Skip to main content

The Endgame of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Most of the documents in this posting are never-before-published records discovered at the U.S. National Archives among the State Department’s central files and the records of the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) at Çiğli Air Base in Turkey, 1963. A squadron of 15 Jupiters became operational there in March 1962.,Photo courtesy of the late Lewis Mills

Washington, D.C., February 16, 2023 - Harvard professor and future Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger discussed the U.S. withdrawal of Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) from Italy during January 1963 talks with top Italian officials and diplomats, including Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani and President Antonio Segni, according to a declassified telegram from the U.S. Embassy in Rome. Segni felt some “pique” that the decision had been made at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and that three months had passed before his government learned about it. According to Kissinger, “almost everyone” he talked to in Rome believed that there had been a U.S.-Soviet “agreement” on the Jupiter withdrawal, with some of them pointing to an April 1 “deadline” for beginning the removals as an important clue.

Kissinger and his Italian interlocutors had no inside knowledge of White House policymaking but they were touching on one of the biggest secrets of the Cuban Missile Crisis: the undisclosed deal between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in which the U.S. would remove Jupiter missiles in Turkey (and, by extension, the Jupiters in Italy) as part of the agreement for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba.[1] Only nine U.S. officials knew of the deal at the time: President Kennedy, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, Deputy Secretary of State George Ball, and White House adviser Theodore Sorensen.[2] Of that group, those who lived past the 1960s and 70s—Bundy, Rusk, Sorensen and McNamara, for example—kept the secret for years, not fully acknowledging the official status of the agreement until 1989, when former Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin disclosed the details of his October 27, 1962, meeting with Robert Kennedy.[3]

Kissinger’s report to the U.S. Embassy on Italian suspicions is one of 35 declassified documents on the implementation of the Kennedy-Khrushchev secret deal published today by the National Security Archive and the Wilson Center's Nuclear Proliferation International History Project. This posting, the first of two parts, helps reconstruct the main elements of the endgame of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 60 years later. Part I looks at the early stages, during the months immediately following the Missile Crisis, when the Kennedy administration developed and began to implement its basic approach, quietly building consensus through secret outreach to the governments of Italy and Turkey. By late January 1963, Italy was on board (albeit with some mixed feelings), but Turkey had only agreed in principle to withdrawing the Jupiters. As Part II will document, reaching an agreement with Turkey was complicated by the Turkish military’s reluctance to do so. Moreover, NATO had to be brought into the understanding on the Jupiters, and a formal agreement with Italy was yet to be negotiated.

Documents in this posting illuminate the reactions of senior Italian and Turkish officials to U.S. proposals to remove Jupiter missiles and replace them with Polaris submarine patrols in the Mediterranean.[4] Turkish Defense Minister İlhami Sancar expressed concern to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara about the impact that the U.S. withdrawal of the Jupiters would have on his country’s “confidence” in the U.S. and the possibility of “moral[e] depression.” While generally accepting the Jupiter withdrawal, Italian Defense Minister Giulio Andreotti told U.S. Ambassador G. Frederick Reinhardt that it would be a “graphic step backward” in terms of Italy's participation in nuclear deterrence.

Further complicating negotiations was Turkey’s insistence on “full Turkish crews” for the Polaris submarines, a proposal that U.S. negotiators rejected. To help make the bitter pill of Jupiter withdrawal more palatable to Turkey, the U.S. government promised earlier delivery of F-104G fighter-bomber squadrons, but Ankara was told that this would depend on “progress in negotiations that it is clear GOT [Government of Turkey] will agree to dismantle Jupiters.” This intended use of leverage would prove not to be as effective as the U.S. may have anticipated.

Sources of the Documents

Most of the documents in this posting are never-before-published records discovered at the U.S. National Archives among the State Department’s central files and the records of the U.S. Embassy in Rome. Other important documents were found at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Both parts of this posting will also include material from Italian archives. Today’s posting features pages from the daily diary of Italian Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani concerning his mid-January 1963 meetings with Kennedy and McNamara on the Jupiter-Polaris replacement. One entry indicates that the Prime Minister raised the possibility of a U.S.-Soviet deal on the Jupiters, which both Kennedy and McNamara denied.

Kissinger’s finding that “almost everyone” among senior Italian government officials suspected a U.S.-Soviet “agreement” on the Jupiters was not the only time such suspicions surfaced. In the days and weeks after the crisis began to dissipate, mid-level State Department officials discussed rumors that President Kennedy had favored a deal and had a “keen interest” in getting the Jupiters out. In the months after the crisis, McNamara and Rusk tried to batten down suspicions of a deal, testifying before Congress that there had been no such thing. But doubts persisted. Senator John Stennis (D-Ms), among other Senators, was convinced there had been a trade.[5]


If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Perspectives on the Jupiter-Polaris Arrangement

It was essential for the Kennedy administration to implement the secret deal and make good on a commitment to the Soviet leadership, but executing it had its complexities. While Khrushchev focused mainly on the Jupiters in Turkey, withdrawing the IRBMs from Italy was also a U.S. goal. Under a coherent policy, the U.S. could not leave Jupiters anywhere on NATO territory, although this made the diplomacy more complicated. And the withdrawal of the Jupiters could not be completely secret because it had to be carefully and delicately coordinated with Italy and Turkey, whose governments had signed agreements accepting the missiles. Both were NATO allies, and Washington could not ride roughshod over them.

To minimize suspicions of a U.S.-Soviet deal, the reasoning for the Jupiter withdrawals would be carefully explained to Italian, Turkish, and other NATO interlocutors. Senior U.S. officials could not couch it simply as a matter of withdrawing the missiles; instead, the justification was to replace an obsolete and dangerous weapon system, the Jupiters, with modern and relatively invulnerable Polaris missile-launching submarines operating in Mediterranean waters. To make things look more credible, the U.S. presented the withdrawal to the Italians as part of a package that would also include the “modernization” of NATO’s Southern European Task Force (SETAF) through the replacement of “obsolete” Corporal missiles with more modern Sergeants.

The ExComm[6] discussions during the crisis foreshadowed key elements of the Jupiter-Polaris approach. Those who supported removing the Jupiters as an element of a negotiated settlement included UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who took the lead in proposing the idea, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, with some support from Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Basic to the argument made by McNamara and others was that the U.S. could treat Polaris missiles as a superior replacement to vulnerable and obsolete Jupiter missiles. For example, Johnson suggested that the U.S. could tell Turkish officials that by swapping Jupiters for Polaris, “We’re gonna give you more protection than ever…with less advertising. And it’s gonna make it less likely you’ll get hit” with Soviet missiles.[7]

Italy and Turkey presented very different diplomatic problems. As McGeorge Bundy observed during an ExComm meeting, referring to the messages from Ambassador Reinhardt in Italy and the Ambassador to Turkey, Raymond Hare (documents 1 and 2), the situations were as different as “night and day.” Italian officials were already receptive to the notion of removing the Jupiters in favor of more up-to-date nuclear delivery systems.[8] At the same time, the Italian inclination for removal made things potentially more complicated, as both the Italian military and Italian diplomats were hoping for the Jupiters to be replaced with Polaris missiles to be deployed aboard the Italian cruiser Garibaldi, on which the Italian navy had installed four launching pits.

Turkish officials, however, had shown no such disposition about the Jupiters, and persuading them would be difficult. Vice President Johnson, who would not be told about the secret deal, observed that the downside was that Turkey might “fear that we were through [with it] and we wouldn’t come [to its defense.]” Johnson’s argument, along with concern about the broader impact on NATO, was shared by others inside and outside the ExComm, who were skeptical about a missile deal. Kennedy listened to the ExComm critics, but their opposition “toughened his determination” that a deal with Khrushchev was essential to minimize the risks of conflict.[9]

As the crisis progressed, the Soviet Union focused on the removal of the Turkish Jupiters, and President Kennedy became more and more interested in a trade, a possible solution began to take shape in which the Italian missiles would be removed to facilitate the withdrawal of the Turkish ones. Ambassador Hare suggested that an Italian agreement to dismantle the missiles, coupled with the British abandoning of the Thors (which had already been agreed upon) “could be helpful in approaching Turks” (see document 2). In an ExComm meeting, McNamara observed that a possible solution was to “get Italy to go along with us,” saying that “this will put some additional pressure on Turkey.” The best way to do this, according to McNamara, would be to emphasize the obsolescence of the Jupiter as a weapon system and remove the Turkish IRBMs together with the Italian and the British missiles.[10]

The Limits of the Declassified Record and Continuing Mysteries

Reconstructing the diplomacy of the Jupiter withdrawal is difficult because, even 60 years later, many documents remain classified at the National Archives. Defense Department records on the Jupiters are not available, and dozens of documents have been withdrawn from the State Department files at the National Archives. This is partly because of inertia: As far as can be told, very few researchers—aside from the editors of this posting—have requested declassification of the records, especially those concerning Turkey. Also, around 2001, many documents were removed from State Department archival files and reclassified. What may have triggered the reclassifications by the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense are some occasional references to nuclear weapons stored in Italy and Turkey but also the fact that the Jupiter was considered to be a nuclear delivery system.

The Department of Defense has treated—not always consistently—the presence of the Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey as a secret. Thus, when the Pentagon has reviewed documents for declassification, it has excised references to both countries, sometimes using the specious reasoning that declassifying 50- or 60-year-old records “would cause serious harm to relations between the United States and a foreign government, or to ongoing diplomatic activities of the United States government.” Yet the Italian Air Force recently re-released a semi-official history, first published in 2012, that tells the story of the Italian unit that supported the Jupiter bases, the 36ma Aero Brigata di Interdizione Strategica [36th Aerial Strategic Interdiction Brigade] (ABIS). The publication includes many photos, interviews with the men who operated the missiles, and a detailed explanation of the weapon system, along with original diagrams of the operating instructions.[11]

One aspect of the Jupiter withdrawal story that is not easily reconstructed is the role of President Kennedy during the weeks and months after the secret deal. Only a smattering of documents in this collection shed light on this point, such as a document citing his “keen interest” in the Jupiters in November 1962 and others describing how, in December 1962, Kennedy pressed McNamara and other officials to move forward. One document indicates that Kennedy approved the State Department’s diplomatic strategy after Rusk and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Thomas Finletter presented it to him on January 5, 1963, during a trip to Palm Beach, Florida. Kennedy also spoke about the Jupiter-Polaris arrangement at length when he met with Italian Prime Minister Fanfani in mid-January. Additional light may be shed on Kennedy’s involvement when still-secret State Department and Pentagon records at the U.S. National Archives are declassified. Other documents, unknown to the editors, may be at the Kennedy Presidential Library. Some material, however, has not survived, such as Rusk’s records of his telephone conversations during the Cuban Missile Crisis and with President Kennedy throughout the administration.

It is worth mentioning here an additional mystery. In his conversation with Fanfani, Kennedy dropped a slightly encouraging hint to the Italian prime minister about the possibility of replacing the Jupiters by deploying the Polaris aboard an Italian ship, the Garibaldi, despite the fact that, in his briefing papers, this solution was characterized unfavorably. And yet it was Fanfani who let the matter drop, according to the available records of their conversation (both in English and in Italian). For Fanfani, probably more important than the Garibaldi proposal were the domestic political implications of the Jupiter removal, especially avoiding any adverse impact on his government coalition, which relied on the support of the Socialist Party, a firm opponent of any nuclear deployments in Italy.

The U.S. government’s management of the Jupiter problem coincided with consequential developments in U.K.-U.S. relations, including the tense and difficult meetings between Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Nassau on December 20-21, 1962. There, Kennedy and Macmillan resolved how the U.S. government would manage its decision to abandon the Skybolt air-to-surface missile, which the British had counted on to extend their nuclear deterrent force. Instead, Kennedy offered, and Macmillan accepted, Polaris submarines and missiles coupled with possible British participation in a NATO multilateral force.[12] Needless to say, the complicated arrangements discussed at Nassau utterly baffled Italian diplomats, who were asked to make sense of them and figure out what this all meant for their country’s own strategic ambitions in the context of the withdrawal of the Jupiters.

To manage the U.S. government’s implementation of these decisions, the State Department and the Defense Department created a Nassau decisions steering group and folded the Jupiter missile problem into its work. According to Rusk’s instructions, the handful of participants working on the Jupiter issue would operate on a “more classified basis” than the other Nassau issues. Only those with a “need-to-know” would be involved. Such restrictions would ensure that only limited numbers of diplomats and defense officials knew about the Jupiter-Polaris negotiations.

* * * * *

Co-editor Leopoldo Nuti is professor of international history at Roma Tre University and co-director of the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project. A graduate of the University of Florence (Laurea), George Washington University, (M.A. in International Affairs) and the University of Rome (Ph.D. in History of International Relations), Professor Nuti has held numerous fellowships and visiting professorships, including a Fulbright, Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute, Research Fellow at the CSIA, Harvard University, Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, and Visiting Professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. He has published extensively in Italian, English and French on U.S.-Italian relations and Italian foreign and security policy. His books include: L'esercito italiano nel secondo dopoguerra, 1945-1950. La sua ricostruzione e l'assistenza militare alleata, (Roma: Ufficio Storico dello Stato Maggiore Esercito, 1989), I missili di ottobre. La storiografia americana e la crisi cubana del 1962 (Milano: LED, 1994), Gli Stati Uniti e l'apertura a sinistra. Importanza e limiti della presenza americana in Italia (Roma: Laterza, 1999), La sfida nucleare. La politica estera italiana e le armi nucleari, 1945-1991, (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2007). As a co-editor, Professor Nuti’s latest books are The Euromissiles Crisis and the End of the Cold War (with Frédéric Bozo, Marie Pierre Rey, and Bernd Rother), (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015) and The Making of the Global Nuclear Order in the 1970s (with David Holloway) (Abingdon: Routledge, 2021).

* * * * *

Note: Thanks to MIchelle De Martino and Stacey Chandler, archivists at the John F. Kennedy Presidential LIbrary, for their invaluable aid. 

To read the documents referenced in this article click here.