Monday, 22 October 1962

At noon White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger requested airtime for the President to address the nation, revealing for the first time the crisis.28 At 3:00 p.m. (10:00 p.m. in Moscow), President Kennedy formally established the Executive Committee with National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 196.29 One hour later, the President addressed the full Cabinet – this was the first time some of the cabinet members learned of the crisis.30 At 5:00 p.m. (midnight in Moscow), he met for an hour and a half with seventeen congressional leaders from both parties and both houses. This meeting was led by President Kennedy and Secretary Rusk and quickly became contentious as many congressional leaders called for a stronger response, voiced an opposition to the blockade, and demanded fuller involvement.31

The information operation to present the United States’ case to itself and the world had begun. In rapid succession, the President briefed the leadership of the country while his Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the United States Information Agency all proclaimed the clear case: “The thing is we were not going to unleash war.  We just wanted to intimidate them…”the Soviet Union supplied offensive nuclear weapons to Cuba, the United States viewed that as a threat, the weapons must go, and the United States was acting to effect that course of events.

Beginning at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon, the President briefed the leadership of the country of his choice to implement a blockade of Cuba in order to encourage the Soviets to remove their missiles from bases installed in Cuba. Four hours later, at 7:00 p.m. (2:00 a.m. in Moscow) President Kennedy addressed the nation. One hour before, Ambassador Kohler delivered his message to Chairman Khrushchev announcing the blockade and informing the Chairman of the impending speech. At the same time, Secretary Rusk delivered the text of the speech to Ambassador Dobrynin in Washington.32 Also, at that time, Kennedy instructed his ambassadors to meet with the heads of state of many non-Eastern Bloc countries to provide them advance notice.33

In the span of one afternoon, President Kennedy informed the leaders of the United States and the leaders of the non-Eastern Bloc world.34 Given the technology of the time, this was an unprecedented move and showed clear control over a critical instrument of international power: information. There was an applicable maxim at work: the story that gets out first is the one that is best believed.

Kennedy’s speech outlined the recent false statements regarding the deployment of offensive weapons to Cuba, proposed that in the nuclear age threats and deception represent “maximum peril,” and stated that the American response to this threat is one of restraint but one representing only one of the options available to the President. Further, President Kennedy outlined seven steps: Impose a quarantine on all offensive military equipment, continue and increase surveillance of Cuba, regard any nuclear launch from Cuba as an attack by the Soviet Union, reinforce the base at Guantanamo, call for a meeting of the OAS, call for a meeting of the UNSC, and call upon Khrushchev to withdraw weapons from Cuba.35

Kennedy's 22 October Address to the Nation

In the Soviet Union Chairman Khrushchev received word that the President was going to address the American public. This, along with the earlier intelligence report of military forces building in the southeastern United States, served as his most clear sign that a serious crisis could be building.

Khrushchev called a meeting of the Presidium to discuss the possible implications of this address. Khrushchev himself was confident that the focus of this speech would be Cuba although other members of the Presidium offered different opinions; none were optimistic. An emotional Khrushchev declared to the Presidium, “[T]he thing is we were not going to unleash war. We just wanted to intimidate them, to deter the anti-Cuban forces.”

Khrushchev regained his composure and once again boasted, “They can attack us and we shall respond… This may end in a big war.” He continued debating how Kennedy would act and what the Kremlin could do to respond with the clear indication that Cuba would be in a position to use tactical nuclear weapons to respond to an invasion.36

Earlier, on 8 September, an order was prepared to send to General Pliyev authorizing that “In a situation of an enemy landing… and there is no possibility of receiving instructions from the USSR Ministry of Defense, you are permitted to make your own decision and to use the nuclear means of the ‘Luna’, IL-28 or FKR-1 as instruments of local warfare…”37 Soviet Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky never signed that order and instead, on the 22 October, the Presidium granted Pliyev authority to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of an invasion, but restricted Pliyev from using the long-range missiles without explicit permission to do so. Malinovsky persuaded the Presidium to follow this more cautious route by convincing them that this was a less provocative move.38

The Soviet military was not in a position to seek war. In Cuba, units were several thousand miles from the Soviet Union and were not sufficiently manned or supplied for combat operations. As such, the Soviet military leaders assumed a defensive tone and posture though they were completely prepared to defend themselves with everything they had available. For the Soviet units on the ground, hostile force was a last resort.

In Washington, the State Department drafted the OAS resolution for the next morning’s meeting. This resolution called for the “immediate dismantling and withdrawal from Cuba of all missiles and other weapons with any offensive capability and dismantling of all bases with offensive capability;” to invoke the Rio Treat to take measures to prevent Cuba from receiving “Sino-Soviet… military material and related supplies which may threaten peace and security;” and to “inform the UNSC of this resolution in Accordance with Article 54 of the UN Charter.”39

As previously indicted, Secretary Rusk met with Ambassador Dobrynin at the State Department at 6:00 p.m. He conveyed the letter to Khrushchev and the text of the speech that would be given an hour later and expressed to the ambassador, “that it was incomprehensible to him how leaders in Moscow could make such gross error (sic) of judgment as to what [the] US can accept. He expressed hope [that the] Soviet Union would make[a] major effort to reverse [the] situation.”

According to the State Department telegram summarizing the meeting, “Dobrynin commented ‘all of this’ [is] unjustifiable and will very strongly aggravate [the] international situation.”40 This statement continued by anticipating that the Soviet response would draw heavily upon rhetoric and further established the lines upon which the negotiations could be built.

Concurrent with the President’s speech, Ambassador Stevenson relayed a letter to Soviet Ambassador the United Nations Valerian Zorin, in his capacity as the President of the UNSC, calling for “an urgent meeting of the Security Council” citing “incontrovertible evidence” of nuclear weapons in Cuba.41 This letter followed the same logic and format of the President’s speech and continued to present the unified message of the United States to the international community citing the extent of the Cuban missile project, past statements of Russian officials, and the need to secure international harmony and return to the status quo ante. Included with the letter was the draft resolution calling for the removal of the offensive weapons, a request for UN observers to monitor the withdrawal, a call for the termination of the quarantine upon completion of the withdrawal and a call for a summit between the United States and the Soviet Union.42

Immediately upon learning of the blockade the Cuban Ambassador to the United Nations, Mario Garcia Inchaustegui, requested Ambassador Zorin call a meeting of the UNSC to “consider the act of war unilaterally committed by the Government of the United States in ordering the naval blockade of Cuba.”43

At 8:00 p.m. the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, delivered an hour-long “background conference” detailing and supporting the position of the United States. This background conference highlighted the plans to conduct the naval quarantine, the troop movements towards Florida, the evacuation of civilians and non-combatants from Guantanamo, the rationale of quarantine, a declaration that the quarantine was not an act of war, detailed information regarding the missiles and other nuclear forces in Cuba, anticipated reaction to the quarantine, the resolution before the OAS, the concept of response escalation, reserve force mobilizations, stop-loss, the change in DEFCON, Cuban reaction to reconnaissance flights, and the possibility of nuclear strike.44

The JCS continued to mobilize forces. The naval base at Guantanamo was ordered to evacuate all dependents and non-combatants. The build-up at Naval Air Station Key West was proceeding. The Commandant of the Marine Corps set DEFCON 3 as of 12:57 a.m. on 23 October (7:57 a.m. in Moscow).45 JCS also directed the alerting of SAC and the dispersal of USAF interceptor aircraft on a “very quiet basis.” The 1st Armored Division (1AD) was directed to begin movement to either Fort Stewart, GA or gulf ports. The JCS ordered DEFCON 3 for all forces worldwide effective at 7:00 p.m. in Washington (2:00 a.m. in Moscow on the 24th) that day.46

In an interesting aside, the JCS authorized CINCLANT to “expend $20,000 for the purchase of representative US magazines and hard items such as fountain pens, cigarette lighters, etc. to be given to crew members of Russian ships boarded. This action is designed for face to face influence upon Soviet merchant sailers (sic), many of whom have never seen an American.”47 Further, General Lauris Norstad, Commander-in-Chief Europe (CINCEUR), did not place American troops at DEFCON 3 in an effort to present a “non-provocative and non-public” display.48

The international phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.