On the evening of today’s date, Monday, October 22 in 1962 our President, John F. Kennedy made this startling announcement to the world:
“Good evening, my fellow citizens:
The gravity of the situation must seem difficult to grasp today when “the Cold War” seems like a relic of the distant past. But back when I was just a baby boy, the world came as closer to nuclear holocaust than it ever had before, or has ever since. It was discovered that the Soviet Union had placed medium range offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. The idea of getting into a shooting war over this, when not too long after we both had enough missiles to vaporize each other many times over – from our own soil – seems odd to say the least. Afterall, we had grown up with thousands of these things… “ICBM”s, Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles pointed at each other. Nevertheless it really did happen… almost, a mere 51 ago.
JFK, Kruschev, Cuba and the Balance of Power
The Kennedy administration was in a peculiar position. Cuba, a newly dedicated Communist country was now established just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. JFK had reluctantly backed an invasion of that country by exiled Cuban forces at the Bay of Pigs in April of 1961, just three months after taking office. But the Bay of Pigs wound up being a colossal failure. Many believe that it was JFK’s unwillingness to back the invasion more fully that had lead to its disastrous result. The presence on that island of offensive Soviet weapons was a new and highly dangerous development at that time. Clearly the reason that the Soviets under their leader, Nikita Krushchev had taken the provocative step of placing missiles so close to the U.S. was that he figured the U.S. President could be bluffed into accepting the missiles once they were already there:
“I came to the conclusion that if we did everything secretly, and the Americans found out about it only after the missiles were in place and ready to be launched, they would have to stop and think before making the risky decision to wipe out our missiles by military force.”
Krushchev would write many years later. He figured that the young U.S. President who had been unwilling to fully back the Cuban rebels at the Bay of Pigs could be forced to accept a fait accompli. JFK and his advisers were keenly aware that any concessions on this issue would likely be seen as the type of appeasement that had lead to World War II. So not only the standing of the U.S. President visa-vie the Soviet leader was at stake in JFK’s response, so was J.F.K.’s political standing in the U.S. and around the world. And so, not incidentally, was the safety of the American people whom JFK was sworn to protect.
JFK : the Missiles Will HAVE to GO!!
Just as clear as Krushchev’s attempted bluff of JFK, was the fact that JFK realized that he could NOT accept the presence of such a threat to the U.S. so close to her shores. JFK was prepared to call Krushchev’s bluff and to go the whole nine yards to force the missiles removal:
“The 1930’s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word. Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere.
“I have directed that the following initial steps be taken immediately:
First: To halt this offensive buildup a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.
“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 on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
“Eyeball to eyeball….”
Kruschev was shocked and furious with Kennedy’s enexpectedly strong stance. There would be nearly two weeks of tense negotiations between the White House and Moscow, as well as between the White House and the Pentagon. Not only was Kruschev unwilling to give up his missiles in Cuba, but JFK’s
military advisers were pushing for air strikes to take out the missiles followed by an invasion of Cuba. But just as JFK was convinced that the missiles would have to go, he was equally convinced that an invasion of Cuba would force the Soviets to war touching off a nuclear exchange which would ravage the entire planet. To impose a “Blockade” of Cuba would normally have been considered an at of war. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara came up with the idea of skirting this little….. technicality by calling it a “Quarantine“. As the Soviet vessels approached the “Quarantine Line” everyone held their breath wondering whether they would hold up, or they would have to be fired upon. Would this be the beginning of World War Three? Happily on Wednesday, October 24, 1962, the Russian freighters slowed when they approached the Quarantine line, and eventually turned around. In the words of Secretary of State Dean Rusk: “We were eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked!”
Krushchev and JFK Find a Way Out
This event was not the end of the brinkmanship by any means. A U-2 spy plane and it’s pilot would be shot down. The two leaders found that going through the normal diplomatic channels was making the negotiations more difficult. So a significant “back channel” was found when newspaper journalist John Sculley was approached in a coffee shop by an old friend of Krushchev’s to pursue a deal that would provide assurance that the U.S. would neither invade Cuba, nor support anyone else who would. Further, the U.S. agreed via Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy personally meeting with Anotoly Dobrynin – the Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. – that the U.S. would agree to the quiet removal – at a much later date – of some older U.S. missiles from their installations in Turkey. Neither JFK, who was a W.W.II veteran, nor Krushchev, a brutal man who had nevertheless witnessed the destruction of war on his own homeland had any stomach for nuclear war. In fact Kruschev wrote of war that “…it has rolled through cities and villages everywhere sowing death and destruction.” President Kennedy made his feelings on the crisis in his speech that night, 51 years ago:
“Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.”
by Robert F. Kennedy, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1968
by Bill O’Reilly, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2012
New Line Cinema, Dir. by Roger Donaldson, 2001.