On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy went on nationwide TV to announce the discovery of the missiles and his blockade of Cuba.
He warned that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation would be regarded as an attack on the United States by the Soviet Union–and would trigger “a full retaliatory response” upon the U.S.S.R.
And he demanded that the Soviets remove all of their offensive weapons from Cuba:
“The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are, but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world.
“The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”
On October 26, the United States raised the readiness level of SAC forces to DEFCON 2–the step just short of war. For the only time in U.S. history, B-52 bombers were dispersed to various locations and made ready to take off, fully equipped, on 15 minutes’ notice.
Other measures taken included:
- One-eighth of America’s 1,436 bombers were on airborne alert.
- About 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles stood on ready alert.
- Air Defense Command redeployed 161 nuclear-armed interceptors to 16 dispersal fields within nine hours with one-third maintaining 15-minute alert status.
- Twenty-three nuclear-armed B-52 were sent to orbit points within striking distance of the Soviet Union.
An invasion date was set for October 29. But the Kennedy Administration–and the American military–didn’t know that the Russian soldiers guarding the missiles had been armed with tactical nuclear weapons.
Had the Marines gone in, those mini-nukes would have been used. And a fullscale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union would have almost certainly followed.
At the height of the crisis, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy offered a solution.
Khrushchev had sent two teletypes to Kennedy. The first had agreed to remove the missiles, but the second had demanded that the United States remove its own missiles from Turkey, which bordered the Soviet Union.
Robert Kennedy’s solution: The administration should ignore the second message–and announce that it had accepted Khrushchev’s offer to remove the missiles.
After this announcement was made, President Kennedy said to his advisors: “It can go either way now.”
John F. Kennedy
The crisis ended on October 28. Under enormous pressure, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba.
Behind his decision lay a secret promise by the Kennedy administration to remove its obsolete nuclear missiles from Turkey. And a public pledge to not invade Cuba.
On the night the crisis ended, there occurred a prophetic exchange between the two Kennedy brothers.
JFK: “Maybe this is the night I should go to the theater”–a reference to Abraham Lincon’s fatal attendance of Ford’s Theater at the end of the Civil War.
RFK: “If you go, I want to go with you.”
John F. and Robert F. Kennedy
But President Kennedy was not finished with Castro. While continuing the campaign of sabotage throughout Cuba, the Kennedys were preparing something far bigger: A fullscale American invasion of the island.
On October 4, 1963, the Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted its latest version of the invasion plan, known as OPLAN 380-63. Its timetable went:
- January, 1964: Infiltration into Cuba by Cuban exiles.
- July 15, 1964: U.S. conventional forces join the fray.
- August 3, 1964: All-out U.S. air strikes on Cuba.
- October 1, 1964: Full-scale invasion to install “a government friendly to the U.S.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy–referring to the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor–had resisted demands for a “sneak attack” on Cuba by saying: “I don’t want my brother to be the Tojo of the 1960s.”
Now the Kennedys planned such an attack on Cuba just one month before the November, 1964 Presidential election.
Then fate–in the unlikely figure of Lee Harvey Oswald–intervened.
On November 22, 1963, while the President rode through Dallas in an open-air automobile, a rifle-wielding assassin opened fire. He scored two hits on Kennedy–in the back of the neck and head. The second wound proved instantly fatal.
The nation and the world were shocked–and plunged into deep mourning.
But for some of those who had waged a secret, lethal war against Fidel Castro for the previous two years, Kennedy’s death–at least in retrospect–didn’t come as a surprise.
Robert Kennedy, in particular, spent the remaining years of his life agonizing over the possibility that his highly personal war against Castro had backfired.
That Castro, fed up with the CIA’s assassination plots against him, had retaliated with one of his own.
Robert Kennedy’s fears and guilt were compounded by the fact that, while waging war on Castro, he had waged an equally ruthless crusade against organized crime.
And some of the mobsters he had done his best to put into prison had played a major role in the CIA’s efforts to “hit” Castro. Had the Mafia–believing itself the victim of a double-cross–put out a “contract” on JFK instead?