Document Friday: The Cuban Missile Crisis – Khrushchev’s Letter to Kennedy
At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev penned a letter to his counterpart, US President John F. Kennedy. The letter described Kennedy’s order to “quarantine” Cuba as “an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.” Beyond reminding us how close the world came to nuclear war, today’s hot doc gives us a glimpse of the two brinksmen’s personal correspondence as they approached the precipice.
If you didn’t live through the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, you almost certainly studied it in history class. Cold War historians still believe the Crisis to have been the Cold War’s pinnacle. Just in case you need some details, here’s a little background: Less than three months after JFK was inaugurated, the new President launched an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It failed miserably; the Castro regime remained firmly in power and strengthened its security alliance with the Soviet Union. This alliance included a Cuban-Soviet agreement to secretly construct nuclear missiles in Cuba. The colossal operation was hard to keep secret. Over one thousand reports of the missiles’ construction reached Cuban expats in Miami (these were largely ignored by the CIA). Finally, on 14 October 1962, an American U2 reconnaissance aircraft photographed the missile sites.
Upon seeing the photographs of the nuclear missiles, Kennedy assembled a secret, fifteen-member committee (named EXCOMM—Executive Committee of the National Security Council) to determine the course of action for the United States. Initially, the Committee listed five courses of action:
- Do nothing.
- Use diplomatic pressure to get the Soviet Union to remove the missiles.
- An air attack on the missiles.
- A full military invasion.
- The naval blockade of Cuba.
Kennedy—swayed by his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—essentially chose the blockade. He “rebranded” the procedure as a quarantine—a blockade was internationally accepted as an act of war—and won the support of South and Central American nations. On 22 October 1962, in a nationally televised broadcast, Kennedy announced the existence of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba and his decision to quarantine the island. He direly stated that any nuclear attack from Cuba would “require a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
Khrushchev’s 24 October 1962 letter rejected Kennedy’s “ultimatum” and declared that the quarantine was an illegal and “piratical act” derived from the President’s “hatred for the Cuban people.” The Secretary General warned that “with the advent of modern types of armament” the United States had “completely lost its former isolation”—a not so subtle reference to the Soviet nuclear weapons miles off the Florida coast.
But despite its bellicose tone, Khrushchev’s letter ultimately conveyed that he understood and feared nuclear war. Repeatedly the letter takes a pleading tone, at one point opining to Kennedy that:
“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!… You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
So… what happened? How did Khrushchev and Kennedy avert catastrophe? Next week we’ll look at the President’s reply to Khrushchev, the Crisis’s resolution, and new evidence proving that nuclear war was even closer than Khrushchev and Kennedy believed at the time.
PS. One final (very slightly related) document note. DC experienced its largest snowstorms in history this week. While I was snowed in and perusing documents (imagine that!), I came across a very interesting reference to snow and JFK. A large snow storm also blasted Washington just before his 1961 inauguration. But in this case, the Army Corps of Engineers was called in to clear away the snow using, among other things, …wait for it… FLAMETHROWERS! So, if any doc hounds find any primary source docs (including photographs!) about the flamethrowing away of DC’s snow, pass them along! For Pete’s sake, we could have used some flamethrowers this time around!!