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In this June 3, 1961, photo, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (left) and President John F. Kennedy chat.
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Date published: 10/11/2012
WASHINGTON--Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, the National Archives has pulled together documents and secret White House recordings to show the public how President John F. Kennedy deliberated with advisers to avert nuclear war.
A new exhibit, "To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis," opens Friday to recount the showdown with the Soviet Union. While the recordings have been available to researchers for years, this is the first public showcase of Kennedy's recordings to replay tense conversations about national security from the Oval Office and Cabinet Room.
In the fall of 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered a secret deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba that were soon detected by U.S. spy planes. On Oct. 16 that year, Kennedy was briefed on photographic proof of the missile sites being developed.
U.S. officials determined from the size of the weapons that the medium-range missiles would be able to reach Washington, Dallas, Cape Canaveral, Fla., or other sites within 1,000 miles of Cuba, likely within minutes. Soon after they learned of longer-range missiles in Cuba that could reach most of the country. Kennedy's team debated how to respond but agreed the missiles would not be tolerated.
The ensuing standoff with Khrushchev over 13 days became "the most dangerous moments the world has ever faced, either before or since--the closest we came to nuclear destruction," said historian and journalist Michael Dobbs, who helped preview the National Archives exhibit.
Both Kennedy and Khrushchev had made mistakes leading to this point, Dobbs said. Khrushchev gambled by deploying nuclear weapons so far from the Soviet Union on the U.S. doorstep. And Kennedy fumbled his first major foreign policy crisis at the Bay of Pigs with the failed effort to topple Fidel Castro. The Kennedy administration's strategy called Operation Mongoose to overthrow Castro triggered a dramatic reaction from the Soviets.
The archives is displaying some once-secret documents for the first time, including diplomatic cables in Russian with Khrushchev's signature as he traded secret messages with Kennedy to negotiate a resolution, and personality sketches of Khrushchev and Castro by the CIA. Khrushchev was described as "an obtuse, rough-talking man" but shrewd and as having "a touch of a gambler's instinct."
There were also emergency plans developed for White House staff in case of an attack on Washington.archives.gov/ jfklibrary.org/