RFK records on missile crisis released

There’s nothing like a big anniversary to galvanize the gatekeepers of history into action. Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, we are finally going to get to see the personal notes and records of Robert F. Kennedy, which have been held hostage to a long-running ownership dispute between RFK’s family and the National Archives. 

Bobby Kennedy served as his brother Jack’s closest adviser and alter ego during the crisis, which brought the world the closest we have ever come to nuclear destruction. His contemporaneous notes will examined closely by historians as a unique window into the thinking of the late president as he sought to avoid nuclear war and negotiate a diplomatic solution with his Soviet opposite number, Nikita Khrushchev.

JFK Library officials in Boston plan to put hundreds of previously withheld documents online Thursday morning, prior to a conference of missile crisis experts that the library is hosting on Sunday. The new documents include memos between the two brothers written during the so-called “thirteen days” that marked the peak of the crisis between October 16 and October 28 1962, when Khrushchev finally agreed to withdraw his missiles.

A source who has seen the documents said that they include several versions of a note written by Bobby Kennedy on the night of October 27, following his meeting with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Acting on JFK’s orders, Bobby Kennedy made a secret promise to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey as a concession to Khrushchev. The episode remained secret from other members of the ExComm, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who had been urging the president to take a tougher line with Khrushchev.

The newly-released records, which amount to 2,700 pages, also include memos dictated by Bobby Kennedy on Operation Mongoose, a sabotage campaign designed to overthrow Fidel Castro by October 1962. Although the bungled sabotage effort had little chance of succeeding, it was one of the factors that provoked Khrushchev into sending nuclear weapons to Cuba.

The release of the documents follows protracted negotiations between the National Archives and the family of Bobby Kennedy, who served as attorney general in the Kennedy administration. The Kennedy family has been pushing the JFK Library for a special building to house the RFK records, and has also explored the possibility of selling the papers.

The agreement between the Kennedy family and the National Archives to release the Cuban missile crisis records sidesteps the question of ownership. Dozens of other boxes containing RFK records remain withheld from researchers -- at least for the time being.

JFK Library