BOSTON -- Tapes of secretly recorded White House conversations released this week show that President John F. Kennedy's military advisers strongly pressured him to bomb and invade Cuba during the missile crisis 34 years ago this month. Indeed, they forecast that war would occur whether he invaded Cuba or not.
Blasting Kennedy's cautious approach, the Air Force chief, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, told the president at a White House meeting on Oct. 19, 1962, "This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich," and declared that Kennedy's refusal to invade Cuba would certainly embolden the Soviets to take Berlin.
Kennedy, whose father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, was a leading supporter of England's 1938 efforts to placate Nazi Germany and avoid war, pointedly ignored the remark.
It was one of several moments on 15 1/2 hours of tapes that could reshape historians' accounts of a critical time in the Cold War and Kennedy's presidency.
Smaller batches of tapes released in 1994 showed that Kennedy had spurned congressional leaders' urgings for a Cuban invasion and provided glimpses into his agonized speculations that he could trigger the "final failure," a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The Cuban missile crisis is commonly viewed as the high point of Kennedy's leadership, a two-week standoff in which the president deftly avoided nuclear war while forcing Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev to back down and remove the atomic warheads Moscow had placed in Cuba, 90 miles off Florida.
The tapes released this week considerably enhance a picture that has been emerging in recent years of a Kennedy who sought repeatedly to avoid confrontation.
The president clearly considered entirely reasonable many of Khrushchev's complaints and negotiating offers.
Kennedy also is heard agonizing over the risks of nuclear war, calling it "a hell of an alternative" and pressing civil defense officials to explain whether he could protect Americans and evacuate them from cities.
Through those days Kennedy was fending off strong pressure for an attack on Cuba from congressional and military leaders such as LeMay, who told him, "We don't have any choice but direct military action. I see no other solution. This blockade and political action I see leading to war."
Sheldon M. Stern, a Kennedy Library historian, says: "LeMay was really sticking the knife in to say that."
"It must have been a deep, personal insult" in light of Kennedy's father's strong identification with the Nazi appeasement effort, Stern said.
LeMay told Kennedy that he disagreed with the president's view that the Soviets would retaliate by seizing West Berlin, arguing that that an attack on Cuba would prevent the Soviets from "knocking off Berlin."
If the Soviet Union tried to seize control of Berlin, Kennedy said, that "leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons -- which is a hell of an alternative -- to begin a nuclear exchange. I don't think we have any satisfactory alternatives."
Martin Sherwin, a Tufts University history professor who teaches courses on Kennedy's presidency, says he believes the president would have hated to see the tapes made public.
'Playing the softy'
"He saw himself as a tough person, a warrior, and yet here he was in these meetings, playing the softy," the professor said.
The tapes also hint that White House officials had early intelligence indicating that Soviet forces had brought tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba. Those weapons could have been used to annihilate any invasion force. The presence of such weapons became public at a 1992 conference in Cuba.
Kennedy told his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, that he believed he would have been impeached if he had not opposed the Soviet weapons in Cuba, even if it was a hugely risky and politically nerve-racking move.
The president repeatedly says in the tapes that Khrushchev's offer to remove his missiles from Cuba if the United States would remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey was "reasonable" and "a very fair trade."
Ultimately Kennedy agreed to such a removal as a secret condition of the deal that ended the Cuban crisis.
"I think you are going to find it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba [when Khrushchev] is saying, 'If you'll get yours out of Turkey, we'll get ours out of Cuba,' " Kennedy says. "It's going to look to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man like a very fair trade."
Although the tapes released this week represent the last of the available recordings from the Cuban missile crisis period, another 200 hours covering August 1962 to October 1963 remain to be released.
Some historians have criticized the Kennedy Presidential Library for not moving more quickly to release the tapes, but library officials have blamed national security agencies for long de-clas-sifi-cation reviews that have only recently been streamlined by a new law.
Thirty-two minutes were cut from the tapes released this week on grounds of national security, almost all of it in snippets of a few seconds each.
New insights expected
"I think the history of the Kennedy administration is going to be rewritten in the next 10 years," says Sherwin, at Tufts. "There's all this information that's just going to pour out," potentially including new insights into discussions about Cuba, Vietnam, civil rights and plans for the 1964 campaign.
Although exciting to historians for their you-are-there quality, the tapes are an imperfect record.
As copies of copies of recordings made by microphones in electrical outlets, they contain many incomprehensible passages and unknown speakers. Determining dates and participants requires much research.
Also, they are not necessarily completely candid moments: Kennedy controlled the recorders with a button at his Oval Office desk or Cabinet Room table, but Robert Kennedy -- as well as the president's secretary and some Secret Service agents -- knew of the recording system, which the president is thought to have installed to help compile his memoirs later.
Pub Date: 10/26/96