Learning from the Missile Crisis

What Really Happened on Those Thirteen Fateful Days in October

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet warheads on Cuban soil could have attacked many major U.S. cities. (Bettmann / Corbis)
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Reston called a meeting. For reasons patriotic or selfish, I at first resisted granting the president’s request. A blockade is an act of war. Did we have the right to suppress news of a superpower war before Congress or the public had even an inkling of danger?

Reston phoned the president again and explained our concern. Did Kennedy want secrecy until after the shooting had begun?

“Scotty,” the president said, “we’ve taken a whole week to plan our response. I’m going to order a blockade. It’s the least I can do. But we will not immediately attack. You have my word of honor: there will be no bloodshed before I explain this very serious situation to the American people.”

Given the president’s word of honor, I believe to this day that we were right to defer publication by 24 hours. Kennedy’s reasons were persuasive: our disclosure could have led the Soviets to threaten a violent response against the blockade and thus provoke a violent conflict. But I took my name off the fudged story I wrote for Monday’s paper: “Capital’s Crisis Air Hints at Development on Cuba,” which, without mentioning missiles or a blockade, said the president would deliver news of a crisis. Like the Washington Post, which had been similarly importuned by the president, we held back most of what we knew.

Kennedy’s speech that Monday evening, October 22, was the most menacing of any presidential address during the entire Cold War. Although the senate leaders whom he had just briefed deplored his reluctance to attack, Kennedy stressed the danger implicit in the moment:

“[T]his secret, swift, and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles . . . in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy . . . is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe. . . . Should these offensive military preparations continue . . . further action will be justified. . . . 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.”

Americans certainly did not underrate the gravity of events; families drew close, planned emergency escapes, hoarded food, and hung on every news bulletin. Friendly governments supported the president, but many of their people feared his belligerence, and some marched in protest. In a private letter to Khrushchev, Kennedy vowed to stand firm in Berlin, warning him not to misjudge the “minimum” action the president had taken so far.

The Kremlin’s response encouraged both ExComm and diplomatic observers. While denouncing America’s “piracy” at sea and instructing Soviet agents abroad to fan the fear of war, the Kremlin obviously had no ready plan for counteraction. Berlin was calm; so were our bases in Turkey. Moscow’s government-controlled press pretended that Kennedy had challenged little Cuba rather than the Soviet Union. Khrushchev assented at once when the U.N. Secretary General, U Thant, tried to broker a pause for negotiation, but Kennedy decided to balk. In fact, Washington prepared a blunt notice about how the United States planned to challenge Soviet ships and fire dummy depth charges to force submarines to surface at the blockade line.

More good news came on Wednesday, October 24. The president kept some of his nuclear bombers airborne for the Russians to notice. And suddenly word arrived that Khrushchev had ordered his most vulnerable Cuba-bound ships to stop or turn tail. Recalling a childhood game in his native Georgia, Dean Rusk remarked, “We’re eyeball-to-eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

Washington also soon learned that the Soviets had instructed the Cubans not to fire antiaircraft guns except in self-defense, giving American reconnaissance unhindered access. Kennedy now stressed that he, too, wanted no shots fired. He also wanted the Pentagon generals eager to enforce the blockade (officially designated a “quarantine”) to know that although it was a military action, it was intended only to communicate a political message.


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