Huddled in the White House during 13 days in October 1962, President John F. Kennedy and his startled advisers confronted sensational evidence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles from the US mainland.
In the forceful, focused tones of people long familiar with decisionmaking in business, politics, and war, differing opinions were sought, probabilities gauged, strategy plotted. But this was different: Cataclysmic nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union seemed increasingly possible and perhaps imminent. And the United States needed to respond.
Secretly recorded excerpts from those White House discussions are the centerpiece of “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” a traveling exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum that opens Friday and continues through November.
The excerpts, part of 43 hours of recordings related to the Cuban Missile Crisis, will be available at six listening stations in a 3,000-square-foot gallery. The tapes take visitors from revelations of the aerial surveillance that showed missile trailers and launch sites, to robust debate on whether to invade the island, to bewilderment about Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s intentions.
The existence of the tapes was disclosed in July 1973. Now housed at the library, the recordings were transferred from the Kennedy family to the National Archives and Records Administration in August 1975.
“We aimed to present the story in a way that people will understand it, not just intellectually, but also on an emotional level,” museum curator Stacey Bredhoff said. “You can just feel the pressure building as time goes on and things begin to spiral out of control.”
The stakes were unprecedented. A confrontation that unleashed nuclear attacks on US cities, Kennedy estimated, could result in tens of millions of deaths. But doing nothing would also be disastrous, his advisers said.
The Soviet Union, counseled Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “would consider this a major back-down and that . . . would free their hands for almost any kind of adventure they might want to try out in other parts of the world.”
The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged quick military action against the sites. Kennedy feared such a strike might prompt a Soviet assault against West Berlin or, worse, a full-blown nuclear war between the superpowers.
In the end, Kennedy ordered a US naval blockade of the island to stop Soviet ships that could be carrying additional missiles to Cuba. General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, compared that option in discussions with Kennedy to British “appeasement” of Hitler before World War II.
In other words, cowardice.
“It will lead right into war,” LeMay warned the president.
On Oct. 22, Kennedy alerted the nation to the missiles in a 17-minute televised address.
“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth — but neither will we shrink from that risk,” Kennedy said.
“I call upon chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace. . . . He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction.”
On Oct. 28, after an excruciating standoff, Khrushchev blinked and ordered the missiles removed.
In addition to the tapes, the exhibit includes one of the first aerial reconnaissance photos shown to Kennedy, memos and notes that Kennedy wrote during the meetings, the original copy of the proclamation authorizing the blockade, and secret correspondence between the president and Khrushchev.
“What was most striking was just to hear the president and his advisers working through the crisis,” Bredhoff said. “I guess I had it in my head that these high-ranking officials knew instinctively what to do, but I get a sense that it was somewhat improvisational.”
With no chance for rehearsal.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.