Who Done It?

Who wrote JFK’s “airstrike speech?” Kennedy’s usual speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, emphatically denied writing it:

A copy of this “second speech” was among the documents circulated at the November 2002 reunion in Havana of Cuban missile crisis participants. I asked the conference organizers where it came from, and was told: “We thought you wrote it.” But I am certain I did not. I could not have articulated a policy I so strongly opposed, nor forgotten such a wrenching experience if I had been required to do so. The draft did not appear to have been typed on my White House secretary’s typewriter; it bore classification stamps, which I never put on my speech drafts. It also included a statement of America’s intention to use nuclear weapons if necessary – a statement I would never have written, knowing JFK never would approve it. [Theodore Sorensen, Counselor: A life at the edge of history, HarperCollins, New York, 2008, page 294]

In that 2008 book, Sorensen also claimed to have learned of this alternative speech’s existence “only recently.” But ten years earlier, in a 1998 interview, (search on Sorensen to find the link) he stated:

So I was asked to draft both speeches, both the speech for an air strike … and the speech for the blockade.

This quote is on the second page of the interview, and while not explicitly saying that he wrote the airstrike speech, it comes very close. It is possible, but unlikely, that Sorensen would be asked to write the airstrike speech and then have someone else do it. The most likely explanation seems to be that memories can be faulty even in younger people, and Sorensen was 80 years old when his book was published.

There is at least one other error in the above excerpt from Sorensen’s book, which reinforces the hypothesis that he was mistaken when he disclaimed having written both speeches. He claims that the airstrike speech “included a statement of America’s intention to use nuclear weapons if necessary – a statement I would never have written, knowing JFK never would approve it.” Yet the quarantine speech – which he acknowledges having written and which Kennedy did deliver – contains just such a threat:

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

In fact, the above threat from the quarantine speech is almost identical to the nuclear threat in the airstrike speech:

I have directed our military forces … to regard any missile that might possibly remain and be launched from Cuba as an attack by the Soviet Union requiring a massive retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

These inconsistencies in Sorensen’s statements are typically human, and my point is not to criticize Sorensen, but to highlight how careful we must be in accepting even seemingly first hand source information as accurate.

The Cuban Missile Crisis provides another excellent example of the need to question sources. For decades afterward, Kennedy’s closest advisers (including Sorensen) denied that he had “traded” withdrawal of our Jupiter missiles from Turkey for the Soviet withdrawal of their similar missiles from Cuba. Yet, according to George Washington University’s highly accurate National Security Archive:

The first authoritative admission on the U.S. side that the Jupiters had actually been part of a “deal” came at a conference in Moscow in January 1989, after glasnost had led Soviet (and then Cuban) former officials to participate in international scholarly efforts to reconstruct and assess the history of the crisis. At that meeting, former Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen (and the uncredited editor of Thirteen Days) admitted, after prodding from [former Soviet Ambassador] Dobrynin, that he had taken it upon himself to edit out a “very explicit” reference to the inclusion of the Jupiters in the final deal to settle the crisis.

Martin Hellman

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To learn more about the level of nuclear risk, visit my related web site.

I am grateful to my colleague Prof. Scott Sagan for a dialog which helped clarify the above points. A paper by one of his students, Patrick Cirenza, was also helpful in unraveling the confusion created by Sorensen’s incompatible statements.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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