Relentless: JFK on Cuba; Putin on Ukraine

On Oct. 6, President Joe Biden warned:

"First time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use (of a) nuclear weapon if in fact things continue down the path they are going … I’m trying to figure out what is Putin’s off ramp?"

Biden did well to cite the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and compare it to the 2022 crisis in Ukraine. The analogy is apt; whether the President understands the important implications is not so clear. Suffice it to say that in each case, one major power saw an existential threat and was willing to risk nuclear war to thwart it.


Soviet Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev’s took a gamble 60 years ago when the Soviet Union secretly deployed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, catching U.S. Intelligence by surprise. The following paragraph is from One Hell of a Gamble: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, page 217. (The authors add that the US was "unaware of the Soviet freighter’s cargo.")

"The first shipment of nuclear warheads, on the Soviet freighter Indigirka, reached Mariel, Cuba on October 4, 1962. On board were 45 one-megaton warheads for the R-12s [MRBMs], twelve 2-kiloton warheads for the Luna [short-range] tactical weapons, six 12-kiloton bombs for the IL-28 bombers and thirty-six 12-kiloton warheads for the cruise missiles [to defend Cuban shores]. In sum, the ship carried the equivalent of roughly 45,500 kilotons of TNT, over twenty times the explosive power that was dropped by Allied bombers on Germany in all of the Second World War."

On the evening of October 15, the day after a U-2 reconnaissance mission over Cuba, President Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy was briefed on the findings, including two 70-foot-long MRBMs at San Cristobal. Bundy briefed the President the next morning, and Kennedy convened the first "ExComm" meeting that day.

Damage to the reputation of CIA analysts, who had failed to predict Khrushchev’s dangerous move, was somewhat attenuated by Arthur Lundahl, head of the CIA’s National Photographic Intelligence Center (NPIC), who briefed the President and the rest of ExComm.

Again, from One Hell of a Gamble:

Kennedy wanted to be sure:

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

"The length, sir," Lundahl explained.

"Is it ready to be fired?"

None of the president’s advisers could tell him with any confidence whether the nuclear missiles were armed. At the time, Washington did not know that some were already armed. That was learned only decades later at a conference to mark the 30th anniversary of the missile crisis, when a Soviet general revealed the presence of Soviet tactical missiles then in Cuba. Among the conference participants was former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara who, upon hearing the Soviet general’s admission, "had to hold onto a table to steady himself".

Back in October 1962, working for the most senior officials at the Pentagon, Daniel Ellsberg, in his uniquely fact-filled book The Doomsday Machine, reports that he was given a map showing the ranges of the Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). Both Washington, DC, and the Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha were within range, "and could be hit with very short warning time: minutes – essentially no warning." Dan added that this was really the most significant effect. It meant the Soviets could be confident of decapitation [of US command and control]." [Emphasis added.]

Yet, Ellsberg continues:

"What we had been doing, on recommendations of the ExComm, included:

  • A naval blockade at the risk of armed conflict with Soviet warships; and
  • Full preparations (if they were wholly a bluff, they fooled us) for invasion of Cuba"*

*On a personal note, this was brought home to me powerfully when, on Nov. 3, 1962, as an Army infantry/intelligence officer, I reported for duty at Fort Benning, Georgia. That "Home of the Army Infantry" was almost completely bereft of weapons. Most of them were still in Key West, Florida, opposite Cuba.

Fortunately for us all, Khrushchev backed off. He did not challenge the blockade and removed the missiles. In short, with the President Kennedy threatening nuclear war, and ready to invade Cuba, Khrushchev could not miss the fact that what he had attempted to do was viewed in Washington as an existential threat. Equally important, the Soviet leadership were able to appreciate that removing the missiles, however embarrassing, would constitute no existential threat to the Soviet Union.

Fidel Castro was not happy, but Khrushchev was not willing to take existential risks for such a client. Sanity prevailed in 1962. Five years ago, writing in The Doomsday Machine, Dan Ellsberg wrote the following, which seems highly relevant today."

"If their [Kennedy and Khrushchev] bargaining had gone on one more day, then nearly all then-living humans might have died from it, and few if any now alive would ever have existed. Yet – have we had a president since World War II who would have acted in those circumstances more responsibly, more prudently? Do we have such a president now? Does Russia?"

Ellsberg then refers to the sane reasons given by "the one who finally did back down, just in time … Khrushchev". The Soviet leader explained his thinking to Norman Cousins, a few months after the crisis:

"When I asked the military advisors if they could assure me that holding fast would not result in the death of five hundred million human beings, they looked at me as though I was out of my mind, or what was worse, a traitor. The biggest tragedy, as they saw it, was not that our country might be devastated and everything lost, but that the Chinese or the Albanians might accuse us of appeasement or weakness.

"So I said to myself, ‘To hell with these maniacs. If I can get the United States to assure me that it will not attempt to overthrow the Cuban government, I will remove the missiles.’ That is what happened, and now I am reviled by the Chinese and the Albanians….

"They say I was afraid to stand up to a paper tiger. It is all such nonsense. What good would it have done me in the last hour of my life to know that, though our great nation and the United States were in complete ruins, the national honor of the Soviet Union was intact?"

Dan adds: "That last line, indeed the whole quote, deserves to be studied by all those whose fingers hover over the trigger of the Doomsday Machine."


I hope this does not come as a surprise to many readers, but President Vladimir Putin has warned repeatedly of the existential threat he believes Russia faces from what Russia calls "offensive strike missiles" like the Tomahawk and, eventually, hypersonic missiles along its western border. (You might also call them MRBMs.)

So-called "ABM sites" already emplaced in Romania and about to be completed in Poland can accommodate Tomahawks and hypersonic missiles overnight with the insertion of a computer disk. You will not find much information in Establishment media about this, but Putin himself made this crystal clear in an unusual presentation to a small group of Western journalists six years ago. See the first 10-minutes in this video.

Thanks to the corporate media, very few Americans know that:

On December 21, 2021, President Putin told his most senior military leaders:

“It is extremely alarming that elements of the US global defense system are being deployed near Russia. The Mk 41 launchers, which are located in Romania and are to be deployed in Poland, are adapted for launching the Tomahawk strike missiles. If this infrastructure continues to move forward, and if US and NATO missile systems are deployed in Ukraine, their flight time to Moscow will be only 7–10 minutes, or even five minutes for hypersonic systems. This is a huge challenge for us, for our security.” [Emphasis added.]

On December 30, 2021, Biden and Putin talked by phone at Putin’s urgent request. The Kremlin readout stated:

“Joseph Biden emphasized that Russia and the US shared a special responsibility for ensuring stability in Europe and the whole world and that Washington had no intention of deploying offensive strike weapons in Ukraine.” Yuri Ushakov, a top foreign policy adviser to Putin, pointed out that this was also one of the goals Moscow hoped to achieve with its proposals for security guarantees to the US and NATO. [Emphasis added.]

Oops! Many a slip between cup and lip: On February 12, 2022, Ushakov briefed the media on the telephone conversation between Putin and Biden earlier that day.

“The call was as a follow-up of sorts to the … December 30 telephone conversation. … The Russian President made clear that President Biden’s proposals did not really address the central, key elements of Russia’s initiatives either with regards to non-expansion of NATO, or non-deployment of strike weapons systems on Ukrainian territory … To these items, we have received no meaningful response.” [Emphasis added.]

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. I can see why so many Americans believe the Big Lie that it was "unprovoked," because they just don’t know.


Think back to when President Kennedy saw an existential threat from Soviet missiles In Cuba. When a nuclear power perceives such a threat, it reacts. It authorizes acts of war (blockade) and violations of the UN Charter (threatening nuclear war and preparing to invade a hostile nation). What’s good for the goose, well, should it not be good for the gander?

President Biden also remarked on Thursday, "I’m trying to figure out what is Putin’s off-ramp."

Some adult should be brought into the room to tell Biden there is no off-ramp for a responsible leader who perceives an existential threat to his country. The side doing the threatening and perceiving no existential threat to its own interests, is the one needing to take the off-ramp – as Khrushchev did in 1962.

Relentless is the appropriate adjective for Kennedy, who rose to the occasion and faced Khrushchev down. By all indications, Putin is no less relentness. And short of nuclear war, he holds the high cards in Ukraine.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Comment from Daniel Ellsberg:

Monday, October 10, 2022
8:29 AM

Comment on Ray McGovern, Relentless: JFK on Cuba; Putin on Ukraine,, 10-10-22

In his citations from my book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, and his surrounding commentary, Ray McGovern distorts and seriously misrepresents—in fact, reverses—my views on the Cuban Missile Crisis. He implies that I share his view that Kennedy’s actions risking nuclear war were the inevitable—and, he implies, legitimate– Great Power response to what Kennedy and his main (civilian) advisors saw as an "existential crisis."

That is virtually the opposite of what I expressed in the very pages he cites. He gives a false impression by selective quotation of my words and selective omissions, clearly deliberate, of words and passages immediately following the citations that entirely modify their meaning and refute this thesis about the crisis as I—and much importantly, those to whom I reported–viewed it then and see it now myself, having participated in it at the time and studied it for sixty years.

He states, correctly so far as the paragraph goes:

Back in October 1962, working for the most senior officials at the Pentagon, Daniel Ellsberg, in his uniquely fact-filled book The Doomsday Machine, reports [DE note: p. 187] that he was given a map showing the ranges of the Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). Both Washington, DC, and the Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha were within range, “and could be hit with very short warning time: minutes – essentially no warning.” Dan added that this was really the most significant effect. It meant the Soviets could be confident of decapitation [of US command and control].” [Emphasis added.]

What McGovern proceeds to omit is the next sentence, which begins with “But…” and the rest of the page and the chapter (12).

Instead, his next sentence begins: “Yet, Ellsberg continues: ‘What we had been doing…” and proceeds to quote statements from the next chapter (chapter 13, p. 200), separated by thirteen pages from the comments above which I am supposedly continuing.

My actual continuation on p. 187, the next sentence after the mention of “decapitation” (no-warning destruction of Washington, DC, and SAC headquarters in Omaha) is this:

“But I knew what most didn’t even in the Pentagon: that wouldn’t spare [the Soviets] from a full, quick retaliation from our massive surviving forces, thanks to delegation.”

I had discovered and reported in January, 1961 to McGeorge Bundy, national security assistant to President Kennedy the secret—from him and the president, in that first month of their administration—that President Eisenhower had very secretly delegated to theater commanders the authority to launch their full nuclear forces against both the Soviet Union and China in the event that Washington and other command centers were destroyed. (See Chapter 3, “Delegation: How many fingers on the button?” in Doomsday.)

JFK had renewed this secret delegation. The Soviets later installed a comparable capability—known as Dead Hand— to assure massive retaliation against the US if Moscow were destroyed by no-warning attack from a US submarine, or a Tomahawk cruise missile if such were installed in the future in our ABM sites in Poland or Romania. Or Ukraine.

My actual next paragraph continues: “This ability to conduct a land-based no-warning attack on our command centers was not an insignificant effect. But it was nothing new; they could have accomplished this with cruise missiles from submarines. That was why the Pentagon had designed a system of alternate command posts, including at sea and airborne as well as underground, and why Eisenhower and Kennedy had delegated authority.”

With our estimates then of sixty new ICBM sites under construction in the Soviet Union—perhaps ten then operational—the thirty-eight missiles we had seen so far in Cuba by October 24 “meant a big expansion, relatively, of their small strategic force.”

Still on p.187: It “meant that the Soviet first-strike force was at least doubling or expanding far more than that overnight. Yet it still didn’t mean that they would escape total devastation if they struck first. A single surviving SAC base would assure that, and well more than one would survive. Aside from our theater forces, they would also be hit by Polaris missile and carrier forces at sea, and surviving Atlas and Titan missiles. Fifty to a hundred missiles didn’t give them a disarming first-strike force.”

On the next page (188): “We have an unusual record of the Cuban missile crisis as a result of tapes Kennedy made of meetings of the ExComm. I wasn’t surprised to read, years later when the tapes were transcribed, that McNamara had said at the second ExComm meeting one week earlier much the same as I had: that these missiles [in my words] “didn’t affect our security decisively, or even significantly.”

“I’ll be quite frank,” he told the president [his words] “I don’t think there is a military problem…This is a domestic political problem.” [Emphasis added.]

“The JCS didn’t agree; they were itching to attack Cuba. But McNamara’s point, and mine, was that the missiles in Cuba didn’t affect us much more (despite the short warning time, which the JCS made much of) than did forty more ICBMs back in the Soviet Union, which we were expecting in the next few months anyway. A year earlier, CINCSAC had been claiming that the Soviets already had a thousand ICBMs aimed at us. Forty, fifty, a hundred were not in that class of threat.”

I acknowledge at length in the next chapter that, in retrospect and with what we learned decades later, I very greatly underestimated at that time the risks of nuclear war that emerged from the behavior of Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro (and their subordinates) after the Soviet missiles were discovered and addressed in the week before Kennedy announced the blockade (which was not only dangerous, but illegal in international law outside a state of war: which was why it was euphemistically termed a “quarantine.”)

I believe that nuclear risk is far from zero at this moment, for reasons comparable to the very flawed and dangerous decision-making on all sides in the 1960’s crisis. My own analysis as to how those risks arose and how they were resolved in 1962 is in very great contrast to nearly all of the retrospectives we are seeing this month of the 60th anniversary (along with the current crisis in Ukraine). For that I refer readers to my chapter 13 in Doomsday Machine, from which McGovern quotes correctly later on in his article (without revealing my reasoning or my basic interpretation of events, very different from most to this day).

All I am addressing here is McGovern’s misrepresentation of my views at the time and as reported in Doomsday, which I still hold. I entirely disagree with his interpretation—which he associates with me by presenting in the paragraph following my description of “what we were doing” (which I later came to see as inexcusably irresponsible and reckless):

“In short, with the President Kennedy threatening nuclear war, and ready to invade Cuba, Khrushchev could not miss the fact that what he had attempted to do was viewed in Washington as an existential threat.”

Likewise, the assertion later on, “President Kennedy saw an existential threat from Soviet missiles In Cuba.” 

I did not and do not agree with McGovern that Kennedy’s risk-taking actions, from the blockade on, reflected a view “in Washington” among civilian officials that the existing missiles in Cuba represented “an existential threat” (as an addition to the threat already posed by Soviet capabilities, from that day to this): either in military terms or as a threat to our national security (as distinct from Kennedy’s personal security in office, looking ahead to 1964, or possibly to American hegemony in NATO).

My view to the contrary, then and now, is of no importance except to the extent that McGovern has chosen to misrepresent it. But to my knowledge, my contrary view was that of Secretary of Defense McNamara and of every other civilian official known to me, including, from the tapes, President Kennedy. (The JCS and no doubt many other military commanders, expressed a different view, and of course, McGovern is free to agree with them, as he does).

I couldn’t have said more clearly, on the page (188) just after his first citation from me, that my own view turned out to have been shared at that time by Secretary McNamara: “that [my words] these missiles didn’t affect our security decisively, or even significantly.” As McNamara put it (to quote him again from the White House tapes): “I don’t think there is a military problem…this is a domestic political problem.”

The latter problem (along with doubts that might be raised about Kennedy’s leadership in NATO if he did nothing) was self-evident to everyone privy to the situation. As I said (p. 190): “The deployment obviously did confront Kennedy with a domestic political problem, after he had publicly rejected Republican claims that missiles would be coming…following which he had given explicit notice to the Soviets that ‘gravest issues’ would arise if they contradicted their assurances to him. If he failed to act on his warning, the Republicans would charge, with reason, that he had been foolish and weak.”

(For that very reason, McNamara had felt—as his assistant Adam Yarmolinsky told me—that it had been a mistake to have made that warning. The president’s assistant Ted Sorensen expressed the same during the crisis.)

Continuing, p. 90: “At that time, I hadn’t yet come to recognize just how decisive domestic politics were in the calculations of presidents as they address foreign policy.”

I don’t now believe that such domestic reasons were the only ones leading to Kennedy’s blockade, an act of war which already posed risks of escalation to nuclear war, but I regretfully conclude that they were sufficient for his taking those risks, throughout the following week.

I’m not addressing here, in this long correction of McGovern’s article (which says many other things with which I agree), possible analogies with the present dangerous nuclear crisis. (From a conversation with him yesterday—in which I pointed out all my criticisms of his draft, which he declined to change- it appears I see considerably more danger than he does of a Russian use, in the face of continued failure, of a “small, tactical nuclear weapon” challenging the US to risk major escalation.) I do see important analogies between the two crises, some of which I share with McGovern, others not.

But to go beyond any disagreements with my long-term friend Ray McGovern, I’m sure he agrees with my conclusion on p. 221 of the book he cites:

“What a true history of the Cuban missile crisis reveals is that the existence of masses of nuclear weapons in the hands of leaders of the superpower, the United States and Russia—even when those leaders are about as responsible, humane, and cautious as any we have seen—posed then, and still do, intolerable dangers to the survival of civilization.”

To speak for myself, I would add to this (as I did in chapter 20 “On first-use threats: using our nuclear weapons” and chapter 21, “Dismantling the Doomsday Machine”) that above all the many dangers posed by the very existence of these two first-strike doomsday systems, the most ominous and urgent is the persistent and morally absurd claim on both sides of the legitimacy of threats and readiness to carry out threats of initiating nuclear war: either “tactical” nuclear war–“first use” of nuclear weapons on a limited scale–or all-out preemptive strategic nuclear war, aiming delusionally at effectively disarming the other side and “limiting damage” that cannot, in reality, be limited.

Putin has been making such threats for the last seven months, in this imitating precisely the practice of the US and NATO for the past seventy years. Both sides have continually rejected “no first use” declarations, and pursued armaments policies which express above all their readiness and preparation to strike first preemptively. (In the Russian case, this has been true only since Khrushchev was ousted in the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was a brief later period when Brezhnev proclaimed “no first use,” but without reflecting this in Russian deployments or exercises.)

US insistence on keeping first-use threats “on the table– as Trump put it as a candidate in 2016 (with the agreement in practice of every other president since Harry Truman, before and after Trump)– has been and is a highly dangerous anachronism.

To put the best face on it, that has been obviously true for at the least the last thirty years(I would say earlier), since the Warsaw Pact nations, minus Russia, began shifting sides and joining NATO. The dangers of our persisting in that stance are evident this year, as it serves to legitimate threats of first-use by Putin—exactly like our own for sixty years in NATO and recurrently in crisis confrontations—that would otherwise be rightly seen and denounced as intolerable, immoral, insane,.

There’s no chance, I know, of foreseeing that the US Executive or Congress or military-industrial complex (or as Ray so well calls it, the MICIMATT: military-industrial-congressional-intelligence-media-academic-think tank complex, to which one might add financial and energy) will ever come to that recognition about our own past policy since 1945.

But what about the world, and the US, right now? It is neither too early nor too late-in fact, it is of the highest urgency this month—for Joe Biden to reiterate as president (he has not:

what he said as a candidate and earlier as vice president:

that he can think of no circumstances in which it “would be necessary. Or make sense” for the US to initiate nuclear war. Of course, he should go further, to reject and condemn first-use or preemptive first-strike for the US in any circumstances whatever.

As I put it five years ago (p. 334 of Doomsday) he “should announce decisively that there is no “nuclear first-use-use option” on the bargaining table [or in war or crisis] in our dealings with Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, or any other nation, because we as a people and our government believe that nuclear first use [or preemption] would be a murderous, criminal action, not a legitimate “option” for the United States, Russia, or for any other country under any circumstances.”

And our weapons procurement and deployment should reflect this: e.g., by eliminating our vulnerable (first-strike-only) land-based ICBMs (including the new ones now under development.)

How else are we, or any of our allies, to call on Putin to recognize this fundamental moral truth now, dissociating Russia from our own disastrous past and present example?

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).