The Missiles of October

Or: Thirteen Days of Fear and Loathing

Part Five

By Jose Rodriguez

John and Bobby Kennedy

Part 4: https://dissentiscool.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/the-cuban-missile-crisis-part-4/

Part 3: https://dissentiscool.wordpress.com/2010/06/18/the-cuban-missile-crisis-part-3/

Part 2: https://dissentiscool.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/the-cuban-missile-crisis-part-2/

Part 1: https://dissentiscool.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/the-cuban-missile-crisis/

The President had outlined their next diplomatic moves: alert the American public about the crisis in a televised address; receive legal approval for the quarantine from the Organization of American States (OAS); and, finally, make their case to the world at the United Nations (UN). It was crucial that they secure approval for their actions from their allies. From a legal standpoint, unilateral action against Cuba would have seriously damaged their reputation, not to mention undermine their legitimacy as the moral leader of the world. As preparations got underway, the New York Times and Washington Post sensed that something was wrong and they began to investigate. When UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson discovered that the papers were going to print the stories he alerted the President. Both papers agreed to withhold the story after receiving calls from the President, who asked that he first be allowed to present his course of action to the American public. 

On Monday October 22, the President remained faithful to his appointments. He even met with Prime Minister Milton Obote of Uganda, who was thoroughly “impressed” and  taken by surprise when he watched the President’s speech to the nation and the world (Schlesinger, “A Thousand” 812). According to Wayne Fredericks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, the Prime Minister said: “I got one of the most impressive experiences of my life: For thirty minutes this afternoon I had the full and undivided attention of the President of the United States of America, and I had not the slightest inkling of the problems he was facing.” (Strober, 387) Though the President had the weight of the world on his shoulders, he still maintained his famous calm and cool composure. By giving time to Obote during this crisis, he signaled to the Prime Minister that he was dedicated to the issues confronting Africa.

The President scheduled a meeting for five o’clock that same evening to explain their situation to Congressional leaders. Congressmen from all over the country were in their districts for re-election, but they did not mind being called back to Washington by the President. O’Donnell recalled one such congressman, “Hale Boggs [who] was fishing on the Gulf of Mexico. An Air Force helicopter picked him up from his boat and carried him to New Orleans, where an Air Force jet took him to Washington.” (O’Donnell, 327) Once everyone was assembled, the meeting began. John McCone kicked off the meeting by presenting the group with aerial photography and explaining their significance. McNamara and Rusk outlined their rationale for the naval quarantine, but it was quickly followed up with denouncements from all of the Congressional leaders. It seemed to those present that the congressmen were trying to outdo one another in their objection to the blockade. Senator Russell, the most vocal critics, attacked the plan as weak and demanded that the President immediately follow a military course of action. “It seems to me,” he said, “that we are at a crossroads. We are either a first-class power or we’re not.” (Dallek, 557) Senator Fulbright also attacked the plan as ineffective and asserted that a military strike against Cuba did not necessarily constitute an act of war against the Soviet Union (Dallek, 557). Unmoved, the President replied, “Last Tuesday, I was for an air strike or invasion myself, but after four more days of deliberations, we decided that was not the wisest first move, and you would, too, if you had more time to think about it.” (O’Donnell, 328) All of them had sided with the JCS on the matter, though a few of them signaled that they would support the President if they could make it part of the public record that they were not consulted before the final decision was made. Bobby, who did not attend the meeting, could see the frustration in his brother afterwards. As the door shut behind him, the President let his anger show: “Oh, sure, we’ll support you, Mister President. But it’s your decision not ours, and if it goes wrong we’ll knock your block off.” (O’Donnell, 328) As the President changed his clothes for the televised address, he muttered half to himself: “If they want this job, they can have it—it’s no great joy to me!” (Sorensen, 703) It seemed clearer and clearer each day that he was one of the few people who were fighting for peace. As the time approached, the President readied himself to make the most important speech of his life.

At 7:00 p.m., the President appeared on over one hundred million television screens across America. Looking grim and speaking in somber tones, he began: “Good evening, my fellow citizens. This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” (Kennedy, 149) He carefully explained the nature of the crisis and explained the risks posed by the missiles and the sites. Not only were these missiles dangerous, but their existence in Cuba represented the duplicity and the deception of the Soviet Union. They were also put there in violation of the Rio Pact of 1947.

The President then went on to explain their course of action. A naval quarantine would be established, he said, in order to halt the transportation of the offensive weaponry. Should the Soviet Union fail to dismantle the sites, the U.S. would be forced to carry out air strikes in order to ensure their destruction. Any missile fired from the island, he warned,  would be regarded “as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” (Kennedy, 153) In order to secure legal grounding for their course of action, the President announced that he wanted to present his case to the OAS and to the UN: “We are a peaceful people who desire to live in peace with all other peoples.” (Kennedy, 154)

The last half of the speech was mainly dedicated to the people of Cuba. He implored them to remember their long history of overthrowing tyrants and dictators “who destroyed their liberty.” (Kennedy, 155) The American people, he assured them, were with them in their struggle for freedom. He hoped that one day Cuba would be “welcomed back to the society of free nations and to the association of this hemisphere.” (Kennedy, 156) The President ended the speech with the following words: “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission. 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. Thank you and good night.” (Kennedy, 156)

The President’s speech earned him the immediate support from their NATO allies. It had been watched all across the globe in 38 different languages (Sorensen, 704).

The next morning, Secretary of State Dean Rusk awoke Undersecretary of State George Ball, who had fallen asleep on the couch in his State Department office by saying, “We have won a considerable victory. You and I are still alive.” (Dallek, 559) On this day, Rusk was scheduled to make the case for the quarantine before the Organization of American States, while UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was to make their case before the UN. Behind the scenes, the CIA and ExComm members were out trying to rally support among congressional leaders for the President’s plan.

All their efforts were successful. Dean Rusk, “in his finest hour”, was able to obtain a unanimous vote of approval for the President’s quarantine (Dallek, 560). Stevenson, in a dramatic confrontation with Russia’s UN Ambassador Valerian Zorin, was successful in proving to the world that the Soviet Union had indeed placed missile sites on the island of Cuba. He demanded to know if the Soviets had placed the missiles in Cuba, but Zorin refused to answer. Stevenson then gave his historic retort, “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over!” (Dallek, 565)  Without waiting for a reply, Stevenson presented the aerial photographs of the Russian missile sites to the Security Council, which earned the United States credibility in its claims. The ExComm and CIA were successful in convincing the skeptics and the public that their efforts were justified.

On the morning of Wednesday October 24, just after 10 a.m., two Russian ships, the Komiles and the Gagarin, sailed straight for the quarantine line. Complicating the situation was the presence of a Soviet submarine between the two ships, escorting them across the quarantine line. The night before, the President had issued a proclamation: “Force shall not be used except in case of failure or refusal to comply with directions… after reasonable efforts have been made to communicate them to the vessel or craft, or in case of self-defense. In any case, force shall be used only to the extent necessary.” (Sorensen, 708) They were now on the brink of nuclear war and the President was concerned about the situation getting out of his control and spiraling into disaster. He recalled a part in the book The Guns of August when a German Chancellor was asked how it all began. He replied, “Ah, if we only knew.” (O’Donnell, 330) The President did not want to repeat their mistakes. The room was silent. Bobby looked over at his brother who was covering his mouth with a clenched fist. Suddenly, memories of pain, death, and despair flooded into the mind of Bobby, who thought about their older brother Joseph, who had been killed in World War 2, and about how John had almost been killed during the war. The President looked over at McNamara and asked, “What do we do now? Does the first ship we stop have to be a submarine?” (Sorensen, 332) McNamara reluctantly explained that the submarine could not be ignores: “Our commanders have been instructed to avoid hostilities if at all possible, but this what we must be prepared for, and this is what we must expect.” (Kennedy, 54)

Minutes crawled by.

Advertisements