WASHINGTON -- Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, the National Archives has pulled together documents and secret White House recordings to show the public how President John F. Kennedy deliberated with advisers to avert nuclear war.
A new exhibit, "To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis," opened Friday to recount the showdown with the Soviet Union. While the recordings have been available to researchers for years, this is the first public showcase of Kennedy's recordings to replay tense conversations about national security from the Oval Office and Cabinet Room.
In the fall of 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered a secret deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba that were soon detected by U.S. spy planes. On Oct. 16 that year, Kennedy was briefed on photographic proof of the missile sites being developed.
U.S. officials determined from the size of the weapons that the medium-range missiles would be able to reach Washington, Dallas, Cape Canaveral, Fla., or other sites within 1,000 miles of Cuba, likely within minutes. Soon after, they learned of longer-range missiles in Cuba that could reach most of the country.
Kennedy's team debated how to respond but agreed the missiles would not be tolerated. The ensuing standoff with Khrushchev over 13 days became "the most dangerous moments the world has ever faced, either before or since -- the closest we came to nuclear destruction," said historian and journalist Michael Dobbs, who helped preview the National Archives exhibit.
The archives is displaying some once-secret documents for the first time, including diplomatic cables in Russian with Khrushchev's signature as he traded secret negotiating messages with Kennedy, and personality sketches of Khrushchev and Castro by the CIA.
Khrushchev was described as "an obtuse, rough-talking man" but shrewd and as having "a touch of a gambler's instinct."
As Kennedy leaned toward issuing a blockade order to prohibit Soviet ships from sending more military supplies to Cuba, some military advisers thought it a weak response. Still, he prepared for the worst.
A draft speech was prepared that began, "This morning, I reluctantly ordered the armed forces to attack and destroy the nuclear buildup in Cuba." It was never delivered.
As the blockade went into effect, Soviet ships approached, along with submarines, leading to tense moments. Kennedy ordered small "depth charges" to be fired from U.S. ships to encourage the submarines to surface. What he didn't know was they were carrying nuclear-tipped tactical missiles and came close to using them.
"One of the things that struck me . . . was the extent to which the president of the United States didn't really know and didn't fully control what was happening on the ground," said Dobbs, who has written a book on the crisis. "He didn't know that the Soviet Union had 42,000 troops on Cuba, ready to resist an American invasion."
By Oct. 28, 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev made a final agreement that the Soviets would begin dismantling the weapons. The United States agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove the ship blockade.
The exhibit is on view in Washington until February and moves to Boston's Kennedy Presidential Library in April.