The latest U-2 photos revealed that several MRBM launchers were no longer visible and could have been moved. JFK urged stressing the mobility of the missiles in order to defuse charges that they should have been discovered earlier: “Let’s get that on the record.” The president also seemed surprised to learn that “There is a question about whether these things really exist?” and finally agreed to display some of the photos at the upcoming U.N. debate. Soon after JFK left the meeting, Secretary Rusk arrived with the news that the Organization of American States (OAS) would unanimously endorse the blockade later that afternoon. His colleagues were thrilled that “our diplomacy is working”; but Rusk cautiously observed, “Well, my God! . . . I think it was very significant that we were here this morning.” It appeared that the Soviets were not going to respond to the blockade with a sudden, irrational nuclear strike on the United States.
October 23, 6:00 p.m.
A vigorous debate developed over whether the navy should stop and search Soviet ships that had reversed course before reaching the quarantine line. The president argued that a ship carrying
offensive weapons would most likely turn around to avoid capture. “We’ve hadno indications,” Rusk explained, “of any Soviet instructions . . . to pull way. . . . Just the converse.” Kennedy also expressed serious concerns that the oviet crews might resist boarding and that machine-gun fire could result in
dozens of casualties on both sides. In addition, the defense department’s ivil defense director all but admitted that there was not much that could be done o protect civilians, especially in rural areas, from radiation exposure in he event that “ten or fifteen missiles” were fired at the U.S. from Cuba.
October 23, 7:00 p.m.
Shortly after the conclusion of the 6:00 p.m. meeting, the president and his brother Bobby talked alone in the Oval Office. “It looks like it’s gonna be real mean, doesn’t it?” JFK declared. “If they get this mean on this one—Jesus Christ! What are they gonna fuck up next?” “There wasn’t any choice,” RFK responded; “I mean you woulda been impeached.” “Well, that’s what I think,” JFK replied. They agreed that OAS support would be invaluable in legitimizing the blockade but also recognized that no one could forecast events at the quarantine line the following morning. Wednesday, October 24, 10:00 a.m. The ExComm gathered in the Cabinet Room at virtually the moment that the quarantine proclamation became legally effective. The discussion initially focused on the ships approaching the quarantine line; however, an unconfirmed message arrived claiming that “all six Soviet ships currently identified in Cuban waters have either stopped or reversed course.” There was, nonetheless, great concern that Soviet submarines near Cuba might sink a U.S. Navy vessel. The president (at RFK’s suggestion) ordered all navy ships to have a Russian-speaking officer on board. When confirmation arrived that the Soviet ships had indeed reversed course, the president instructed that they should not be stopped, boarded, or harassed: “Youd don’t wanna have word goin’ out from Moscow, ‘Turn around,’ and suddenly we sink their ship.”
October 24, 4:30 p.m.
The president chatted briefly in the Oval Office with a few advisers. He was shown photos that revealed Soviet efforts to camouflage the missile sites during the night and remarked: “I think the irony will be that the Russians led us into a trap.” Bundy recommended using the photos to “back our claim,” and JFK approved making them available to the press.
October 24, 5:00 p.m.
The president met for the second time with the bipartisan leaders of Congress. Rusk explained that the situation was still fluid and that the Soviets had not yet decided on their next move. President Kennedy suggested several possible scenarios: the Soviets might turn back some ships carrying weapons; they might choose a ship “for a test case, either to have us sink it, or disable it, and have a fight about it”; or they might allow the inspection of ships not carrying offensive weapons. Senators Russell and Fulbright, his toughest critics at the first congressional meeting, asked why conventional weapons (e.g., rifles) were not being interdicted. The president explained that “the first collision with the Soviets” should be on offensive missiles “for political reasons . . . this puts us in a much stronger position around the world.” But he added, “if they accept the quarantine, we will not permit these rifles to go through.” The congressional leaders agreed to remain on eight-hour standby for another meeting.
October 24, 6:00 p.m.
After the congressional meeting, the president talked informally with several advisers in the Oval Office.
Former defense secretary Robert Lovett endorsed the blockade because it gave the Soviets “a couple of days while they make up their own minds what their intentions are.” He was, like the president, suspicious of military overconfidence, especially the “congenital habit of overstating the ease as well as
the results of an air strike.” The views of the sixty-seven-year-old Lovett dovetailed with those already expressed by the forty-five-year-old commander in chief: “There’s no such thing,” he explained, “as a small military action. . . . Now the moment we start anything in this field, we have to be prepared to do everything.” He urged the president to wait until Soviet intentions had become clear. JFK expressed concern that work on the missile sites would continue regardless of the United Nations proposal for a joint suspension of the quarantine and arms shipments to Cuba. McCone stressed, and Kennedy agreed, that any deal had to include a halt to work on the missile sites and assurances that no missiles would be placed on launchers, to be verified by on-site U.N. observers.
Excerpts taken from The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory, by Sheldon Stern.