74. Record of Telephone Conversation Between President Kennedy and Prime Minister Macmillan0

President: Prime Minister, how did you do with your debate?

PM: We did very well, actually very good, very good. I sent you the text of what I said, and I think it was very well accepted. I made all the points I could, especially the one you gave me about your statement of September 11, and the reception was good—and that was very well received.

President: We’ve got a second message from U Thant1 which you may be familiar with which says that … asks Khrushchev to keep the ships out of there and asks us to avoid a confrontation. Now we are inclined to—we are sending back a message that if he keeps his ships out of there of course we will avoid a confrontation. As you know, today we figure now 14 ships turned around. They were probably the ones with the aggressive cargo. One tanker we stopped; we asked where it was going; it said it was coming from the Black Sea to Cuba and the cargo was oil. It was obviously a tanker and we passed that. We have tomorrow 2 or 3 vessels that—including particularly an East German vessel which has probably 600 or 700 passengers. It stopped in Leningrad on its way and it may have 6,000 tons of cargo on it, so we are going to have to stop that, we think. That’s what we are now discussing. Now we’ve got two tracks running. One is that one of these ships—these selected ships—which Khrushchev continues to have come toward Cuba—on the other hand, we have U Thant—we don’t want to sink a ship, and then right in the middle of one, U Thant is supposedly arranging for the Russians to stay out, so we are going to have to let some hours go by, but sooner or later, probably by tomorrow evening, we are going to have to accost one of these and board it. Now we got a message last night from Mr. Khrushchev2 which I’ll make sure you get, if you haven’t gotten it already, which says that this is piratical and their ships are going to go through and not submit to this, and if we do stop them they have the means of action against us. That’s last night. So that’s about where we are.

PM: Thank you very much. I have just seen your message to U Thant.1 It seems to me extremely ingenious and very calm, because you [Page 211] are saying that the—as you say, the real point is that they ought to get rid of these weapons.

And then Ambassador Stevenson will be discussing with U Thant the arrangements. What time do you think the Ambassador will be speaking with U Thant?

President: … about a half hour ago which goes somewhat further than the first one went. The second one said that he is asking Khrushchev to keep his ships out of there. His first message didn’t do that. We are therefore going to accept that because it comes further in our direction than his first one, and tell him that if he can keep the ships out of there that’s fine, then we won’t have the incident. On the other hand, we do point out in our response to him that some ships still are coming. Now that is that. Now if these conversations begin we are going to point out—once we get this matter of the ships straightened out, because we still haven’t had our first search yet, and that’s going to be a very important event because we will then know what the Russians are going to do, but that will come tomorrow. Now then, if we begin the conversation we are going to begin to point out that work is going on and that work must stop or otherwise we have got to extend this blockade, and consider other action to stop it. But I think that’s at least 24 hours away. I think the next thing for us to do is to figure out how we will handle this first search in view of the fact that the UN is involved in this now. In other words, I don’t want to have an incident—fight—with a Russian ship tomorrow morning and to search it at a time when it appears that U Thant has gotten the Russians to agree not to continue. I hope that by tomorrow afternoon it will be clear either that the Russians are discontinuing their shipping during these preliminary conversations or, if they are not, then the responsibility is on them.

… . garble …

President: Prime Minister, can you repeat that?

PM: I was saying that the question of dealing with the weapons in Cuba—you will be discussing that with U Thant?

President: Yes. As I say, the first problem we have is the circumstances under which we will search the first Russian ship, on the basis of two things: first, Mr. Khrushchev’s reply to me last night that he will not permit it; and secondly, U Thant’s appeal for a suspension of Russian shipping while these talks go on so that if we get Russian shipping suspended that will produce one situation; if Russian shipping does not suspend, then we will have to face the search and the possible sinking of the ship sometime tomorrow afternoon, so that’s our first problem. Then … but if we satisfactorily get through that problem, then when these conversations begin we are going to then begin to emphasize that work on these sites is continuing and that unless it is discontinued we must tighten the blockade and possibly take other actions. That would probably [Page 212] begin to be emphasized the minute the talks begin, but even if the talks don’t begin, we are going to begin to say it on Saturday3 anyway.

PM: I quite understand, and I think that’s what you must do. As I see it, there are two stages: the first question is the ships, and then the question of the actual weapons in Cuba… .

President: As I say, the 14 ships that have turned back are obviously the ones that have the sensitive cargo that he doesn’t want us to be able to produce. The ships that are continuing probably are ones that don’t have anything important in them, but we cannot permit him to establish the principle that he determines which ships will go and which will not, but as I say, I think we will—tomorrow night—we will know a lot better about this matter of the UN’s actions and Khrushchev’s attitude about continuing the shipping, and also what attitude he will take in regard to our searching them.

… garble …

PM: I say that this is very interesting about the ships. And we … the situation tomorrow night.

President: That is correct. We will know tomorrow night whether Khrushchev will accept U Thant’s proposal to cease all shipping going to Cuba during these talks, No. 1. No. 2, if he doesn’t do that, we will know what their reaction will be to our searching of a vessel, so I think that I could call you tomorrow night at the same time, unless this is too late for you.

PM: … indeed. I am very much obliged to you. We will have a talk tomorrow night. Good night.

President: Good night, Prime Minister. I’ll send you Khrushchev’s message of last evening. Good night.

PM: Yes, I’d very much like to see that.

President: Good night, Prime Minister.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Cuba, Macmillan Telephone Conversations. Top Secret. The source text bears no drafting information. For Macmillan’s account of this conversation, see At the End of the Day, pp. 205-208.
  2. See Document 59.
  3. Document 61.
  4. October 27.