Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis: Day Five

As Kennedy left the White House Friday, his advisors continued discussing how to proceed. Ex-Comm met most of Friday afternoon and again Friday night at the State Department. Bobby Kennedy was in constant contact with his brother. Friday night, Kennedy landed at O'Hare International in Chicago after a few campaign stops in the Midwest. Greeting him at his hotel was an anti-Castro demonstration out front. Picketers carried signs reading, "LESS PROFILE--MORE COURAGE." Though Kennedy was keeping his campaign appearances, the Cuba issue was never far from his thoughts.

On the trip with Kennedy in Chicago was White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger. The press secretary had not been informed of the discovery of offensive weapons in Cuba. It was, as many later said, a way of keeping Salinger from having to inform the press. While Salinger took many questions from the press on the campaign trip, his lack of information on Cuba prevented him from answering them. Salinger finally approached Kennedy's special assistant Kenny O'Donnell and asked what was happening. O'Donnell would not tell Salinger what he knew. However, he did offer this warning to Salinger:
"'All I can tell you is this,' he said. 'The President may have to develop a cold somewhere along the line tomorrow. If he does, we'll cancel out the rest of the trip and head back to Washington.'"
Saturday morning, O'Donnell's warning came to fruition and the press was told that President Kennedy had developed a respiratory infection and would be returning to the White House. Salinger spoke with President Kennedy as they developed the language to give to the press about the cold. Salinger asked Kennedy privately, "Mr. President, you don't have that bad a cold, do you?" Kennedy said no and when Salinger asked him what was going on, Salinger said, "[h]is unprintable answer sent a chill through me."

What had really happened was Kennedy received a phone call from Bobby informing him that Ex-Comm was ready to meet with him to present their recommendations. In Bobby Kennedy's Thirteen Days, he said of this phone call and his brother's return to Washington: "It was now up to one single man. No committee was going to make this decision."

On Kennedy's return trip to D.C., the nation's military was put on alert. Tactical air squadrons were prepared and Secretary McNamara was making arrangements for the naval blockade.

Ex-Comm was convened upon Kennedy's return to the White House Saturday afternoon. The meeting began at 2:30 p.m. and did not end until 5:30 p.m. Kennedy, Vice President Johnson and U.N. Ambassador Stevenson all returned to Washington for this meeting. In the meeting, the positions for air strike and blockade were both laid before Kennedy. The Joint Chiefs were unanimous in their support for the air strike. McNamara, Sorensen and Bobby Kennedy remained supportive of a blockade. Bobby Kennedy wrote of his support for the blockade:
"This was not from a deep conviction that it would [a blockade] would be a successful course of action, but a feeling that it had more flexibility and fewer liabilities than a military attack. Most importantly, like others, I could not accept the idea that the United States would rain bombs on Cuba, killing thousands and thousands of civilians in a surprise attack. Maybe the alternatives were not very palatable, but I simply did not see how we could accept that course of action for our country."
One additional approach was mentioned in the Saturday meeting of Ex-Comm, a particularly courageous suggestion. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who had promoted diplomacy from the get-go, had stated his objection to the air strike. He then suggested that the United States make a deal with the Soviet Union that would essentially end with the missiles in Cuba removed in exchange for the U.S. removing their missiles in Turkey and Italy. Stevenson also included in his recommendation that the U.S. surrender their base at Guantanamo to the Cubans. Though Stevenson's suggestion was ridiculed by the Joint Chiefs and others in the room, including CIA Director McCone, Bobby Kennedy would later write about Stevenson's suggestions: "I thought he was courageous to make them, and I might add they made as much sense as some others considered during that period of time."

When the meeting had concluded, President Kennedy had made the decision to go forward with the blockade. Though he was inclined to seek television time to address the nation Sunday night, it was determined that Monday night would be more acceptable as it would give the administration time to approach congressional leadership, America's allies and diplomats about the existence of the missiles and the plan of action. This would give Kennedy's speechwriters time to complete the draft Sorensen had already started for the televised address.

By Saturday night, things were underway. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who would go to work on Adlai Stevenson's speech to be given at the United Nations, wrote of that Saturday and Sunday:
"The secret was superbly kept. Late Saturday--as the President abruptly returned from the campaign and as Rusk cancelled a speech--a sense of excitement and anticipation began to flood Washington. That night at Jim Rowe's dance there was a great speculation as to what was up. By Sunday morning speculation was beginning to settle on Cuba; and by Sunday afternoon Scotty Reston [of The Times] was able to call me up with what substantially was the whole story."
The next 48 hours would frame the administration's plan and how that plan would be presented to the American people and the world community.
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Pierre Salinger wrote about the campaign swing that ended by Kennedy's so-called "cold" in his memoir With Kennedy (page 250). Salinger would not be brought into the loop until Sunday morning in a 9 a.m. meeting with McGeorge Bundy in the Situation Room. Salinger then sat in on many meetings with Kennedy advisors from that point forward.
Bobby Kennedy's quotations come from Thirteen Days (pages 37, 29 and 39, respectively).
Excerpt from Journals, 1952-2000 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (pages 173-174).

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