On the brink of nuclear war, fifty years ago this week

by Karina Coombs

Frank Rigg, Kennedy Scholar and Curator Emeritus of the Kennedy Library and Museum. (File photo by Ellen Huber)

For 13 days in October of 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were facing the possibility of mutually assured destruction. A week would pass before the public became aware that World War III was on the horizon. And by that time US troops and heavy machinery had already mobilized to the Southeastern United States and the Panama Canal, destroyers were on their way to the waters surrounding Cuba, and the number of Americans affected in the event of a nuclear war had been calculated.

Sitting in the Smiling Duck Café inside of Ferns Country Store and discussing how close the world came to the precipice of thermonuclear war, all the while surrounded by giggling and texting middle-schoolers, seems a bit surreal until you realize you’re listening to Carlisle’s own Frank Rigg. Rigg, Curator Emeritus of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, is not wholly unaware of the juxtaposition, “Kids today don’t even know what the Cold War is,” he muses, smiling at the students.

An insider’s perspective

To mark the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Mosquito sat down with Rigg to get his unique perspective on the events as they unfolded from October 16-28, 1962. Rigg, a member of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum staff from its opening in 1979, wore a “number of hats” during his 30 years at the museum before becoming curator in 1996 until his retirement in 2008. During his tenure, Rigg was one of six staff members honored by the National Archives (NARA) in 2005 for their work in helping to research, locate and ultimately obtain millions of dollars in missing Kennedy documents and artifacts. Rigg is also a 2007 recipient of a Special Archivist’s Award, the highest award given by the NARA for his work protecting Presidential artifacts and making the Kennedy library “a model for the entire system.” (jfklibrary.org)

How it began

On October 14, 1962 U.S. spy planes (U-2) took aerial photos over Cuba that appeared to show unusual activity. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) confirmed that the grainy images showed the construction of a Soviet nuclear missile base at San Cristobal and alerted National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy on October 15. Bundy chose not to inform the President until the following morning because he “thought he needed to rest” notes Rigg. On October 16, 1962 at 8:45 a.m., President John F. Kennedy learned that nuclear missiles were being installed a mere 90 miles off the coast of the US. And he was angry. Explains Rigg, “[Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev had said he wouldn’t do anything to affect Congressional elections coming up. JFK was having a tough time in Congress…and he couldn’t afford to lose more seats.”

Kennedy almost alone in wanting diplomatic solution

Once the initial anger had abated, Kennedy formed a group comprised of top officials from various government agencies. The Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) would meet regularly over the next several days to discuss stragegy. “Kennedy throughout was calm after the initial feelings of anger and betrayal. The discussion was always level-headed and business like,” explains Rigg. The conversations were always recorded too, notes Rigg, with the tapes now residing at the JFK Library. From the very beginning the majority of ExComm leaned toward bombing the sites or invading Cuba, with President Kennedy often the only one who wanted to take a more diplomatic approach. Still wary from the failed Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, he was adamant the U.S. was not going to invade Cuba unless all other options had been exhausted. Says Rigg, “He clearly wanted to buy time. I think he knew eventually, if there was no concession, that he would have to order some kind of military action because so many of his advisors were vehemently in favor of it, along with the Congressional leadership.”

JFK called back to Washington

From October 16 to 22, the White House had successfully managed to conceal all of this. Kennedy continued with his day-to-day schedule, which also required making trips outside of Washington. In his absence, his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, would chair the security briefings. At one point, while traveling in Chicago, the President was informed by his brother that he needed to return to the capital  because his advisors were unable to reach a consensus regarding actions to take against the Soviets and Cubans.

“He pretended to be sick so as not to arouse suspicion. He told the White House physician he needed ‘a note from the doctor’ confirming he had a temperature and lower respiratory infection,” says Rigg, chuckling. The decision was made to blockade the island of Cuba and turn away any vessels containing offensive weaponry. Said Kennedy, at the time the decision was made, “What we are doing is throwing down a card on the table in a game which we don’t know the ending of.”  On the evening of October 22, President Kennedy appeared on national television to announce the aerial photos in the government’s possession that showed missile sites on Cuba and to announce the blockade.

Khrushchev and Kennedy play chess

For the next few days, Kennedy and Khrushchev sent a series of letters back and forth. “At first [Khrushchev] was resistant to Kennedy’s tactic,” explains Rigg, “but Kennedy wasn’t going to back down. He felt he could not back off or he would be impeached and someone else would invade.” On the 26th a letter was received from Khrushchev that took a decidedly different tone. Wrote Khrushchev, “If…you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries possess.”

Kennedy and his advisers cautiously saw a chance to end the conflict, but on the 27th a second letter arrived with a different tone, calling for the additional removal of missiles in Turkey. Says Rigg, “The JFK White House was in despair. The 27th became known as ‘Black Saturday.’ They thought that within days they might have to attack Cuba and then a strong possibility of nuclear weapons.”

Kennedy gathered his team to discuss options, when Bundy came up with the idea to simply ignore the second letter and just answer the first. A letter was drafted to accept Khrushchev’s 26th offer to remove missiles in exchange for pledging not to invade Cuba. Robert Kennedy was dispatched to the Soviet Embassy in DC to deliver the letter to Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. The Attorney General  also had permission to mention the possible removal of missiles in Turkey, but to state that it would not be done publicly. “Dobrynin’s memoirs talk about getting that letter from Robert Kennedy. The only means to communicate to Moscow was via Western Union. [He] calls Western Union and a young fellow on a bike showed up. He gave him a coded message and in his memoirs writes, ‘I was just hoping he didn’t have a girlfriend in the neighborhood’” a smiling Rigg explains.

A situation almost out of control

While President Kennedy waited for a response, a series of incidents would test the will of the two nations. During an air-sampling test over the North Pole, a U-2 flew into Soviet airspace and was chased out by Soviet jets. A second U-2 flying over Cuba was then shot down without authorization and an American pilot was killed. Finally, a Soviet submarine in the Caribbean was harassed by a destroyer, which dropped depth charges in an attempt to force it to the surface. Explains Rigg, “we now know the submarine commander had to be physically removed from duty and locked in his stateroom because he wanted to retaliate by firing a nuclear weapon. Khrushchev was getting nervous that [these] incidents indicated they were losing control of the situation. Kennedy was nervous too.” On the 28th of October, Premier Khrushchev announced on Radio Moscow that he had accepted the U.S. terms because he didn’t want to risk the 12 hours it took to send another letter. “Kennedy,” says Rigg, “made it clear that there was to be no celebration, nothing that would seem to embarrass Khrushchev or rub it in…he needed to give him the ability to back down.” In public Khrushchev accepted the U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba and agreed to remove all offensive weapons from the island. In private, the U.S. also agreed to remove missiles from Turkey.

A precarious situation peacefully resolved

Rigg believes both leaders should be given credit for not allowing the precarious situation to escalate further. “They both contributed to the crisis arising in the first place, but fortunately for us, they avoided that total disaster which was of course the closest the world has come to thermonuclear war.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis in many ways defined the Kennedy Presidency, and its lessons are as important now when one looks at various global conflicts as they were  a half a century ago. In 1963, in a commencement address at The American University entitled, “A Strategy for Peace,” John F. Kennedy noted the lessons from the crisis: “…  And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

Frank Rigg will be delivering a presentation about the Cuban Missile Crisis, on October 27 at 5:30 p.m. in the First Religious Society (FRS) Union Hall for 100 audience members. The event has been sold out for weeks.

“World on the Brink,” a detailed and interactive Cuban Missile Crisis exhibit containing copies of letters and secret recordings, may be found online at http://microsites.jfklibrary.org/cmc New papers belonging to Robert F. Kennedy were released on October 11, with many detailing his involvement in the crisis, and may be found at www.jfklibrary.org. A new exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the conflict, “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis” opened October 12 at the National Archives in Washington, D. C. and will travel to the JFK Library and Museum in Boston where it opens on April 12, 2013.  ∆