Monday, October 22, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis: Day Seven

Day seven of the Cuban Missile Crisis was, in many respects, the most crucial day in the crisis timeline. The administration would take their case to their allies, their diplomats, members of congress and, most importantly, the American people.

With the address to the nation scheduled for seven o'clock Monday evening, the White House had much to do.

Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson briefed President de Gualle and NATO on the missiles and the blockade. Ambassador David Bruce, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, briefed Prime Minister Macmillan. Ambassador Walter C. Dowling, U.S. ambassador to West Germany, briefed Chancellor Adenauer. And the U.S. Information Agency went to work on a plan to deliver the message to the people of Cuba. 

The task of notifying an elite group of men fell to the president himself. President Kennedy would personally notify the three former presidents--Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower--of the existence of the missiles as well as the military blockade that would be put in place. The conversation between Kennedy and President Eisenhower, who he always called 'General,' spoke to the uncertainty all around Kennedy and his constant seeking of other opinions to fully inform himself of his options:
JFK: General, what about if the Soviet Union--Khrushchev--announces tomorrow, which I think he will, that if we attack Cuba that it's going to be nuclear war? And what's your judgment as to the chances they'll fire these things off if we invade Cuba?
Eisenhower: Oh, I don't believe that they will.
JFK: You don't think they will?
Eisenhower: No.
JFK: In other words, you would take that risk if the situation seemed desirable?
Eisenhower: Well, as a matter of fact, what can you do?
JFK: Yeah.
Eisenhower: If this thing is such a serious thing, here on our flank, that we're going to be uneasy and we know what thing is happening now, all right, you've got to use something.
JFK: Yeah.
Eisenhower: Something may make these people shoot them off. I just don't believe this will.
JFK: Yeah, right.
Eisenhower: In any event, of course, I'll say this. I'd want to keep my own people very alert.
JFK: Yeah. Well, hang on tight!
Eisenhower: Yes, sir.
JFK: Thanks, General.
Eisenhower: All right. Thank you.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this exchange is how Eisenhower's inclinations are the exact opposite of those of Kennedy's Joint Chiefs.

While Sorensen and the speech writers made last minute changes to the speech (Sorensen confirmed that he was only able to write one speech--that advocating for the blockade--and years later when a second speech surfaced detailing the air strike option, he flatly denied having penned it), Dean Rusk, Bobby Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger met to go over the draft that Ambassador Stevenson would present to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday. The team was constantly looking a step ahead, plotting each step carefully.

There continued to be a sense of disbelief among members of Ex-Comm that the Soviets had so deliberately and stealthily placed the missiles in Cuba. Kennedy himself was amazed and mentioned the following to Schlesinger that morning:
"[Kennedy] noted how strange it was that no one in the intelligence community anticipated the possibility of a Soviet attempt to transform Cuba into a nuclear base; all the intelligence people had wholly excluded this on the ground that the USSR would not be so stupid as to offer us this pretext for intervention."
There was nothing routine about the situation the United States government faced. Preparations were underway in the Oval Office for the evening's speech; removal of furniture was necessary to make way for the cameras. Arrangements had to be made for the White House staff, including some members of Ex-Comm, to sleep in the White House bomb shelter.

Holding off a request for airtime for as long as possible to prevent panic, Press Secretary Pierre Salinger waited until noon Monday to request airtime on each of the networks for President Kennedy's speech. Meanwhile, President Kennedy had to formally establish the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (Ex-Comm) and did so with National Security Action Memorandum 196. This action took place at three o'clock. An hour later, cabinet members were assembled to be briefed on the situation in Cuba and the plan moving forward. Up until this time, only Secretaries McNamara, Rusk and Dillon and Attorney General Kennedy knew of the crisis. The most tense moment of day seven came when President Kennedy called in members of congress, seventeen of them, to brief them on the situation and the blockade plan (audio of that meeting can be found here and here). Secretary Rusk served as a buffer between Kennedy and congressional leaders who did not feel a blockade was a strong enough response to the situation at hand. At six o'clock, the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, Foy Kohler, delivered a message to Chairman Khrushchev informing him of the speech and blockade. Coinciding with Kohler's action, Dean Rusk was tasked with the delivery of a similar message to Soviet Ambassador Dobyrnin. At seven o'clock, Kennedy went on air to deliver his speech to the American people and the world community.

President Kennedy's speech was as much a message to the American people as it was a conversation with Chairman Khrushchev and hard line Soviets. Khrushchev later called the speech of October 22nd, a "huge press campaign" as well as "a belligerent show of [American] strength."

Sorensen, the architect of the speech, said of Kennedy's speech:
"That televised address to the nation on the night of October 22, 1962, was not the best speech of JFK's presidency, but it was surely his most important. It fully informed the American people and the world of what appeared to be the greatest danger to our country in history, without creating a national panic, despair, or a cry for either surrender or war. It was used as a state document for presentation of the American case to the heads of every government around the globe at a moment when maximum support from other governments and world opinion was essential."
The next three days were, in the words of Schlesinger, "continued pandemonium."
The existence of the second speech was made known at a 2002 reunion in Havana of the key players in the crisis. Sorensen mentions this in Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (page 294). Sorensen's statement on importance of speech can be found on page 298.
The conversation between Kennedy and Eisenhower is available, both transcript and audio, in the invaluable Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy (page 158).
Schlesinger quotes taken from Journals, 1952-2000 (pages 174-75).
Khruschev's quotes come from Khrushchev Remembers (page 496).

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