On the Brink of Nuclear War: 13 Days in October

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Fifty years ago, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war when President John F. Kennedy, Jr., learned that the Soviet Union was building nuclear missile sites on Cuba.

On October 14, 1962, an American U-2 spy plane took photos of nuclear missile sites on Cuba. The first ship reportedly carrying medium-range ballistic missiles arrived in Cuba in September after Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev reportedly decided to place missiles on the island nation during a May 1962 trip to Bulgaria. The U.S. had placed missiles in Turkey in 1961.

He met with his National Security team for days to run through the various options available, including a strike on the sites.

Listen to an excerpt from Kennedy's audio diary about the deliberations:

Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22, 1962, to tell the American people about the Soviet missile build up on Cuba. “The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere,” he told the public.

Listen to an excerpt of Kennedy’s address from that night:

Kennedy established a naval blockade around the island nation located less than 100 miles from Florida.

Listen to a Universal News Reel on the “naval quarantine” and the on-going crisis:

The blockade was established. Soviet subs moved into the Caribbean as Soviet freighters headed to Cuba stopped where they were. Searched ships were allowed through.

Khrushchev wrote Kennedy saying the blockade was an ultimatum and the U.S. was threatening use of force.  

Khrushchev proposed removing the missiles if Kennedy ends the blockade and publicly announces he will not invade Cuba. (In 1961, the Kennedy administration approved the invasion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, planned by the previous administration.)

Over Cuba, an American U-2 plane was shot down. Kennedy agreed to Khrushchev’s terms, including a secret agreement to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. On October 28, he told the American people that he welcomes the “decision to stop building bases in Cuba, dismantling offensive weapons and returning them to the Soviet Union under United Nations verification.”

Less than a month later, at a news conference, Kennedy said the agreement to the crisis reached by the two leaders is being fulfilled.

Listen to Kennedy’s opening statement: