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.
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?”
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.