In The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz looks at the myths and realities of the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States over Cuba in 1962:
On October 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy and his advisers were stunned to learn that the Soviet Union was, without provocation, installing nuclear-armed medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. With these offensive weapons, which represented a new and existential threat to America, Moscow significantly raised the ante in the nuclear rivalry between the superpowers — a gambit that forced the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. On October 22, the president, with no other recourse, proclaimed in a televised address that his administration knew of the illegal missiles, and delivered an ultimatum insisting on their removal, announcing an American “quarantine” of Cuba to force compliance with his demands. While carefully avoiding provocative action and coolly calibrating each Soviet countermeasure, Kennedy and his lieutenants brooked no compromise; they held firm, despite Moscow’s efforts to link a resolution to extrinsic issues and despite predictable Soviet blustering about American aggression and violation of international law. In the tense 13‑day crisis, the Americans and Soviets went eyeball-to-eyeball. Thanks to the Kennedy administration’s placid resolve and prudent crisis management — thanks to what Kennedy’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. characterized as the president’s “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world” — the Soviet leadership blinked: Moscow dismantled the missiles, and a cataclysm was averted.
Every sentence in the above paragraph describing the Cuban missile crisis is misleading or erroneous. But this was the rendition of events that the Kennedy administration fed to a credulous press; this was the history that the participants in Washington promulgated in their memoirs; and this is the story that has insinuated itself into the national memory — as the pundits’ commentaries and media coverage marking the 50th anniversary of the crisis attested.
Scholars, however, have long known a very different story: since 1997, they have had access to recordings that Kennedy secretly made of meetings with his top advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “ExComm”). Sheldon M. Stern — who was the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library for 23 years and the first scholar to evaluate the ExComm tapes — is among the numerous historians who have tried to set the record straight. His new book marshals irrefutable evidence to succinctly demolish the mythic version of the crisis. Although there’s little reason to believe his effort will be to any avail, it should nevertheless be applauded.
[. . .]
The patient spadework of Stern and other scholars has since led to further revelations. Stern demonstrates that Robert Kennedy hardly inhabited the conciliatory and statesmanlike role during the crisis that his allies described in their hagiographic chronicles and memoirs and that he himself advanced in his posthumously published book, Thirteen Days. In fact, he was among the most consistently and recklessly hawkish of the president’s advisers, pushing not for a blockade or even air strikes against Cuba but for a full-scale invasion as “the last chance we will have to destroy Castro.” Stern authoritatively concludes that “if RFK had been president, and the views he expressed during the ExComm meetings had prevailed, nuclear war would have been the nearly certain outcome.” He justifiably excoriates the sycophantic courtier Schlesinger, whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts — “profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive” — were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.