Duck and Cover: Transcript

October 20, 2022



JOHN F. KENNEDY: We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth. But neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: By October 22, 1962, John F. Kennedy was ready to go public. He and his advisors on the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm, had been debating for six days since learning that the Soviet Union was building nuclear missile bases in Cuba.

To an anxious public, Kennedy would lay out the risks the missiles possessed to American cities.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: Each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And for Americans, this would cause a sudden reckoning about their safety in the nuclear age.

TOM NICHOLS: We have now entered a time when America's two oceans and its great continental fortress are no longer enough to protect it. And now you have an opponent putting nuclear weapons right offshore.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Kennedy’s announcement and declaration of a naval quarantine around Cuba would stun and anger Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who would learn that his atomic gambit had failed.

SERHII PLOKHY: And now he was caught red handed before his missiles were actually ready to fire, and he's in panic. He doesn't know what to do.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: As the quarantine would start on October 24th, Kennedy - and the world - waited to see if the first shot of a potential nuclear war would be fired.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: That, as I understood, there’s some report that the Russian ships were not going to stop and that we were going to have to sink them.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: in this episode, we look at how the first days of the public phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis affected Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro, and were days of uncertainty across the globe.

This is Atomic Gambit - The Cuban Missile Crisis 60 Years Later. Episode Three: “Duck and Cover.”



JAMIE RICHARDSON: It had been 6 days since President Kennedy and his advisors in ExComm had learned of the nuclear missile bases being built in Cuba by the Soviet Union. For 6 days they worked in secret as they grappled with how to respond. Kennedy had insisted everyone maintain their usual schedules so as not to give away what they were dealing with.

While initial reactions included options for airstrikes or an invasion of Cuba, JFK decided on a naval quarantine of Soviet ships coming into Cuba carrying military equipment knowing that the more time JFK and his advisors kept their knowledge of the missiles a secret, the more likely it was this information would leak. By October 22 Kennedy was ready to go on air and tell the public.


Before JFK informed the nation, he called all three living former presidents to brief them - Presidents Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was then campaigning for Republicans in the upcoming midterms, criticizing Kennedy’s foreign policy, including his stance on Communism.

Kennedy knew it was important to keep his predecessor in the loop. Tom Nichols, professor at the Naval War College and columnist, notes that this call marks a high point in the presidential system.

TOM NICHOLS: Kennedy has the humility and the wisdom to call his predecessor, who is a professional military officer and not of his party, and a man who did not want to see him win the office and whose vice president he defeated not 18 months earlier. That's a really important part of the American story, and I think it spoke well both of Kennedy and Eisenhower in that discussion.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Eisenhower had already been briefed about the three possibilities ExComm had been discussing: airstrike, airstrike and invasion, and naval quarantine around Cuba.

He agreed that an airstrike was not the way to go.


DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: The first one [an air strike alone] I told him—the only way to deal with the thing—I said: “I thought that was completely wrong.” And apparently everybody else had the same opinion on it.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: [assuming Eisenhower is referring to the surprise air strike option] That’s right. And for the reasons, one is we didn’t think we could get them all. As well as, we’d have all of the disadvantages without finishing the job.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: In this time of crisis, the two presidents, of different generations and parties, had a respect for the other’s position and experience. They showed an understanding of their roles and the office of the presidency.

TOM NICHOLS: They understand that they have switched roles, that the presidency didn't belong to either one of them, and they have a very calm discussion about what they think the Soviets will or won't do. And President Kennedy understands he's the president now. And Eisenhower understands that Kennedy is the president now and he has to make this decision.

And the respect that both men clearly have for the office at that moment, I think, is one of those really valuable things about the American system that helped us get through that moment. They are not competitors for power anymore.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: In addition to briefing past US presidents, Kennedy informed his NATO allies in Europe - President Charles deGaulle in France and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the United Kingdom.

Europe had been living under the shadow of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons, and so the missiles in Cuba weren’t seen with the same urgency to them as they were to the US . Harold Macmillan wrote to Kennedy saying that “Many of us in Europe have lived so long in close proximity to the enemy nuclear weapons… that we have got accustomed to it.”

Sir Max Hastings, author of the 2022 book The Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962, explains the British Prime Minister’s reaction to his American counterpart.

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 for years and we've learnt to live with it. And logically, there's no reason why the Cubans shouldn't be allowed to have nuclear missiles.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Nonetheless, MacMillan gave JFK his support. President Kennedy sent the British prime minister updates nearly every day of the crisis.

There was still one more world leader JFK needed to inform before he spoke to the American people: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk gave Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin the text of JFK’s speech to send to Khrushchev. Kennedy had also included a cover letter with a personal message to the man who placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, reading in part: “I have not assumed that you or any other sane man would, in this nuclear age, deliberately plunge the world into war which it is crystal clear no country could win and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world, including the aggressor.”

JAMIE RICHARDSON: A call went out to bipartisan congressional leaders to return to Washington for a briefing with the president. Twenty senators and representatives flew into DC, interrupting their campaigns for the midterm elections, set for November 6.

JFK, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary Rusk, and CIA Director John McCone broke the news to the group of legislators. They informed them about the number of missiles and launchers that intelligence had discovered.


JOHN McCONE: A total of 36 launchers at nine separate bases. Missiles in these categories are capable of delivering warheads in the megaton range.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Fredrik Logevall, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and JFK biographer, explains how the group took in the news.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: It's clear that the congressional leaders know that they are there to be informed rather than consulted. So for much of the briefing on the 22nd, they were pretty quiet. But you then see both Richard Russell [of the] Georgia Armed Services [and] William Fulbright [from] Arkansas [of the Senate Committee on] Foreign Relations -- two giants in the Senate -- basically making pretty clear that they want aggressive action, that they're skeptical about a kind of political solution to this.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Senator Richard Russell, a Southern Democrat representing Georgia, echoed the sentiments of ExComm from a few days earlier. He argued that this was the time to invade Cuba and get rid of Castro once and for all, rather than waiting and seeing.


RICHARD RUSSELL: It seems to me that we’re at the crossroads. We’re either a first-class power or we’re not. You have warned these people time and again.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: ExComm had already spent days deliberating if an invasion was feasible and had considered military action. JFK explained that it would take time to be able to gather the forces needed for an invasion-- But it wasn’t off the table yet.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: So, we may have the war by the next 24 hours. All I want to say is that we are going to move, with maximum speed, all of our forces to be in a position to invade Cuba within the seven-day period.”

JAMIE RICHARDSON: If an invasion of Cuba happened, he expected the Soviets to take Berlin as retaliation. And in that case, the US would have to respond. In an earlier meeting, JFK laid out what that would be:


JOHN F. KENNEDY: There’s bound to be a reprisal from the Soviet Union, there always is—of their just going in and taking Berlin by force at some point. Which leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons—which is a hell of an alternative—and begin a nuclear exchange, with all this happening.

If Khrushchev had decided to go after Berlin, Kennedy would likely have used nuclear weapons in response - changing the face of the earth and possibly leading to all-out nuclear war.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: As members of ExComm carefully crafted JFK’s speech the weekend before, they were worried about leaks. In the Congressional briefing, McNamara noted that there hadn’t been much speculation in the press on what was going on.

Though the specific details of the crisis hadn’t leaked, there was certainly a lot of speculation in the press -- particularly in areas near DC and military bases, where there had been more activity than usual.

Alice L. George, author of “Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis,” describes the speculation happening in the press at this time.

ALICE L. GEORGE: The press did not immediately pick up on it. But by the day before Kennedy's speech, there were quite a few newspapers, and not just big ones. Like the Virginia-Pilot was one of the newspapers that were around military bases [for which] the reporters [working there] were noticing the troop movements which were very clearly going to the Southeast…On that Sunday the 21st, the White House realized, we're about to lose our secret. And so Kennedy did call the publishers of the New York Times and the Washington Post and asked them to please not publish anything that would give away what was going on.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Though most journalists didn’t know the specifics of the crisis, it was obvious by the increased activity around the White House that something was happening. On the day of the speech, the headline of the Boston Globe read “Capital Secrecy Hints New Crisis.”

Journalists who covered Washington and the White House were under pressure from their papers to find out what was going on. They tried to get intel from their sources to get a hint about what was behind all of the secrecy.

Forty years after the crisis in 2002, Robert Pierpoint, who covered the White House for CBS News, recalled what it was like on the cusp of the public phase of the crisis.

ROBERT PIERPOINT: Boy our bosses got after us, very strongly, to find out what was going on…I got a call during that period from a guy who was in intelligence whom I had known for many years … I said, “What can you tell me?” And he said, “Well, you’ve got to keep your eye on the hole in the donut.” That’s the way intelligence people talk, I guess. But I said, “What does that mean? Is it Cuba or is it Berlin?” He would not go another inch further and I came away with the misinterpretation that it was probably Berlin rather than Cuba.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Expecting the president to make a major announcement about the status of Berlin, photographers and journalists in the White House filed into the Oval Office on October 22nd to watch Kennedy deliver his message.


SID DAVIS: When he came into the room, he had no teleprompter. The cameras were still the old big large network television cameras - he had to step around them - and he had a sheaf of papers because he had no speech on the prompter, so he was going to read from paper. And I noticed the papers were trembling in his hands which worried me a little bit. I was fairly new to the White House - maybe a year or so into covering the White House - but once he started to talk it seemed to me that ice water rolled through his veins.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: President Kennedy sat behind his desk in the Oval Office, normally full of personnel effects, telephones, and papers, now empty for his speech. At 7:00 pm, he spoke to the American people, informing them of the missiles placed in Cuba.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: The characteristics of these new missile sites indicate two distinct types of installations. Several of them include medium range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 nautical miles. Each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: In a speech just over 17 minutes long, JFK presented his case to the American people - and in fact, the world. He stressed that the Soviets lied to him about their activity in Cuba, and justified the US’s response of a quarantine. He also laid out seven initial steps to be taken, including the naval quarantine, increased surveillance of Cuba, and a demand that Khrushchev stop his military build up in Cuba and instead join JFK to cease the arms race.

With no idea how this crisis would unfold or how long it would even last, President Kennedy laid out what the future might hold - including the potential for lives to be lost:


JOHN F. KENNEDY: No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead--months in which our patience and our will be tested.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Having just expressed his concern for the possibility of nuclear war, he ended his speech on a hopeful note - hopeful for a path toward peace rather than the escalation into an unwinnable and devastating war.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right. Not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: And with those words, the nuclear missiles in Cuba were no longer a secret. The public phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.

After a short break, we’ll look at the response to Kennedy’s own gambit and how the United States would wait for a showdown at the quarantine line.




JAMIE RICHARDSON: The reaction to President Kennedy's revelation was immediate -- and global.

European allies had been living next to Soviet missiles for some time now, so the missiles themselves weren’t a concern for them. What did concern them was how the Cuban missiles could change how and where the United States refocused its priorities.

Tom Nichols explains European fears of the US scaling back its presence in Cold War Europe in favor of focusing on threats in its own hemisphere.


TOM NICHOLS: I think the Europeans were more worried that the Americans would feel that this new sense of vulnerability meant that we had to pull back from Europe, that we had gotten used to the idea that in both world wars, the United States plays away games, that we go far away, we help our allies, we defeat the enemy far from North American shores. And I think that the Europeans were genuinely concerned that with this kind of imminent or proximate threat to the United States, that the Americans might say, we've been neglecting the home front too much. Maybe we need to come back.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: In addition to pulling back its European support, Max Hastings describes the European worries of the US making a move that could put the entire world in jeopardy.

MAX HASTINGS: This insistence that the missiles have got to get go from Cuba, that privately, that an awful lot of politicians in Europe were very uneasy about this. They were as scared of an American miscalculation as of a Soviet one.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: As news of this new Cuban crisis reverberated around the world, the US was experiencing the aftershocks of a crisis at home- the admission of the Black veteran James Meredith to the all-white University of Mississippi.

After Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett refused to let Meredith enter, JFK federalized the Mississippi National Guard to ensure he could register and attend the school. White segregationists rioted, and two people died and many more were injured. Newspapers around the country reported every movement in this latest test for civil rights.


A path - however fraught - to progress for racial equality at home, it also benefited the US’s image abroad. Newly independent African nations were paying attention to news on civil rights in the United States. And as Mary Dudziak, civil rights historian and foreign policy expert at Emory Law School says, the Kennedy government thought James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi helped them in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

MARY DUDZIAK: Kennedy administration officials thought that it really had a palpable impact on US-foreign relations with some other countries. And just sort of skipping ahead, Arthur Schlesinger thought that it actually helped with specific foreign relations needs. For example, when the Soviet Union needed refueling rights in African countries in order to send planes to Cuba, the governments of Algeria and Guinea denied them the ability to do that.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Fifty million Americans were glued to their televisions, watching President Kennedy’s speech. The news that there were nuclear missiles so close to their border caused the nation to face a reckoning.

TOM NICHOLS: One of the most important things about the Cuban Missile Crisis is that it emphasized to the Americans how vulnerable they now were in the nuclear missile age. This is only five years after Sputnik. We have now entered a time when America's two oceans and its great continental fortress are no longer enough to protect it. And now you have an opponent putting nuclear weapons right offshore.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The closeness of the Soviet missiles in Cuba was new, but the fear of a nuclear bomb dropping somewhere in the US was not.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Public service announcements [PSAs] aired on television, instructing viewers what to do in case of an attack.

ALICE L. GEORGE: And a big part of it was popular culture. It was on TV. There were the regular national broadcast tests. The children would be sitting watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” or something. And an alert would come on: “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Children learned the refrain of “Duck and Cover” on tv and in school, where they practiced drills ostensibly meant to protect them and help them react quickly.


ALICE GEORGE: But I think the biggest factor for kids was the drills that were held in school. And they started off with those silly duck-and-cover drills. And then schools that had basements started doing drills where all the kids had to run to the basement and see if they all fit in there…

And the teachers had to imagine, how would they control all of these children if there was a nuclear war? And then there was a third kind of drill which was the “run-home-from-school” drill which basically offered [that] if you got home within 15 minutes, you could probably die with your mother unless she happened to work or unless you didn't make it home in 15 minutes.


PSA NARRATOR: That signal means to stop whatever you’re doing and get to a safe place fast.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: For people who lived through this time of alerts and drills, the fear was unlike any other.

CAROL (FROM VOICEMAIL): 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.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Civil defense took on importance to the government when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949.

Mary Dudziak describes the country’s plans for protecting the American people.

MARY DUDZIAK: “Initially, their idea was to have big public shelters that people could all evacuate to. And they ended up giving that up and focusing on, essentially, individualized approaches to people taking care of themselves. And so the government promoted individual people creating their own bomb shelters in their backyards, and some people built them underground.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The promotional material on building shelters reflected the prevailing image the US had of its citizens: the all white nuclear family.

MARY DUDZIAK: And there was an article published, actually, in the Negro Digest in 1963 as people are getting more aware of the dangers of nuclear war. And the article was, “Can Negroes Survive a Nuclear War?” And the answer was, basically, no. Because the whole plan was people should evacuate cities.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The assumption was that cities would be the prime targets for a nuclear attack and that meant many Black communities were at the highest risk. Redlining, racial covenants, in addition to segregation restricted where Black people could buy or rent property, which led to denser populations of African Americans in cities.

MARY DUDZIAK: African-Americans lived, often, in the city centers, often, because of segregation, in concentrated areas. They didn't have the means to build bomb shelters underground. They didn't often have access to transportation for everyone to get out of town.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Even outside of cities, the number of fallout shelters was not sufficient to protect most people. If there was a nuclear attack, most Americans would be in trouble.

ALICE GEORGE: They had enough shelters for a little less than a third of the population. But most of them were not marked and they were not stocked. So they would do no good, other than maybe a few starving people, if they happened to find a shelter. could go in. But if they were not marked, it was really ridiculous.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Inadequacy of the United States’s civil defense plans aside, the abstract threat of a nuclear attack became very real for its citizens after JFK’s speech. The American people rallied behind the president in support after learning about the missiles in Cuba.

The morning after JFK’s speech, the White House was flooded with mail. The press office reported that it had received over 4,000 telegrams, with a ratio of 12:1 in support of President Kennedy’s message. Though there was an overwhelming positive response, some demanded a more aggressive response to the Soviet Union and Cuba, and still others were worried the quarantine would start WWIII.

Although Kennedy had proved frustratingly slow in the area of civil rights, he still garnered support from the Black press and other prominent Black Americans. Two of the most famous Black newspapers of the time -- the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier gave their support to the president, with headlines like “Cuban Action Gets Unanimous Support from Southsiders” and “Courier Survey Shows Population Behind JFK’s Stand.”

Brenda Gayle Plummer, 20th century civil rights historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, notes that Black newspapers represented a more moderate, pro-administration segment of the Black population. They were conscious that being antagonistic toward the president, especially in a time of crisis, could hurt future chances of working with the administration on civil rights.

BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: The other is that the publishers of those papers were not radical as far as issues beyond racial concerns. And so most of the press essentially took the position that the Soviets were wrong and they were pro-administration. And most of the African-American newspapers were pro-administration when it became clear that there was going to be pressure with some positive results on administration policy.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most prominent Civil Rights leaders of the era, had been critical of JFK’s slowness in making good on campaign promises to help Black Americans. He had also condemned President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

But in an address in Harlem, Dr. King asked for prayers for the president, and expressed the need for “broad understanding and a faith in the future so that the dream of peace may become a lasting reality.”

MARY DUDZIAK: So in spite of the dissatisfaction with the Kennedy administration over the state of Civil Rights, there was nevertheless widespread support.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The message across all segments of the American population was clear:

MAX HASTINGS: The American people were in absolutely no doubt whatsoever, and nor was anybody in the White House, that it was completely unacceptable to American public opinion to have Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba 90 miles from America.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Kennedy’s Monday night speech about the missiles was broadcast in Spanish to Cuba from American radio stations.

The next day, Fidel Castro went on television to denounce Kennedy’s speech. He lambasted the United States’ and Kennedy’s actions toward Cuba since their revolution. He ended by saying that the US would be the ones responsible for starting a nuclear war, not the Cubans or the Soviets.

But despite his anger and bluster, Castro also knew he’d been dealt a blow: the existence of the Soviet missiles was made public before they were ready, and before Khrushchev could announce the missiles’ presence on their own terms.

Author of Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Serhii Plokhy describes the atmosphere in Havana the first days that the Cuban Missile Crisis became public.


SERHII PLOKHY: The first reaction is panic. There is expectation that certainly the attack is coming. And what you see is that belief that the days of the regime were numbered then created an atmosphere of panic that continues on the island for a relatively long period of time.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The panic over an imminent US invasion or attack was exacerbated by the continued U2 surveillance flights over Cuba. Flying sometimes as low as 500 feet over the island, American pilots took photographs to be analyzed for signs of progress in missile construction.

Castro was determined not to sit idly by, and let the US take advantage of his country.

He ordered anti-aircraft artillery to begin shooting at the American planes that dared to fly over his country.

SERHII PLOKHY: So Castro gives order a few days later, gives order to his air defenses to start shooting at the American airplanes. They of course couldn't get to the U-2, but there was already by that time, a number of low-flying airplanes over the Cuba, and the Cuban command Cubans start shooting at them, which then creates a sort of an atmosphere on the Cuba where the Soviet military commanders they really don't know whether the invasion already started or not.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: On the 22nd in Moscow, Chairman Khrushchev had learned that President Kennedy was going to make a speech, but he didn’t know exactly what he was going to say. But it didn’t look good for Khrushchev’s ploy to put missiles in Cuba.

SERHII PLOKHY: And now he was caught red handed before his missiles were actually ready to fire, and he's in panic. He doesn't know what to do.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Because of the time difference between Washington, D.C. and Moscow, Khrushchev and the Presidium learned what JFK said around 3:00 am on the 23rd. At that moment, he then fully realized that his plan to unveil the missiles in November had been ruined.

But there was a silver lining: Kennedy had so far pledged only the quarantine of Cuba, and he had not -- yet -- declared an intention to invade Cuba or begin a war. Khrushchev and the Presidium realized they had a window of time to determine how they would respond to JFK.

SERHII PLOKHY: [T]hey're not sure which track to take either to take full responsibility for that and threaten the US with the nuclear war or to say that well, it's not our missiles anymore and we are not responsible for that. And then there is a great, great relief comes when they realize what Kennedy will be talking about and what he is talking about, that this is blockade. That this is not a war. This is not an invasion of Cuba, and that they still have some room for maneuver.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Khrushchev realized what he had to do. He did not want a war,though he would not indicate this to Kennedy in his next communiqué. ExComm would continue working under the assumption that Khrushchev could strike at any moment.

SERHII PLOKHY: And the immediate decision that they make the very same night is that they're not trying to test Kennedy's resolve anymore with the blockade. They ordered the ships that are close to the Cuban shores to move as fast as possible. One of those ships actually brings the nuclear warheads to Cuba. Others who are further away --they give them orders to turn back.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Two ships with nuclear equipment had already arrived in Cuban ports. The third, the Aleksandrov, had nuclear warheads and conventional warheads on board. It received orders to go forward toward its destination before the quarantine went into effect.

SERHII PLOKHY: And what that means is that the Soviets had enough time to deliver to Cuba their medium-range missiles and their tactical weapons, but they didn't have time to bring the intermediate missiles that were [could reach] further, deeper into the American territory. So those ships with those the so-called R-14 missiles, they were turned back and returned to the Soviet Union.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: But JFK and ExComm didn’t know that yet.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: The Pentagon had estimated that an invasion of Cuba would need about 250,000 military personnel. The mobilization of US troops that had been quietly moving ahead began to pick up pace. Troops and equipment traveled to the southeastern part of the country to prepare for a possible invasion of Cuba.

In ExComm meetings, JFK worried if the planes and airports in Florida could be subject to an attack, either in retaliation if the US attacked Cuba or in a Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack.

Newspapers reported on troop mobilizations down to southern states, with Black newspapers reporting that integrated units were serving at this time of national urgency.

In 1948, President Truman had integrated the armed forces, giving “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”

Brenda Gayle Plummer explains that though there was an Executive Order banning racial discrimination, that didn’t change the entrenched attitudes within some military leadership.

BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER: So the other problem is that some of the brass were still steeped in attitudes that they had had during World War II -- the notion that African-American troops were unworthy, they were not good fighters, and so on. And so the battle was not only with Southern custom, it was often also with exacting conformity from military leaders.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: As troops traveled to the South during the crisis, the idea of a desegregated military was tested.

In Florida, Black Air Force personnel were given segregated housing, reported the Chicago Defender.

Southern states had racist Jim Crow laws on their books that both predated Truman’s Executive Order and superseded any attempts at integration, Mary Dudziak explains.

MARY DUDZIAK: So the fact that there were lots of African-Americans in the service and the fact that people were serving the country when they're in the military doesn't undo the fact that, when deployed in the South, they were deployed in a context where there was not only official segregation but segregation was often enforced by active Klan organizations and white racists who were happy to use violence to support their ideas about white racial superiority.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The country may have rallied behind the president and against the communist threat 90 miles off its southern coast, but its problems with racial equality were not changing under these circumstances.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: After President Kennedy announced the naval quarantine publicly, privately, he and his advisors had another logistical matter to consider: if it was legal, and if other nations would allow them to set up the quarantine. He had received tentative approval from European and NATO allies, but there were other international organizations he would want to get approval from to make the quarantine seem legitimate.

FREDIK LOGEVALL: I think Kennedy in particular-- also some of his aides, but Kennedy maybe as much as anyone-- felt that in order for this to pass muster with international opinion, maybe even in legal terms-- that is to say, the quarantine-- you needed to have the approval of the OAS, the Organization of American States. He also, I think, had reason to believe that the OAS would follow the administration's lead on this, that it would vote unanimously in favor of the American position. The OAS had already shown in previous months that it was hostile to Castro's government, that it was very closely connected with the United States -- not universally, or not on all issue -- but on the key issues.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Llewellyn Thompson, who had recently been US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, later noted that the OAS endorsement gave the quarantine legitimacy not only for the US in the eyes on the world stage, but also in the Soviet Union’s eyes, as well.

LLEWELLYN THOMPSON: I've always been struck by how much importance the Soviets do attach to at least some cover of legality to things that they do…the fact that this had endorsement of the Latin American countries put an entirely different problem for them… If they could isolate the United States and mobilize world opinion against us, why, this would have been very important and, therefore, would have affected their judgment about what they could and couldn’t do.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: On October 23rd, the member countries of the OAS voted unanimously to approve the quarantine.

With the quarantine set to begin on October 24, there remained more key questions:

How would it work? How would the Soviets react? And how would a confrontation at sea between US and Soviet craft actually work?


ROSELL GILPATRIC: Yes, we’ve got instructions to CINCLANT [Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet] which start with those steps. Shot across the bow, shot through the rudder—

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Shot through the rudder.

ROSELL GILPATRIC: Then a boarding party. And then order the crews to come on deck and the minimum amount of force at each stage.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Step by step, US ships would up the ante, increasing the odds for shots to be fired.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: That’s what could happen. They’re going to keep going. And we’re going to try to shoot the rudder off, or the boiler. And then we’re going to try to board it. And they’re going to fire a gun, then machine guns. And we’re going to have one hell of a time getting aboard that thing and getting control of it…

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Ships with military equipment on board were not the only ones headed to Cuba from the Soviet Union. Petroleum and oil, as well as other supplies - like baby food - would be cargo on its way into the Caribbean.

In a moment of gallows humor, Robert McNamara and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy imagined a scenario that would undercut the US’s use of the quarantine by targeting a ship full of nurses and baby formula:


ROBERT MCNAMARA: But the instruction from Khrushchev is very likely to be: “Don’t stop under any circumstances.” So the baby food ship comes out and we hail it. If they don’t stop, we shoot it. [Chuckles.]

MCGEORGE BUNDY: We shoot three nurses!

JAMIE RICHARDSON: ExComm did not want to force a confrontation with every Soviet ship that came to the quarantine line.

But JFK knew that if that part of his strategy got out, hardliners in the US would accuse him of being soft on the Soviet Union. And to avoid that, he had a plan - one that made it impossible for civilians to know what was going on at the quarantine line.

ALICE L. GEORGE: The administration made a couple of decisions that made it harder for journalists… But I think what happened, and I guess Kennedy sort of foresaw this, was that the quarantine line was more sort of a porous perimeter than it was a hard line of defense.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Even at the White House, reporters were faced with their own quarantine of information about what was going on. The White House had placed restrictions on what information it would give the press. Press Secretary Pierre Salinger held briefings at least twice a day, but he wasn’t giving journalists much information.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: Just 24 hours after addressing the nation about the new crisis in Cuba, President Kennedy signed the quarantine order. The naval quarantine would go into effect on October 24 at 10:00 am eastern time.


So far, all word out of the Soviet Union was that the Soviet ships would not stop. The CIA had received unofficial reports from Soviet officials that they would keep going. Plus, Khrushchev had already written to Kennedy that he couldn’t agree to the quarantine.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had been in Virginia when the president asked her to come back to the White House at the start of the crisis . In her 1964 oral history interview she remembered the anxiety she felt while waiting for the first Soviet ships to reach the quarantine line:


JACQUELINE KENNEDY: And then I remember just waiting with that blockade. The only thing I can think of what it was like, it was like an election night waiting, but much worse.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Kennedy and his advisors operated under the assumption that the ships would not stop, forcing American ships to fire on Soviet ships at the quarantine line, and possibly starting a war.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: That, as I understood, there’s some report that the Russian ships were not going to stop and that we were going to have to sink them.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The White House - and the country - held its breath waiting for the first confrontation.




JAMIE RICHARDSON: In 1986, Dean Rusk - Kennedy’s secretary of state - reflected on how he felt starting the day on October 23:


DEAN RUSK: I remember waking up the next morning and saying to myself, “Well, I'm still here; this is very interesting.” Because that meant that Mr. Khrushchev's immediate response was, had not been to launch nuclear missiles.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Taking wins where they could get them, the first bit of good news came the morning after JFK’s speech: the Soviet Union hadn’t launched nuclear weapons at the US-- and they were all still alive.

Kennedy continued to meet with ExComm multiple times a day. They tracked the progress of the construction on missile sites, planned for upcoming surveillance flights, and debated next steps.

The day the quarantine went into effect, CIA Director John McCone got word that 6 ships carrying missiles and other equipment had turned back and were returning to the Soviet Union.


JOHN MCCONE: Mr. President, I have a note just handed to me from . . . [unclear]. It says that we’ve just received information through ONI that all six Soviet ships currently identified in Cuban waters—and I don’t know what that means—have either stopped, or reversed course.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The Soviet ships stopped or turned back from the quarantine line. Intelligence wasn’t sure which it was, but either way it was a positive sign and gave everyone some breathing room at this point in the crisis.

Not sure where the Soviet ships were exactly, JFK canceled a US interception of Soviet ships planned for that morning . If the Soviets were near the quarantine line and confronted by a US ship, who knew if or how that situation could escalate. With the Crisis now public, it could be discussed and debated outside of the White House’s top secret meetings.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: In New York, the United Nations convened an emergency meeting of the Security Council, where ambassadors from the three countries involved spoke out about the missiles.


MARIO GARCÍA-INCHÁUSTEGUI: Los Estados Unidos han hecho una cosa muy curiosa- han enviado sus barcos a Cuba, han enviado sus naves aéreas a Cuba a sus alrededores...

JAMIE RICHARDSON: The Cuban Ambassador, Mario García-Incháustegui, attacked the United States for its previous assaults against Cuba, airspace and maritime violations, and its support of the Batista regime. If it weren’t for the US, he argued, Cuba wouldn’t have needed to accept the missiles from the Soviet Union.

While US ambassador Adlai Stevenson laid his case before the UN, his Soviet counterpart didn’t know about the missiles. Ambassador Valerian Zorin had not been informed of the discussions about Cuba in the Kremlin.

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: One has to feel for Zorin because here he is. He hasn't really been informed by Moscow. So he's sort of in the dark… And he's effectively attacked by Stevenson at a very dramatic moment has to sort of wing it, has to figure out what he's going to say on the spot. He denies that the missiles are there because he actually doesn't know. And then he basically refuses to answer any questions.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: At a second emergency meeting, Stevenson confronted Zorin directly, bringing out the intelligence photos of missile construction in Cuba.

In a heated moment, Stevenson showed his frustration with Zorin.


ADLAI STEVENSON: Alright sir, let me ask you one simple question: Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no? Don’t wait for the translation - yes or no?


TRANSLATOR: Mr. Stevenson, would you continue your statement please? You will receive the answer in the due course. Do not worry.


ADLAI STEVENSON: I’m prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: As the crisis wore on, JFK’s advisors and their staff worked around the clock, sleeping in their offices, unable to go home and see their families.

But their families would not be forgotten in case of a nuclear attack. On October 26, the White House issued an updated version of an evacuation plan.

The memo ordered that family members of staff should meet in one spot and a motorcade would drive them safely outside of the capital.

Top government officials - the president, vice president, Cabinet and Supreme Court - also had their own plan for evacuation, and for continuing the government.

ALICE L. GEORGE: The plan was that if an attack came really suddenly, that JFK would go into a bunker at the White House. And that then he would be transported to Mt. Weather, which was in Virginia and which was a huge complex that was expected to house the president and the vice president, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. And it had broadcast abilities so the president could speak to the public who survived the attack.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Though this massive bunker had been built and stocked, the feasibility of running a government after a nuclear attack was still in question.

There was another point at stake: if those at the highest level of government would want to go, leaving everyone, including wives and children, behind. Press Secretary Pierre Salinger later wrote, “You’ll face the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do in your life. You’re going to have to tell your family, ‘Goodbye- you’re on your own.’”

Jacqueline Kennedy also felt strongly about not being sent away to a bunker, but keeping her family together, and facing the worst, should it happen:


“Please don’t send me anywhere. If anything happens, we’re all going to stay right here with you.” And, you know - and I said, “Even if there’s not room in the bomb shelter in the White House” - which I’d seen -- I said, “Please, then I just want to be on the lawn when it happens - you know - but I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do too - than live without you.” So he said he - he wouldn’t send me away.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: By October 26, Kennedy and Khrushchev had exchanged 5 letters, neither side giving an inch in its positions on the crisis.

For Kennedy, Khrushchev incited the crisis by lying to the US about installing defensive weapons-only in Cuba.

For Khrushchev, the United States had no right to interfere in Soviet-Cuban relations and he rejected Kennedy’s ultimatums.

But on the night of October 26, a new message was sent from Moscow to Washington, DC. This message - so long it was transmitted in four parts and received over the course of 3 hours, offered the first glimmer of hope.


It was a very different message from the previous ones Khrushchev had written.

For Kennedy and ExComm, the Soviet Premier’s long message was a turning point, and according to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, an insight into the mindset of the Soviet leader.


ROBERT MCNAMARA: It was a teletype written by a man under tremendous emotion as, in a sense this paragraph implies. It was clearly written by Khrushchev himself. It expressed his deep, I'll call it deep fears and deep concerns, but fears and concerns, but also determination. And when we, when we received it was received in sections, and we read it in sections. And we recognized it for what it was, an extraordinary document.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: A notable excerpt of this letter is where Khrushchev alludes to the “knot of war”:

ROBERT MCNAMARA: [READING FROM THE LETTER] “If, however, you have not lost your self control, and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot. And what this would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understood perfectly what terrible forces our countries dispose.”

JAMIE RICHARDSON: This message expressed Khrushchev’s fears of a nuclear war and cracked the door open for negotiations with the United States.

MAX HASTINGS: Khrushchev would send a message saying that if guarantees were provided by the United States about not attacking Cuba, that there might be some basis for a settlement.


JAMIE RICHARDSON: This was an entirely new message. For days, the Kremlin had stated that the Soviet Union was not going to abide by the United States’ demands, and the US was in no position to make demands of either the Soviet Union or Cuba in the first place.

Historian Serhii Plokhy explains what caused this sudden change:

SERHII PLOKHY: Khrushchev is very erratic generally in his behavior, and his wife at some point commented that he was either all up or all down. And depending on the day or the part of the day there would be different scenarios proposed by Khrushchev, different instructions coming from him. Now what happens with Khrushchev is that he sends a letter to Kennedy after receiving information that the American strategic command is on high alert that basically suggests and not directly but hinting that he is prepared to take the US promise of not to invade Cuba and de-escalate and remove his missiles from Cuba.

JAMIE RICHARDSON: Khrushchev had received intel that the US was at DEFCON 2 - one step below war - and there were rumors of an imminent invasion of Cuba. From the outset of the crisis, he had told the Presidium that he did not want war. Now, with the threat of war days, or even hours away, he decided to tell Kennedy this, as well.

He wrote that he did not want war, Communists were against war, but “if indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war.”

With this new message in hand, ExComm advisors ended the 10th day of the crisis with a sense of hope. They would be ready to start the next day, Saturday October 27, anew, meeting as usual at 10:00 am to discuss how to respond to Khrushchev’s latest message.

In Cuba, construction had not slowed down on the missile sites. Intel reported that all 24 Medium-Range Ballistic Missile launchers appeared to be operational.

All three ships carrying nuclear weapons for the missile sites had docked in Cuban ports.

IL-28 aircraft - nuclear bombers - were being uncrated and assembled in Cuban airfields.

The CIA reported that “Havana remains quiet, but the prevailing atmosphere is one of slowly rising tension.”

Cuban military forces were on full alert.

In the United States, U-2 pilots got ready to go up and fly low across Cuba [the next day] to look for more signs of construction on the island.

Four Soviet Foxtrot submarines with nuclear-armed torpedoes on board – headed to Cuba to set up a base - were hunted by US destroyers as they approached Cuban waters.

As events began to converge on Cuba, rumors of an American invasion swirled in the Kremlin and Havana. Now that the crisis was public, there are more actors on the stage to avert a crisis - or to escalate it toward Armageddon.