The Cuban Missile Crisis was an iconic event in John F. Kennedy’s short presidency. In the course of that sticky incident, Kennedy lied to the press and the American people–in the service of getting back to his post.
On this day in 1962, Kennedy was in Chicago campaigning for the Democrats during the midterm elections. Back in Washington, the National Security Council’s Executive Committee, which was supposed to advise Kennedy during the crisis, was working. Just four days previously, they had been briefed on findings that a Soviet missile base was being constructed in Cuba, where missiles could reach the United States. According to the JFK Presidential Library, they saw two options before them: “an air strike and invasion, or a naval quarantine with the threat of further military action.” They needed to make a choice, but it had to happen in secret so the public didn’t panic. Therefore the President kept to his public schedule.
At 10 a.m. on the morning of October 20, Attorney General Robert Kennedy called to say the Executive Committee had prepared potential responses. “Half an hour later, Kennedy’s staff began informing the press and the hosts for the day’s scheduled campaign events that he was running a fever and would be returning to Washington on his doctor’s orders,” writes the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Associated Press wrote a story the next day describing Kennedy’s “cold,” which included “a bit of a fever” and “a slight upper respiratory infection.” But when he got back to the White House, the council writes, Kennedy went for a swim before meeting with the executive committee to talk options. Their meeting took five hours, writes the JFK Presidential Library, before they decided on a quarantine.
On October 22, Kennedy appeared on television and told the public what was happening. Although he spoke of a 'quarantine' in that speech, what he was describing was a naval blockade. He also discussed “the potential global consequences if the crisis continued to escalate,” writes the Office of the Historian. Americans watched over the next week as negotiations unfolded and the crisis was resolved by an agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for the missiles to be removed from Cuba.
Kennedy’s didn’t discuss his “cold” during that speech, but the small deception did become public knowledge. In an October 28 story in The New York Times, journalist Arthur Krock opined that the specious cold “was necessary to forestall speculation which could have weakened the blockade order. To give it full force total secrecy was indispensible.”