Kennedy Narrowly Avoids Nuclear War In Cuban Missile Crisis

In our series, “November 1963,” we listen back to America’s 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. October 1962 was the high-water mark of the Cold War. For 12 days, the world was on the brink of nuclear destruction.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy reports to the nation on the status of the Cuban crisis from Washington, D.C. on Nov. 2, 1962. (AP)

U.S. President John F. Kennedy reports to the nation on the status of the Cuban crisis from Washington, D.C. on Nov. 2, 1962. (AP)

BOSTON — On Oct. 16, 1962, President Kennedy told his brother Robert, the attorney general, that there was “great trouble.” That trouble was the discovery of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. A CIA agent briefed the president.

“There’s a medium range ballistic missile launch site and two new military encampments in West Central Cuba,” the CIA agent said.

“How far advanced is this?” Kennedy asked.

“Sir, we’ve never seen this kind of an installation before.”

“Not even in the Soviet Union?”

“No, sir.”

Kennedy’s Joint Chiefs of Staff urged a nuclear strike on the Soviet installations.

“We don’t have any choice except direct military action,” Air Force General Curtis LeMay told the president.

Privately, Kennedy said that the worst advice always comes “from those who feared that to be sensible made them seem soft and unheroic.”

He feared igniting a nuclear war.

“I keep thinking about the children whose lives would be wiped out,” he told an aide.

On Oct. 22, Americans turned on their radios and televisions to hear a somber president deliver a terrifying message.

“Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island,” Kennedy said of Cuba. “The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the western hemisphere.”

Kennedy described “a clear and present danger” and an “explicit threat to peace.”

The nuclear warheads could have struck anywhere along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, including the White House in Washington, D.C. In his remarks, Kennedy walked a rhetorical tightrope between the language of diplomacy and the language of war.

“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”

He was the youngest president in American history, and Kennedy defied generals with decades more experience. Instead of declaring war, he announced a seven-point plan that included a naval blockade. He also made a direct appeal to the Soviet premier.

“I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in a historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction.”

Khrushchev backed down. He agreed to remove the warheads as long as the U.S. did not invade Cuba. Kennedy told Harry Truman about this development in a telephone call on Oct. 28.

“I’m just pleased to death with the way these things came out,” Truman said.

Kennedy’s decision not to go to war was greeted with jubilation around the world. It also paved the way for the landmark Nuclear Testing Ban of 1963.

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  • SpeakTruth2

    Your account of the Cuban Missile Crisis is not entirely correct.
    Please do your homework! the following text is taken in part from
    Wikipedia (as an example).

    The facts are not well known by the general public, but should be.
    We will all benefit from the recognition that war should not be the
    expected outcome of political confrontation. Negotiations like those
    that took place in the Cuban Missile Crisis saved us from countless

    The prelude to the Cuban Missile Crisis was the ring of nuclear missiles
    placed around the Soviet Union that threatened the soviets like the
    missiles in Cuba threatened the United States.


    On October 27, Radio Moscow began broadcasting a message from Khrushchev.
    The message offered a new trade,
    that the missiles on Cuba would be removed in exchange for
    the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Italy and Turkey.

    Also a new message began to arrive (in Washington) from Khrushchev.
    The message stated, in part,

    “You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you
    because it is ninety-nine miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America.
    But … you have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive,
    in Italy and Turkey, literally next to us … I therefore make this proposal:
    We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive …
    Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States …
    will remove its analogous means from Turkey …
    and after that, persons entrusted by the United Nations Security Council
    could inspect on the spot the fulfillment of the pledges made.”

    On October 27, after much deliberation between the Soviet Union and Kennedy’s cabinet,
    Kennedy secretly agreed to remove all missiles set in southern Italy and in Turkey,
    the latter on the border of the Soviet Union,
    in exchange for Khrushchev removing all missiles in Cuba.

    The compromise embarrassed Khrushchev and the Soviet Union
    because the withdrawal of US missiles from Italy and Turkey
    was a secret deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev.
    The Soviets were seen as retreating from circumstances that they had started.
    Khrushchev’s fall from power two years later was in part
    because of the Politburo embarrassment at both Khrushchev’s eventual concessions
    to the US and his ineptitude in precipitating the crisis in the first place.
    According to Dobrynin, the top Soviet leadership took the Cuban outcome
    as “a blow to its prestige bordering on humiliation.”

    The confrontation ended on October 28, 1962,
    when Kennedy and United Nations Secretary-General U Thant
    reached an agreement with Khrushchev.

    Publicly, the Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba
    and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification,
    in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement
    never to invade Cuba.

    Secretly, the US also agreed that it would dismantle all US-built Jupiter IRBMs,
    armed with nuclear warheads,
    which were deployed in Turkey and Italy against the Soviet Union.

    Please, WBUR, make these corrections /facts known to your loyal listeners.

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