Sunday, October 20, 2013



Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) 51 years ago today, October 20, 1962, was the fifth day of what would be the 13 day Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has come to nuclear war.

President John F. Kennedy's Secretary of Defense,  Robert S. McNamara* reported that, according to CIA analysts,  the Soviets had deployed "six thousand to eight thousand" troops to Cuba.

According to Michael Dobbs, by October 20th there were actually more than 40,000 Soviet troops in Cuba. Dobbs says that the inaccurate report was based on the number of Soviet ships estimated to have arrived in Cuba.

                   JFK and McNamara
                      June 19, 1962
            Photo by Cecil Stougton
           NARA/JFK Library Image

During the afternoon JFK, who was campaigning in the Midwest, was called back to Washington by the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, to break a deadlock among his advisers.

Pierre Salinger, JFK's press secretary, announced to the press...

"The president has a cold and is returning to Washington."

The deadlock concerned the choice between launching an air strike on Cuba or employing a naval blockade.

The air strike was proposed by McGeorge Bundy,  National Security assistant to the President, and  was supported by John McCone, CIA director and Douglas Dillon, Secretary of Treasury.

The blockade proposal, on the other hand, was supported by McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk,  UN Secretary Adlai Stevenson, and Ted Sorensen, JFK's speech writer.

Michael Dobbs writes that each proposal had its downside...  

The air strikes "might not be 100 per cent effective and could provoke Khrushchev into firing the remaining missiles or taking action elsewhere."

A naval blockade, on the other hand, "might give the Soviets the opportunity to prevaricate while they hurriedly completed work on the missile sites."

When JFK entered the Oval Sitting Room on the 2nd floor of the White House where his advisers were gathered, the President said...

"Gentlemen, today we're going to earn our pay. You should all hope that your plan isn't the one that will be accepted."

By this point, again according to Dobbs, JFK was leaning toward a naval blockade although "his mind was not completely made up."   After the afternoon meeting, the President, Attorney General and Ted Sorensen walked out on the Truman Balcony where JFK said...

"We are very, very close to war, and there is not room in the White House shelter for all of us."

*Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) was born in San Francisco, CA and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1937 and Harvard Business School in 1939.  

Bob served in WWII and was president of Ford Motor Company in 1960.  He served as Defense Secretary from 1961 to 1968.


"One Minute To Midnight:  Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War," by Michael Dobbs, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008.