A Very Dangerous Road: Transcript

October 13, 2022


PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.


PODCAST CO-HOST MATT PORTER: When President John F. Kennedy took office, he warned Americans of the danger ahead of the increasing amounts of nuclear weapons in the world.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: Before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.


MATT PORTER: This is that story – the story of the closest moment the world ever came to nuclear war. Sixty years ago, Americans discovered nuclear missiles in Cuba only 90 miles from their shorelines


AUTHOR MICHAEL DOBBS: And for the first time, really, in American history, Americans understood that the American heartland was at risk.

MATT PORTER: For 13 perilous days, Americans would wonder if they would still be alive the following day.

CAROL: I was fifteen years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis…I remember the fear and terror we had as high school students about the Cuban Missile Crisis, saying that the world was basically going to come to an end because of nuclear disaster.

AUTHOR ALICE GEORGE: And the teachers had to imagine, how would they control all of these children if there was a nuclear war?

CLIFF THAELL: I was 17 years old at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis…We were all certain that we were going to be not long for living on the planet.

ELLEN: I was born on October 18th 1962, right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My mother told me that when I after I was born, she went into the shower one day and she just cried.

MATT PORTER: In this upcoming series, you’ll hear the voices of President Kennedy and his closest advisors on secretly recorded tapes as we take you behind the curtain of the deliberations in the White House.


PRESIDENT KENNEDY: Khrushchev—announces tomorrow, which I think he will, that if we attack Cuba that it’s going to be nuclear war?


MATT PORTER: It was a moment in time where our leaders faced the most difficult choice.

AUTHOR MICHAEL DOBBS: Undoubtedly, we could have destroyed the Soviet Union, but would that be worthwhile at the expense of up to half-a-million Americans losing their lives?

MATT PORTER: And today, as those risks seem to be coming back again.


We look at the leadership required to avoid all-out war.

AUTHOR TOM NICHOLS: We are one miscalculation, one misunderstanding away from a catastrophe.

MATT PORTER: This is Atomic Gambit – the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 Years Later.



JOHN F. KENNEDY: I John F. Kennedy do solemnly swear…

MATT PORTER: On a cold January afternoon, President John F. Kennedy took the oath of office at the United States Capitol. Kennedy became the leader of a country that was growing more fearful of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union.


PSA NARRATOR: “You are the target of those who would trample the liberties of freedom of free men. You are in the cross hairs of a bombsite and the enemy is centering on you.”


MATT PORTER: This is the country President Kennedy is taking leadership of: An America where the construction of fallout shelters and duck and cover drills were part of everyday life. It’s a time when Soviet satellites like Sputnik were ominously flying overhead.

Fredrik Logevall, author of the first complete biography of John F. Kennedy, says everyday Americans and national security officials alike worried the next advancement from the Soviet Union would be a nuclear missile capable of landing in their backyard in Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C.


FREDRIK LOGEVALL: There's no question that this weighed on people in a way that probably was unprecedented. It reached a kind of peak, maybe, even, in, say, the first year of the administration.

MATT PORTER: For Kennedy, he used concerns over the Soviet Union to his advantage as a candidate for president.

And now in his first address as president, Kennedy made it clear the United States would ensure that none of its adversaries, including the Soviet Union, would see it as weak.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.


MATT PORTER: Logevall says Kennedy’s inaugural speech was centered around foreign policy for a number of reasons.

One, after one of the closest presidential elections in more than a century, Kennedy viewed foreign policy as a uniting issue.

Two, Kennedy intended to show his strength as a “cold warrior” because he was following Dwight D. Eisenhower - a five-star general and World War II’s supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: “I, John F. Kennedy, am going to show in this address that I'm capable of stepping into his shoes and speak to the current moment. That means substantially a focus on foreign affairs.”

MATT PORTER: Kennedy had another target for the speech other than the American audience. In the address, he was also speaking to his counterpart Nikita Khrushchev – premier of the Soviet Union.

Logevall described the portions of the speech aimed at Khrushchev in two parts.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: On the one hand, it is, as we all know, an assertion that we will pay any price, we will bear any burden to defend America's national security, America's interest. And that's certainly directed, at least in part, to Nikita Khrushchev, directed at least in part to the Soviets.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: Before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction. We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.


FREDRIK LOGEVALL: I think what's less often talked about is a second part of the inaugural address, which I think is much more conciliatory. It's really in the latter part of this short inaugural address that John F. Kennedy also talks about the importance of diplomacy, of working to resolve differences. So it's in some ways an interesting and, I think, highly effective-- I mean, it's an extraordinary inaugural address-- highly effective but two part message.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course--both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.

So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.



MATT PORTER: Kennedy’s presidency would soon be tested in a confrontation that would forever change the rest of his time in office.

Before his election, the Eisenhower administration - concerned about the spread of communism in Latin America - already had its eyes on Cuba and was planning a covert operation that would be known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The plan was to train and assist 1,400 Cuban exiles in an attempt to overthrow the anti-American revolutionary Fidel Castro who took over the government in 1959.

Kennedy inherited the plan and had real concerns about bringing the United States into a military conflict in Cuba.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: Kennedy had, really going back to World War II, shall we say reservations about the utility of military force, especially in solving problems that were at root political. And I do think he felt that this was going to be a political struggle in Cuba before all was said and done.

MATT PORTER: Logevall says despite Kennedy’s reservations that the situation in Cuba could be solved with military force, he did not want to appear weak by shutting down the operation entirely.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: He's a new president…there have been questions during the campaign about whether he was in fact ready for this job.

Leaving Castro in place that close to Florida, as he is more and more pro-Soviet, more and more in line and allied with Moscow, this is going to constitute a problem…And so I think that helps convince him that a regime change in Havana is, in fact, important and something that the United States should seek.

MATT PORTER: The relationship between Cuba and the United States had been fraught for decades.

While Havana was a booming city thanks to the production of sugar which was an extremely profitable export to the U.S., Castro and other revolutionaries felt U.S. business interests had too much influence and control when it came to the nation’s most important crop.

In addition, there were severe inequalities of wealth and issues of racism were common across the country that further separated the haves from the have-nots. Government corruption plagued the country while the U.S. backed its anti-communist leader Fulgencio Batista. In 1959, Castro and his revolutionaries overthrew Batista declaring victory in the Cuban revolution.

Sir Max Hastings - who recently published a new book The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962 - says Castro’s takeover was significant.

MAX HASTINGS: Castro was a megalomaniac, but he was an amazing propagandist. He had extraordinary force of personality and he'd achieve something very remarkable by overthrowing the Batista regime.

MATT PORTER: Like JFK, Castro was young when he took over Cuba – he was only 34 years old.

But that’s where the similarities ended.

Castro would jail or execute political opponents. He seized control of businesses and private assets in the name of the new communist Republic of Cuba.

Before Kennedy took office, President Eisenhower had approved a plan to train and send Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro. The mission involved landing 1,400 exiles on the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of the island.

The CIA plans initially called for extensive support from the U.S. military. President Kennedy worried if the invasion looked like it was coming from the United States that it could provoke a military response from the Soviet Union.

The operation was scheduled during the Easter break. Kennedy went to Glen Ora in Virginia with his family to be away from the White House and throw off any concerns that a U.S. operation could be happening that weekend.

But the plans broke down almost immediately.

On the 15th of April, the mission faced immediate issues with bombers missing their targets leaving the Cuban air force intact. The invading force on April 17th was bogged down by bad weather and inaccurate intelligence. As the situation for ground forces grew worse, JFK-authorized a group of unmarked fighter jets to assist them.

But in a situation where every precise detail mattered, the U.S. forces got even the basics wrong.

The pilots didn’t arrive in time because they did not take into account the time zone difference from their landing point in central time and the fact that Cuba was in eastern time.

Two U.S. supply ships were destroyed and four Americans in bombers were shot down and killed.

One hundred members of the invading force were killed, and another 1,200 were captured.

Cold War expert and Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols called the operation one of the largest failures in American history.

TOM NICHOLS: The United States failing to dislodge a communist regime right off its shores with a kind of Keystone Kops military operation that nobody seemed to be able to take responsibility for...it was a pretty big blunder, and it definitely sets the stage for much of what happens in the Caribbean after that.

MATT PORTER: Days after the failed operation, Kennedy briefed the press and said he would not let the failure stop him from using his powers as president to ensure there would not be a communist expansion in the western hemisphere.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: We will not accept Mr. Castro’s attempts to blame this nation for the hatred which his one-time supporters now regard his repression… The American people are not complacent about Iron Curtain tanks and planes less than 90 miles from our shores.


MATT PORTER: Despite the failure, JFK biographer Fredrik Logevall said Kennedy himself didn’t suffer politically. Logevall says part of Kennedy’s success in avoiding a political firestorm was how he handled himself after the crisis.

In a press conference days after the operation, he accepted the failure of the Bay of Pigs and didn’t try to hide from it.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: There's an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan… I'm the responsible officer of the Government.


MATT PORTER: Logevall says the political atmosphere in 1962 was very different compared to how the response from Kennedy’s opponents would be today.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: You know, it's remarkable today, especially in light of our current moment, to think about the fact that Republicans, as I see it, mostly held their fire after the Bay of Pigs. Today, we can imagine that a president who has that kind of catastrophic development, the opposing party would be absolutely crucifying him.

MATT PORTER: The disastrous failure of the Bay of Pigs did not stop the CIA and the Kennedy administration from looking for other ways to destabilize the Castro regime.

In a collaboration with the intelligence agency, the president and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy oversaw a project called “Operation Mongoose.” In that project, a working group including RFK concocted radical solutions, including assassination schemes, to try to overthrow the Castro regime.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: It is at heart an operation that is principally a CIA effort to destabilize the government in Havana with the aim of overthrowing that government, removing Castro's government from power. It also has, we should note, an assassination dimension.

MATT PORTER: Castro would sometimes get intelligence about these American plans for his demise and ultimately, the threat from America drew him closer to the Soviet Union.

Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, says fear of another U.S. attack drew the Soviet and Cuban leaders together.

MICHAEL DOBBS: But what Operation Mongoose did do was to convince both Castro and Khrushchev that one way or the other, the Kennedys were out to get Castro.

MATT PORTER: Lastly, the failure of Bay of Pigs would be a painful lesson about advice coming from the military.

Dobbs says it was a fact the president would remember when he met with those same advisors a year later during the Cuban missile crisis.

MICHAEL DOBBS: I would say that the failure of the Bay of Pigs made him even more skeptical about the advice he was getting from the military and from the CIA. So he began to rely on different people and he began to rely on his own judgment more. And certainly this was a more experienced president in 1962 than the fledgling leader that had taken over in 1961.

MATT PORTER: Two months later, JFK would face his next major foreign policy challenge - meeting face to face with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Would the president be able to rise the challenge in confronting the Soviet leader about the expansion of communism and nuclear arsenals?

And how would he respond to Khrushchev who was angry at the president for his provocative actions in Cuba?

We’ll find out next after a short break.




MATT PORTER: In a letter to President Kennedy five days after the Bay of Pigs disaster, Khrushchev accused Kennedy of meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation. The premier lambasted the president for trying to force an American backed regime on the independent nation of Cuba.

To this end, he warned the newly elected president – “you are setting out on a very dangerous road.”

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: For Khrushchev, I think there's a growing sense after the Bay of Pigs that Kennedy is weak, that Kennedy maybe doesn't quite know what he's doing. He's young. He's untested. I can exploit this.

MATT PORTER: Nikita Khrushchev had his own issues on the home front in the Soviet Union.

He oversaw what became known as “The Thaw” – a period of reform for the country which included the de-Stalinization of Russia where previous censorship and repression were eased and some political prisoners were released from the gulag, an extremely abusive prison labor camp.

Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of the Soviet premier and professor of international affairs at the new school, says while Khrushchev saw the liberalization effort as important to creating a more bountiful communist system, he viewed too much reform too quickly as dangerous.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Khrushchev wasn't particularly happy with the term at all because he said, well, The Thaw is wonderful, but one day, it can actually bring the flooding.

MATT PORTER: Khrushchev also faced hardliners in the communist party who opposed any type of relaxation of the system that brought them to power.

By the time of the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev’s goal of building the communist society he envisioned was not taking shape as quickly as he wanted.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: It became clear that the system, the way Khrushchev envisioned it, this kind of communist environment that he promised to be built by 1980s that he said the next generation of Soviet people will live in communism, was getting very difficult to achieve. And he was getting frustrated, and he was doing all sorts of changes.

MATT PORTER: Khrushchev would meet President Kennedy in his first and only face-to-face meeting in Vienna two months after the disastrous operation in Cuba.

Historian Sir Max Hastings says Khrushchev saw an opportunity to build strength at home by dominating what he saw as a weakened U.S. president.

MAX HASTINGS: There was a lot of unhappiness from the hardliners in the Kremlin who believed that after the ultimate hard man, Stalin, that Khrushchev wasn't remotely tough enough both in dealing with the West and in dealing with dissent at home… he knew that he had plenty of critics and plenty of enemies both on the streets of Russia and also in the Kremlin.

MATT PORTER: Khrushchev – who was 23 years older than Kennedy – went into the meeting ready to dress down the president on his failed attack in Cuba.

Khrushchev attacked Kennedy and the United States as the aggressor saying American interference in the development of independent countries pursuing communist forms of government would lead to war.

He said the Soviet Union did not want nuclear war but would not be intimidated.

MAX HASTINGS: Suddenly [Kennedy]’s confronted with this Russian who hurls abuse at him and held threats at him and tells him he's not frightened of a nuclear war. So Khrushchev came out of that first meeting convinced that Kennedy was a completely inexperienced young man whom he, Khrushchev, could bully.

MATT PORTER: Kennedy himself told New York Times reporter Scotty Reston that the Soviet leader got the best of him: “He just beat the hell out of me.”

He told another reporter, “I’ve never met a man like this.”

MICHAEL DOBBS: That was a traumatic meeting [in Vienna] for Kennedy.

MATT PORTER: Kennedy had hoped to make progress on a nuclear test ban treaty and an agreement to secure the independence of West Berlin. The city of Berlin had been divided and occupied by the Western Allied Forces and the Soviet Union since the end of World War II.

The Soviet leader surprised Kennedy by refusing any agreement on a test ban treaty while the Berlin question remained unresolved. In fact, Khrushchev made the audacious call for the United States to sign a “peace treaty” with Berlin that would remove U.S. forces from the western half of the city.

That was a non-starter for Kennedy.

In the end, historian Michael Dobbs says the two leaders left Vienna on a dark note that foreshadowed the crisis ahead. Khrushchev told Kennedy “Force will be met with force” and Kennedy said if Khrushchev tried to make any attempts to push U.S. troops out of west Berlin, “It would be a cold winter.”

MICHAEL DOBBS: Kennedy came away from that meeting convinced that there would be a big challenge to his authority, to American authorities somewhere in the world. He expected it to happen more in Berlin than in Cuba. But he was convinced that he had to take a tough line in order not to be pushed around by the leader of the rival superpower.

MATT PORTER: After he returned, Kennedy addressed reporters from the Oval Office and admitted that the Vienna conference accomplished little when it came to diplomatic progress on Berlin, the test ban treaty, or any other major goals.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: I will tell you now that it was a very sober two days. There was no discourtesy, no loss of tempers, no threats or ultimatums by either side; no advantage or concession was either gained or given; no major decision was either planned or taken; no spectacular progress was either achieved or pretended.


MATT PORTER: But the Vienna conference did help the two leaders in one key way.

As Khrushchev’s son, Sergei Khrushchev, said in a JFK Library Forum in 2013, it was a chance for both leaders to understand each other and further their working relationship as the leaders of the two most powerful nations on earth.

SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: It was introduction to each other, very important, and through this, they generated some understanding and some mutual trust. Not as friends, not as people who have the same feeling, but as people who understand that we're very different. We defend our national interests, each side but we can work together to preserve the peace.

MATT PORTER: By getting the chance to meet and learn about each other in Vienna, the experience would prepare both for the nuclear crisis to come 14 months later.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: “Our views contrasted sharply but at least we knew better at the end where we both stood…But both of us were there, I think, because we realized that each nation has the power to inflict enormous damage upon the other, that such a war could and should be avoided if at all possible”



MATT PORTER: While the war of words was heating up after Vienna between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, the propaganda war between the two nations had been going on since the end of World War II.

The two nations competed for supremacy in space.

Both saw the “Space Race” as providing a tactical and political advantage – and in the early 60s – it was a race that the Soviets appeared to be winning according to historian Alice George - author of Waiting for Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis.

ALICE GEORGE: They were quite successful in terms of using the Space Race as a way of showing Soviet superiority. The first satellite was launched in '57. And then like a month after that, they launched one that had a dog in it. So it was the first flight of a living being. And then in '61, in April, Yuri Gagarin goes up. Even in May when Alan Shepard went up, the US effort was unimpressive in comparison to the Soviet effort because Gagarin orbited the earth. And Alan Shepard basically went straight up and then the gravity brought him straight back down.

MATT PORTER: But not everything was as it seemed. While the Soviets could boast of these early accomplishments, they often took dangerous short cuts to get there.

For example, on Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbital flight, the Soviets had not figured out a way for the cosmonaut to land so he bailed out of the cockpit at 20,000 feet and landed safely by parachute.

Because the Soviet Union controlled the media, few knew what the Soviets were doing behind the scenes to get an edge. Meanwhile, America’s successes and, more importantly, its failures, were on public display.

ALICE GEORGE: And after Sputnik, we had some rockets fail right on the launch pad or just after taking off and then really spectacular pictures of our failures.

MATT PORTER: These Soviet successes planted seeds of doubt as to whether a democracy, with all its political obstacles, could compete with a totalitarian regime.

ALICE GEORGE: And there was always just that thought of, OK, we have looked down on the Soviet Union for years. And now they seem like these big giant, terribly efficient, terribly capable people who can achieve more than we can.

MATT PORTER: The propaganda battle didn’t end in space. Khrushchev and Castro were very aware of how racism plagued African Americans and other minority groups in the United States.

George says they followed the struggle for civil rights by Black Americans carefully.

ALICE GEORGE: And then the Soviet Union had the sense to realize, hey, wait a minute. These people are trying to cause change. They're being discouraged by official organizations like the FBI. They are our perfect allies if we can connect with them.

MATT PORTER: In 1960 during a UN conference in New York City, both Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev made a very public attempt to win over Black activists and their support.

It started with Castro’s decision to snub the typical hotel for UN guests and stay at the Hotel Theresa, a Black-owned hotel in Harlem.

20th century civil rights historian Brenda Gayle Plummer of the University of Wisconsin says Castro’s decision made headlines across the mainstream and black press.

BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: It was not a place where distinguished visitors or foreigners would ever be expected to go to. So the appearance of Castro, then, in a sense put Harlem on a sort of an international map that it hadn't been on before.

MATT PORTER: During his stay, Castro had meetings with Nation of Islam spokesman and later founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X; New York NAACP President Joseph Overton; and former baseball player, Jackie Robinson.

Castro’s visit also attracted meetings from other world leaders attending the conference including United Arab Republic’s Gamal Abdel Nasser; India’s Jawaharlal Nehru; and most of all, Nikita Khrushchev.

Plummer says while racial justice activists understood that Castro and Khrushchev had their own political motives for visiting Harlem, they couldn’t ignore the spotlight the visits put on Harlem and civil rights issues.

BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: It was not about anybody being a dupe. It was about people making use of opportunities to get their points of view across.

MATT PORTER: Still, not everyone was so quick to get a photo opportunity with public enemies number 1 and 2 of the United States. Five hundred Baptist ministers protested the visit.

BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: Remember that this was at the point early 1960s when the Kennedy administration was becoming -- albeit reluctantly, perhaps -- more engaged in civil rights. And so there was an interest on the part, I think probably of the majority of African Americans at that time, to support the [Kennedy] Administration, seeing it as an ally.

MATT PORTER: Congressman Adam Clayton Powell represented the district in Harlem where the Hotel Theresa was located. He looked for a middle road during Castro’s theatrical visit.

BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: Adam Clayton Powell, who was a very cagey politician and in some respects was playing both sides, he wanted to ingratiate himself with the nationalist and radical elements in the Harlem community, but at the same time, he didn't want to burn bridges with the establishment.

MATT PORTER: By the end of the summer of 1961, the U.S. continued to look weak with its failures at the Bay of Pigs and in Vienna, a sputtering economy, the successes by the Soviets in space, and a country where African Americans were routinely subjected to violence and discrimination, and by law, denied the rights, privileges, and opportunities granted to white people.

ALICE GEORGE: I can't help but think of Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations in 1960 taking off his shoe and hammering it down on his desk at the UN, which was a terribly uncouth thing to do. But it sort of carried the message, “We are strong. We don't care what you think about the way that we should behave. And this is what we're going to do.”

MATT PORTER: In reality, the U.S. was not nearly as behind in missiles and in the space race as the public perception made it seem.

The U.S. had 3,500 nuclear warheads, or more than six times the Soviet arsenal by 1962. And with a new push from President Kennedy, the space program was developing more quickly than it had before.

ALICE GEORGE: People were frightened by the fact that they seemed to be out ahead. And when you realize how far ahead the United States really was, it's almost, it borders on being silly.

MATT PORTER: Coming up, we’ll head back to the Soviet Union where Nikita Khrushchev comes up with the idea to sneak nuclear missiles into Cuba — a gamble that would lead to the greatest nuclear crisis the world had ever known.


MATT PORTER: After Kennedy’s embarrassing showing at the Vienna summit, the tensions between the two superpowers – especially over Berlin – were only getting worse.

In a radio address in July 1961, President Kennedy doubled down on the U.S. commitment to protect west Berlin.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: Those who threaten to unleash the forces of war on a dispute over West Berlin should recall the words of an ancient philosopher: ‘A man who causes fear cannot be free from fear.’


MATT PORTER: In another moment foreshadowing things to come, President Kennedy laid out the stakes of a conflict with the Soviet Union involving their arsenal of nuclear missiles.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: Now, in the thermonuclear age, any misjudgment on either side…could rain more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human history.


MATT PORTER: After the speech, a furious Khrushchev called Kennedy’s words a “preliminary declaration of war.” He warned Kennedy that any war in Berlin would be no small war. It would be a nuclear one.

Six days after the address, Khrushchev authorized the building of a wall dividing East and West Berlin. The construction began a month later and it would remain standing dividing Berlin for nearly 30 years.

And, in one of several moves that would lead to the crisis ahead, Khrushchev began making more overtures to Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Khrushchev used the island nation to put pressure on the young president who challenged him in his own hemisphere in Berlin. He begins sending more aid to Cuba after the Bay of Pigs including military advisors and equipment.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: I think from Khrushchev's perspective, this is fabulous. You have got just off the coast of Florida an ally that you can support, a dynamic leader in Castro who maybe can encourage further revolutions in Latin America.

MATT PORTER: For Castro, a strong relationship was even more important after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: From Castro's perspective, a growing sense, of course, that “the Americans are out to get me. Therefore I need to tie myself more closely with Moscow, with the Kremlin, with very important implications.”

MATT PORTER: In April 1962, one year after the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev and Castro became so close that the premier wrote Castro calling him “my comrade” in a congratulatory note about his victory over the Americans.

Historian Fredrik Logevall says there was a lot of mutual admiration between the two leading up to the crisis.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: He referred to Castro as “The Bearded One,” and he was enamored with this dashing, charismatic figure. And so I think that on a personal level, he sees himself as a kind of father figure or at least somebody who's going to be a mentor to Castro.

MATT PORTER: But that relationship would be challenged in the oncoming crisis ahead.

In that same April, Khrushchev was informed by his intelligence about the American’s development of new minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Unlike Soviet missiles which took hours to prep for launch, Minuteman Missiles could be fired in minutes. The missiles were also significantly smaller and could be housed in difficult-to-destroy silos.

Khrushchev was now at a huge disadvantage – he had nothing like the Minutemen.

In addition, there were older missiles on Khrushchev’s doorstep in Turkey -- installed during the Eisenhower administration. It was at this moment – Khrushchev hatches the biggest gamble of his career – putting nuclear missiles in Cuba.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Khrushchev was a very impulsive person. That's no question. And when he was told by Andrei Gromyko… here is Turkey, and they have their weapons aiming at the Kremlin….So that was his way of creating a certain type of parity.

MATT PORTER: Nina Khruscheva says the Soviet premier didn’t see sending missiles to Cuba as an escalation.

In his mind, sending the missiles ahead of the midterm elections in November was a way to keep up with the Americans' own escalations and force them to the bargaining table.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: They would put those weapons. There would be mid-term elections, and then they will let the Americans know that the weapons are there. They're not there for being used. But they are there as deterrence. And let's then now negotiate. That's how he thought it was going to play out.

MATT PORTER: To make the operation in Cuba happen, Khrushchev still needed approval from the members of the Presidium, the governing body of the Soviet Union. But while it was considered the governing body, it wasn’t like the Congress of the United States.

According to historian Serhii Plokhy, author of Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev held most of the leverage over nearly all of the members when making a decision

SERHII PLOKHY: Really, people in the Presidium with very few exceptions had no really independent standing or even found themselves politically secure to suggest anything that would be rejected.

MATT PORTER: The operation in Cuba would be the riskiest move yet in the Cold War – with the worst-case scenario being a nuclear conflict with the United States that could destroy both countries.

Still, historian Sir Max Hastings says Khrushchev was willing to take the leap because approval of his leadership was near its lowest levels and the liberalization policies were not having as positive an effect as he’d hoped.

MAX HASTINGS: And what Khrushchev was looking for in 1962 was a coup, partly to regain his authority against his own colleagues, the Presidium who were beginning to wonder whether he knew what he was doing…And also, he was being challenged by China for the ideological leadership of the Communist world. So Khrushchev felt he had a lot to prove. And he came up with this extraordinary idea that the sort of coup that he could pull that would frighten the life out of the United States was secretly to install missiles in Cuba, the Soviet Union's new best friend, and to announce this in a dramatic speech to the United Nations in November.

MATT PORTER: The plan depended on a lot of good fortune.The Soviets planned to sneak medium range and intermediate range ballistic missiles by ship onto the island under the nose of American spy planes.The gargantuan missiles measured up to 100 feet for the largest of the weapons, and the tropical island of Cuba with a smattering of palm trees provided little cover for missiles of that size.

Despite the obvious, many of the Soviet scouts sent to survey the island refused to tell Khrushchev the truth.

MAX HASTINGS: That Soviet generals seriously told Khrushchev that they could hide these enormous cylinders under palm trees… Well, the whole idea was crazy, but Khrushchev convinced himself that it was a brilliant idea. And in the summer of 1962, they set about implementing it.

MATT PORTER: There was one member of the Presidium who voiced his opposition to the plan: Anastas Mikoyan, the second most powerful voice behind Khrushchev.

SERHII PLOKHY: He was the veteran of the party who started really at the top level of the party and government apparatus at the time of Lenin, served there under Stalin…He was the only person who was in position political powerful enough to raise questions or express publicly disagreement with Khrushchev.

MATT PORTER: Unlike Khrushchev, he had been to Cuba before and understood the limitations of the island. Additionally, as minister of trade, Mikoyan was familiar with America and its politics.

Plokhy says the elder statesman didn’t believe the United States would tolerate missiles on their doorstep.

SERHII PLOKHY: He realized that the actions like the ones that were suggested by Khrushchev, putting the missiles American troops next to the American borders that they will be a very strong response.

MATT PORTER: It was the ultimate high risk, high reward strategy.

MAX HASTINGS: And Khrushchev was always a bluffer, and of course, it's terrifyingly dangerous to bluff when you're doing it with nuclear weapons.

MATT PORTER: At first, the operation was going according to plan. While the Americans were concerned with the increase in ships to Cuba and assumed they were bringing in some sort of defensive weapons to the island in response to the Bay of Pigs – no one imagined the cargo were actually offensive nuclear missiles.

In the meantime, Kennedy’s focus was drawn to a number of other issues at home and elsewhere around the world.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: There's no question that John F. Kennedy in the middle months of 1962 has a lot on his plate…including over Berlin.Vietnam continues to be an issue. He's just had a big issue domestically with respect to US steel. So he's been at loggerheads with corporate leaders. Civil rights is, of course, a burgeoning issue. So there's no question that he's got a lot to think about here. Cuba is one of those issues, but only one.

MATT PORTER: But by September, the frequency of ships from the Soviet Union reaching the island became more of a concern.

Fredrik Logevall says the Americans – even the generals and intelligence officials – still were reluctant to believe Khrushchev would try to put nuclear weapons in Cuba knowing how closely the island was being monitored.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: They knew that the Soviets knew that they had U2 overflights. So they're thinking to themselves, well, Moscow is not going to do anything like this because they're going to know that in a short period of time, we're going to find out about it.

MATT PORTER: After a briefing with his generals, JFK notified congressional leaders they were watching the movement of Soviet ships in Cuba.

Pierre Salinger, the president’s press secretary, read a statement from Kennedy warning the Soviets of placing any offensive weapons in Cuba or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. He said any influx of offensive weapons would be “prevented by whatever means may be necessary.”

At this moment, Khrushchev decided to accelerate his push to get the missiles into Cuba.

Historian Serhii Plokhy says his big gamble also got its luckiest break – the U.S. suspended flying any U-2 surveillance missions for diplomatic reasons and technical issues.

SERHII PLOKHY: A number of U-2 planes got in trouble, either for mechanical reasons or for other reasons getting over Chinese territory, over the Soviet territory. And that created enormous diplomatic problems and issues for the United States.

MATT PORTER: In his last letter to Kennedy before the crisis began, the Soviet premier made overtures on both coming to an agreement on missile tests and for a peaceful resolution of Berlin.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: I think it's clear, of course, by then that Khrushchev has made his decision. He is going with this bold and many would say reckless plan to install the missiles. He's not wanting to give that away.

MATT PORTER: Kennedy replied on October 8th and thanked the Soviet leader for opening the door to diplomacy through a test ban treaty. He didn’t mention Cuba at all.

Meanwhile, CIA director John McCone had become more concerned about the ships carrying weapons into Cuba believing them to be more than defensive.

When the weather finally cleared up in early October, Khrushchev’s luck finally ran out. The U.S. resumed U-2 overflights of Cuba.

On October 16 at 8:45 am, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy arrived finding the president in bed and delivered an intelligence briefing that changed the course of history. Bundy told the President: “There is now hard photographic evidence that the Russians have offensive missiles in Cuba”

The nuclear showdown JFK expected in Berlin landed on the United States’ doorstep instead.

Khrushchev’s atomic gambit was exposed, and the Cuban Missile Crisis began.