Relentless: JFK on Cuba; Putin on Ukraine

Image credits: The world is treading the same thin line that the US did during the Cuban missile crisis. [The Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records]

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?"

By Ray McGovern

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).


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