On October 21, 1962, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) is scheduled to attend the final day of the Seattle Century 21 World's Fair. He bows out with a "cold," interrupting a nationwide tour to return to Washington, D.C., for "bed rest." This is a ruse. What is actually unfolding is the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the United States and the Soviet Union will ever come to nuclear war.
President Kennedy's visit was to be a fitting conclusion to Seattle's enormously successful six-month world's fair. Washington was one of seven states he would visit over a three-day period during which he was mainly campaigning for Democrats in the upcoming November election. His Seattle visit was his only nonpolitical stop. He was to arrive on the evening of October 20, 1962, and depart the following afternoon. His cross-country swing began on the morning of October 19, with a brief stop at Cleveland before heading for Springfield, Illinois, to lay a wreath at the tomb of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). After speaking at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, the President headed for Chicago to attend a Democratic banquet.
It Is Contagious
The following day, on the morning of October 20, 1962, Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy’s press secretary, announced that the president had an upper respiratory infection. The president’s doctor, Salinger said, instructed him to cancel the remainder of his trip and return immediately to Washington, D.C. It was announced that when he arrived at the White House he would probably spend part of the day in bed. A photograph of the president leaving a Chicago hotel shows him looking congested and wearing a gray fedora hat. This is only the second time JFK had been seen wearing a hat, the first time being the top hat he wore for his inauguration.
Upon hearing the bad news, Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989) attempted to get Vice President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) to attend the closing ceremonies, since Johnson was scheduled to pass through Washington state on October 21. Unfortunately, it seemed that the vice president also had a cold and would be unable to attend.
The real reason that Kennedy’s trip, including his stop at Seattle, was cancelled was the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 16, 1962, President Kennedy was shown photographic evidence, taken by U-2 reconnaissance spy planes, of Soviet Union missile sites on Cuba. Some missile sites had ballistic missiles on launch pads. The president immediately called together about 20 men to decide on a response. Called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (Ex Comm), it included Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968), Vice President Johnson, people from the State Department, Defense Department, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Joint Chiefs of Staff, and White House staff. Ex Comm quickly concluded that the missile sites would have to be removed from Cuba. To accomplish this, three options were discussed:
- "Talk the missiles out" (negotiation);
- "Squeeze the missiles out" (quarantine Cuba using a naval blockade around the entire Island); and
- "Shoot the missiles out" (surprise attack on Cuba missile sites using 400 to 500 military planes) (On the Brink, 7).
The first option was quickly dismissed as ineffective. The committee seemed equally divided between an air strike and a blockade.
While these discussions were going on, President Kennedy, not wanting to arouse suspicion by canceling his promised midterm election campaign stops, left Washington, D.C., on October 19. During the day, further investigation determined that the Soviet-made missiles were closer to being ready to fire than first thought. Meanwhile, journalists were getting wind of something major going on. President Kennedy, believing that time was of the essence in order to retain the element of surprise, feigned a "cold" and returned to the White House the following morning (Saturday, October 20).
It would be many hours before the president got his "recommended bed rest." The president attended meetings and reviewed documents concerning the crisis for the rest of the day. He decided to address the nation on the missile crisis on Monday evening October 22, 1962.
Following is President Kennedy’s proposed Seattle itinerary of his October 20-21, 1962, compared with what he was actually doing in Washington, D.C.
October 20, 1962
SEATTLE: 7:35 p.m. The president was scheduled to arrive at Boeing Field with a brief welcoming ceremony to follow.
What actually happened in WASHINGTON, D.C.: Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy’s press secretary, called the president to tell him that a journalist at The Washington Post had heard that the United States is “on the brink of war.” President Kennedy replied angrily, "This town is a sieve." A pause and then "Pierre, how much longer do you think this thing can hold?" Pierre Salinger, not yet briefed on the crisis, replied "Whatever the story is, too many good reporters are chasing it for it to hold much longer. I would say through tonight and maybe tomorrow" (Missiles of October, 245.). A short time later, the White House contacted editors of The Washington Post and The New York Times and asked them to refrain from printing the story for national security reasons. They agreed not to print the story.
October 20-21, 1962
In SEATTLE: The President was scheduled to stay overnight in the Presidential Suite on the 11th floor of the Olympic Hotel. At perhaps 8 a.m. the president planned to breakfast at the Olympic before attending Mass at St. James Cathedral at 9th Avenue and Madison Street.
What actually happened in WASHINGTON, D.C.: The president and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, return to the White House after attending 10 a.m. Mass at St. Stephen’s Church. Then, from 11:30 to 12:30 Eastern Daylight Time, President Kennedy held a meeting in the Oval Office. In attendance were Attorney General Robert Kennedy (the president's brother), Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera, Air Force General Walter C. Sweeney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor. McNamara reported that overflight photographs showed about 40 missile launchers in Cuba. General Taylor, pushing hard for an air strike, estimated that an initial strike of 400 to 500 planes could destroy about 90 percent of known Soviet Union made ballistic missiles. Arriving during the meeting with the latest intelligence, CIA Director John McCone, who also supported an air strike, reported that from 8 to 12 missiles were capable of being fired in three to four hours.
In SEATTLE: In the early afternoon President Kennedy was scheduled to attend the Century 21 World’s Fair, arriving at the fairgrounds at 12:30 p.m. At 1 p.m. the president planned to give a speech in front of the United States Science Pavilion, which was built with federal funds, to announce the transfer of title of the $9 million science building to the nonprofit Pacific Science Center Foundation for $1 per year. During the ceremonies a transmission from the Mariner space probe hurtling towards Venus would have been received. At 1:30 p.m. President Kennedy was scheduled to leave the fair for his plane at Boeing Field, which was scheduled to be airborne and heading towards Cheyenne, Wyoming, at 2 p.m.
What actually happened in WASHIINGTON, D.C.: President Kennedy attended the full National Security Council at 2:30 p.m. and announced that he had decided in favor of putting a blockade around Cuba first but keeping the air strike capability on standby. Much of the meeting was spent discussing the text of President Kennedy’s national speech on the missile crisis that he would deliver the following day. Admiral George Anderson, Chief of Naval Operations, gave a briefing on the details of establishing and maintaining a blockade around Cuba. At 5 p.m. the meeting concluded and as Admiral Anderson was putting his charts and maps away the president stepped up to him and said, "Well, admiral, it looks as though this is up to the Navy." Admiral Anderson replied, "Mr. President, the Navy will not let you down” (Eyeball to Eyeball).
President Kennedy Addresses the Nation
The following day, on October 22, 1962, at 4 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation over radio and television. Following are excerpts from his strongly worded speech:
"Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation [by the Soviet Union] on that imprisoned island [of Cuba]. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere. ... Several of [the sites] include Medium Range Ballistic Missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 nautical miles. Each of these missiles ... is capable of striking Washington, D.C. ... or any other city in the Southeastern part of the United States ... .
"But this secret, swift and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles[,] ... this sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil -- is a deliberately provocative and unjustified ... which cannot be accepted by this country, if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe. ...
"To halt this offensive build-up, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. ...
"[A]nd finally: I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination ... He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction ... ." (Cuban Missile Crisis, 150-154; includes full text of speech).
Close to Armageddon
As former CIA Director William E. Colby put it, the next six days of the crisis would bring the world "as close to Armageddon" as it has ever been (Wyden, Bay of Pigs, 7). The most precarious moments were on October 26, when it was determined that work on the missile sites was actually speeding up and on October 27 when a U-2 spy plane failed to return from a photographic reconnaissance over Cuba and was assumed shot down. President Kennedy, apparently deciding to initiate the air strike, called up 14,000 Air Force reservists.
The next day Premier Khrushchev informed the United States that the Soviet Union would dismantle the missile sites and remove offensive weapons. On November 20, 1962, the blockade was called off.