Could you sit through a two-hour meeting with a man who was lying to your face without letting on that you knew he was lying? President John F. Kennedy faced just that challenge on Thursday, October 18, 1962, the third day of the Cuban missile crisis, when he met with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko at the White House.
The meeting with Gromyko began at 5:00 p.m. It had been scheduled before Major Richard Heyser’s U-2 spy flight had discovered evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Gromyko, who had publicly (and falsely) insisted in his address to the UN General Assembly three weeks earlier that the Soviet Union had no intention of giving Cuba weapons to threaten the United States, had requested the meeting so he could convey Moscow’s position on Berlin directly to the president.
After discussing Germany, Gromyko turned to Soviet concerns about Cuba. Reading from a prepared text, he told Kennedy that the Soviet Union favored peaceful coexistence and opposed countries interfering in the domestic affairs of others. As such, “the Soviet Government and Mr. Khrushchev personally appealed to the President and the United States Government not to allow such steps as would be incompatible with peace, with relaxation of tensions, and with United Nations Charter under which both the US and the USSR had solemnly affixed their signatures.” He repeated what he and other Soviet officials had said many times before: all Soviet military assistance to Havana had only been for “the defensive capabilities of Cuba.”
Still unsure how he would respond to the discovery of the SS-4 and SS-5 missiles, Kennedy did not reveal that he knew Gromyko was lying. The president instead stressed that contrary to the presumption underlying the foreign minister’s remarks, the United States had no intention of invading Cuba and that the Bay of Pigs operation had been a mistake. He read a portion of his September 4 statement saying that he would not tolerate a Soviet decision to give Cuba weapons that threatened the United States. When the meeting broke up, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and several other U.S. officials took Gromyko and his entourage to the State Department for a formal dinner that would last until after midnight.
The Gromyko meeting had come after a long day in which Kennedy had largely kept to his public schedule, which had him presenting aviation trophies, presiding over a routine Cabinet meeting, and meeting with a former Japanese finance minister. He had two Cuba-specific meetings, one in the late morning and the other in mid-afternoon. But for the most part, the ExCom met without him present, in part so that the White House could maintain an air of normalcy, but also so that the ExCom’s members could talk freely rather than guess what the president wanted them to say.
With Gromyko off at the State Department dinner, Kennedy met with the ExCom at 9:15 p.m. Kennedy’s advisers were divided on three options: a full air strike, a limited or “surgical” air strike, or a blockade. Kennedy made no decision, though several of his advisers thought he was leaning toward a blockade as a first step.
As Kennedy retired for the night, the American public (and the rest of world) remained in the dark about the crisis that was brewing. But the façade of secrecy was beginning to crack. Several newspapers had run stories that day about military movements in the southeastern United States, forcing the Defense Department to insist at a regular press briefing that “the Air Force has placed no aircraft in Florida in recent months.” When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and CIA director John McCone arrived at the State Department in the early evening to continue discussions about the crisis, reporters asked if they were there for the Gromyko dinner. The two men kept the journalists from asking more questions by saying they were. And nine of Kennedy’s advisers had traveled to the White House from the State Department for the 9:15 p.m. meeting in a single limousine because earlier in the day people had noticed an unusually high number of government cars outside the State Department. Why, they wondered, were so many high ranking officials convening in one spot? The world would soon find out.
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