The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis

The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis

The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis

The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis


The Cuban missile crisis was the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War and the most perilous moment in American history. In this dramatic narrative written especially for students and general readers, Sheldon M. Stern, longtime historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, enables the reader to follow the often harrowing twists and turns of the crisis.

Based on the author's authoritative transcriptions of the secretly recorded ExComm meetings, the book conveys the emotional ambiance of the meetings by capturing striking moments of tension and anger as well as occasional humorous intervals. Unlike today's readers, the participants did not have the luxury of knowing how this potentially catastrophic showdown would turn out, and their uncertainty often gives their discussions the nerve-racking quality of a fictional thriller. As President Kennedy told his advisers, "What we are doing is throwing down a card on the table in a game which we don't know the ending of."

Stern documents that JFK and his administration bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the crisis. Covert operations in Cuba, including efforts to kill Fidel Castro, had convinced Nikita Khrushchev that only the deployment of nuclear weapons could protect Cuba from imminent attack. However, President Kennedy, a seasoned Cold Warrior in public, was deeply suspicious of military solutions to political problems and appalled by the prospect of nuclear war. He consistently steered policy makers away from an apocalyptic nuclear conflict, measuring each move and countermove with an eye to averting what he called, with stark eloquence, "the final failure."


In the summer of 1973, the nation was captivated by the televised “Watergate” hearings into charges of illegal activities in Richard Nixon's White House. On July 16, presidential aide Alexander Butter-field revealed that President Nixon had installed a voice-activated taping system to secretly record his meetings and discussions. Congress subpoenaed the tapes but the president refused to comply. The Supreme Court unanimously ordered their release—and the rest is history.

A day after Butterfield's revelation, the John F. Kennedy Library disclosed that audio recordings of presidential meetings and telephone conversations had also been made during the Kennedy administration. These tapes included most of the secret meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The “heroic” version of the Cuban missile crisis had already become well established by the 1970s. This view, encouraged by JFK himself, popularized by the writings of journalists and Kennedy administration insiders, and dramatized in the 1974 film The Missiles of October, depicted the courageous young American president successfully resisting nuclear blackmail by the Soviet Union and its puppet regime in Cuba and winning a decisive victory over communism. And, according to this viewpoint, after his sobering experience on the nuclear brink, Kennedy reached out to his adversaries and began the process of détente—reflected in 1963 in his American University speech urging a rethinking of Cold War beliefs, the establishment of the Moscow-Washington . . .

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