Eighty-second Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
At 7 PM on Monday, October 22nd, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation and the world from the Oval Office (link to video at head of chapter).
How the U.S. Discovered the Missiles
The President began by stating that, “as promised,” the United States had maintained “the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba”—scarcely an accurate summary of U.S. “surveillance” of Cuba from September 6th through October 13th.
The President then announced that “within the past week” the U.S. had acquired, by unspecified means, “unmistakable evidence…that a series of offensive missile sites” was being built in Cuba—“that imprisoned island.”
The President didn’t explain that the U.S. could have acquired that “unmistakable evidence” a good month earlier but for the curtailment in U-2 over-flights which he had approved.
Kennedy’s Charges Against the USSR
- The Soviet missile deployment violated a number of international legal authorities, including the Rio Pact of 1947 and the United Nations charter.
- Their arrival in Cuba violated “the traditions of this Nation and hemisphere,” a probable reference to the Monroe Doctrine.
- Their presence there flouted the President’s “public warnings of September 4th and 13th.”
- The Soviets had smuggled the missiles into Cuba secretly.
- The Soviets had repeatedly lied in assuring the United States that their Cuba buildup was defensive and that they had “no need or desire to station strategic missiles” in foreign countries.
The Soviets’ Fatal Sin: Their Repeated Lies
Rationales 4 and 5 were the clinchers. Kennedy returned repeatedly in his speech to the Soviets’ “secrecy and deception.” He quoted the Soviet lies in the Tass statement of September 11th and Gromyko’s lies to Kennedy himself in the Oval Office on October 18th (see the 79th chapter in this series: http://avon.patch.com/blog_posts/day-five-of-the-thirteen-day).
And why were these lies so significant? The President explained:
“…this secret, swift, and extraordinary buildup of Communist missiles…this sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil…is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country, if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe.”
In fact, however, the secrecy of the Soviet deployment to Cuba and the lies which masked it were the only differences between those actions and NATO’s deployment of its missiles in Western Europe. That was the only difference—but it allowed the President to paint the Soviet deployment as the work of unscrupulous villains.
Kennedy’s Two-part Demand
Kennedy announced that (my numerals added) “Our unswerving objective…must be  to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and  to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the western hemisphere.”
“Initial Steps” to Remove the Missiles
Kennedy announced seven immediate steps to achieve these objectives:
- A “strict quarantine” of “all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba…” The U.S. was not, however, embargoing “the necessities of life” as the Soviets did during the 1948-49 blockade of Berlin.
- Increased surveillance of Cuba, along with orders to the U.S. armed forces to prepare for action “should the offensive military preparations continue.”
- A stiff, new retaliatory policy: “to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
- Evacuation of dependents from, and reinforcements for, the Naval Station at Guantanamo.
- A call for an immediate consultative meeting of the Organization of American States under articles 6 and 8 of the Rio Treaty, coupled with alerts to other U.S. allies “around the world.”
- A request under the United Nations Charter for an emergency meeting of the Security Council.
- A personal appeal to “Chairman Khrushchev” to stop the flow of offensive weapons to Cuba and “withdraw” the weapons already there which constituted a “reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations.”
Parsing the Initial Steps
Steps 1, 2 and 4 were preventive and passive: Step 1 would keep any more offensive Soviet weapons from entering the Western Hemisphere; Step 2 would warn the U.S. if any further threat had appeared in Cuba and prepare the U.S. military for action should it be necessary; and Step 4 would remove wives and children from Cuba before military action broke out there.
Steps 5 and 6 presented a kind of diplomatic encirclement of the USSR. Kennedy and his advisors planned to align the nations of the world generally and the nations of the Western Hemisphere specifically in condemnation of the USSR for its warlike encroachment upon the Hemisphere.
Step 7 was an encirclement of Khrushchev himself. In making his appeal, Kennedy was placing the burden of resolution squarely on the Premier’s shoulders. Khrushchev personally had to stop the flow of offensive arms into the Hemisphere, and he had to remove the offensive arms that were already there.
While President did not utter his “or else,” it was clearly implied: if Khrushchev did not “withdraw” the strategic missiles already in Cuba, the U.S. military would “eliminate” them.
Step 3 was, of course, the sockdolager: a warning to the USSR that any attempt to use those missiles in Cuba would rain nuclear death down upon the Russian homeland. The Kremlin knew full well that the White House could make good on that promise. The denizens of the Kremlin were all veterans of World War II. Not one of them wanted the Russian people to endure an even worse hell.
Kennedy Speaks to the “Captive People of Cuba”
Before his peroration, Kennedy sought (vainly) to align Cubans against Castro’s government of “puppets and agents of an international conspiracy which has turned Cuba against your friends and neighbors in the Americas…”
A Warning to the American People
In his peroration, Kennedy warned Americans that while this “difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out” would require “sacrifice and self-discipline… the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.”
After the President said, “Thank you and good night,” the cameras cut to an American flag flying proudly in a stiff breeze.
Kennedy Did Not Announce Military Preparations
Kennedy did not say one word about any specific military action the U.S. was prepared to take except for the retaliatory policy established by initial step 3. He didn’t have to.
By October 22nd Soviet agents under diplomatic cover in the United States knew all about massive troop movements to East Coast embarkation ports; about Naval combat vessels sortieing by the hundreds to enforce the Quarantine and hunt Soviet subs; and about the huge influx of combat aircraft to military fields in Florida and other southern states.
In a day or two an invasion fleet would put to sea. The Soviets couldn’t help knowing about that as well. This armada would be clearly visible from Cuba’s shores.
The Soviets were also keenly aware that the entire U.S. military establishment had been placed at DEFCON-3; and aware that SAC bombers carrying hydrogen bombs were orbiting just outside the USSR’s borders.
The Soviets couldn’t see the U.S. fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles, but then those missiles in their silos were always on alert—just waiting for the word. The Soviets couldn’t see the Navy’s Polaris submarines patrolling just outside the USSR’s territorial limits, unseen and unheard, each one carrying a forest of intermediate range nuclear missiles that could reach any point inside the USSR or its satellites—but the Soviets knew those “boomers” were there as well.
The U.S. was loaded for bear, and the Soviet Bear knew it.
Did You Hear Kennedy’s Address?
If you heard the President’s speech that night, where were you and how did his words affect you?
If any of you were in the military, did you participate directly in any phase of the military activities described above?
Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or post a comment.
Sources and Notes
Kennedy’s famous speech is reproduced in many, many places. The full text is printed on p. 18 of the October 23, 1962, New York Times. Please use the link to the full speech at the head of this chapter. The “parsing” of Kennedy’s speech in this chapter is mine alone.
The Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed by Pres. James Madison in December 1823, established the Western Hemisphere as an American sphere of influence and warned European nations not to interfere with U.S. hegemony there.
I remind readers that neither the Kennedy administration, nor the U.S. intelligence community, nor the U.S. military had the faintest idea that in addition to their strategic missiles the Soviets had brought eighty 5 to 12-kiloton warheads for two regiments of lethal FKR cruise missiles with a range of roughly 120 nautical miles. One FKR regiment was waiting for American invaders at the Havana-area landing beaches. The havoc that these FKRs would cause in an invasion fleet is all too easy to imagine. In effect, one or two of these warheads could destroy every American ship and serviceman before they came anywhere near shore.
The consequences of such destruction is equally easy to imagine. Though these FKRs were tactical or battlefield weapons, not strategic missiles, their use would instantly kick off a nuclear retaliation against the Russian homeland. And where would that end?
In my view those FKRs were by far the most dangerous weapon the Soviets had brought to Cuba, and they were indeed not offensive weapons within the President’s meaning of the term.
Kennedy’s penultimate words to the Cuban people could not possibly have succeeded in making them pro-U.S. He never understood that his image of Cubans as a “captive” people was completely illusory. Bad as Catro was, he was their Castro, not a U.S. puppet like Fulgencio Battista and his predecessors.
Peter A. Huchthausen describes the intelligence operations of two military attachés attached to the Soviet Embassy in Washington on and after October 22nd, 1962. The anecdote about their getting lost near the Norfolk, VA, Naval Station and then being guided back to their motel by their bored FBI tail is particularly diverting. Peter A. Huchthausen, October Fury. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2002, p. 114ff.