The principal purpose of the meeting was to finalize the president’s speech to the nation (scheduled for early that evening) and the letter to Khrushchev, which would be handed to the Soviet ambassador just before airtime. Secretary of State Dean Rusk proposed a possible U.N. role in neutralizing nuclear missiles in any country that was not a nuclear power—in effect, Cuba, Turkey, and Italy. “Why don’t we go all the way?” the president responded. “That gives us an excuse to get ’em out of Turkey and Italy.” However, he rejected any proposal to lift the quarantine until the missiles were removed from Cuba. There was also discussion about how to handle the press and public relations after the speech, perhaps by making some U-2 photos public.
October 22, noon
The president asked if American personnel in Turkey had been instructed (as he had ordered two days earlier) not to fire the Jupiter missiles without direct presidential authorization. Assistant defense secretary Paul Nitze strenuously resisted, claiming that the JCS had already issued instructions to cover that eventuality; he also reminded the president that an attack on Turkey meant immediate execution of the European Defense Plan—“which is nuclear war.” “I don’t think,” JFK pronounced sharply, “we ought to accept the Chiefs’ word on that one, Paul.” Nitze finally agreed to make sure the JCS understood the president’s orders (for a more complete account of this xchange, see Epilogue).
October 22, 3:00 p.m.
The president met with the full National Security Council, including the Joint Chiefs, to formalize his decision to blockade Cuba. “Khrushchev,” he grimly predicted “will not take this without a response, maybe in Berlin or maybe here. But the choices being one among second best—I think we’ve done the best thing at least as far as you can tell in advance.” He conceded that if work continued on the sites or a
U-2 was shot down then additional steps would be considered. He seemed confident that a convincing case could be made in the court of world public opinion that the blockade was not comparable to the 1948 Soviet blockade of Berlin: “This is not a blockade in that sense. It’s merely an attempt to prevent
the shipment of weapons there.” Kennedy did not want to hand Khrushchev a propaganda plum by revealing that surprise air attacks had even been discussed and was anxious to manage the news in order to preserve this cover story. “So I think,” he ordered, “we oughta just scratch that from all our statements and conversations. . . . I can’t say that strongly enough.”
October 22, 5:00 p.m.
Only two hours before going on national television to reveal the crisis in Cuba, the president met with the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate—summoned from across the country since Congress was not in session. The leaders, aware that they were being informed, not consulted, sat in stunned silence during a detailed intelligence briefing. Finally, two of the most senior Senate Democrats (Richard Russell of Georgia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) vigorously attacked the blockade decision as inadequate and demanded a full invasion (for a more complete account of this exchange, see Epilogue). The president tried to defend his decision, arguing that an attack on Cuba could result in the loss of Berlin or the possible firing of nuclear missiles at the U.S., which he described as “one hell of a gamble.” He predicted that attacking the missile bases and killing thousands of Russians would be far more dangerous than stopping their ships. But he also admitted, “Now, who knows that? . . . We just tried to make good judgments about a matter on which everyone’s uncertain. But at least it’s the best advice we could get. So we start here.”
Excerpts taken from The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myth vs. Reality, by Sheldon Stern