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A look back at the Cuban Missile Crisis

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President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara in an EXCOMM meeting.

According to the Minneapolis Tribune, it was a “slight upper respiratory infection” that caused President John F. Kennedy to suspend his campaign tour in October 1962. But U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey knew better. 

The “cold” he (Kennedy) caught was the news that Soviet missiles armed with nuclear warheads were on their way to Cuba, Humphrey would later write.

In Wisconsin, Kennedy cut short his trip on Oct. 20 and flew back to Washington, where he began receiving around-the-clock updates on the looming confrontation with the Russians. Soon, Humphrey would join other congressional leaders at a series of briefings from top administration officials about the mounting crisis. “Meetings continued periodically all week, and it appeared that military action, if not likely, was a real possibility,” Humphrey recalled.

During a light moment in what was otherwise a tense week, Kennedy pulled Minnesota’s senior senator aside for a private chat, where he recalled their battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, two years earlier, in 1960.

“The President asked me to come into the Oval Office, and he talked to me for a while, reviewing his thoughts and facts, discussing his options,” Humphrey recalled. “Then, in the midst of this preoccupation and tension, he smiled and said:  ‘Hubert, if I’d known it was going to be like this, I would have let you win (in 1960).’ I smiled back. ‘Well, Mr. President. I knew it might be like this and what’s why I let you win.’”

There were few other smiles in Washington during that frightening time, as all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia became a distinct possibility. 

Signals that a major crisis was unfolding

That first weekend, as Kennedy hurried back to Washington, there were signals from the White House that an unusually severe crisis was unfolding.  

On Monday morning, Oct. 22, the Tribune reported that top officials met the day before “behind a wall of secrecy as large scale air, ground and sea movements were underway.”

“It seemed to have something to do with Cuba or Berlin or both,” the paper surmised. “The meetings went on all day and into the night. Their purpose was obviously something bigger than mere maneuvers. … Never before had so many top officials been at their offices on Sunday for such a long period of time.”

Then, on Monday night, in a dramatic nationwide address, Kennedy told the American people that the Russians were preparing a series of offensive missile sites in Cuba. “The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere,” the President declared gravely.

Quarantine imposed

Kennedy went on to report that he had imposed a naval and air quarantine on the movement of offensive military equipment into Cuba.

Minneapolis Tribune

Jack Wilson, the Tribune’s Washington correspondent, told his readers on Tuesday, after  Kennedy’s address, that “this country is ready to sink any Cuban-bound Communist bloc ship which refuses to be stopped and searched.”

That same day, the Tribune applauded Kennedy’s stance on the missile crisis. “President Kennedy’s program for countering the effect of the Soviet installation of offensive missile sites in Cuba should meet with the overwhelming support of the American people,” the paper editorialized.

Gov. Andersen summoned

With anxiety about the possibility of all-out war now sweeping the country, even Minnesota’s governor, Elmer L. Andersen, got caught up in the crisis. Kennedy summoned Andersen and a group of his fellow governors to Washington to confer about the civil-defense implications of the grave international situation.

“The White House called me in morning,” Andersen recalled.  “ ‘How quickly can you be ready to come,’ I was asked. ‘We want to have a meeting this afternoon.’ I barely packed and rushed to the airport, where a military plane had been arranged to pick me up and get me there. There was a sense of great hurry and urgency as if something might happen at any time. By that afternoon, the governors were assembled at the Pentagon and were being briefed on the military and diplomatic situation. … There was no question what the Soviets were doing. They were preparing for war.”

Andersen recalled a later time that week when the president met with the group of governors. At that meeting, California’s Pat Brown asked for a closed-door session with Kennedy. “Brown was deeply shaken by all the information we had received. Everyone else left the room. Brown said,   ‘I’ve got to know right away, what does a governor do when war breaks out?’ The rest of us were caught between smiling at the panic in his voice and giving in to the panic that was flickering in our own hearts.”

“The president responded calmly. ‘Pat, you just turn the National Guard over to the U.S. military and look out for your people at home. That’s what you do.’  That made Brown — and the rest of us- relax a little.”

Later in the week, Andersen reported that a group of governors, meeting at a Washington conference, had urged administration officials to step up efforts to identify and stock nuclear fallout shelters.

‘No feeling of panic’

“There was no feeling of panic at the conference,” Andersen said. “We are confident that the president’s action in the current situation is more likely to keep the peace than a policy of doing nothing. But we must recognize that there are risks involved and develop our readiness to meet them.”

Back in Minnesota, Roy Aune, the state’s acting director of civil defense reported on a recently completed survey, which had identified more than 2,000 buildings that could serve as fallout shelters, accommodating more than 1 million people. But the next day, Walter Halstead, the city of Minneapolis’ civil defense director, noted that none of the buildings — at least none in his city —  were ready to be used as shelters. “They are not marked and they have not been stocked with survival biscuits, water, first aid supplies and radiological detection equipment.” Doing so would take about six months, he said.

But Halstead, or his superiors in City Hall,  must have recognized that his statement reflected poorly on the city’s civil-defense preparedness. The next day, Halstead appeared at a press conference with Minneapolis Mayor Arthur Naftalin, where the two men declared that city’s civil-defense program was “one of the best in the country.”

While civil-defense concerns were mounting in this state and all across the country, a rally on the University of Minnesota campus, protesting the Cuban quarantine, turned ugly. Two university professors who organized the protest were pelted with raw eggs and subject to taunts and insults from some in a crowd that numbered about 3,000. While the rally was under way, students were rushing to get draft deferments. A University Selective Service official noted that his office usually received 10 to 20 requests a day for draft deferments. By 11 a.m., the day after President Kennedy’s speech, that number had already reached 360.

Then, within a week, the crisis subsided. President Kennedy announced on Oct. 28 that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. Only years later would the American public learn that, as a quid pro quo, Kennedy had secretly agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey.

Minneapolis Tribune

Back in 1962, Kennedy’s Oct. 28 statement was greeted by a huge national sigh of relief.

“On an October Sunday afternoon of rare beauty in the capital, the imminent threat of nuclear war was lifted,” noted the Tribune’s Richard Wilson. 

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