WASHINGTON — Twenty-five years ago this month, John F. Kennedy was given perhaps the most troubling information any President had received since the bombing of Pearl Harbor a generation earlier.
It was a Tuesday morning and Kennedy, still in robe and slippers in his White House quarters, heard National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy say: "Mr. President, there is now hard photographic evidence . . . the Russians have offensive missiles in Cuba."
The Cuban missile crisis had begun.
For the next six days, Kennedy said nothing publicly about Bundy's sobering revelation. He broke the news to the American people the following Monday. In a dramatic televised speech, he demanded that the Soviets remove the missiles--or else.
The specter of a nuclear face-down has always haunted the rival superpowers, but the anxiety of people everywhere during those October days has yet to be surpassed.
Odds Looked Bad
Would it mean nuclear war if the Soviets rejected Kennedy's demands? The President believed the chances of all-out conflict were 1 in 3, or even 1 in 2.
After a week of agonizing tension, the Soviets backed down and agreed to meet Kennedy's terms if the President pledged not to invade Cuba. The sense of relief worldwide was almost palpable.
Fresh information on the missile crisis indicates that Kennedy, who initially favored an air strike, softened his position considerably as the days passed and finally embraced a stand that went beyond even that advocated by his most dovish adviser, Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
According to new information from Kennedy's secretary of state, Dean Rusk, the Soviets yielded without knowing that Kennedy was prepared to make a major additional concession to avoid nuclear war.
During the standoff over the missiles in Cuba, the United States gave every indication that it would settle for nothing less than Soviet capitulation. The U.S. military was on a full war footing, with missiles and B-52 bombers poised to rain the equivalent of 30 billion tons of TNT on Soviet territory.
In the aftermath, Kennedy was widely praised for his handling of the crisis. His apparent mixture of firmness and restraint enabled him to transcend the bitter memory of his failure in the Bay of Pigs 18 months earlier, and helped propel the Democrats to victory in the midterm elections a week after the crisis.
A Kennedy aide, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., wrote in 1965 that the President's actions "dazzled the world" and "displayed the ripening of an American leadership unsurpassed in the responsible management of power."
Over time, however, the treatment of Kennedy has been somewhat less kind. Some liberals accused him of adventurism and conservatives said the Soviets won the confrontation by extracting the no-invasion pledge.
President Reagan's top assistant for Latin America, Elliott Abrams, has said he subscribes to the "revisionist theory" that the crisis represented a setback because the United States, in effect, became a "guarantor" of the survival of the Cuban revolution.
Indeed, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said afterward that he did not see the removal of the missiles as a defeat. He said the purpose of the missiles had been to deter an American invasion of Cuba. When that objective was accomplished, they were no longer needed, he said.
At issue was Moscow's installation of two types of missiles --one capable of range beyond Washington, D.C., and another that could reach targets deep into Canadian territory.
Their presence was detected on U.S. air reconnaissance flights over the island. The missile sites, once operational, would give the Soviets a nuclear strike capability not only against the United States, but virtually all nations of the Western Hemisphere.
Kennedy's White House counsel, Theodore Sorensen, wrote that Kennedy and his top aides considered six options, from doing nothing to making secret approaches to Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro or applying diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union. The hard-line alternatives included a naval blockade of Cuba, air strikes against the missile sites and an all-out invasion of the island.
Early in the crisis, Kennedy ruled out the softer choices because he regarded the missiles as an explicit threat to the peace and security of the Americas.
Kennedy at first wanted to bomb the missile sites, but retreated from that position, partly on the advice Llewellyn Thompson, who had just completed a tour of duty as ambassador to the Soviet Union. Thompson felt that air strikes might provoke Khrushchev into an immediate counterattack.
Kennedy moved to an increasingly dovish position as the crisis dragged on. In fact, unknown to all of his top advisers except Rusk, Kennedy was prepared in the end to offer the Soviets an even trade: the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in return for the U.S. withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey, just across the Black Sea from Soviet territory.