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When John F. Kennedy Saved the World (Part II)

“Kennedy no doubt considered his relations with Khrushchev in making his decision. He had been groomed by his father to be a ruthless competitor.”

Part one is available here.

Starting in July of 1962, the Soviets began shipping missiles and personnel to Cuba under the cloak of “protecting” Cuba from imperial designs, referring in a not-so-subtle manner to the Bay of Pigs invasion a year before. The United States acknowledged the “defensive” nature of the buildup and accepted Soviet promises that no offensive missiles would be shipped to Cuba. Indeed, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin had met consistently with President Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and relayed messages from Khrushchev that the buildup was a defensive one.

The Soviets had begun shipping surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), torpedo boats, and other weapons described as defensive. Several government officials were concerned. CIA director John McCone questioned whether the Soviets were simply gearing up for the introduction of surface-to-surface missiles with offensive capabilities. As Kagan notes, Senator Kenneth Keating became an outspoken firebrand on the Senate floor, rising up in a speech on August 31st claiming that he held evidence that the Soviets had introduced medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba.

President Kennedy, however, in a series of speeches in September, with the assurances of Dobrynin in mind, reassured the nation that the buildup was a defensive one. If it were to be otherwise, “the gravest issues would arise.” Despite the concerns of many, the official United States government stance during these crucial months was to trust the Soviet statements that it was all about protecting Cuba.

This was until the morning of October 16th, when Kennedy awoke to news that U-2 photographs of missile sites in Cuba revealed the placement of offensive missiles. Kennedy had been deceived. He immediately realized a crisis was at hand. If the Soviets put the missiles into operation, it would unleash new political ramifications for United States-Soviet relations. He had to decide how to respond to the gravest of threats. Relying on strategic deception, Khrushchev had gambled. What would Kennedy do?

The Decision

The Cuban missile crisis lasted 13 days. The stakes were high. The pressure was intense. The days were exhausting. But the crisis brought out the best in Kennedy and the decision-making process when crunch time came. Immediately upon learning of the missile sites, Kennedy ordered McGeorge Bundy, his assistant for national security affairs, to convene a meeting to be held at 11:45 A.M. on that very morning. The meeting was the first of what later was called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, charged with developing a response to the crisis.

“ExComm” included core members McGeorge Bundy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, CIA Director John McCone, Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, Presidential Counsel Ted Sorenson, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor, and Ambassador at Large and adviser on Russian affairs Llewellyn Thompson, as well as several other participants including Under Secretary of State George Ball, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, Deputy Under Secretary of State U. Alexis Johnson, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs Paul Nitze.

Although ultimately under the discretion of the President, the Committee was responsible for coordinating the United States’ response. ExComm operated with a number of “first premise imperatives.” Two were vital. The first and immediate assumption concerned secrecy. Kennedy and Rusk decided they would keep previous engagements to avoid suspicion that a crisis was at hand while a decision had not yet been made. The press was kept effectively at bay as part of this imperative. Secrecy was vital. Debate that was open to the public and thus to the Soviet Union would have seriously limited the United States’ ability to develop a rational, well-thought-out, effective response.

As the days wore on, the complicity of the press became increasingly important in maintaining the veil of normalcy. It was not long before reporters caught on. Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, called the President on Sunday the 21st to warn him that the veil would soon be uncovered: “I called the president four times to alert him that security was crumbling.” Kennedy assumed the task of maintaining the veil and convinced the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post to avoid public revelations, keeping a lid on volatile public reaction.

The second “first premise imperative” was that a do-nothing approach was out of the question. The missiles had to be removed. According to Rusk, “[i]f we allowed deployment of Soviet missiles just ninety miles off our coast, American credibility would have been destroyed, and there would have been a devastating psychological impact on the American people, the Western Hemisphere, and NATO. As for domestic politics, the Kennedy administration would have been discredited. Clearly, the missiles would have to go. The question was how to remove them.”

Kennedy, in the words of his brother Robert, “knew he would have to act.” For months, he had told the American people that should the Soviet buildup turn offensive, the “gravest issues would arise.” But he was determined to act prudently, relying on his own judgment and that of his ExComm advisors. The atmosphere was tense. Sleep was rarely an option. The ramifications were too great. “The photography having indicated,” Robert Kennedy wrote in his memoir on the crisis, “that the missiles were being directed at certain American cities, the estimate was that within a few minutes of their being fired eighty million Americans would be dead.”

ExComm spent the first day ironing out rough sketches of possible programs of action. Eventually, three working groups emerged with three possible alternatives. A fourth working group anticipated possible Soviet reactions. The first approach was based on diplomatic negotiation. But diplomatic overtures to the Soviets or the United Nations were quickly dismissed. A student of history, Kennedy would not allow the “Munich syndrome,” a reference to appeasement of the Germans leading up to World War II, to take hold. Although Kennedy understood that action must be taken, he was ambivalent about what action he should take. The two remaining options involved (1) some kind of military action, or (2) a blockade, euphemistically dubbed a “quarantine,” the ambiguity of which offered Kennedy a degree of flexibility.

The most outspoken advocate of military action was General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson shared his position. The military approach involved one of two possibilities: (1) an airstrike to wipe out the missile sites, and/or (2) an invasion geared toward the removal of missiles, perhaps even deposing Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The military option was also dismissed, though after a lengthy deliberation process.

Through it all, Kennedy remained remarkably calm while asking insightful and probing questions.

It was replaced by the option of a blockade. Robert Kennedy and McNamara were the chief advocates of the approach. They argued it would allow for maximum flexibility. It would be dramatically forceful yet remain minimal as a blunt military action. It did not put the United States in a bind, while still leaving the option of a military strike open, and it offered the most amenable option for shoring up international support. Robert Kennedy was aware of the implications for American ideals and its moral heritage. Recalling his response to Acheson’s argument in favor of a military strike, he wrote:

“With some trepidation, I argued that, whatever validity the military and political arguments were for an attack in preference to a blockade, America’s traditions and history would not permit such a course of action. Whatever military reasons he (Dean Acheson) and others could marshal, they were nevertheless, in the last analysis, advocating a surprise attack by a very large nation against a very small one. This, I said, could not be undertaken by the U.S. if we were to maintain our moral position at home and around the globe. Our struggle against Communism throughout the world was far more than physical survival—it had as its essence our heritage and our ideals, and these we must not destroy.”

Kennedy decided on a “quarantine” of Cuba, blockading all shipments of offensive weapons from any nation to Cuba. But the five days of deliberation that led to the final decision were by no means marked by consensus. Stress and fatigue set in by the second day. The CIA reports that the missile sites would soon be operational only exacerbated the tension. Positions constantly shifted. The pros and cons of arguments and counterarguments were exhaustively examined.

Through it all, Kennedy remained remarkably calm while asking insightful and probing questions. On the 18th, for instance, Robert Kennedy and other members of the ExComm left the State Department at 9:15 P.M., crowded into a car with the driver to avoid suspicion, and headed off to the White House to brief President Kennedy on the majority opinion which had developed in favor of a blockade. Kennedy eventually sent them back to the State Department. Said his brother Robert:

“We explained our recommendations to the President. At the beginning, the meeting seemed to proceed in an orderly and satisfactory way. However, as people talked, as the President raised probing questions, minds and opinions began to change again, and not only on small points. For some, it was from one extreme to another—supporting an air attack at the beginning of the meeting and, by the time we left the White House, supporting no action at all.”

Meanwhile, the Soviets maintained a straight face, unaware the United States was privy to its secret. On the 18th, Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in keeping with an appointment planned months before. During the meeting, Kennedy sought to probe Gromyko into admission. He reiterated the concerns he outlined in his September speeches. Gromyko showed no indication he knew about the buildup or that the United States had discovered it. He maintained his poker face. “Leaving the White House that Thursday evening in a mood of unwonted joviality,” wrote Elie Abel in The Missile Crisis, “the Soviet Foreign Minister described his talk with the President as ‘useful, very useful’.”

Gromyko’s disposition revealed a certain Soviet smugness that had begun to develop. Khrushchev had gambled on putting the missiles in Cuba. It is safe to say that up to this point, the buildup was turning out to be a stunning success. Given its vast military inferiority compared to the United States, successful placement of operative offensive missiles in Cuba would have given him a significant bargaining chip in future geopolitical relations. Gromyko’s session may have rekindled a belief that Kennedy was, in the words of historian Donald Kagan, “all profile and no courage.”

Kennedy no doubt considered his relations with Khrushchev in making his decision. He had been groomed by his father to be a ruthless competitor. In his political life, Kennedy worked hard on his image as a winner. He sparkled domestically. In his relations with Khrushchev, however, Kennedy stumbled continuously. The Bay of Pigs failure left Khrushchev astonished that a leader of a great nation would not support refugees against a vulnerable regime on a small island off its coast. After Vienna, Kennedy was left even more shaken. His father would not have approved.

Khrushchev privately concluded that he could successfully move offensive missiles into Cuba, which would be in operation by the November elections. But this time Kennedy was ready to act. He was ready to confront Khrushchev once and for all, but without provoking an irrational response from Khruschchev. Kennedy moved resolutely but cautiously. It was in this context that he opted for implementing a quarantine, blocking any shipment of offensive weapons to Cuba. It would demonstrate force in a limited enough fashion so as not to provoke an irrational response from Khrushchev. It allowed for maximum flexibility. McNamara emphasized repeatedly that military action could quickly be taken if the quarantine did not achieve its objectives.

Kennedy began the task of preparing an evening address to the American people on Monday the 22nd, informing them and the world of the Soviet buildup and the United States response. The speech was broadcast to the nation, throughout the world, and even to the Cuban people. Kennedy announced that “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.” Warning that “each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area,” Kennedy announced “a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba.” He alluded to Soviet statements that the buildup was defensive, replying: “That statement was false.” He concluded by saying: “Our goal is not the victor 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.” Kennedy had arrived.

The World on Edge 

For the next six days, the nation stood on edge. One did not know what to expect. It was now up to the Soviet Union to respond. Nobody could know for sure what that response would be. All the Kennedy administration could do was to try to shore up international support and await the Soviet response.

In the international arena, the United States performed well. On the day after Kennedy’s speech, the United States received the support of virtually all countries of the Organization of American States. Meanwhile, a diplomatic mission had to be set up. Livingston Merchant, former Canadian ambassador, was summoned on short notice to meet with his Canadian counterparts to shore up Canada’s support. Acheson, recalled from his Maryland farm, was sent on a mission to obtain the support of key European leaders. His first trip was to France. De Gaulle, the leader of France, gave his immediate support. When Acheson moved to show him the photographs as proof, De Gaulle swept them aside and proclaimed, “A great government such as yours does not act without evidence.”

The quarantine, widespread international support, and a stern letter to Khrushchev following his speech all served to severely limit the options open to Khrushchev and the Soviet Union. Khrushchev initially condemned the quarantine and insisted the military buildup was defensive. But it became increasingly clear that Khrushchev was shaking in his boots. Khrushchev knew he would have to remove the missiles or risk a war that would cast indescribable damage on his country. The question that remained was how he could save face without risking such a war. His bluff had failed, and now he found himself in a corner. The missile sites in Turkey offered him a possible escape route. At the time, the United States had missiles stationed in Turkey, aimed at the Soviet Union. Kennedy had consistently shown a willingness to remove the missiles. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, they had reached the point of obsolescence.

United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson emerged as the spokesman for a missile trade in which the United States would remove its missiles from Turkey while the Soviet Union would remove its missiles from Cuba. On the surface, it was a reasonable offer. The United States could protect Turkey with reinforcements of its Polaris submarine force in the areas. But such an option was dismissed for several reasons. The United States missiles in Turkey were stationed openly, while the Soviet missiles in Cuba were shipped secretly. Moreover, Kennedy would not remove the missiles under pressure from the Soviets.

It was in these circumstances that Khrushchev sent a long, emotional letter to Kennedy on October 26th. The letter appeared to be written by him personally, and it bore the mark of a man under great stress. In the letter, Khrushchev expressed his deep concern at how far the crisis had escalated. In a well-known analogy, he wrote: “…we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied to knots of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot.”

Khrushchev offered a proposal in which the Soviet Union would remove the missiles from Cuba in return for a pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba. This proposal created a feeling, if only brief, of elation within the administration. That same day, a Soviet official named Alexander Fomin had met with ABC news correspondent John Scali and told Scali to relate the message to the United States government that the Soviet Union may be willing to remove the missiles in return for a pledge not to invade Cuba.

The message was examined at an ExComm meeting Friday night. The ExComm officials finally went home for the evening with a sense of relief in wake of the new Soviet response. The matter was left in the hands of the State Department to develop an analysis for Saturday morning.

When Saturday morning came, the sense of relief had disappeared. New developments caused concern within the administration. There were reports, Robert Kennedy wrote in Thirteen Days, that “certain Soviet personnel in New York were apparently preparing to destroy all sensitive documents on the basis that the United States would probably be taking military action against Cuba or Soviet ships, and this would mean war.” Then a new letter arrived from the Soviet Union, this time bearing an official tone, as opposed to the personal tone of Khrushchev’s Friday letter.

This letter repudiated the previous letter’s proposal, instead demanding the removal of missiles from Turkey in return for Soviet withdrawal of missiles from Cuba. The Turkish missile question had returned. The Soviet Union made a last-ditch attempt to squeeze concessions from the United States. It is reasonable to presume that such an attempt was based on faulty assumptions about the United States government. Fomin’s contact with Scali indicated that the Soviet Union believed the United States government to have considerable control over the American press, a fact not difficult to understand given Soviet control of its own press. The Soviet Union may have inferred from a column written by columnist Walter Lippman arguing that the United States should consider a missile trade, that the United States government was pliable enough to make a concession on the issue of missile deployments in Turkey. It was a desperate attempt to achieve a victory with its Cuban missiles, to no avail.

With considerable trepidation, Kennedy, at the urging of his brother, decided to respond to the first letter. Robert Kennedy was following the advice of Llewelyn Thompson, who argued that responding to the first letter would send the appropriate message to the Kremlin. The President sent his brother with Ted Sorenson to write a draft. Hours later, they emerged with one. The draft offered a quid pro quo in which the Soviets would remove the missiles in return for a United States pledge not to invade Cuba as well as for an end to the quarantine measures. It also implied that the question over missiles in Turkey would eventually be resolved. The draft was adopted and sent to the Kremlin.

However, when put to the test, Kennedy demonstrated remarkable resolve.

Kennedy and his senior advisors awaited a response, aware that within the next two days a war could be in full stride. The ExComm met at 9 P.M. that evening. There was an air of great stress and anxiety. Kennedy reflected on his decisions, making sure he had done everything possible to avoid war. He wanted to make sure he had not put the Russians in a bind. He also realized that there could have been no other decision. He had to act, but he had to do so with caution.

The next morning the news arrived that Khrushchev had ordered the removal of the missiles. The official word came when Robert Kennedy received a call from Soviet ambassador Dobrynin, who wished to relay the message from Khrushchev that the removal of missiles was to begin. The crisis had ended. The world was intact. As expected, the mood at the White House was one of great relief. Kennedy went to great length to avoid remarks that would humiliate Khrushchev. He stressed that the United States must not appear to boast. The tension had receded. As Robert Kennedy was about to leave the White House after talking with the President, President Kennedy remarked, “This is the night I should go to the theater.” His brother answered back, “If you go, I want to go with you.”


How did the Cuban missile crisis come about, and how did it get resolved? Historian Donald Kagan concludes: “The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated that it is not enough to for the state that wishes to maintain peace and the status quo to have superior power. The crisis came because the more powerful state also had a leader who failed to convince his opponent of his will to use its power for that purpose.” In his relations with Khrushchev, Kennedy indicated he would bend under pressure. Kennedy was wrong that Khrushchev was interested in peace rather than hegemony. He failed to recognize that security and deterrence were part of, not opposed to, peace.

However, when put to the test, Kennedy demonstrated remarkable resolve. If Niccolo Machiavelli were charged with writing the postscript, he might have said that Kennedy had always been a lion, but the Cuban missile crisis taught him the importance of being a fox. The nation was brought to the brink, and the one man capable of resolving the crisis did so with outstanding leadership under immense pressure. John F. Kennedy saved the world. In his brother’s words:

“These hourly decisions, necessarily made with such rapidity, could be made only by the President of the United States, but any one of them might close and lock doors for peoples and governments in many other lands. We had to be aware of this responsibility at all times, he said, aware that we were deciding, the President was deciding, for the United States, the Soviet Union, Turkey, NATO, and really for all mankind.”.

Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and he has contributed to a variety of publications, including Quillette and Areo Magazine.

Jonathan Church is a contributing editor at Merion West. He is a government economist with a background in energy economics and inflation measurement. In addition to authoring several essays, he has published two books: Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality and Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice. He holds an undergraduate degree in economics and philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in economics from Cornell University. Contact Jonathan at

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