“Print The Legend” Ethics Again: The Cuban Missile Crisis “Blink”

blink map

It is certainly in part a case of tweeking a rival, but the Washington Post and its “Factchecker,” Glenn Kessler, properly exposed a New York Times columnists’ perpetuation of a popular historical misconception, and worse, that paper’s adamant refusal to correct it.

The columnist was Thomas Friedman, one of the Times’ stable of liberal pundits, and the quote was this, in the opening sentence of of one of the many Obama foreign policy reclamation columns that have appeared lately from the President’s journalistic Maginot Line:

“There was a moment at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 when Soviet ships approached to within just a few miles of a U.S. naval blockade and then, at the last minute, turned back — prompting then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk to utter one of the most famous lines from the Cold War: ‘We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.’”

Kessler gives Friedman a full “four Pinocchios,” for the simple reason that this is untrue, a myth, a proven historical inaccuracy that has been enshrined in film, print, and Kennedy hagiography. He writes…

“Michael Dobbs, in his 2008 book “One Minute to Midnight,” demonstrated conclusively that there was no high seas engagement. Sixteen missile-carrying Soviet ships had already been turned around on the orders of Premier Nikita Khrushchev the day before. …The orders were issued early in the morning of Oct. 23, 1962.

Of course, President John F. Kennedy and his aides did not know that on the morning of Oct. 24 as they awaited a potential clash. An aircraft carrier group led by the USS Essex had orders to intercept the Kimovsk and her submarine escort. Kennedy nervously canceled the intercept, issuing an order to the Essex: “Secret. From Highest Authority. Do Not Stop And Board. Keep Under Surveillance.”

At the time, Dobbs concluded, Kimovsk was nearly 800 miles away from the Essex, not “just a few miles.” This was all eventually figured out by U.S. intelligence analysts — here are the CIA records obtained by Dobbs — but the White House failed to correct the historical record. After all, the eyeball to eyeball imagery was simply too good for political memoirs.”

I have some personal knowledge of this revision of the popular chapter of the Camelot legend. In 2008, I directed “The Titans,” an original stage dramatization of the Cuban Missile crisis, written by my old friend (and Ethics Hero Emeritus,) the late Robert McElwaine. Bob had interviewed living participants in the event, and reviewed official correspondence and de-classified documents. His conclusion, embodied in the play (which used mostly the recorded words of the participants): Nikita Khrushchev voluntarily pulled the world back from the brink of nuclear war, and to the extent that there was one, was the hero of the infamous Thirteen Days. The Kennedy family had blocked the first planned production of the play; my theater company was the second. Dobbs’ book came out that same year, and we invited him to see the show and talk to the audience afterwards.

No historian, and not even the Kennedys, who were happy to ride the mistaken account as long as it held up, have challenged Dobbs’ conclusion. They can’t: the documentation is irrefutable, and has been for eight long years. OK, Friedman didn’t check his history; that would be no great sin (or at least not a rare one), and not worthy of Kessler’s criticism, or perhaps even mine. Except for this: after Dobbs and Kessler both pointed out the error, the Times and Friedman refused to correct it, and continued to imply that it was all just an ongoing  dispute over what happened over 50 years ago,


Actually, this is about:

  • A columnist and a respected (why, I do not know) news source negligently stating a disproven account as factual
  • A newspaper not having the integrity, humility, responsibility and courage to admit it made a mistake and correct it, and
  • The columnist then disingenuously characterizing what he wrote, in a pathetic defense.

Friedman wrote, in an e-mail to Kessler:

“As my editors explained to Michael Dobbs, I used the Dean Rusk quote — “the other fellow just blinked” — in the context in which Dean Rusk made it — that he believed Soviet naval vessels had gotten very near our blockade in 1962 and turned around, averting a crisis. My column was not about either Rusk or the precise longitude and latitude of the Soviet ships per se. I was writing about another moment in history when our statesmen thought the leader in the Kremlin blinked. Obviously historians have different views on this, since Robert Caro, as Dobbs notes, used the same story in the 2012 edition of his giant biography of Lyndon Johnson. Michael disputes that and we printed his essay saying so. I have not done a survey of the historical literature to know whether all historians now agree on that fact. It was not what I was writing about. I was writing about what Rusk said and believed when he said it.”

Kessler points out that the Caro biography did exactly what Friedman did—recount the popular story without checking the documentation. There is no “dispute.” The documents now available prove that the ships were never close. Moreover, Friedman’s characterization of what he wrote is a lie. His essay states as fact that the ships were “within just a few miles,” which just isn’t true. He doesn’t say that Rusk made his famous quote while thinking this was the case. Friedman states that it was the case.

As I have recounted here many times for the film Western-challenged (and shame on you all), John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” is about a man whose entire, celebrated, momentously successful life—his career, his fame, even his relationship with his wife—was based on the belief that he performed a legendary heroic act that he knows was secretly done by someone else (John Wayne, in fact.) Years later, the man (James Stewart) comes to the scene of his fame to confess all and tell the true story to the local newspaper editor, who refuses to print the story, saying…

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Ford, late in his career and life, was bemoaning the fact that ideology and mythology dominated the reality of the Old West, interfering with the nation’s acknowledging and confronting its more complex contradictions, transgressions and challenges. Ford was prescient: this tendency is not healthy, and not just regarding the West. The old editor was a lousy and unethical journalist, abusing his duties by deciding that the public was better off believing a lie. Friedman and the Times nonetheless appear to be adopting the old editor’s philosophy, leading to the unavoidable question…

What else are they negligently, lazily…or intentionally…misleading the public about?

Facts and Graphic: Washington Post

Source: New York Times




6 thoughts on ““Print The Legend” Ethics Again: The Cuban Missile Crisis “Blink”

  1. The issue that I consider most important – and least publicised – is that if the US had tried an invasion, there were
    a) Operational cruise missiles (“Salish” FKR-1 SSC-2) and supersonic unguided rockets (“Luna-M” 95K2b FROG-7) with nuclear warheads in Cuba. The rough equivalent of US “Regulus” and “Honest John” systems respectively.
    b) Local Soviet military commanders had authority to use them without consulting higher authority, and planned to do so at the first indication of invasion.
    c) There were as far as we know approximately 100 nuclear warheads in Cuba in the kiloton range, for use on cruise missiles, tactical rockets and Il-28N “Beagle” bombers.
    d) The latter were tasked with hitting airbases in Florida.

    When Khruschev heard about b) and especially d), his reaction was to go ape. After that, all such weapons were kept on a very, very tight leash.

    • Khruschev issued a directive from Oct 26th removing the local control of the nukes, and by December they had quietly been withdrawn.

    • There was also the issue of Fidel Castro himself. Castro is said to have personally launched the missile that brought down an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which helped bring the crisis to a head. Krushchev had every right to worry that the Cubans would take over these scattered missile sites and launch a nuclear strike on America. Included in the Soviet arsenal were IRBMs capable of hitting Washington and New York.

      • Yet, I don’t think Castro would have done it. As bold a maneuver as it seems, engaging in behavior that WILL bring about the immediate and complete destruction of one’s country, will be avoided until the destruction of one’s country is truly imminent. I doubt Castro really felt that cornered.

        • I don’t know if Fidel was completely rational in those days. I’d bet Nikita wasn’t sure, either. In any case, the old Shoe Warrior knew that if a nuclear missile rose from Cuba against America, SAC would be coming against Russia all-out. That’s not a chance he’d have wanted to take.

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