from The Water's Edge

TWE Remembers: JFK Learns that Soviet Missiles Are in Cuba (Cuban Missile Crisis, Day One)

October 16, 2012

Map of Cuba annotated by President John F. Kennedy during his first CIA briefing on October 16, 1962. The map is displayed at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/ courtesy Reuters)
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Hillary Clinton famously ran a political attack ad during the 2008 primary campaign saying that a president had to be prepared for a 3:00 a.m. phone call saying that something bad had happened overseas. For President John F. Kennedy, the proverbial 3:00 a.m. phone call came at 8:45 a.m. on October 16, 1962. The pajama-clad president was sitting in his bedroom reading the newspaper when McGeorge Bundy knocked on the door. The national security adviser had something for the forty-five year-old president: photos showing that the Soviets were installing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.

Kennedy made a quick decision: he would stick to his morning schedule while Bundy arranged for him to meet with his national security team shortly before noon. So less than forty-five minutes after learning that he had been lied to by Soviet leaders, the president made his way down to the Oval Office. At 9:30 a.m., he met with astronaut Wally Schirra, his wife, and two kids. Playing the gracious host, he took the Schirra family to see Caroline Kennedy’s ponies. Kennedy moved on to private meetings with several members of Congress and then met with members of the Panel on Retardation.

With his morning obligations finally finished, Kennedy met in the Cabinet Room with his national security team, which would later become known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExCom for short. The meeting began with Arthur Lundahl of the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center briefing everyone on what the photos taken during Maj. Richard Heyser’s U-2 flight showed. A decision was made to order more U-2 flights over Cuba. The discussion subsequently moved to how the administration should respond. (Kennedy had the discussions in the White House secretly taped, and you can listen to excerpts from the conversations here.) Secretary of State Dean Rusk offered two options:

one, the quick strike; the other, to alert our allies and Mr. Khrushchev that there is an utterly serious crisis in the making here, and that Mr. Khrushchev may not himself really understand that, or believe that, at this point. I think we’ll be facing a situation that could well lead to general war.  Now with that we have an obligation to do what has to be done, but to do it in a way that gives everybody a chance to pull away from it before it gets too hard.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara raised the possibility of blockading Cuba, but much of the conversation gravitated to possible air strikes against the missile installations. The fact that the United States might resort to military force first troubled Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He quietly passed a note to his brother saying, “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.

Nonetheless, as the meeting wrapped up with an agreement to reconvene late that afternoon, President Kennedy was seriously considering an air strike, at least to eliminate the missile sites.  He indicated that he wanted the Defense Department to begin drawing up plans for an air strike.  For Kennedy, the removal of the missiles was non-negotiable.  Though he hadn’t yet decided on a plan, he said firmly that “We’re going to take out these missiles.”

As his advisers scattered to their various offices and agencies to issue orders, demand information, and mull over options, Kennedy left the Oval Office to attend a 1 p.m. lunch for the Crown Prince of Libya, His Royal Highness Sayyid Hasan al-Rida al-Mahdi as-Senussi, who was making his first visit to the United States. In his toast to the Crown Prince, Kennedy jokingly said that “the Shores of Tripoli” are well known to most Americans.

At 6:30 p.m., Kennedy met once again with the ExCom. His brother Bobby returned to his earlier concern about how the United States could justify starting a war with Cuba. He wondered if there might be some way to provoke the Cubans or Soviets into using force first, saying that “one other thing is whether we should also think of whether there is some other way we can get involved in this, through Guantanamo Bay or something. Or whether there’s some ship that…you know, sink the Maine again or something.”

The ExCom meeting broke up without deciding on a U.S. response. Kennedy, doing what he could to project a sense of normalcy that would keep White House watchers from asking questions and thereby giving himself more time to deliberate, went to a farewell dinner for Charles “Chip” Bohlen at the home of famed columnist Joseph Alsop. Bohlen, one of the State Department’s leading Sovietologists, was about to head off to Paris to take up his duties as the U.S. ambassador to France. Kennedy asked Bohlen to delay his departure, but the ambassador pointed out that doing so might raise questions the president would prefer not to answer.

The American public, of course, knew nothing of such conversations, or even that the country faced an immediate peril. Many of them, or at least those who liked baseball, were focused instead on Game 7 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and their former cross-town rivals the San Francisco Giants. Ralph Terry, the goat of the 1960 World Series for giving up the series-ending home run to the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski, pitched a 1-0 complete game victory, inducing hall-of-famer Willie McCovey to line out with men on second and third and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It was one of the most thrilling games in baseball history. But few senior officials in the Kennedy administration noticed Terry’s heroics. Their thoughts were elsewhere.

For other posts in this series or more information on the Cuban missile crisis, click here.

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