Editor's Note: Last night on PBS, a great episode of Secrets of the Dead featured a Soviet naval officer, Vasili Arkhipov, whose refusal to fire a nuclear missile may have saved the world from nuclear war. I highly recommend you watch it--it's available online--to understand precisely what was going on out in the Caribbean when the quarantine went into effect.
Having signed the quarantine order the day before, President Kennedy received word from Chairman Khrushchev via an unconventional message broadcast by the Soviet news agency and a telegram responding to Kennedy's message of October 23rd.
Khrushchev wanted to ensure President Kennedy that the Soviet government would do everything in their power to prevent any sort of standoff from occuring in the Caribbean. He did not, however, shy away from stating his disgust with the course of the United States and the illegitimacy of the Organization of American States' vote for the quarantine.
It's important to read Khrushchev's telegram at length to fully grasp the Soviet objection:
Letter from Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy
October 24, 1962
Dear Mr. President:
I have received your letter of October 23, have studied it, and am answering you.
Just imagine, Mr. President, that we had presented you with the conditions of an ultimatum which you have presented us by your action. How would you have reacted to this? I think that you would have been indignant at such a step on our part. And this would have been understandable to us.
In presenting us with these conditions, you, Mr. President, have flung a challenge at us. Who asked you to do this? By what right did you do this? Our ties with the Republic of Cuba, like our relations with other states, regardless of what kind of states they may be, concern only the two countries between which these relations exist. And if we now speak of the quarantine to which your letter refers, a quarantine may be established, according to accepted international practice, only by agreement of states between themselves, and not by, some third party. Quarantines exist, for example, on agricultural goods and products. But in this case the question in no way one of quarantine, but rather of far more serious things, and you yourself understand this.
You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one's relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.
No, Mr. President, I cannot agree to this, and I think that in your own heart you recognize that I am correct. I am convinced that in my place you would act the same way.
Reference to the decision of the Organization of American States cannot in any way substantiate the demands now advanced by the United States. This Organization has absolutely no authority or basis for adopting decisions such as the one you speak of in your letter. Therefore, we do not recognize these decisions. International law exists and universally recognized norms of conduct exist. We firmly adhere to the principles of international law and observe strictly the norms which regulate navigation on the high seas, in international waters. We observe these norms and enjoy the rights recognized by all states.
You wish to compel us to renounce the rights that every sovereign state enjoys, you are trying to legislate in questions of international law, and you are violating the universally accepted norms of that law. And you are doing all this not only out of hatred for the Cuban people and its government, but also because of considerations of the election campaign in the United States. What morality, what law can justify such an approach by the American Government to international affairs? No such morality or law can be found, because the actions of the United States with regard to Cuba constitute outright banditry or, if you like, the folly of degenerate imperialism. Unfortunately, such folly can bring grave suffering to peoples if all countries, and to no lesser degree to the American people themselves, since the United States has completely lost its former isolation with the advent of modern types of armament.
Therefore, Mr. President, if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States. When you confront us with such conditions, try to put yourself in our place and consider how the United States would react to these conditions. I do not doubt that if someone attempted to dictate similar conditions to you -- the United States -- you would reject such an attempt. And we also say -- no.
The Soviet government considers that the violation of the freedom to use international waters and international air space is an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war. Therefore, the Soviet Government cannot instruct the captains of sea vessels bound for Cuba to observe the orders of American naval forces blockading that Island. Our instructions to Soviet mariners are to observe strictly the universally accepted norms of navigation in international waters and not to retreat one step from them. And if the American side violates these rules, it must realize what responsibility will rest upon it in that case. Naturally we will not simply be bystanders with regard to piratical acts by American ships on the high seas. We will then be forced on our part to take the measures we consider necessary and adequate in order to protect our rights. We have everything necessary to do so.
It came as no surprise that the Soviets did not respect the decision of the Organization of American States, an organization they were not a part of and their ally Cuba boycotted when the decision was made, but the following day they would have to accept the decision of the United Nations Security Council.
Ex-Comm met the morning of October 24th, audio from that meeting is available from the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Bobby Kennedy described that meeting as follows:
"This Wednesday-morning meeting, along with that of the following Saturday, October 27, seemed the most trying, the most difficult, and the most filled with tension. The Russian ships were proceeding, they were nearing the five-hundred-mile barrier, and we either had to intercept them or announce we were withdrawing. I sat across the table from the President. This was the moment we had prepared for, which we hoped would never come. The danger and concern that we all felt hung like a cloud over us all and particularly over the President."
In addition to meeting with the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, Kennedy met again with congressional leadership to update them on the quarantine.
While the diplomatic rhetoric continued, the quarantine went into effect.
As the quarantine went into effect, eighteen cargo ships were headed toward the American ships maintaining the quarantine. The previous night, Bobby Kennedy met with the Ambassador Dobrynin about whether or not the captains of oncoming ships had been made aware of the quarantine and been given orders to cooperate. Bobby Kennedy was unsuccessful in determining of the ship captains had any idea what was going on. This upped the tension among Ex-Comm as ships neared the line.
Presidential historian and biographer Robert Dallek described the morning the quarantine went into effect as a moment when, "the group feared that they were on the brink of unavoidable disaster." While the members of Ex-Comm sat on the edge of their seats awaiting the first two ships to reach the quarantine line, the United States increased their state of readiness to DEFCON 2.
Special Counsel Ted Sorensen wrote about the moment the first ships reached the quarantine line and their immediate reversal:
"At our Wednesday morning meeting, held just as the quarantine went into effect, some half-dozen Soviet submarines were reported to have joined these ships. Orders were prepared to sink any subs interfering with the quarantine. In the midst of the same meeting, more news arrived. The Soviet ships nearest Cuba had apparently stopped or altered their course. A feeling of relief went round the table."
That moment when the United States acknowledged the existence of that Soviet submarine, made Bobby Kennedy question later: "Was the world on the brink of a holocaust?" Though the reversal of some of the ships felt like a victory, it was not lost on the members of Ex-Comm that the Soviets were rapidly nearing completion of the missiles in Cuba. Also, there were still many ships heading for the quarantine line that might need boarding.
The following day the United States would get the opportunity to take their case to the courtroom of world opinion. The following day Ambassador Stevenson would make one of the most important speeches of his career before the United Nations Security Council.
The entire section of Robert F. Kennedy's Thirteen Days on the approaching ships as the quarantine went into effect is too lengthy to quote in its entirety. These quotes come from pages 52-54.
Dallek's quote comes from An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 (page 561).
Sorensen's quote comes from his biography of Kennedy, aptly titled Kennedy (page 709).