TIMELINE OF EVENTS PRECEDING THIS AUDIO RESOURCE:
Monday, October 15: A U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, piloted by Richard Heyser,
reveals several SS-4 nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Tuesday, October 16: After learning of the missiles during breakfast, President
Kennedy convenes his Executive Committee (EX-COMM) to consider America’s options.
Wednesday, October 17 – Friday, October 19: Amid scheduled campaign trips
to Connecticut and the Midwest, President Kennedy meets with and advises Soviet
Foreign Minister Andrie Gromyko that America will not tolerate Soviet missiles in
Cuba. Gromyko denies the presence of any Soviet weaponry on the island.
On October 22, 1962, after reviewing newly acquired intelligence, President John
F. Kennedy informed the world that the Soviet Union was building secret missile
bases in Cuba, a mere 90 miles off the shores of Florida. After weighing such options
as an armed invasion of Cuba and air strikes against the missiles, Kennedy decided
on a less dangerous response. In addition to demanding that Russian Premier Nikita
S. Khrushchev remove all the missile bases and their deadly contents, Kennedy ordered
a naval quarantine (blockade) of Cuba in order to prevent Russian ships from bringing
additional missiles and construction materials to the island. In response to the
American naval blockade, Premier Khrushchev authorized his Soviet field commanders
in Cuba to launch their tactical nuclear weapons if invaded by U.S. forces. Deadlocked
in this manner, the two leaders of the world’s greatest nuclear superpowers stared
each other down for seven days – until Khrushchev blinked. On October 28, thinking
better of prolonging his challenge to the United States, the Russian Premier conceded
to President Kennedy’s demands by ordering all Soviet supply ships away from Cuban
waters and agreeing to remove the missiles from Cuba’s mainland. After several days
of teetering on the brink of nuclear holocaust, the world breathed a sigh of relief.
Although it may seem that the events of the seven days between October 22 and 28
unfolded at a blinding pace, the entire incident — which has come to be collectively
known as the “Cuban missile crisis” — was the culmination of a longer process.
In June of 1961, while still in the early months of his presidency, Kennedy attended
a summit with Premier Khrushchev in Vienna to discuss cold war confrontations between
the east and west, in particular the situation in Berlin. The failure of the two
leaders to resolve any of their differences during the summit led Khrushchev to
view Kennedy as a weak president who lacked the power or support to negotiate any
meaningful concessions in the arms race. Fueled by concerns that the U.S. had more
nuclear missiles than the Soviet arsenal, and, more importantly, that some of the
American missiles were based a mere 150 miles from its boarders, in Turkey, the
Soviet leadership grew increasingly desperate to somehow tip the balance of power
in its favor. The showdown in Cuba may indeed have been the result of such accumulating
anxiety among the Soviet political elite. Viewed in hindsight, it is not surprising
that the Soviets chose Cuba as their stage of operations against the U.S. Ever since
his rise to power in 1959, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro struggled to survive America’s
efforts to “encourage” his political demise. When General Castro came to power,
the U.S. stopped buying Cuban sugar and refused to supply its former trading partner
with much needed oil.
After weathering the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-backed Cuban exiles in 1961,
Castro observed as U.S. armed forces staged a mock invasion of a Caribbean island
in 1962. The purpose of the invasion was to overthrow a leader whose name, Ortsac,
was Castro spelled backwards. Although Ortsac was a fictitious name, Castro “got
the message” and soon became convinced that the U.S. was serious about invading
Cuba. Sensing an opportunity to gain a strategic foothold in America’s “back yard,”
Khrushchev eagerly extended an offer of assistance to the desperate Cuban general.
The Soviet Premier offered Castro new trade opportunities, to ease the effects of
U.S. sanctions, and a promise of protection from U.S. hostilities. The cozy alliance
which ensued between Castro and Khrushchev laid the ground for what culminated in
a Soviet missile base in Cuba and ended in the Cuban missile crisis. In October
1996, The John F. Kennedy Library released a set of tape recordings documenting
the crisis for the period October 18 to 29, 1963. These recordings were made in
the Oval Office. They include President Kennedy’s personal recollections of discussions,
conversations with his advisors, meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members
of the president’s executive committee. We are releasing four tapes in this series
now. Others will follow. The tapes are unedited and represent digital copies of
the materials distributed by the Library. The recordings were made using early technology
(Dictabelt and similar devices). Microphones and placement also add noise and distortion.
In short, these recordings will prove challenging to some listeners. At first, the
voices may sound like honking geese. But if you persevere, you will become a first-hand
observer to one of the most important events of the cold war.