban port would have no military value, he conceded that Castro's announcement had caused Kennedy political trouble: "If I had been in Moscow, the announcement would never have been made. ... After the elections, there will be, plenty of time to talk about these things."


Excerpted from The Crisis Years by Michael Beschloss. Copyright © 1991 Michael R. Beschloss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • 1 Almost Midnight
  • 2 “He’s Younger Than My Own Son”
  • 3 “Our Clue to the Soviet Union”
  • 4 Novosibirsk
  • 5 “I’m Not Going to Risk an American Hungary”
  • 6 “A Big Kick”
  • 7 The Secret Agent
  • 8 “Not as a Cripple”
  • 9 “He Just Beat Hell Out of Me”
  • 10 The Ticking Clock
  • 11 “A Wall Is a Hell of a Lot Better Than a War”
  • 12 “I Want to Get Off”
  • 13 “Dear Mr. President” and “Dear Mr. Chairman”
  • 14 “Your President Has Made a Very Bad Mistake”
  • 15 “No One Will Be Able Even to Run”
  • 16 “He’s the One Playing God”
  • 17 “The Moment We Hoped Would Never Come”
  • 18 “I Don’t See How We’ll Have a Very Good War”
  • 19 “Now We Have Untied Our Hands”
  • 20 “The Peace Speech”
  • 21 The Spirit of Moscow
  • 22 Fragile Opportunities
  • 23 “Now Peace Is Up to You”
  • Epilogue The Culmination
  • Image Gallery
  • General Sources
  • Notes
  • Index
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the Author

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