A Pretty Bad Fix: Transcript

October 18, 2022

MATT PORTER: When President Kennedy CIA director told him the Soviets had secretly placed nuclear missiles in Cuba on October 16th, his fears and warnings about a future nuclear war had become reality.

And most alarmingly – the missiles on the island were some of the most lethal devices ever developed.

TOM NICHOLS: One megaton would be enough to destroy the entire city of Boston by itself all the way out to the suburbs…That's a city-killer weapon.

MATT PORTER: Over the next few days, Kennedy and his advisors would face the most difficult of choices.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: That in those first couple of days of the crisis that in all likelihood, we will have to respond militarily.

MATT PORTER: But every option came with deadly risks.


ROBERT MCNAMARA: Because, if they become operational before the air strike, I do not believe we can state we can knock them out before they can be launched. And if they’re launched there is almost certain to be chaos in part of the East Coast or the area in a radius of 600 to 1,000 miles from Cuba.

MATT PORTER: And JFK would have to ask the hardest questions of himself and his presidency.

MICHAEL DOBBS: I mean, 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: Meanwhile, the president would have to continue his daily routines without tipping off the Soviets or the press.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: We know that journalists, many of them already had a sense of what was happening but they agreed to sit on the story. But that could only last for so long.

MATT PORTER: Kennedy made decisions to mislead the press and the nation that would be controversial.

SID DAVIS: My guess is that if that had happened today the headlines in all the newspapers and tabloids would be, “Kennedy lied.”

MATT PORTER: In this episode, we look at how President Kennedy handled the first few days of the most consequential two weeks of his entire presidency.

This is Atomic Gambit - the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 Years Later, Episode Two: “A Pretty Bad Fix.”

MATT PORTER: On October 16 – the first morning of the crisis – President Kennedy and his closest advisors were confused about why Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev would take the extreme action of placing missiles in Cuba.

We know this because President Kennedy set up a secret recording system in the White House. Nearly all of his advisors on the Cuban crisis didn’t know about the system with the possible exception of his brother, Robert Kennedy.

The president didn’t give a reason for why he asked for the system to be set up, but Robert Bouck, the Secret Service agent who set it up said he may have wanted an accurate record of what happened at the White House for after he left office.

The recordings allow us to hear the real-time discussions between the president and his closest advisors during the crisis.

At one of the first meetings with his advisors on October 16th, Secretary of State Dean Rusk suggested Khrushchev’s decision was to put pressure on the United States which until now had not lived with nuclear missiles at its doorstep – unlike the Soviet Union.


DEAN RUSK: He knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority, but he also knows that we don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent that he has to live under fear of ours.

MATT PORTER: Rusk correctly assumed the provocative move was an attempt at improving the Soviet’s bargaining position over Berlin.


DEAN RUSK: But they may be thinking that they can either bargain Berlin and Cuba against each other, or that they could provoke us into a kind of action in Cuba which would give an umbrella for them to take action with respect to Berlin.

MATT PORTER: If the strategy of putting missiles in Cuba was to leverage negotiations over Berlin, Rusk said in the tape that the soviets grossly misunderstood Cuba’s importance.

Aside from Rusk, the advisors in this first meeting included:

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (Bundy was the first to notify the president of the missiles); the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor; and the attorney general and President Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

Of the group, the president would lean heavily on his brother throughout the crisis, perhaps to the chagrin of others in the White House according to historian Sir Max Hastings, author of The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962.

MAX HASTINGS: He [RFK] was the one person whom JFK trusted absolutely because he posed absolutely no threat, and he knew that Bobby was with him to hell and back. So Bobby wielded enormous power, but was he liked or trusted within the White House? Generally, no. He was just somebody who was there and had to be put up with.

MATT PORTER: The audacious act by the Soviets came as a shock to the men in the room during the first meeting.

In the initial meetings that followed, historian and JFK biographer Fredrik Logevall says the assumption that a military response would be needed was nearly a given.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: I think there's a strong sense on the part of the members of the so-called ExComm, the executive committee, that in those first couple of days of the crisis that in all likelihood, we will have to respond militarily. I think there is a general consensus that that's the case. And that includes the president himself.

MATT PORTER: The biggest question for the advisors early on was not “if there would be a strike,” but “when” and “how.”

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara spoke about the importance about timing because he pointed out if any missiles were left intact there would be no second chances.


ROBERT MCNAMARA: “But I think it is extremely important that our talk and our discussion be founded on this premise: that any air strike will be planned to take place prior to the time they become operational. Because, if they become operational before the air strike, I do not believe we can state we can knock them out before they can be launched. And if they’re launched there is almost certain to be chaos in part of the East Coast or the area in a radius of 600 to 1,000 miles from Cuba.”

MATT PORTER: Most of the planning in the first few days assumed that the missile launchers were still incomplete. What the group didn’t know – and could have led to a deadly mistake – is that some of the medium-range launcher sites were already operational.

Even without the knowledge of the active launchers, the intelligence painted a very difficult situation for the United States. The pictures from U-2 spy planes revealed the construction of both medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile launch sites.

Medium-range missiles could destroy targets across the southeastern United States including Washington D.C.

The larger intermediate-range missiles had the ability to reach targets within 2,000 miles, to cities as far north as New York City and Boston and as far west as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In essence, with active intermediate missiles, almost the entire United States and its population of more than 180 million people were exposed.

In addition, the warheads in Cuba were some of the largest ever made – even by today’s weapon standards. The weapons carried one to two megaton payloads that were 70 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Professor at the Naval War College and Cold War expert Tom Nichols explains the destructive power of the missiles from Cuba.

TOM NICHOLS: One megaton would be enough to destroy the entire city of Boston by itself all the way out to the suburbs… It's a big-- I mean, people, I think, underestimate how much force is in a megaton. That's a city-killer weapon.

MATT PORTER: And that was only the intelligence that was known. Decades later, we would learn that military intelligence had a major blind spot.

In addition to the medium- and intermediate-range missiles, the Soviets had already sent about one hundred smaller tactical nuclear weapons that could be used on an invading force to cause mass casualties.

SERHII PLOKHY: The US air surveillance human intelligence was never, never was able to uncover the presence of the tactical nuclear weapons on the island.

MATT PORTER: Historian Serhii Plokhy, author of Nuclear Folly: a History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, explains that the Americans vastly underestimated the Soviet’s military presence on the island.

SERHII PLOKHY: The estimates were that there were up to 10,000 of the Soviet soldiers and officers on the island, when in fact there were four times as many, more than 40,000. So yes, the US was not getting full picture either on October 14 of 1962 or even later.

MATT PORTER: In a statement to state media on September 11, a month earlier, the Soviets claimed they didn’t need to place missiles in Cuba because they already had missiles that could reach the U.S. from the boundaries of the Soviet Union.

For that reason, the president and his advisors were confused about Khrushchev’s aggressive move.


PRESIDENT KENNEDY: We certainly have been wrong about what he’s trying to do in Cuba. There isn’t any doubt about that. Not many of us thought that he was going to put MRBMs on Cuba…

MCGEORGE BUNDY: What is the strategic impact on the position of the United States of MRBMs in Cuba? How gravely does this change the strategic balance?”

MATT PORTER: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy agreed with the president that the missiles didn’t radically change the strategic balance. The president and his advisors felt they had more of a political problem knowing there would be a lot more terrified Americans out there seeing the threat of Soviet missiles at their front door.

In the discussions the advisors likened the situation to the U.S. nuclear missiles that had been placed in Turkey five years earlier by President Eisenhower.


PRESIDENT KENNEDY: It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamn dangerous, I would think.

MCGEORGE BUNDY: Well, we did, Mr. President.

MATT PORTER: It was only a passing moment, but later, the US missiles in Turkey would become more important in finding an end to the crisis…but that was still many days and meetings away.

For now, President Kennedy told his advisors to come up with options for a response to the missiles in Cuba.

Meanwhile, the president had to continue on as the chief executive without tipping off the Soviets or the public that he was aware of their covert scheme.

We’ll discuss how the president pulled off his act of misdirection next after a short break.


MATT PORTER: During the first six days while the president met with his closest advisors on the crisis, he needed to continue his normal routines and appointments as president as if nothing was wrong. He kept to his schedule meeting foreign dignitaries and others in his appointment book. With critical midterm elections coming up, he also continued on with several campaign trips to Connecticut, Illinois, and Ohio.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: I think there's a conscious decision in the first few days to give the appearance to the press and, through the press, the American people-- both Congress, the press, and the American people-- that [there’s] “nothing to see here. Go about your business. Carry on.” And one way to show that is, of course, that the president himself will go through with previously scheduled trips, including campaign-related travel.

MATT PORTER: Coincidentally, on the first day of the crisis, the president had an off-the-record meeting at a conference for journalists covering foreign affairs. Almost immediately after finding out about the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the president would find himself having to speak with journalists who would cover the crisis while not giving away what he knew.

In a transcript from the meeting, we know he said one of the three major problems was the advancement and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

While his advisors secretly debated the nuclear crisis in Cuba, the president said nuclear weapons could lead to the “end of countries or perhaps the end of human society as we know it.”

In the tradition of presidents not telling journalists everything that’s going on in the moment, the president downplayed Cuba’s risk to the country because Cubans, he said, quote, “Do not possess the nuclear arsenal that the Soviet Union possesses.” In a statement that could be seen differently for those who knew what was going on in Cuba, the president does tell the group – “the United States and the world is now passing through one of its most critical periods.”

While Cuba may have been on the mind of the president and his closest advisors who were in the room – the public’s attention was elsewhere. The November midterm election season was in full swing with former President Eisenhower holding a major half-million dollar fundraiser where he sharply criticized the president’s moves on foreign policy.

The uncertainty of West Berlin continued to make headlines in major newspapers and both the Soviet Union and the U.S. announced new missile tests in the pacific ocean.

While foreign policy weighed heavily inside the White House, most of the country was concentrated on another major issue, civil rights for Black Americans.

20th century civil rights historian Brenda Gayle Plummer says at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, many civil rights activists saw the Kennedy administration as not doing enough.

A civil rights movement that had started years earlier was gaining steam across the country. In 1961, a year before the crisis, the nation was taken by storm during the Freedom Rides. On these rides, groups of college students, black and white, boarded buses to protest the illegal racial segregation in interstate travel that was still imposed in southern states.

In many of the trips, the riders were met by angry, racist mobs in the South.

BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: And so there was a period in which Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, were trying to convince African-American leaders to tamp down the Freedom Rides, activities which they regarded as not productive from their point of view. But it was really about-- in some respects, this is something that could not be contained.

MATT PORTER: But as the violent images of riders being assaulted or worse were broadcast on television or printed in newspapers across the country, the protests convinced the Kennedy administration to act.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy issued an order that banned segregation on interstate bus routes that took effect on November 1, 1961.

But the activism of the Civil Rights movement continued and this wouldn’t be the last time the administration would be pushed to act, even during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Fast forward to the beginning of the crisis, there was another new civil rights conflict brewing that also needed his attention.

The U.S. Court of Appeals took action and prevented the state of Mississippi from interfering in the desegregation of the University of Mississippi where it was admitting its first Black student, James Meredith.

BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: So the effect of James Meredith wanting to attend the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, perceived as one of the institutional citadels of Mississippi white identity, was just too much for a lot of people. And so his efforts to enroll there were accompanied by serious violence.

MATT PORTER: For the public, the Meredith affair and its aftermath captured American's attention from the goings-on in Cuba. The only news from Cuba to make national headlines in the week before the crisis involved the Bay of Pigs hostages still held by Fidel Castro.

While Kennedy’s efforts to avoid calling attention to Cuba were effective during the first week, Fredrik Logevall said the developing situation in Cuba was starting to become known to a few journalists already – but those with information held their stories back during the first week.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: We know that journalists, many of them already had a sense of what was happening but they agreed to sit on the story. But that could only last for so long.

MATT PORTER: Four days into the crisis with no major news leaks, President Kennedy left the campaign trail under the excuse of having a cold. Newspapers reported the Kennedy administration’s line that the president had a slightly elevated temperature and was feeling “hoarse” and “tired.”

Historians said it was a time where few would have questioned the report from the campaign.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: This was an age in American history when people were more inclined to trust what the government told them and I think what the media told them. I would say that a great many Americans said, “Oh, OK. Yeah. The president must have a cold. He's a human being. He'll get colds. He'll get fever.” And I think that's probably how most people took it.

MATT PORTER: Former White House reporter Sid Davis who covered the crisis said when the press learned of the deception – they called it among themselves “a diplomatic cold.”

Davis said at a JFK Library Forum in 2002 that the modern press would not have given the president the same pass he got in 1962 for his diversionary tactics.


SID DAVIS: And we soon discovered of course that the cold was a diplomatic cold, and it was a fib to keep everybody guessing. My guess is that if that had happened today the headlines in all the newspapers and tabloids would be, ‘Kennedy lied.’”

MATT PORTER: As the president returned to Washington under the guise of a cold, he was briefed on several options being discussed by his advisors. The group also asked what kind of notice to give the Soviet Union – if any.

George Ball, an advisor from the State Department, emphasized that a 24-hour warning for any attack is what people expect from a country like the United States.

GEORGE BALL: A course of action where we strike without warning is like Pearl Harbor. It’s the kind of conduct that one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one expects of the United States.

MATT PORTER: When it came to warning Khrushchev, the president had an opportunity to do it just two days into the crisis on October 18. The president had a highly-publicized meeting scheduled at the White House with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Had he canceled the meeting, historians say it would have raised red flags.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: I think Kennedy felt that to cancel that meeting would be problematic. It would send a certain message that, “We Americans, we know something is up.”

MATT PORTER: While the president decided to keep the meeting, he also decided to not give away his hand about his intelligence on the missiles in Cuba. And unlike other meetings at the White House, this meeting went unrecorded.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: This meeting with Gromyko is so fascinating. How I wish we had a tape for this particular meeting….

And so what you have is this kind of dance in which these two formidable players are generally stepping around one another, coming close both of them, I think, to revealing what they both know and what's going on but not actually doing so.

MATT PORTER: The discovery of the missiles compromised any trust Kennedy thought he had with Khrushchev according to historian Serhii Plokhy.

SERHII PLOKHY: Well the Kennedy by the time that the meeting is taking place certainly knows about the Soviet missiles on Cuba, but he also doesn't think that really negotiation with Khrushchev, either direct or through Gromyko, is really the way to solve the problem because his first reaction to the news about the missiles was, “Son of a bitch! He can't do that to me!”...

So Kennedy has no real incentive to start this dialogue with Khrushchev via Gromyko because he doesn't believe that he can trust Khrushchev.

MATT PORTER: President Kennedy apparently succeeded in his job keeping up appearances during the Gromyko meeting. In his memoirs, the Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin reported that Gromyko “felt completely misled by Kennedy’s conduct.”

But Kennedy and his advisors could not keep the existence of the missiles in Cuba secret forever, and they would have to determine their next steps soon.

How would they ultimately move forward? Find out next.


MATT PORTER: In the first several days of the crisis, there was a mood among Kennedy and his advisors that the United States would have to respond using military force. From targeted air strikes to a full-on invasion, the proposed options to the president all involved taking out the missiles using military force. There were no diplomatic options that were seriously discussed in the first few meetings on the crisis.

Historian Serhii Plokhy says while the history books focus on JFK’s effort to find a diplomatic solution, in the first couple days, even the president thought the only way out of the crisis was through a military operation against Cuba.

SERHII PLOKHY: Well, we have an image of JFK in most of the books written on the Cuban Missile Crisis, films, public perception in general that he takes this moderate position and stops the military invasion…And overall this is a correct picture, but there are different stages in the crisis. And JFK takes very different position on that. During the first week of the crisis, he's not a dove. He's a hawk.

MATT PORTER: Today, the terms “doves” and “hawks” are often used in American politics to describe advisors or politicians who tend to support military or diplomatic actions. While doves look for peaceful ways out of a crisis more hawkish advisors or politicians lean on the military.

The first time these terms were used in this way were to define the members of JFK’s advisors in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

While all the advisors and the president leaned towards a military option in the first few days of the crisis, there was a significant problem with staging any military attack: time. Any planned strike whether it be a limited attack on the missile sites or a comprehensive attack that included an invading force would not be ready for days.

When the missiles were first discovered on Tuesday, the earliest any strike would be ready to launch would be several days later on the following Saturday or Sunday.

Historian Fredrik Logevall says that period of time gave JFK and his advisors the opportunity to fully think through their options.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: And as would be the case in any crisis, I think this mattered a lot. So I think they felt we have a little bit of time on this, and Kennedy in particular, or at least Kennedy as much as anyone, said, let's take this time. Let's think through this calmly and then reach the decision about what we want to do.

MATT PORTER: Another concern was Berlin, as JFK told his advisors any attack on Cuba would give the Soviets reason to take West Berlin.


PRESIDENT KENNEDY: If we do nothing, they have a missile base there with all the pressure that brings to bear on the United States and damage to our prestige. If we attack Cuba, the missiles, or Cuba, in any way then it gives them a clear line to take Berlin.

MATT PORTER: Then there was how an American attack on Cuba would be perceived, particularly among European allies.

Sir Max Hastings, who has studied the European perspective of the crisis, said some would have argued that Europeans learned to live under the nuclear shadow of the Soviet’s Iron Curtain for years.

MAX HASTINGS: That in Europe, all sorts of people, including Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, Britain's leader, was saying to Kennedy, “Well, be careful, hang on a minute. That we've had Russian missiles not much further from us than Cuban missiles are from you for years and we've learnt to live with it.”

MATT PORTER: In a discussion with his military advisors among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kennedy raised his concerns about losing European allies in a first-strike against Cuba.


PRESIDENT KENNEDY: We would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin. We would have no support among our allies.

MATT PORTER: There were also concerns that if the U.S. attacked without any warning – it could discredit the reputation of the United States in the eyes of the world.

During the early days of debate, Robert Kennedy compared the committee’s deliberations on whether to conduct a surprise attack on Cuba to the Japanese’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.

MAX HASTINGS: I think he [RFK] deserves a lot of credit for saying from a very early stage, seeing quite clearly, that if America's response to the Cuban missiles was a surprise bombing attack, that this would be seen by much of the world as absolutely no different from Pearl Harbor. And it would put the United States in the same moral position as the Japanese were after the “Day of Infamy.” And Bobby saw this very clearly. And he scribbled a note to his brother, “now I know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.”

MATT PORTER: On the other hand, the members of the Joint Chiefs were far more certain that the only way to end the crisis was through a military strike. One of the leading advocates for a military solution was the Chief of Staff for the Air Force, General Curtis LeMay.

In fact, LeMay told Kennedy that because the United States had taken a strong stance against allowing any offensive weapons in Cuba earlier in the year – pursuing a more diplomatic option rather than a direct strike would paint the United States as weak.


CURTIS LEMAY: And you have made some pretty strong statements about their being defensive and that we would take action against offensive weapons. I think that a blockade and political talk would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And I’m sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way, too. In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY: What did you say?

CURTIS LEMAY: You’re in a pretty bad fix.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY: You’re in there with me. [Slight laughter, a bit forced.]

MATT PORTER: In the tape, LeMay reiterated to Kennedy, “you’re in a pretty bad fix.”

The president responded, “You’re in there with me.”

LeMay was one of a number of advisors who subscribed to the idea that a nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union could be won. In his worldview, the United States had a clear lead over the Soviets because it had a lopsided advantage in the number of nuclear weapons.

Historian Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of War, explains.

MICHAEL DOBBS: LeMay's essential point was that we have overwhelming nuclear superiority, we can force the Russians either to back down, or if they're foolish enough to launch missiles against them, we can totally annihilate them.

MATT PORTER: But the president didn’t share LeMay’s view that any nuclear war between the two superpowers would leave a winner and a loser.

MICHAEL DOBBS: The president's view was different. He asks the question, “OK, so what would happen if a single Soviet nuclear weapon landed on an American city?” And the answer to that question was perhaps 300,000 Americans, 500,000 Americans would be killed. And to President Kennedy, that was unacceptable…So President Kennedy asked the question not whether we could win a nuclear war, but would it be worth winning a nuclear war? I mean, 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: You can hear the president asking those very questions to his military advisors in the White House recordings.


PRESIDENT KENNEDY: You know how soon these casualty figures [mount up]—80 million, whether it’s 80 or 100— you’re talking about the destruction of a country.

MATT PORTER: The theory of keeping a massive nuclear arsenal ready so that the other side would not dare to attack with their own weapons was known as the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction – referred to by the all too fitting acronym of MAD. But when theory became reality during the first week’s conversations – the idea was no longer simple.

Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson gamed out the potential grim outcomes of an attack on Cuba.

MICHAEL DOBBS: And at one point, one of Kennedy's advisors say, “What will happen if we take out those missile sites in Cuba?” And Acheson replied, “Well, probably the Soviets will take out our analogous intermediate-range missile sites in Turkey.” So then Kennedy's advisor asked, “Well, then what do we do?” And Acheson's response was, “Well, probably will have to knock out some missile base inside the Soviet Union.” And then the question was, “Well, what do the Russians do in that case?” And Acheson's answer was, “Well at that point, we hope that cooler heads will prevail,” i.e., he didn't have a clue what the Russians would do and this sort of tit-for-tat escalation could perhaps lead to a full-blown nuclear exchange between the two superpowers…That was a very sobering thought for President Kennedy.

MATT PORTER: As the consequences of a first strike weighed more heavily each passing day, Kennedy and some of his advisors started to consider a less aggressive option: a naval blockade or quarantine of the island.

In the days after the initial briefing, for the first time, Kennedy began to consider an option that was not an attack.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: Kennedy, I think, is more and more attracted to that idea. And so it's not too long before he begins to shift. And I would argue from then until the end of the crisis, he is the principal voice in the room arguing for finding a non-military solution to the crisis.

MATT PORTER: While the blockade was not initially seriously considered as a primary option, it became more important as more incoming intelligence showed the Soviets were further ahead in the installation of their missile launchers.

SERHII PLOKHY: First, the idea was of a strike, and then once the intelligence arrived that most likely the Soviet missiles were already ready to be fired, that affected the position of Kennedy.

MATT PORTER: The idea of a blockade frustrated the president’s military advisors – including Curtis Lemay.


CURTIS LEMAY: I see no other solution. This blockade and political action, I see leading into war.

MATT PORTER: Arguing for the blockade with his generals, the president said if the Soviets decided to cross the blockade, the entire world wouldn’t be able to argue against the U.S. taking military action at that point.

Llewellyn Thompson, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and a trusted advisor for President Kennedy, said it was highly doubtful the Soviets would resist a blockade.


LLEWELLYN THOMPSON: I think it’s very highly doubtful that the Russians would resist a blockade against military weapons, particularly offensive ones, if that’s the way we pitched it before the world.

MATT PORTER: After his meeting with the Joint Chiefs of staff who still advocated for an immediate military response, JFK decided to continue with the idea of starting with a blockade.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: When the crisis first hits, I think Kennedy is inclined to agree with most of his advisors that some kind of military response is likely going to be necessary. But it doesn't last very long. One of the fascinating things about listening to the tapes but also reading the other evidence we have is that Kennedy, from an early point, even on the second day of the crisis, is coming around or is beginning to see the merits in a blockade or, as it becomes called, a quarantine.

MATT PORTER: While the blockade was option number one, JFK continued to have his military leaders draw up contingency plans from air strikes to an invasion of Cuba.

Historians argue that JFK’s decision to pause and not leap into the advice of his generals remains one of the more consequential decisions not only during the crisis, but in his entire presidency.

MAX HASTINGS: When other people were getting wild ideas about surprise bombing attacks, invading Cuba, and so on, and he saw all the time these huge risks, and he was standing back and saying, hang on, think about this, be careful.

MATT PORTER: And again, hindsight showed how many lives may have been saved by not jumping into a military action. The Soviets had tens of thousands more men on the island than initially known at the time and some of the nuclear weapons were already operational.

MATT PORTER: As JFK got closer to making his decision, the failure of the Bay of Pigs remained in the back of his mind according to historians. One of the biggest conclusions from the failed invasion in 1961 was that JFK felt he was not advised well.

After the first few days of discussions, Kennedy assembled his initial advisors with other key trusted individuals into a working group that was referred to as the Executive Committee for the National Security Council or “ExComm” for short.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: The ExComm I think performs an important function, because you do get very experienced, intelligent, formidable figures in American statecraft and diplomacy all together in one place.

MATT PORTER: Members of the ExComm included Vice President Lyndon Johnson; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; a former and the current secretary of state along with some of the most senior military and intelligence leaders, among others.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: And they're going to be his group. They're going to be the people that he consults with throughout this crisis.

MATT PORTER: In addition to formalizing the working group into ExComm, President Kennedy gave them his decision on what to do next.

The United States announced a naval quarantine to surround Cuba rather than strike first.

SERHII PLOKHY: So that [the blockade] was politically very important step for Kennedy. And second it precluded the ability of Khrushchev to bring more weapons to Cuba, but it didn't solve the problem that was already there on October 14 when the missiles were discovered.

MATT PORTER: Now that the president made his decision to form a quarantine, he needed to tell the American people of the presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba, and his plan for dealing with them.

Even after days of debate, there were still many unknowns in Kennedy's plan:

Would the American people support his decision, or would they want a more aggressive action?

And what would Khrushchev do, now that JFK made his first counter move against his atomic gambit?

Nothing was certain as the crisis moved into its next phase.

Find out what happened in the days ahead on our next episode.