Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy took to the airwaves on Oct. 22 to inform the nation that medium- to intermediate-range Russian missiles were present and operational on the island of Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
It was a scary time for many Americans, particularly residents of Connecticut, as the Nutmeg State was well within the range of the Cuban missiles. Connecticut, as a vital center of the defense industry and home to our submarine fleet, would almost certainly have been targeted early on during a nuclear exchange. Conservative estimates projected deaths exceeding 100,000,000 Americans during a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. That was well over half the population at the time.
In response to the presence of missiles on Cuba, JFK resisted military pressure to invade the island. Kennedy, a prolific reader, had recently read historian and former Greenwich resident Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer Prize-winning World War I book entitled The Guns Of August, which had been released in the summer of 1962.
Its lessons were not lost on him — an under-publicized fact. Tuchman's book emphasized the way in which military planners had taken away civilian control of the power to declare war. Kennedy, himself a decorated war hero, did not want to make the same mistakes that had been made in World War I; therefore, he opted for an intermediate response — a quarantine — knowing full well that with the development of nuclear weapons, much more was on the line.
The announcement of a quarantine placed the country on "Defense Condition 3" status ("Defcon 3"). On the very next day, the Strategic Air Command was placed on "Defcon 2" status, meaning the highest state of readiness prior to "imminent" nuclear war — the first and only time in our history that the country has been placed on Defcon 2. (The last time we were at "Defcon 3" was on 9/11/01.)
As the word "blockade" has historically been understood to be a legitimate cause for war, Kennedy was careful to use the word "quarantine" instead.
As commander-in-chief, Kennedy ordered the Navy to stop and search all ships headed for Cuba. One of the ships used to quarantine Cuba was a destroyer named for JFK's older brother, Joe, who was killed during World War II. The 390-foot Gearing-Class destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. can be seen today by the public at Battleship Cove in Fall River, MA (see photo).
The showdown at sea was risky and could have easily led to a confrontation that might have escalated to a nuclear exchange. Immediate, meaningful negotiations were necessary to defuse the situation, and Lyme resident Roger Hilsman became the key conduit for these negotiations.
Hilsman, a decorated World War II veteran and OSS operative, was director of the State Department's INR department — Bureau For Intelligence and Research. Khruschev used this conduit through Hilsman to negotiate with Kennedy. After receiving communiques from the Soviet Union, Hilsman would relay them directly to President Kennedy.
The communiques from Khruschev, however, sometimes took up to several hours to decode. In retrospect, most people agreed that in a nuclear world, that is an unacceptable amount of time. As a result, within eight months after the end of the crisis, both countries agreed to establish a hotline — the so-called "red phone" — so that more immediate communication would be available to avert a nuclear confrontation. This hotline remains in place to this day.
Though publicly denouncing Kennedy's quarantine, Khruschev continued to employ Hilsman's office to work out a solution, despite the often lengthy decoding time involved in this method. The essential components of the resolution included UN verification of the Soviet removal of the missiles and a promise by the United States to never invade Cuba. Secretly, Kennedy also agreed to dismantle Jupiter missiles that had recently been placed in Turkey near the Soviet border.
Finally, after 13 days of living on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, tensions eased. The quarantine of Cuba would continue to Nov. 20, until all of the missiles and Russian bombers were shipped back to the Soviet Union. People all over the world breathed a sigh of relief, in part because of the vital role played by Roger Hilsman of Connecticut as a back channel through which a negotiated settlement could be reached.