From a distance--say seven miles high in the sky above the Caribbean--it all appeared so innocent.
“It looks like a football field,” Sen. Robert F. Kennedy later recalled his brother, the president, saying as he stared at the photographs, taken from a U2 spy plane, that had brought the world closer to annihilation than it had ever been--or has been since.
John F. Kennedy first saw the pictures shortly before 9 a.m. the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1962. The public knew nothing of them for nearly a week, until he announced both the news--and the blockade that he proposed as a solution--in a televised speech at 7 p.m. Oct. 22.
It is a measure of how much Washington and its media culture have changed in 37 years that a similar blackout now is almost inconceivable.
Kennedy used the week of silence well--not only to decide on a strategy, but also to shape public perception of the story. For months, his Republican opponents had been warning that the Russians were up to something in Cuba. U.S. intelligence officials--some of whom were leaking information to those Republicans--had been raising similar concerns. But in the absence of any hard data, Kennedy had brushed aside the thought that the Soviets might be putting nuclear missiles in Cuba. Soviet officials had repeatedly said they would do no such thing, and Nikita Khrushchev would never take such a gamble, Kennedy’s advisors thought.
They were wrong. The missiles would be ready to launch within weeks.
Had the story broken immediately, Kennedy’s failure almost certainly would have dominated the news--a fact he bitterly realized. Instead, examine the day’s coverage. An image of the president, taking charge, dominates the front page of The Times as it did papers across the country. One of The Times’ stories predicted, correctly, that Kennedy’s actions had neutralized Cuba as a political issue. What could have been an immediate disaster for Kennedy started as a political triumph: the president defending a terrified nation.
But the Cuban missile crisis, as it came to be known, was, of course, far more than a textbook example of White House spin control.
The crisis was America’s first real introduction to the terrible knowledge that nuclear destruction could rain from the skies almost without warning. While the crisis ended with the missiles gone, vulnerability soon returned as the Soviets developed new, stronger missiles that could threaten the United States from Russian territory. For 28 years, until the Soviet Union collapsed, the specter of sudden, massive death would be a constant companion.
The crisis also radically changed the U.S. presidency. For the first time, two men, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union, were thrust into a situation in which their decisions--theirs alone--could, almost immediately, bring death to tens of millions of people. U.S. officials estimated that a nuclear exchange with the Soviets in 1962 would have killed 5 million Americans and 100 million Soviet citizens--a reflection of the huge lead the U.S. had, and would keep, throughout the arms race.
The need to face that reality gave Kennedy and his Cold War successors a claim on power and stature that put them on a plane entirely different from all other elected officials in the nation. That power did not begin to dissolve until the Cold War’s end.
Luckily for millions, Kennedy used his power to avoid war.
When his advisors first met, most advocated a preemptive air strike and invasion of Cuba. That almost certainly would trigger a nuclear war, Kennedy feared. Over the objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he sought a strategy that would give Khrushchev a way to back down. The result was a blockade--Kennedy directed the Navy to stop and search ships bound for Cuba and bar any that carried military material.
The plan risked confrontation at sea, but it paid off some 40 hours after Kennedy’s speech when Soviet ships headed for Cuba stopped dead in the Atlantic and began to turn back rather than challenge the Navy’s patrol line.
“We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk said when he heard the news.
Khrushchev’s decision not to challenge the blockade bought time. For the next four days, officials scrambled to find a formula to end the crisis. The solution was a deal that Robert Kennedy, speaking for his brother, offered to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin: If the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, Kennedy would pledge not to invade Cuba. In addition, so long as the Soviets said nothing publicly, Kennedy would, after a few months, remove some obsolete missiles from Turkey.
At 10 a.m. Sunday morning, Oct. 28--12 days after the crisis began--Radio Moscow announced the missiles were being withdrawn.