October 24th in the Cuban Missile Crisis
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(Photograph: A US Navy Lockheed P-2H Neptune flies over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban quarantine)
Wednesday, October 24, 1962, was the ninth of the “Thirteen Days” Bobby Kennedy referred to in the title to his book about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On the morning of October 24, the President and the other members of ExComm met in the White House to wait for the 10:00 AM deadline, when the blockade of offensive arms shipments to Cuba would begin. There had been no word from the Kremlin in response to Kennedy’s challenge. (There was no “hot line” between the White House and the Kremlin at that time; one of the effects of the Crisis was to establish secure, dependable communications between the two powers.)
US forces worldwide had been placed on DEFCON 3, and on October 24 the alert level was raised again to DEFCON 2. US Navy ships had taken up position along the quarantine line, approximately 800 miles from Cuba. The cruiser USS Newport Newswas designated as the flagship for the blockade. Then came reports from Navy recon aircraft over the Atlantic: a number of Soviet ships had stopped “dead in the water” while at least one turned around and headed back toward home. For the first time in more than a week, a hint of celebration was allowed. But with missile bases approaching completion on Cuba, the matter remained very much unresolved.
That evening, the Soviet news agency TASS broadcast a telegram from Nikita Khrushchev to JFK warning that the United States’ “outright piracy” would lead to war. However, at 10:52pm EST, a private telegram arrived from the Kremlin.
Text of Telegram from Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy, October 24, 1962
Moscow, October 24, 1962
Dear Mr. President:
I have received your letter of October 23, have studied it, and am answering you.
Just imagine, Mr. President, that we had presented you with the conditions of an ultimatum which you have presented us by your action. How would you have reacted to this? I think that you would have been indignant at such a step on our part. And this would have been understandable to us.
In presenting us with these conditions, you, Mr. President, have flung a challenge at us. Who asked you to do this? By what right did you do this? Our ties with the Republic of Cuba, like our relations with other states, regardless of what kind of states they may be, concern only the two countries between which these relations exist. And if we now speak of the quarantine to which your letter refers, a quarantine may be established, according to accepted international practice, only by agreement of states between themselves, and not by some third party. Quarantines exist, for example, on agricultural goods and products. But in this case the question is in no way one of quarantine, but rather of far more serious things, and you yourself understand this.
You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.
No, Mr. President, I cannot agree to this, and I think that in your own heart you recognize that I am correct. I am convinced that in my place you would act the same way.
Reference to the decision of the Organization of American States cannot in any way substantiate the demands now advanced by the United States. This Organization has absolutely no authority or basis for adopting decisions such as the one you speak of in your letter. Therefore, we do not recognize these decisions. International law exists and universally recognized norms of conduct exist. We firmly adhere to the principles of international law and observe strictly the norms which regulate navigation on the high seas, in international waters. We observe these norms and enjoy the rights recognized by all states.
You wish to compel us to renounce the rights that every sovereign state enjoys, you are trying to legislate in questions of international law, and you are violating the universally accepted norms of that law. And you are doing all this not only out of hatred for the Cuban people and its government, but also because of considerations of the election campaign in the United States. What morality, what law can justify such an approach by the American Government to international affairs? No such morality or law can be found, because the actions of the United States with regard to Cuba constitute outright banditry or, if you like, the folly of degenerate imperialism. Unfortunately, such folly can bring grave suffering to the peoples of all countries, and to no lesser degree to the American people themselves, since the United States has completely lost its former isolation with the advent of modern types of armament.
Therefore, Mr. President, if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States. When you confront us with such conditions, try to put yourself in our place and consider how the United States would react to these conditions. I do not doubt that if someone attempted to dictate similar conditions to you—the United States—you would reject such an attempt. And we also say—no.
The Soviet Government considers that the violation of the freedom to use international waters and international air space is an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war. Therefore, the Soviet Government cannot instruct the captains of Soviet vessels bound for Cuba to observe the orders of American naval forces blockading that Island. Our instructions to Soviet mariners are to observe strictly the universally accepted norms of navigation in international waters and not to retreat one step from them. And if the American side violates these rules, it must realize what responsibility will rest upon it in that case. Naturally we will not simply be bystanders with regard to piratical acts by American ships on the high seas. We will then be forced on our part to take the measures we consider necessary and adequate in order to protect our rights. We have everything necessary to do so.
A Note on the ExConn Tapes
As noted previously, JFK had ordered a recording system to be installed in the Cabinet room, which he could operate by pressing a button under the table. As a result, virtually all ExComm meetings were recorded; these recording were released to researchers and the public only in the last decade or so.
While many people think that Richard Nixon was the first president to tape White House conversations, the practice went back to FDR. The biggest difference between Nixon’s system and those of his predecessors was that the Nixon system was fully automatic, and earlier systems were turned on and off at the President’s discretion.
You can listen to some of the actual recordings here. For transcripts of the recordings, look here.
Guest post by Douglas Niles, author of Final Failure: Eyeball to Eyeball, an alternate history of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Doug and I co-authored three alternate history military thrillers: Fox on the Rhine, Fox at the Front, and MacArthur’s War. He is also known for his fantasy novels and is an award-winning game designer.