“The greatest danger of all would be to do nothing”
On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy appeared
on television to inform Americans that U.S. spy planes had uncovered a
“clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace” – Soviet
missile sites in Cuba, under construction but nearly complete, that
could soon house nuclear missiles capable of striking the United
States. Kennedy demanded the missiles’ removal and announced a naval
blockade of Cuba to stop Soviet ships from bringing more weapons to the
Thus began some of the tensest days of the twentieth century as the
U.S. and U.S.S.R. stood at the brink of nuclear war. Soviet leader
Nikita Khrushchev warned that his subs might sink U.S. Navy ships
attempting to stop Soviet vessels. “If the U.S. insists on war, we’ll
all meet together in hell,” he growled. Kennedy certainly did not want
war, but he refused to back down. “The greatest danger of all would be
to do nothing,” he told the American people.
The world held its breath as Soviet ships approached the blockade line.
The crisis deepened when a U.S. reconnaissance plane was shot down over
Cuba and its pilot killed. Americans stockpiled emergency supplies and
even fled large cities.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Soviet officials traded urgent proposals and
counter-proposals. On October 28, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the
sites in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba, as well as the
removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey. “We were eyeball to eyeball, and
the other guy just blinked,” commented a relieved Secretary of State
Historians have debated who came out on top in the Cuban Missile
Crisis, Kennedy or Khrushchev. But there is no doubt that in standing
up to Soviet totalitarianism, the young president turned back a
dangerous threat to the nation’s security and to world peace.