On this day (Oct. 22) in 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy appeared on TV to inform the country that he had received reliable information that the Soviets were constructing nuclear missile sites in Cuba capable of launching missiles against the continental United States.
Thus, Americans first learned of the danger posed by what Kennedy characterized as the U.S.S.R.’s “clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace.”
Actually, Monday, Oct. 22, was the seventh day of what now is referred to as “The Cuban Missile Crisis,” a 13-day, extremely tense period during which Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came nerve-rackingly close to what well could have been World War III.
This 13-day confrontation (Oct. 16-28) tested, as no other Cold War encounter, the mettle and resolve of both Kennedy and Khrushchev. Who would blink first? As it turned out, after much blustering, the Russian finally blinked and had removed, against the objections of Fidel Castro, what were clearly offensive weapons aimed at U.S. cities.
In accordance with a secretly drafted agreement, the Russian missile systems were removed by Dec. 6, thus ending the most perilous face-off of the Cold War.
Kennedy had first learned for sure of Soviet intentions to construct offensive missile sites in Cuba on Sunday, Oct. 14, 1962, when he was given photographic proof of their construction.
Why did Khrushchev and Castro embark upon what was clearly a risky move in constructing offensive missile sites some 90 miles from Florida? Both communist leaders, ever since the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs fiasco of April 1961, feared another U.S. invasion attempt. Castro wanted the missiles to protect Cuba from U.S. attack. Khrushchev, for his part, wanted to oust the western powers from Berlin and thought maybe he could use the Cuban missile build-up as a bargaining chip: he would remove the missiles if the west powers would leave Berlin.
Unlike his actions during the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy now acted quickly and decisively. He established a special committee, composed of his top advisers, top military commanders, and importantly his brother Robert Kennedy, and instructed it to make recommendations as to the U.S. reaction to this obvious threat.
The military, almost unanimously, demanded a nuclear airstrike to destroy the missile sites. However, after much thought and soul-searching, the president agreed with his brother that such a military strike could well precipitate a nuclear war.
Instead, he instituted a naval blockade of Cuba (although he called it a “quarantine” because a blockade is considered an act of war), which was successful in convincing Khrushchev to back down.
Up to Oct. 14, when Kennedy received the photographic proof of the missile sites’ construction, the Russians, especially Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, who openly lied to Kennedy in a face-to-face encounter, but also Khrushchev, repeatedly stated that the Soviets were not supplying Castro with offensive missiles. Finally, however, the Soviet premier, having been caught with his “hand in the cookie jar,” saw the folly of supplying missiles to Castro and agreed to their removal.
Kennedy wisely gave Khrushchev a face-saving out by agreeing to the removal of, what were obsolete, U.S. missiles in Turkey and stating that the U.S. was not contemplating an invasion of Cuba.
President Kennedy’s adroit, statesman-like handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was his crowning achievement. He went against the advice of the military and many of his advisers to pursue a peaceful, but as it turned out, eminently successful solution to what could well have ended in a nuclear conflict.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.