Part 2: A crisis of the greatest magnitude unfolds

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By Ron Van Stockum

This is the last in a  series about Gen. David M. Shoup, who rose from heroism to serving the Marines at the highest level. Today: The Cuban Missile Crisis,


When Gen. David M. Shoup took over as Commandant of the Marine Corps under President John F. Kennedy, the job initially had its moments for rounds of golf with the staff, which I enjoyed on several occasions.

But before 1962 – his third year on the job – was done, he faced more serious challenges than how to win a bet at the golf course.

On Oct. 16, 1962, a crisis of the greatest magnitude developed.  President Kennedy and his principal foreign policy and national defense officials were briefed regarding photos taken by high-flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft.

These revealed that missile bases were being developed in Cuba and that these bases obviously were being constructed and manned by the USSR.

Two courses of action were offered: air strike and invasion or a naval quarantine.  To avoid arousing the public, Kennedy maintained his regular schedule, but the following day military units began moving to bases in the Southeastern United States.

At this time, I, in my new role as head of the Marine reserves, attended a top-secret conference of general officers called by Gen. Shoup. He showed us enlarged photos that clearly revealed these installations and their obvious purpose.  It had also been determined by our intelligence that they were being armed with nuclear warheads.

Gen. Shoup immediately increased the staffing of the Command Center at his headquarters and added a general officer to the watch list.  This center was similar to a command post in combat, available to accumulate information and take appropriate action.

I took my turn on the watch along with my fellow generals.  Though this Soviet threat had not yet been revealed to the public, those of us involved had great concern for our families living in the area.  The threat of a nuclear missile falling on Washington was real, almost imminent.

  The crisis unfolds

On Oct. 18 Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko visited President Kennedy to assert that Soviet aid to Cuba was purely defensive.  Without revealing what he knew about the existence of the missiles, the president warned of “gravest consequences” if Soviet offensive weapons were introduced into Cuba.                       

On Oct. 22, the president went on national TV and radio and publicly announced the presence of missiles in Cuba.  He further declared that, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union upon the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

On Oct. 26, unknown at that time to Kennedy, Fidel Castro, in a private letter, urged Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to initiate a nuclear first strike against the United States in the event of an American invasion of Cuba.

A translated copy of this letter may be found on line in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, “The World On the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” It said, in part:

 “If  . . . the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event, the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.

“ . . . I believe that the imperialists' aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba – a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law – then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense.  However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.”

  The solution

On this same day, President Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba. 

On Oct 27, the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, an amphibious assault unit aboard the USS Iwo Jima, accompanied by supporting naval vessels, sailed from the West Coast for the Caribbean, via the Panama Canal.

This brigade, consisting of about 1,500 marines, along with helicopters to land them, was commanded by Brig. Gen. William Fairbourn USMC, who had been my immediate predecessor as Director of the Reserve.

In the meantime there were urgent exchanges of messages, and almost frantic diplomatic meetings between representatives of the United States and the USSR.

Early on Sunday, Oct. 28, I encountered little traffic as I drove from my home in nearby Falls Church, Va.  Having time to reflect, I arrived in a serious and sober mood at Marine Corps Headquarters in the Naval Annex, Arlington, Va. 

To my surprise, upon entering the gate, I found a completely relaxed atmosphere, the diametric opposite of what I had encountered before.

The night before, in a secret meeting between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Union had agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba.

In an additional secret understanding, the United States agreed eventually to remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

  About Vietnam

On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency.  Six weeks later, on Dec. 31, Gen. Shoup’s term as Commandant ended, and he was replaced by Gen. Wallace Greene.

Shoup had expressed his opinion that the United States should never become involved in a ground war in Southeast Asia.  General Greene aggressively supported President Johnson’s policy of deeper involvement in Vietnam.

One can only ponder how our involvement in Vietnam might have differed had Kennedy continued as president and the outspoken Shoup had been reappointed as Marine Corps Commandant.

Kennedy had thoroughly considered all of the options and, without backing down, had negotiated a diplomatic solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Had he survived, would he have avoided the morass of Vietnam?

We shall never know.

After his retirement, Shoup described President Johnson’s contention that the Vietnam War was vital to the United States interests as “pure, unadulterated poppycock.”  In 1966, he told students of Pierce College in Los Angeles, that “the whole of Southeast Asia was not worth a single American life.” 

I last saw Gen. Shoup, in the early 1970s, shortly after we returned to Kentucky.  He and his wife, Zola, were en route to visit the general’s birthplace, Battleground, Indiana.  We took them both to dinner and found that Zola was her usual gracious self but that Gen. Shoup was unusually quiet and did not seem to be in good health.

He died in 1983 at the age of 78, after a long illness, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

  A footnote

An amazing reservoir of knowledge exists on the internet.  For the presidential ponderings and decisions, I accessed The John F. Kennedy Library online, which includes transcripts of meetings, verbatim copies of correspondence and White House Diaries associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis.