A Life at the Edge of H istory T E D S O R E N S E N:
Theodore C. Sorensen (B.S. ’49; LL.B. ’51), today a best-selling author and historian, spent 11 years as John F. Kennedy’s highly influential speechwriter and domestic policy adviser. Recently, during two interviews in his adopted New York City, the veteran attorney and political commentator described his amazing journey from undergraduate days at UNL to the pinnacle of power as one of JFK’s most trusted White House aides. Among the most compelling of his “New Frontier” stories was a riveting account of the “13 days that shook the world” – the harrowing Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in which Sorensen and his fellow-advisers at the White House worked with JFK around the clock to prevent a potentially catastrophic nuclear war. By Tom Nugent
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On the 12th and most dangerous single day of the crisis, President John F. Kennedy asked his veteran domestic aide and speechwriter to draft a key letter that would respond to increasing threats from Soviet dictator Khrushchev. At that perilous hour, the missive that Ted Sorensen would write appeared to be the only possible way to resolve the crisis without resorting to nuclear weapons. Forty-six years after writing the letter out longhand on a yellow legal pad – with “an ordinary ballpoint pen” – the 80-year-old Sorensen told Nebraska Magazine what it was like to sit at a table in the White House and compose a message designed to prevent the outbreak of a catastrophic nuclear war. “I was just a young kid from Nebraska, and I was simply trying to come up with a few clear and convincing sentences that would help the president to respond effectively to Khrushchev,” said the best-selling author and historian, while relaxing on a sofa in his New York City home. “And I do think all of us who were at the White House during those critical days were well aware of the stakes. “We knew very well,” Sorensen added, “that if we made the wrong decision – or if my letter provoked Khrushchev the wrong way – that we might not ever be sitting around that table again. We assumed the Russians had smart bombs that were as accurate as our smart bombs, and we also knew they had the address of the White House. The entire world was in danger of a nuclear catastrophe, and we understood that we had to try and find a way out of it.” Only 34 years old at the time, JFK’s top speechwriter realized that he would have to come up with the right words. Somehow, he would have to find language that would allow the blustering, saber-rattling dictator to back down and remove his Soviet missiles from Cuban soil. To achieve that crucial goal, the letter would also have to provide the Russian leader with an apparent “concession” or two that he could use to avoid losing face in the communist world.
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Credit: National Park Service
ne Saturday afternoon back in the fall of 1962, a young lawyer from Nebraska sat down to write what would surely be the most important letter of his entire life. The lawyer’s name was Theodore C. “Ted” Sorensen (B.S. ’49; LL.B. ’51), and the letter he wrote that day was addressed to the “Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev.” It happened on the afternoon of October 27, 1962 – day 12 of what many historians have since described as the most dangerous 13 days in the history of humankind. Known collectively as the “Cuban Missile Crisis,” those 13 days (October 16-28, 1962) brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of an all-out nuclear war ... a catastrophe that could have destroyed much of the Western Hemisphere, while killing tens of millions of people in the process.
John F. Kennedy meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, June, 1961.
The message to Khrushchev would have to be firm and resolute ... but also nimble and vague enough to allow him to claim later that he had been victorious in the showdown. To accomplish that highly challenging objective, the UNL-trained lawyer supported the suggestion that the Kennedy National Security Team ignore some of the Soviet chief’s demands entirely, while appearing to “accept his conditions” in other areas where America had no real strategic interests at stake. Simply stated, the Sorensen letter would ignore Khrushchev’s demand that the U.S. remove NATO missiles from Turkey ... while offering to meet his condition of publicly announcing that the U.S. would never attack the Island of Cuba. At the same time, the Nebraska lawyer’s letter would “deliberately misunderstand” Khrushchev’s earlier offer to refrain from sending additional missiles to Cuba ... by pretending to “accept” an offer from him to remove Soviet nuclear missiles that were already there (an offer which he had in fact never made).
By “accepting” an offer that the Soviet dictator had never actually extended to Kennedy, Sorensen and the White House team hoped to avoid enraging him with a demand that might have seemed arbitrary and confrontational. The extreme subtlety of the nuances that were required in the message to Khrushchev can be seen in the prologue of Sorensen’s recently published memoir (“Counselor: A Life At the Edge of History”) in which the Lincoln native describes how he, JFK and the president’s brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, discussed the shape of the letter that would be addressed to Khrushchev. Based on White House tape transcripts from that era, the back-and-forth between the president, Sorensen and RFK captures the tone of the crisis with chilling intensity: Sorensen: It may be possible to take elements of his [Khrushchev’s] first letter as part of ours. RKF: I think we just say: You made an offer; we accept the offer. Sorensen: If we could take our letter and introduce some of the elements of his letter ... that might do it. RFK: Why do we bother you with it, Mr. President? Why don’t you let us work this out? President Kennedy: I think we ought to move. There’s no question of bothering me. I just think we’re going to have to decide which letter we send. RFK: Why don’t we try to work it out for you without you being there to pick it apart? [Laughter] Sorensen: Actually, I think Bobby’s formula is a good one. It doesn’t sound like an ultimatum if we say: “We are accepting your offer of your letter last night, and therefore there’s no need to talk about these other things.”
STEPPING BACK FROM ‘THE BRINK OF DESTRUCTION’
escribing, a few weeks ago, how he had “used some of the techniques in the Khrushchev letter that I learned while studying debate under former debate professors Donald Olsen and Leroy Laase at UNL,” Sorensen pointed out that he’d employed “an old debate class technique of taking the other side’s presentation and interpreting it as supporting your own objectives.” In the end, the gambit worked. By declaring that the new U.S. willingness to “never attack Cuba militarily” was proof that he’d won the showdown, Khrushchev was able to claim victory ... even as the offending missiles were disassembled, loaded onto Russian ships and then removed from the island. As Sorensen noted in his autobiography: “In short, while calling for peace and praising his call for the same, we in fact conceded nothing of substance. We were willing to lift our temporary blockade [of Cuba], which had been initially established only because of the Soviet missiles that would now be withdrawn. After their withdrawal, we would pledge not to invade Cuba – an invasion that the United States (or at the very least its president) had no intention of launching. ... “It was a giant gamble on our part. Khrushchev had recklessly gambled that he could secretly rush nuclear missiles into Cuba without Kennedy noticing or responding. He lost. ... But one of the reasons for our success – the fact that we ‘accepted’ Khrushchev’s
The Cuban Missile Crisis: 1962 A Brief Chronology OCT. 15, 1962: Aerial photos taken by a U.S. U-2 spy plane flying over western Cuba show clearly that the Soviets are building nuclear missile launch sites there. OCT. 16: Responding to the threat, JFK assembles a group of top military and civilian advisers. The team includes his chief domestic lieutenant, Ted Sorensen, and also the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. OCT 17: After another U-2 flight, the U.S. military confirms the presence of Russian intermediate-range SS-5 nuclear missiles in Cuba. OCT. 18: JFK meets with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who warns him that an American attack on Cuba will trigger war with the Soviet Union. OCT. 20: JFK orders a “defensive quarantine” (blockade) around Cuba to prevent Russian missile parts from reaching the island. But he continues to resist Pentagon pressure to bomb Cuban missile sites immediately. OCT. 22: JFK addresses the nation on television and warns that the Soviets have placed offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba. OCT. 23: After receiving a letter from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that threatens the U.S., JFK moves the “quarantine line” of U.S. Navy ships 300 miles closer to Cuba. The purpose: to provide more time for negotiation – since the Russian missile supply ships will now have to cover the additional miles, thus postponing a potential naval confrontation. OCT. 27: Ted Sorensen writes the first draft of JFK’s critically important letter to Khrushchev, and the White House team reviews it carefully before dispatching it to the Kremlin. Meanwhile, a U-2 spy plane is shot down over Cuba, killing the American pilot. This is the most dangerous day of the crisis, according to many historians, and the fate of millions of people will depend on how Khrushchev responds to Kennedy’s letter. OCT. 28: After studying the letter and negotiating with JFK, Khrushchev goes on the radio in Moscow to announce that the Russian missiles will be withdrawn from Cuba. The U.S. also agrees to remove missiles from Turkey, and the crisis ends as both sides pull back from the brink of a nuclear war.
brother Tom and I would go in there day after day and make ourselves bologna sandwiches. And then we’d sit around and talk about politics, or about the growing civil rights movement in Nebraska, or maybe about world events. That became a regular routine – and I ate so many bologna sandwiches during those years on campus that I’ve never been able to stand the sight or smell of mustard since!”
SINCE JFK, A ‘SAD DECLINE’ IN AMERICAN LEADERSHIP
In his New York apartment, Ted Sorensen reflects on the Kennedy era.
proposed exchange of moves, in a form and sequence that he never proposed – has not been previously disclosed. “On Sunday, October 28, the world stepped back from the very brink of destruction, and has never come that close again.” For Sorensen, who’d been a champion debater and also the editor of the Law Review during his years at UNL, writing the letter that turned the tide during the Cuban Missile Crisis would be the most rewarding moment during his entire political and legal career. Yet he gives all of the credit for successfully managing the terrible crisis to his former boss. “Obviously, I played a role in that event,” he says today with a quiet smile. “But the decision-maker was John F. Kennedy, as was always the case. During my years with him, I was able to help write some of his memorable speeches, that’s certainly true. But what mattered most about those words was that he said them, not me.” Often praised for his “innate Nebraska modesty,” Ted Sorensen has always declined to discuss the source of such well-known Kennedyisms as “Ask not what your country can do for you,” and “Ich bin ein Berliner.” At the same time, however, he’s not at all shy about praising the Kennedy legacy, which he insists has been undervalued by historians in recent years. “Most historians say that a tide of events and circumstances is what changes history,” he suggested the other day, “but that’s wrong. Individuals often change history, and John F. Kennedy changed history. He changed race relations in this country with his leadership, and he changed history through the exploration of outer space. “It was my great privilege – my great honor – simply to have been a part of that.”
STRUGGLES WITH A ‘BULL-NECKED’ UNL LAW PROFESSOR
hen Ted Sorensen arrived at UNL back in the fall of 1945, he carried with him the hopes of a well- respected political family that was already prominent in Nebraska legal and political circles ... since his father, a highly regarded Lincoln lawyer
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named C.A. Sorensen, had already served with distinction as the Cornhusker State’s Republican attorney general (1929-33). As an eager freshman who was determined to become an attorney himself, the younger Sorensen knew he was walking in some very large footsteps. Thirty years before his own appearance on campus as a freshman, in fact, his brilliant father had served as the editor-inchief of the University of Nebraska Law Review – a post that Ted would also hold down shortly before earning his LL.B. as a Phi Beta Kappa in 1951. (His mother, Annis Chaikin Sorensen, was also a well-known figure at UNL during her student days and later as an early editor of this magazine and the first woman to serve as executive secretary of the alumni association.) Remembering the heady, exciting years that followed World War II on campus, Sorensen describes an “intellectually stimulating and even thrilling environment” in which he was coached to become a champion debater and eventually a skilled lawyer with the ability to think fast on his feet. But the 80-year-old author also recalls the terrors of first-year law school at UNL ... and especially the aweinspiring demeanor of a fiercely demanding law professor who served as dean of the college. “Law school – particularly the first year – was hard work,” Sorensen recalls in his just-published autobiography, “but I enjoyed it, especially the freshman course in constitutional law taught by the Dickensian bull-necked law school dean, Frederick K. Beutel, whose thunderous denunciations of unprepared or tongue-tied students terrorized us all. “Whenever a student replied to the dean that he was unprepared to report on the assigned case ... [Professor Beutel] would shake his massive jowls and loudly mutter: ‘How unfortunate! How unfortunate!’ while scribbling in the class roll next to that pitiable student’s name several words that we sensed were, truly, unfortunate.” Somehow, the youthful Sorensen managed to survive his encounters with the bull-necked dean. He also spent “huge amounts of time hanging around the on-campus offices of the YMCA,” where he enjoyed the companionship of several liberal-minded friends ... while also taking advantage of the free lunchtime sandwiches that were usually provided for volunteers. “I still remember the do-it-yourself lunch counter they operated every day,” he says with a chuckle of nostalgia, 60 years later. “My
oon after graduating with his UNL law degree and setting sail for Washington, Ted Sorensen landed a job as a staff lawyer and assistant in the office of a hard-charging freshman senator from Boston named John Fitzgerald Kennedy. During the 11 years that followed, he became one of JFK’s most trusted policy advisers – along with writing many of the speeches (or at least their first drafts) that soon became hallmarks of the Kennedy era’s “New Frontier” and its witty, intellectually savvy prose style. Along with helping JFK to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles In Courage” (1955), Sorensen gained recognition across the country and around the globe as a speechwriter of astonishing ability. Later still, after JFK’s tragic assassination in November of 1963, the gifted author went on to sell millions of copies of his classic biography of the fallen president (“Kennedy,” 1965), along with numerous other books (including “The Kennedy Legacy,” 1969) that reflected upon his own remarkable experiences as the chief wordsmith of that now distant era. After leaving government service in the wake of the assassination, Sorensen launched a 30-year career as a blue-chip specialist in international law. Retired today, he lives with wife Gillian Martin Sorensen in a simply furnished but elegant condominium overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. There he still works several hours each day on a continuing series of articles about politics and the proper role of language (and effective speechwriting) in the art of governance. Ask Ted Sorensen to summarize his feelings for John F. Kennedy and the New Frontier he so powerfully symbolized, and the former UNL law student doesn’t mince his words. “There’s no question but that John Kennedy believed in a different kind of leadership – and honored a higher standard of performance – than we usually see in our political leaders today. And the results of that leadership decline have been unfortunate, to say the very least. “Today I see a country that is no longer respected in the world as it once was, and a country that has permitted its own historical and constitutional values to slip away. In addition, our economy has now become so distorted that people are slipping into poverty everywhere, at the same time that others are enjoying enormous wealth. You know, back during the years when I was in charge of domestic policy [1961-63], I don’t remember a single lobbyist ever coming to see me in my office at the White House. But today the lobbyists rule Washington, and they rule it because they are the ones who provide the money that it takes for candidates to get elected. “Still, I’m an eternal optimist, and I don’t believe it’s too late for us to right the ship of state. But to do that, we’re going to have to change the way we are now running the political system. And above all, we are going to have to change our political leadership!” n
Glowing Reviews For ‘Counselor: A Life At The Edge Of History’ Here’s what some of the nation’s top literary critics and media personalities have been saying about Ted Sorensen’s new book, “Counselor” (556 pages, HarperCollins 2008): President-Elect Barack Obama: “Ted Sorensen’s words inspired a generation, and his counsel and judgment helped steer our nation through some of its most difficult hours. At a time when Americans are cynical about politics, this gripping, candid memoir illuminates a revered era in American history, stoking our idealism and rekindling our imagination about what this country can achieve when we’re summoned to a common purpose. Sorensen has written a book that will be cherished for generations.” Douglas Brinkley, Boston Globe: “In Sorensen’s extraordinarily lucid memoir, he lets his hair down, revealing poignant moments of his Kennedy White House years that he didn’t feel appropriate to reveal while Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was alive. ... Without question ‘Counselor’ is the most up-close memoir ever written by somebody deeply involved with JFK’s political and personal life.” Ted Widmer, Washington Post: “Counselor is full of new information about both men, and in a world saturated with Kennedy stories both over-familiar and apocryphal, that’s saying something. ... This book is instantly essential for any student of the period.” Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times: “‘Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History’ is not only a fascinating memoir but also this election year’s most important political book. ... Sorensen’s willingness to draw lessons concerning the current political situation from his experience is one of the several things that make ‘Counselor’ such remarkably pleasurable and instructive reading.” Tom Brokaw, NBC News: “In his matchless prose and with a historian’s eye, Ted Sorensen has given us a very welcome, up-close-andpersonal view of life and politics at the side of John F. Kennedy. There are fresh insights and enduring lessons for this and future generations to study and embrace. And painful memories of what we lost.” Author Robert Caro: “Ted Sorensen’s ‘Counselor’ is that rare gift to history: an account of mighty events by a participant who stood not at their edge as he modestly says but at their heart, and who is also an observer perceptive enough to have understood the subtleties of what he was seeing, and a writer masterful enough to make us understand them as well.”