In October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came closer to nuclear war than at any time—until now. John F. Kennedy was our youngest president, but his grave, sober, mature Address to the Nation about the Soviet buildup of medium-range ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba was intended to alert Americans, but not to alarm us.
Kennedy realized that Soviet MRBMs on Cuba would enable Moscow to strike any city in two-thirds of our country, as well as threaten most of Latin America.
Kennedy related in detail the Oval Office meetings he had held with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. He offered direct quotes of statements the perennially dour Russian diplomat had made on behalf of the Kremlin rulers.
The president went on to characterize the Soviet apparatchik’s statements as false. To lay emphasis on the deception of Gromyko, Kennedy repeated the phrase, “That statement, also, was false.”
As teenagers living on Long Island, my fellow high school seniors and I were on tiptoes. This could be war. Conventional war or even nuclear war threatened. We boys, in particular, thought this could be us. We would soon be required to register for the military draft.
We boys were determined to do whatever our brave young commander-in-chief called upon us to do. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” Jack Kennedy had stirred us.
It’s interesting to contrast the reaction of boys in our blue-collar town of West Islip with that soon registered by Ivy League graduate political science students. Columbia’s Prof. Richard Neustadt sent a telegram from Morningside Heights to the White House. Neustadt told Kennedy his grad students could not believe Kennedy would risk nuclear war over Cuba! (Cuber, as Boston’s JFK called it.)
Kennedy was no risk-taker with a nuclear adversary. His generals and admirals were clamoring for an immediate attack on the captive island outpost. That would inevitably have killed hundreds of Cubans, but also hundreds of Soviet soldiers. Kennedy turned them down flat. Robert Kennedy strenuously objected to any American action that could have looked like a type of Pearl Harbor attack against the Soviets.
Kennedy’s ingenious declaration of a naval quarantine around Cuba gave the Kremlin plenty of time to consider its options. Kennedy most judiciously avoided calling his action a blockade, since that could be interpreted diplomatically as an act of war.
Kennedy most interestingly never referred to Gromyko’s false statements as lies. And he studiously avoided calling the always grim-visaged Soviet a liar.
Why? Probably because Kennedy wanted to give Gromyko room to climb down from the limb on which he was perched. Gromyko might in future say he had been misled by some nameless Kremlin functionary. Diplomats are cynically described as people who are hired to lie for their countries.
Kennedy’s meticulously phrased Address to the Nation allowed him to skillfully negotiate treacherous waters. By avoiding personalizing the conflict, by speaking of statements that were false rather than attacking a speaker of falsehoods, Kennedy freed himself and the ever-grim Gromyko in the future to agree upon a hotline between the White House and the Kremlin.
Kennedy would also crown his administration’s achievement by signing an atmospheric Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) with the USSR.
Kennedy avoided as well any gaffes, any off-the-cuff comments. He didn’t call Moscow’s dictators “murderers, butchers, war criminals.”
He certainly didn’t call upon God to remove the Kremlin ruler from power. Kennedy was our first Catholic president just as the incumbent is the second. With Kennedy, however, there were no unscripted comments tacked on to his Address to the Nation.
John F. Kennedy never flinched, but he showed his mettle during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was his finest hour. Will this one be ours?