Friday, December 31, 2010

Chapter III -- Harvard, Havana and Nukes

Later in 1953, McNaughton returned to Harvard, to be an associate professor in the Harvard Law School, becoming a full professor in 1956. McNaughton became involved in arms control in the Fall of 1960 when Harvard colleague Thomas Schelling encouraged him to participate in the Harvard-MIT Arms Control Seminar.  Seminar participants comprised America’s foremost group in arms control and included Schelling, Henry Kissinger, Walt Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, Abram Chayes, Morton Halperin, Jerome Weisner, Milton Katz and Paul Doty.  The Harvard-MIT seminar group participants would advance many of the arms control tenets and proposals that McNaughton furthered after he came to Washington a year later. [i] 

Arms Control Summit with Soviets and William Averell Harriman
(McNaughton at left facing center of table wearing black glasses)

McNaughton, who initially worked for former Illinois Democratic governor Adlai Stevenson II during the presidential primary campaign for the 1960 election, had become increasingly supportive of John F. Kennedy after Kennedy secured the party’s nomination. [ii]  After the new administration took office, McNaughton took a one-year sabbatical from Harvard, entering the Pentagon’s International Security Agency (ISA), first as a consultant and then as Deputy for Arms Control under Paul Nitze beginning October of 1961.  “We reached out far and wide to find the best and the brightest to come to the Department of Defense,” said Robert McNamara, “Harvard law review people and Rhodes Scholars.  John was both.” [iii]   A lull in arms control activity prompted a move to the position of General Counsel of the Defense Department, where McNaughton worked on the country’s most vexing Cold War issues including nuclear proliferation, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and America’s posture regarding the building of the Berlin Wall.

In White House with President John F. Kennedy (McNaughton at far right with bow tie)

Just one year after coming to Washington, and twenty years after enlisting in the Navy, McNaughton was General Counsel in the Department of Defense when he called upon his experience at sea as he played a key role in modern history’s most perilous period.  On Wednesday October 17, 1962 McNamara’s Special Assistant Adam Yarmolinsky approached McNaughton’s office to inform him of intelligence photographs verifying the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.  The photos had been shown around key places in Washington two days earlier, but the General Counsel was not among the first to be brought into the loop.  At 10 pm on Friday, October 19, with the crisis deepening, McNamara tracked McNaughton down and said “are you willing to go to work tonight?’ 

For the next three days and nights McNaughton led working sessions that hammered out a quarantine proclamation and the detailed procedures outlining how the U.S. fleet should conduct operations with respect to ships encountered by the blockade.  At 7:00 pm October 22 McNamara and McNaughton watched from the television in McNamara’s office as Kennedy told an anxious nation to “…let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can see precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead--months in which our patience and our will will be tested--months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.”

With tensions mounting, McNamara and McNaughton breakfasted on Wednesday, October 24, the morning the quarantine was to begin, and discussed a crescendo message to the Soviets which would increasingly signal the seriousness of U.S. intent, without immediately escalating to an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.  McNamara said, “What we want to do is first have a friendly ship, a Swedish or British ship, then we want an Iron Curtain but not a Soviet ship, and then we want a Soviet ship, then we might have a Soviet submarine."   McNaughton, the experienced captain, was amused and asked McNamara if he had ever spent any time at sea “because the chances of finding what you’re looking for just aren’t all that great.”  

On Friday October 27, United Nation’s Secretary U Thant received the U.S. message, largely crafted by McNaughton, which mapped the quarantine boundary area five hundred miles offshore from Cuba, where inbound ships would be intercepted.  U Thant took the message to the Soviets, who read it carefully and refused to accept it.  “Saturday” said McNaughton later, “was a crucial day.   I remember going home that night.  The two nights prior I’d been in the Pentagon all night, and my wife commented that things must have improved.  I told her that that was not the case: that war, if it was going to start, was in the next two days, and that I just needed some rest in order to be ready.”   That Saturday morning a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, the Cubans had fired at two low-flying U.S. aircraft, and a Soviet ship was proceeding toward the island with no signs of stopping.  “With this momentum,” said McNaughton, “I didn’t know whether history and everything else dictate that then you had gone this far – whether things could be stopped, and I had this very strange feeling.  That night, I recall taking a look at our basement to see what we had down there in the way of canned goods, bottled water and the like.” [iv]

On Monday, October 29, McNaughton dropped off papers in McNamara’s office and asked “What do you want me to do now?” to which McNamara replied “Take the afternoon off.”   McNaughton went back to his office, called a friend and scheduled tennis for the next morning.  In a speech aired on Radio Moscow, Khrushchev had announced the dismantling of Soviet missiles in Cuba.   

[i]               Rational Man – Irrational Policy (A Political Biography of John McNaughton’s Involvement in the Vietnam War) Essay by Thomas W. Janes March 31, 1977
[ii]               November 14, 1964 oral history interview with Larry McQuade for JFK library.
[iii]              Robert S. McNamara phone interview, July 11, 2003
[iv]              John T. McNaughton oral history interview with Larry McQuade, Nov. 14, 1964, declassified December 27, 1995,  JFK Library.

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