To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis

April 2013 - December 2013

It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." -President Kennedy, Address to the Nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 22, 1962

It was a close call—maybe the closest call in human history. For two weeks in October 1962, the world teetered on the edge of thermonuclear war and the end of civilization as we know it. Earlier that fall, the Soviet Union, under orders from Premier Nikita Khrushchev, began to secretly deploy a nuclear strike force in Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States, with missiles that could reach most major U.S. cities in less than five minutes. President John F. Kennedy said the missiles would not be tolerated, and insisted on their removal. Khrushchev refused. The stand-off nearly caused a nuclear exchange and is remembered in this country as the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

For 13 days, the fate of the world hung in the balance. For all his muscular, anti-communist rhetoric, the President’s response was remarkably restrained. Under unimaginable pressure—as the Soviets raced to complete construction of the missile sites—the President refused to be rushed. He conducted the negotiations with discipline and delicacy, balancing cold resolve with pragmatic statesmanship. He would not accept the missiles, but neither would he force the hand of an impulsive opponent into a rash response. And on October 28, 1962, with the world’s mightiest military forces bristling with anticipation, and events spinning out of control, Khrushchev suddenly relented. The missile sites, he announced, would be dismantled immediately. The peaceful resolution of the crisis is considered to be one of President Kennedy’s greatest achievements. 

“To the Brink” is a look back at the crisis from the 50-year mark, which is drawn mainly from U.S. sources and presents a U.S. viewpoint. Pieces of the story that appear hazy now may come into sharper focus over time; others that are now clear will blur as the episode recedes further into history. Unbeknownst to almost all the participants, JFK recorded those White House meetings. Excerpts from the 43 hours of secret recordings relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis are presented in the gallery and form the centerpiece of this exhibit. Original documents, artifacts, and photographs from the National Archives and the Kennedy Library complement the tapes in a dramatic presentation that draws the visitor into this milestone 20th-century event. 

"To the Brink" was generously sponsored by: 

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