The Roberts, McNamara and Kennedy, along with the rest of Kennedy’s vital staff, were locked in heated debate over the efficacy of a naval blockade, military action, and various diplomatic resolutions in response to Khrushchev’s placing nuclear weapons in Cuba. If America invaded, they risked the Soviet’s invading Berlin and nuclear retaliation. But if America was too conciliatory, they would lose their upper hand in future negotiations and undermine America’s dominance.
They had been penned up in the situation room for days and the President had just delivered a speech to the American public outlining Khrushchev’s actions and the days ahead. American soldiers were beginning to pool in Miami in preparation for an invasion of Cuba. Castro was pleading with Khrushchev to let him fire a missile as a preemptive strike. Several visits to the Russian embassy only resulted in denial after denial and the UN was powerless in handling the two superpowers. Adlai Stevenson had berated the Russian delegation with concrete evidence of nuclear missiles in Cuba, only to be met with resignation. America’s Navy boarded and searched several Russian ships before they could reach Cuba, prompting strong words from the Kremlin, describing the Navy as “pirates”. The country was in a state of panic on the verge of nuclear annihilation.
But on October 26, Khrushchev blinked first; sending a telegram to the White House stating that the Soviet Union would remove the missiles for the American promise to not invade Cuba.
The room scrambled to dissect the telegram, presumably sent by a very nervous Khrushchev without the discretion of his staff. But the next day, October 27th, Khrushchev’s cronies sent a second telegram demanding that America remove NATO’s warheads from Turkey in exchange for the Cuban missiles. The room split on how to respond to the telegram without sacrificing American superiority.
But Robert Kennedy, recognizing that Khrushchev had already shown his hand, suggested that they respond to and accept the terms of the first telegram without even addressing the second.
“The State Department submitted a draft of a letter for response… It answered the arguments made in Khrushchev’s latest letter… I disagreed with the content and tenor of the letter. I suggested… that we ignore the latest Khrushchev letter…”
–Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis
That night, RFK and Ted Sorenson sat in the Oval Office and wrote up the telegram. JFK revised it, signed it, and sent it off to the Kremlin.
Shortly thereafter, the UN brokered a deal between the Soviet Union and America that would remove and dismantle nuclear weapons in Cuba in exchange for America’s not invading Cuba, without any official remarks made about America’s removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Fast-forward 51 years to a house party somewhere in Gainesville, Florida, where the echoes of Rob Kennedy could still be heard. My friend, after ½ a SOLO cup of tequila, leans over and describes to me his intentions with a girl at the party.
“She has a boyfriend.”
“So? I’ll just Rob Kennedy it.”
What Connor had done that night was the quintessential example of the Rob Kennedy. He received the telegram that stated she was a girl in a skimpy dress. But rather than address the second telegram that said, ”I have a boyfriend,” he went ahead and began to respond to the terms of the first communiqué with longing stares and flirty conversation. At first I was skeptical of the Rob Kennedy but as I drove to pick him up the next morning from her apartment, all doubt was removed.
But the Rob Kennedy is not constrained to the Cuban Missile Crisis or Connor’s “Missile Crisis. Rather, it is apparent through history at all scales. Czar Nicholas II did it with his subjects. Mussolini did it with the Abyssinian Accords. Al Capone did it with his income taxes. But these characters didn’t fare well in the aftermath of their use of the Rob Kennedy. The very basis of our society operates on premise of the Rob Kennedy and that’s why we’re doomed to fail.
We consume natural resources as if they’re indefinite. We pollute as if the environment can mediate any amount. We treat people as if they’re replaceable. It may offer a better standard of living for those who take part in the exploitation, but only temporarily. This culture of blissful ignorance (even when feigned) is not sustainable, but it’s become so ingrained in all our actions that any change to current status that takes into account the wellbeing of the future is resisted to the point of vilification.
It only worked for Rob Kennedy because he did take the repercussions of his actions into consideration when he met secretly with Anatoly Dobrynin the night of October 27th to negotiate the covert removal of the Turkish missiles before Khrushchev would agree to the telegram. The fault of the Rob Kennedy approach lies in its not truly dealing with the issue at hand, but rather brushing it off and pretending like it doesn’t exist. But just because we throw something away in a garbage can doesn’t mean it doesn’t take up space in a landfill and pollute the land and water around it. It eventually gets back to us; all we can do is hope that we’re not around when it does.