Sunday, October 28, 1962: The thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end. In the late hours of October 27, Robert Kennedy secretly met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and the two reached a basic understanding:
The Soviet Union would withdraw the missiles from Cuba under United Nations supervision in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba. In an additional secret understanding, the United States agreed to eventually remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey, provided that Castro agreed to their terms. Which he never did.
“Thus began the most difficult twenty-four hours of the missile crisis” (71).
Saturday, October 27, 1962: A second letter from Moscow arrived, demanding tougher terms, including the removal of obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Over Cuba, An American U-2 plane was shot down by a Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile (SAM) and the, killing pilot Major Rudolph Anderson. President Kennedy wrote a letter to the widow of USAF Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., offering condolences, and informing her that he was awarding Anderson the Distinguished Service Medal, posthumously.
During a tense meeting of the Executive Committee, President Kennedy resisted pressure for immediate military action against the SAM sites. At several points in the discussion, also insisted that removal of the American missiles in Turkey would have to be part of an overall negotiated settlement. The Committee ultimately decided to ignore the Saturday letter from Moscow and respond favorably to the more conciliatory Friday message. Air Force troop carrier squadrons were ordered to active duty in case an invasion was required.
Later that night, Robert Kennedy agreed to meet secretly with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin again. They reached a basic understanding: the Soviet Union would withdraw the missiles from Cuba under United Nations supervision in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba. In an additional secret understanding, the United States agreed to eventually remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
“We had to be aware of this responsibility, the President was deciding, for the U.S., the Soviet Union, Turkey, NATO, and really for all mankind… .” (75).
Friday, October 26, 1962: A Soviet-chartered freighter was stopped at the quarantine line and searched for contraband military supplies. None were found and the ship was allowed to proceed to Cuba. Photographic evidence showed accelerated construction of the missile sites and the uncrating of Soviet IL-28 bombers at Cuban airfields.
In a private letter, Fidel Castro urged Nikita Khrushchev to initiate a nuclear first strike against the United States in the event of an American invasion of Cuba.
John Scali, ABC News reporter, was approached by Aleksander Fomin of the Soviet embassy staff with a proposal for a solution to the crisis.
Later, a long, rambling letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy made a similar offer: removal of the missiles in exchange for lifting the quarantine and a pledge that the U.S. will not invade Cuba.
Additionally, a surprise came to Kennedy at 7 that morning when the first vessel, the Marucla (an American-built Liberty ship) was officially stopped and boarded: One of the two ships to to follow it was the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (the other being the John Pierce), the ship named for Kennedy’s older brother, a Navy pilot who died during WWII. This is the same ship that brother, Bobby, would serve on shortly after WWII.
“The Soviet Union had been adamant in its refusal to recognize the quarantine. At the same time, it was obviously preparing its missiles in Cuba for possible use. The President in response ordered a gradual increase in pressure, still attempting to avid the alternative of direct military action… . [P]rivately the President was not sanguine about the results of even these efforts. Each hour the situation grew steadily more serious. The feeling grew that this cup was not going to pass and that a direct military confrontation between the two great nuclear powers was inevitable” (64).
Thursday, October 25, 1962: Knowing that some missiles in Cuba were now operational, the president personally drafts a letter to Premier Khrushchev, again urging him to change the course of events. Meanwhile, Soviet freighters turn and head back to Europe. The Bucharest, carrying only petroleum products, is allowed through the quarantine line. U.N. Secretary General U Thant calls for a cooling off period, which is rejected by Kennedy because it would leave the missiles in place.
“On the night of Thursday, October 25, our aerial photography revealed that work on the missile sites was proceeding at an extraordinarily rapid pace” (59).
Wednesday, October 24, 1962: The ExComm met as the quarantine went into effect. By a little after 10, they received word that Russian ships were approaching the quarantine line, the Gagarin and the Komiles. “This was the moment we had prepared for, which we hoped would never come. The danger and concern that we all felt hung like a cloud over us all and particularly over the President” (53).
Then, the really disturbing news came. A Russian submarine. They debated whether it was in America’s best interest for the first stopped Russian ship to actually be a sub.
“I think these few minutes were the time of gravest concern for the President. Was the world on the brink of a holocaust? Was it our error? Was there something further that should have been done? Or not done? His hand went up to his face and covered his mouth. He opened and closed his fist. His face seemed drawn, his eyes pained, almost gray. We stared at each other across the table. For a few fleeting seconds, it was almost as though no one else was there and he was no longer the President”
Meanwhile, Chairman Khrushchev replied indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter.
“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
Tuesday, October 23, 1962: The ships of the naval quarantine fleet moved into place around Cuba. Soviet submarines threatened the quarantine by moving into the Caribbean area. Soviet freighters bound for Cuba with military supplies stopped dead in the water, but the oil tanker Bucharest continued towards Cuba. After spending another day talking to his ExComm committee (in their first official meeting), President Kennedy signed Proclamation 3504, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba. The four-page proclamation included this statement in the second paragraph:
“The United States is determined to prevent by whatever means may be necessary, including the use of arms, the Marxist-Leninist regime in Cuba from extending, by force or the threat of force, its aggressive or subversive activities to any part of this hemisphere, and to prevent in Cuba the creation or use of an externally supported military capability endangering the security of the United States.”
Additionally, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Edwin Martin sought a resolution of support from the (OAS) Organization of American States. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, brought the matter before the U.N. Security Council. In the evening Robert Kennedy meet with Ambassador Dobrynin at the Soviet Embassy, per his brother’s request. Afterwards, he relayed the conversation to President Kennedy and Britain Ambassador, David Ormsby-Gore at the White House.
Monday, October 22, 1962: That morning, President Kennedy spoke to all three living former presidents (Hoover, Truman & Eisenhower), seeking their advice. He then spent the day with his advisors and the ExComm members, working out details for his address to the nation.
Then, at 7:00 p.m., he made a televised address, revealing the evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. He called for their immediate removal and announced the establishment of a naval quarantine around Cuba until the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle the missile sites. He also made it clear that no and to make additional missiles should be shipped to Cuba. Near the conclusion of his speech, JFK stated:
“My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can see 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 will be tested–months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.”
Friday, October 19, 1962: President Kennedy leaves for a scheduled campaign trip to Ohio and Illinois. In Washington, his advisers continue the debate over the necessary and appropriate course of action. Before President Kennedy left the White House, he made his brother, Bobby, promise to call him “if and when he should cut short his trip and return to Washington” (May 123).
“We meet all day Friday and Friday night” (Kennedy 37).
Thursday, October 18, 1962: President Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (yes, Thirteen Days states this happened on Wednesday, the 17th). Kennedy, as was agreed upon earlier, refrained from letting Gromyko know that he knew about the missiles in Cuba.
Gromyko asserted: “Soviet aid to Cuba is purely defensive and does not represent a threat to the United States.”
Kennedy then read his warning from September 4th, reminding Gromyko that “gravest consequences” should Soviet offensive weapons appear in Cuba.
Meanwhile, Kennedy’s ExComm Cabinet members met, discussed, and argued over what their best course of action would be. Eventually, they landed on two major decisions: A military action or a blockade. The memo above intends to explain their options and who stood where on each point.
At 8:45 AM on Tuesday, October 16, 1962, President Kennedy, still in his pajamas, had his breakfast interrupted by National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy. Bundy came to alert the president “that a major national crisis was at hand” (JFK Library). During reconnaissance flights two days earlier, done by the United States military surveillance aircraft, photographs had been taken that showed conclusive evidence of a Soviet missile base under construction in Cuba, a near 90 miles from the coast of Florida.
15 minutes later, President Kennedy was on the phone with his Attorney General brother, urging him to come straight away to the White House: They had a major emergency on their hands.
What followed were discussions with major members of Kennedy’s Cabinet as well as members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other important advisors.
“Discussions [began] on how to respond to the challenge. Two principal courses [were] offered: an air strike and invasion, or a naval quarantine with the threat of further military action. To avoid arousing public concern, the president maintained his official schedule, meeting periodically with advisors to discuss the status of events in Cuba and possible strategies” (JFK Library)
[Below: Map showing the full range of the Cuban missiles]
[Also: The Norton Anthology The Kennedy Tapes, provides transcripts for all essential meetings]
Note: Everything is curtesy of the JFK Library, who has, by the way, an amazing interactive day-by-day account of the Crisis. I highly recommend checking it out. You can find audio, pictures, schedules, etc. Last year, I checked it out during all 13 days. It’s a great way to learn more about the most dangerous 13 days in American history.