15. Memorandum From the Ambassador at Large (Bowles) to President Kennedy0


A week ago Ambassador Dobrynin called my office to say that he understood I was leaving for Africa and would like to have our “long postponed luncheon” before my departure.

I met him at the U.S.S.R. Embassy on 16th Street at 1 p.m. on October 13th. With the exception of an occasional exchange of courtesies at diplomatic functions, this was the first time I had talked with him.

It was a frank, free-wheeling discussion, lasting more than an hour and a half. Dobrynin’s manner was pleasant, with a show of reasonableness and concern about the current drift in Soviet-American relations.

At my first opportunity, I expressed deep disappointment that no more progress had been made in reducing tensions, and concern over the consequences of a further decline. I said that since I was speaking wholly unofficially, he should not attempt to read anything into my remarks. I would like to be utterly frank with him.

Almost immediately Dobrynin brought up the question of Cuba and expressed worry and surprise at the intensity of U.S. public reaction.

In response to his question as to why we attached such importance to a relatively small island, I outlined the history of U.S.-Cuban relations and drew a parallel to the situation in 1898, the presence of Spanish misrule, and the U.S. public agitation that abetted the outbreak of war.

When he protested that the Soviet presence in Cuba was no greater provocation than the U.S. presence in Turkey, I pointed out that the present Administration had inherited a status quo that had grown up since the war. In some areas the advantage in this status quo had been with us, in others with Moscow; in still others it was a stand-off.

Our presence in Greece and Turkey, for instance, represented our reaction to Stalin’s military and political pressures against these two countries following the war. It had become part of a status quo which in all its complexity could safely be changed only by negotiation with reciprocal benefits to each side.

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The Kennedy Administration had hoped and expected that we could in fact negotiate a more rational set of relationships, easing the various danger points on a basis of reciprocal action to everyone’s benefit.

However, in Cuba the U.S.S.R. had unilaterally altered this status quo by introducing a wholly new element. Our reaction, in these circumstances, should have been foreseeable.

Moreover, many U.S. students of Soviet affairs were soberly convinced that the U.S.S.R. had made this move deliberately to provoke a U.S. military response against Cuba on the theory that this would divert our energies from Berlin, and elsewhere, and enable Soviet spokesmen to charge us with aggression in the UN.

If this kind of thinking had in fact played a part in the Soviet analysis, it was extremely dangerous. If we did move into Cuba in response to some overt act or offensive build-up by the U.S.S.R., a global chain of events might be set in motion which could have catastrophic consequences.

For instance, the Soviets might then be tempted to take what they would term “counter-action” in Berlin and perhaps Turkey; and the United States, by that time in an extremely tense mood, would react with vigor.

The U.S.S.R., in turn, would feel pressed by the Chinese and other extremists to counter our moves, and we would be on our way together down the long slippery slide.

I asked Dobrynin if he had read The Guns of August.1 He said “only a three-page summary.”

I urged him to read at least the first few chapters in which he would see a pattern of politico-military action and counter-action that could be repeated in the next six months.

In July 1914, men of intelligence in Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and England, all quite conscious of the forces which were feeding the approaching holocaust, found themselves enmeshed in internal pressures, commitments and precedents which left them powerless to avoid the inevitable. It would be the greatest folly in history if we were to repeat this insane process in the nuclear age.

Dobrynin asked me what, in the circumstances, I thought could be done in regard to Cuba. Stressing that I was speaking solely as an individual, I suggested three moves that the U.S.S.R. could sponsor to ease the situation.


Dobrynin should remind his government of President Kennedy’s sharp distinction between defensive and offensive weapons in his recent statement. I was particularly concerned on this point because current [Page 28] reports indicated that Soviet shipments were in fact beginning to include weapons which had a clearly offensive capacity.

If this continued, it could produce—with the help of some incident perpetrated perhaps by individuals striving to provoke another “Remember the Maine” incident—the very conflict which the Administration is anxious to avoid. President Kennedy had committed himself to act under certain specific circumstances. This was a clear commitment, and the U.S.S.R. should not take it lightly.

From many reports, Castro now had ample defensive arms with which to protect himself from casual landings. The U.S.S.R. should tell him that under present circumstances no more arms will be shipped. The U.S.S.R. should then ask Castro himself to make a statement announcing that the defense of Cuba was assured and that no more arms were needed. Moscow could then inform us that no more arms would be shipped.
Castro should be asked by Moscow to state that he has no design on his neighbors, that his entire energies would henceforth be devoted to the economic development of Cuba, and that he sought only peaceful competition with other Latin American nations. His decision not to indulge in further subversion, propaganda, and expansion in neighboring Latin American countries would, of course, have to be confirmed by deeds. However, Soviet assurances on this point would serve to reduce some of the current tensions and give us all a breathing spell.

If some progress along these lines were not possible, I had deep forebodings about the weeks ahead.

To all of this Dobrynin appeared to listen intently. I believe he was impressed.

He answered that in spite of our worries, the U.S.S.R. was not shipping offensive weapons and well understood the dangers of doing so. Moreover, it was unreasonable for the U.S., as a major power, to expect a small, weak country such as Cuba to make such public concessions to U.S. public opinion even though both the U.S.S.R. and Cuba might accept all three points in principle.

Why, he asked repeatedly, do we get so excited about so small a nation? Although the U.S.S.R. could not let Cuba down, they had no desire to complicate the situation further. Was it not possible for us to negotiate a modus vivendi with Castro directly?

I commented that Cuba had initiated the current conflict. Indeed, in 1959 most Americans had strongly applauded Castro’s revolution. If Dobrynin were misinformed about the types of weapons now arriving in Cuba, it would not be the first time in diplomatic history that this had occurred. As long as Soviet weapons flowed into Cuba and Cuban money was used to subvert Latin American countries which we were [Page 29] striving to assist into the 20th century, the situation would remain dangerously explosive.

I hoped that his government would see the danger and act accordingly to help ease the tensions.

Without directly responding to my remarks, Dobrynin referred to Max Frankel’s story in the morning Times which cited agitation by various private agencies, Cuban and American, to provoke a “Maine incident” with the connivance of U.S. official groups. I replied that our government would have no part in such an operation, that we were genuinely worried, and that his government should view the situation with serious concern.

[Here follow 9 pages on other topics. The full text of the memorandum is printed in volume V.]

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 601.6111/10-1562. Secret. Drafted by Bowles on October 14.
  2. Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, New York, 1962.