On this day in 1962, at 7:00 pm EDT, Pres. John F. Kennedy, on the job for 21 months, delivers a nationwide televised address on all of the major networks announcing the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, with US forces on DEFCON 2 alert, is considered the closest the Cold War came to getting hot.
In his speech, Kennedy told wary Americans and the world at large “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
The US first obtained U-2 photographic evidence of the missiles October 14, when a U-2 flight piloted by Major Richard Heyser took 928 pictures on a path selected by CIA analysts, capturing images of what turned out to be an SS-4 construction site at San Cristóbal, Pinar del Río Province. This identification was made, in part, on the strength of reporting provided a double agent in the GRU working for CIA and MI6.
Meeting with EXCOMM, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, six response scenarios were discussed: doing nothing, as American vulnerability to Soviet missiles was not new; diplomatic pressure to get the Soviet Union to remove the missiles; a secret offer to Castro to choose splitting with the Russians or being invaded; a full force invasion of Cuba and overthrow of Castro; use of the Air Force to attack all known missile sites; use the Navy to block any missiles from arriving in Cuba.
The 45-year-old JFK chose the sixth option, stating to advisers “They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something. They can’t, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don’t take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin.”
Prior to the speech, US delegations met with Canadian PM John Diefenbaker, British PM Harold Macmillan, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and French President Charles de Gaulle, to brief them on the US intelligence and their proposed response. All were supportive of the US position.
Requiring six days of knowledge, nuance and the most adroit uses of American soft- and hard-power, the Soviets relented, removing the missiles. The world-saving event is now seen as perhaps the finest hour in US Cold War and diplomatic history, and a bridge way too far for the current administration to ever approach on its best day.