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by William H. Benson

October 18, 2007

     On October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy received evidence that the Russians were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, ninety miles off Florida’s coast. Photographs taken the day before from a U2 aircraft had revealed large-scale military activity. The Russian leader, Nikita Krushchev, was installing forty-two medium-range 1100-mile nuclear missiles, twenty-four 2,200 miles nuclear missiles, plus twenty-four SAM anti-aircraft missile groups. He was also sending 42,000 Soviet troops and technicians.

     U.S. military advisors told the President that by December fifty of these missiles would be deployed and ready to aim at U.S. targets, capable of destroying in seventeen minutes the main U. S. defenses.

     This heightened level of military activity was impossible to hide, and, yet, when Kennedy confronted Krushchev about his actions, he lied, claiming that the missiles were all only short-range. He boasted to the young President that not even Stalin would have dared exporting missiles to Cuba.

     Thoroughly shocked by Krushchev’s deception and arrogance, Kennedy called a meeting on October 16 of the executive committee of the National Security Council. Some, such as Dean Acheson and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, argued for an immediate air strike and a follow-up ground invasion. Others, such as Adlai Stevenson, suggested that they barter, offering to give away something in exchange for a Russian promise to remove the missiles. Others suggested that Kennedy do nothing

     Kennedy hesitated, unsure now of what he should do.

     Once consulted Richard Nixon, advised him, “I would find a proper legal cover and I would go in.” But, the Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued against a pre-emptive air strike, in that it was not in the U.S. tradition: “The burden of carrying the Mark of Cain on your brow for the rest of your lives is something we all [would] have to bear.”

     Eighteen months earlier, the new President had approved a naïve CIA plan to send into Cuba armed Cuban exiles, intending to overthrow Castro’s Communist government. The Cuban leader had read about the operation in U.S. newspapers, and so his troops were ready: they killed 114 of the invaders and took prisoner the rest, 1189, nearly all of whom were executed or died in Cuba’s prisons. The Bay of Pigs fiasco shook Kennedy’s confidence in himself, and also in his intelligence officers.

     Finally, on October 22, Kennedy decided. He imposed a naval quarantine upon Cuba, holding in reserve an air strike. Soviet ships carrying missiles to the islands were forced to turn around. Kennedy then pledged to Krushchev that he would not again try to invade Cuba, granted other concessions. Upon those promises, on October 28, the Russian leader agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. Castro was furious.

     Most of the world was unaware how close the U.S. and the Soviet Union were to a nuclear war. Kennedy had available 800 B47s, 550 B52s, and 70 B58s, each with their bomb-bays closed and thus poised for an immediate takeoff. Ninety B52s, each carrying multi-megaton bombs, circled above the Atlantic. He made active the nuclear warheads on a hundred Atlas, fifty Titan, and twelve Minuteman missiles and placed all military commands in a state of Defcon-2, the highest point of readiness.

     Even though Kennedy appeared to have won this contest, historians, such as Paul Johnson, have since suggested that it was more of a defeat. At that time, the U.S. had enormous advantages in military might, and the President could have demanded the removal of the missiles, without offering any concessions. As it turned out, Kennedy, according to Paul Johnson “acquiesced in the continuance of a Communist regime in Cuba in open military alliance with Soviet Russia. . . . The United States would have been well within its moral and legal rights in seeking to overthrow Castro and impose a democratic government.”


     Forty-five years have passed, and we still have a Cuba with Castro and a paralyzing but quite legitimate fear that nuclear weapons may fall into the wrong hands.