John F. Kennedy was a superb public speaker. His inaugural address is one of the best known and most frequently quoted speeches in American history. His press conference performance immediately after the Bay of Pigs, when he famously said that “victory has one-hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” helped blunt the political fallout from one of the biggest foreign policy fiascoes in U.S. history. But nothing matched the importance of the address Kennedy gave to the nation on the evening of October 22, 1962, when he told Americans (and the world) that the United States had discovered that the Soviet Union was secretly installing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.
Administration officials spent the bulk of that Monday, the seventh day of the crisis, briefing cabinet officials, members of Congress, and foreign leaders about the situation. Twenty leaders from both parties were told that the president wanted to speak with them that day. Those congressional leaders who weren’t in Washington were told to catch commercial flights or special flights arranged by the U.S. Air Force. The lawmakers who made it to the White House got a personal briefing on the crisis from Kennedy late that afternoon. He also spoke by phone with British prime minister Harold Macmillan, while former secretary of state Dean Acheson met with French president Charles de Gaulle in Paris to convey the administration’s message.
Kennedy received a scare just before noon when Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko delayed his return flight to Moscow and the Soviet mission to the United Nations announced that he would make an important announcement. Kennedy’s strategy had hinged on being the first to announce the presence of the missiles to the world. Had the Soviets learned that the administration had uncovered their secret and were now seeking to preempt the president’s speech? That would create political problems at home and diplomatic problems abroad for the White House. To Kennedy’s relief, however, it turned out that the “important statement” was a goodbye from Gromyko. The 3:00 p.m. meeting of the National Security Council did not have to do a last-minute rewrite of Kennedy’s speech.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, an urgent summons for a meeting. Dobrynin arrived at the State Department at 6:00 p.m. Virtually simultaneously, the U.S. embassy in Moscow handed the Soviet Foreign Ministry a copy of the speech that Kennedy planned to give one hour later along with a letter from the president to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The letter stated Kennedy’s position bluntly: “the United States is determined that this threat to the security of this hemisphere be removed.” Dobrynin departed Rusk’s office after just twenty-five minutes looking unnerved and clutching copies of the speech and the letter. Reporters hanging out at the State Department noticed the Soviet ambassador’s agitation and pressed him on why. He responded sharply: “Ask the Secretary… you can judge for yourself.”
At 7:00 p.m., Kennedy addressed the nation from the Oval Office. The speech had gone through five drafts and took eighteen minutes to deliver. The president told the American public that the United States had discovered “unmistakable evidence” that the Soviet Union had begun installing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba in “flagrant and deliberate defiance” of both treaty obligations and Soviet assurances to the contrary. He added that Gromyko had sat in the Oval Office four days earlier and lied to his face that Moscow had not sent offensive weapons to Cuba.
Kennedy described the Soviet action as “a clear and present danger” not just to the United States but to the entire Western Hemisphere. He had no intention of looking the other way because “the 1930s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war.” To that end, he announced the “initial steps” that the United States was taking. First, it was imposing:
a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba… All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back…
Second: I have directed the continued and increased close surveillance of Cuba and its military buildup... Should these offensive military preparations continue, thus increasing the threat to the hemisphere, further action will be justified. I have directed the Armed Forces to prepare for any eventualities; and I trust that in the interest of both the Cuban people and the Soviet technicians at the sites, the hazards to all concerned in continuing this threat will be recognized.
Third: 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.
Kennedy went on to announce that he had ordered Guantánamo reinforced and he was calling for immediate meetings of the Organization of American States and the UN Security Council. He ended by insisting that the U.S. goal was “not the victory 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. God willing, that goal will be achieved.”
The White House announced after the speech that Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson had canceled all public appearances for the duration of the crisis. Reflecting the severity of the situation, Kennedy ordered most U.S. military commands to move from Defense Condition (DEFCON) 4, the normal peacetime readiness condition, to DEFCON 3. The U.S. Strategic Air Command would subsequently go to DEFCON 2 for the first time ever. Kennedy also ordered the largest defense mobilization of the postwar era. B-47 bombers were deployed to thirty U.S. civilian airfields and nuclear weapons placed on board B-47s in Spain, Morocco, and Britain. The planes would remain on alert for a month, “flying 2,088 sorties in 48,532 continuous hours of flying time, in which over 20,022,000 miles were flown without a fatality.”
The Cuban missile crisis was now public. Kennedy had made his move. U.S. Navy ships were getting in position to impose the quarantine. The question now was what the Soviets would do in response.
For other posts in this series or more information on the Cuban missile crisis, click here.