My fellow Americans, with a heavy heart, and in necessary
fulfillment of my oath of office, I have ordered and the United
States Air Force has now carried out military operations with
conventional weapons only, to remove a major nuclear weapons build-
up from the soil of Cuba.
These are the words President Kennedy almost delivered in October
1962 announcing what could have been World War III. This draft
speech is among several thousand drafts, letters, and handwritten
notes from Robert F. Kennedys personal files that have just last
week been opened at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
Robert Kennedys writings make vivid how close we came to the
brink of war. Had President Kennedy been forced to choose a response
in the first 48 hours after an American spy plane discovered the
Soviets sneaking nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba, RFK had no doubt
that his brother would have chosen an air strike against the missile
sites, followed by an invasion. As he wrote in his notes while
discussing this option, if we go in, we go in hard.
Had the United States launched an airstrike and invaded Cuba, the
Soviet commander on the scene would almost certainly have responded
with about 100 tactical nuclear weapons under his control tactical
nuclear weapons JFK did not even know were on the island. The US
would have felt compelled to respond in kind triggering an
escalation to nuclear Armageddon. As RFK later recalled, the
Executive Committee of the National Security Council advising JFK
during the crisis was full of bright, able dedicated people, all of
whom had the greatest affection for the US, [but] if six of them had
been President...the world might have been blown up.
Instead of the air strike, JFK initially chose to impose a naval
blockade on further arms shipments to Cuba. Yet as the Soviets
rushed to complete construction of missiles already in Cuba so that
they could be fired against American cities, US planning for the air
strike was refined.
As Soviet ships approached the blockade line on Oct. 24, 1962,
Robert Kennedy wrote that the danger and concern that we all felt
hung like a cloud over us allI think these few minutes were the time
of greatest worry by the President. His hands went up to his face
and covered his mouth and he closed his fistI felt on the edge of a
precipice and it was as if there was no way off.
While the Soviet ships turned around rather than challenge the
blockade, the window for US action to prevent the missiles in Cuba
from becoming fully operational was rapidly closing. At the State
Department on Oct. 26, RFK scribbled down Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara's insistence that after an airstrike against the
missile sites, an invasion must follow! …