Executive Discussions on the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Executive Discussions on the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)
In 1959, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba and eventually sought close ties with the USSR. For the Soviet
government, having an ally 90 miles off the coast of the Union States and in a position to influence the western
Caribbean was a great advantage. In 1962, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Castro negotiated the placement
of Soviet nuclear missiles that could reach targets in the United States almost as soon as their launch could be
detected. These missiles not only could have altered the Cold War balance of power, but they also could have become
a great propaganda coup. Historians still debate the exact motives for stationing the missiles on Cuba.
What sort of U.S. reaction the Soviet government expected is unclear, although Khrushchev had not been impressed
with Kennedy’s statesmanship at their meeting in Vienna the previous year. When the U.S. government discovered the
missiles, the events of October 1962 brought the world as close to the brink of nuclear war as it has ever been. As
these documents show, it was difficult for the Kennedy administration to determine a course of action that would
neither show weakness nor lead to war. First, the government had to assess the threat, and then the President had to
inform the American people of that threat and of the U.S. government’s response.
The first document is a transcript of what was said at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security
Council (Excomm), a group of the president’s closest advisors, held in the early stages of the conflict. The second is
President Kennedy’s address to the American people, broadcast live on television on October 22, 1962.
BUNDY: But, the, uh, question I would like to ask is, quite aside from what we’ve said-and we’re very hard-locked into
it, I know-What is the strategic impact on the position of the United States of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles]
in Cuba? How gravely does it change the strategic balance?
MCNAMARA: Mac, I asked the Chiefs that this afternoon, in effect. And they said, substantially. My own personal view
is not at all.
BUNDY: Not so much.
MCNAMARA: And, I think this is an important element here. . . .
[discussion of the psychological impact of Soviet weapons in Cuba]
DOUGLAS DILLON: Yeah. That is the point.
EDWIN M. MARTIN: Yeah. The psychological factor of our having taken it.
DILLON: Taken it, that’s the best.
RFK: Well, and the fact that if you go there, we’re gonna fire it.
JFK: What’s that again, Ed? What are you saying?
MARTIN: Well, it’s a psychological factor that we have sat back and let ’em do it to us, that is more important than the
direct threat . . .
JFK: [unintelligible] I said we weren’t going to.
MARTIN: [unintelligible]
BUNDY(?): That’s something we could manage.
JFK: Last month I said we weren’t going to.
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JFK: Last month I should have said . . .
[UNIDENTIFIED]: Well . . .
JFK: . . . that we don’t care. But when we said we were not going to and they go ahead and do it, and then we do
nothing, then . . .
[UNIDENTIFIED]: That’s right.
JFK: . . . I would think that our risks increase. Oh, I agree. What difference does it make? They’ve got enough to blow
us up now anyway. I think it’s just a question of . . . After all this is a political struggle as much as military. . . .
[McNamara advocates examining political response-“We haven’t discussed it fully today.”]
MCNAMARA: I, I, I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem here. This is my answer to Mac’s question.
. . .
BUNDY: That’s my honest [judgment(?)].
MCNAMARA: . . . and therefore, and I’ve gone through this today, and I asked myself, Well what is it then if it isn’t a
military problem? Well, it’s just exactly this problem, that, that, uh, if Cuba should possess a capacity to carry out
offensive actions against the U.S., the U.S. would act.
[UNIDENTIFIED]: That’s right.
[UNIDENTIFIED]: That’s right.
MCNAMARA: Now, it’s that problem, this . . .
[UNIDENTIFIED]: You can’t get around that one.
MCNAMARA: . . . this is a domestic political problem. . . .
[McNamara suggested blockade and 24-hour surveillance. George Ball pointed out that 24-hour surveillance has holescan’t monitor during darkness.]
MCNAMARA: Oh, well, it’s really the, yes, it isn’t the surveillance, it’s the ultimatum that is . . .
BALL (?): Yeah.
MCNAMARA: . . . the key part of this.
BALL (?): Yeah.
MCNAMARA: And what I tried to do was develop a little package that meets the action requirement of the paragraph I
MCNAMARA: Because, as I suggested, I don’t believe it’s primarily a military problem. It’s primarily a, a domestic,
political problem.
President Kennedy’s Address to the American people, October 22, 1962
Good evening, my fellow citizens. This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet
military build-up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a
series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purposes of these bases can be
none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.
Upon receiving the first preliminary hard information of this nature last Tuesday morning [October 16] at 9:00 A.M., I
directed that our surveillance be stepped up. And now having confirmed and completed our evaluation of the evidence
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and our decision on a course of action, this Government feels obliged to report this new crisis to you in fullest detail.
The characteristics of these new missile sites indicate two distinct types of installations. Several of them include
medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 nautical
miles. Each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral,
Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean
Additional sites not yet completed appear to be designed for intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of traveling
more than twice as far-and thus capable of striking most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere, ranging as far
north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far south as Lima, Peru. In addition, jet bombers, capable of carrying nuclear
weapons, are now being uncrated and assembled in Cuba, while the necessary air bases are being prepared.
This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base-by the presence of these large, long-range, and
clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction-constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the
Americas, in flagrant and deliberate defiance of the Rio Pact of 1947, the traditions of this nation and Hemisphere, the
Joint Resolution of the Eighty-seventh Congress, the Charter of the United Nations, and my own public warnings to the
Soviets on September 4 and 13.
This action also contradicts the repeated assurances of Soviet spokesmen, both publicly and privately delivered, that
the arms build-up in Cuba would retain its original defensive character and that the Soviet Union had no need or desire
to station strategic missiles on the territory of any other nation. . . .
In that sense missiles in Cuba add to an already clear and present danger-although it should be noted the nations of
Latin America have never previously been subjected to a potential nuclear threat.
But this secret, swift, and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles-in an area well known to have a special and
historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere, in violation of Soviet
assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy-this sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic
weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil-is a deliberately provocative and unjustifiable change in the status quo
which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either
friend or foe.
Copyright © 2009 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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