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'With A Heavy Heart...' -- Secret JFK Speech Could Have Signaled Start Of WWIII

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (left) and U.S. President John F. Kennedy brought their countries to the brink of nuclear war in 1962.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (left) and U.S. President John F. Kennedy brought their countries to the brink of nuclear war in 1962.

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By Richard Solash
WASHINGTON -- It could have been the start of a war the likes of which the world had never seen.

Films and history books have documented the the hair's-width margin that separated the United States and the Soviet Union from nuclear conflict during 13 days in October 1962, the height of the Cuban missile crisis.

But a speech drafted by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and newly released to the public, throws what may be the starkest light yet on just how close the sides came to starting World War III.

"My fellow Americans, with a heavy heart, and in necessary fulfillment of my oath of office, I have ordered -- and the United States Air Force has now carried out -- military operations with conventional weapons only, to remove a major nuclear weapons build-up from the soil of Cuba," Kennedy was to begin.
The first page of a speech President John F. Kennedy had prepared in the event of a U.S. attack on Soviet installations in CubaThe first page of a speech President John F. Kennedy had prepared in the event of a U.S. attack on Soviet installations in Cuba
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The first page of a speech President John F. Kennedy had prepared in the event of a U.S. attack on Soviet installations in Cuba
The first page of a speech President John F. Kennedy had prepared in the event of a U.S. attack on Soviet installations in Cuba

This speech is the highlight of an archive containing nearly 3,000 pages of notes, transcripts, and other documents kept by Robert Kennedy, the president's brother and close adviser.

It was posted online by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum last week to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the crisis.

The newly released material offers a fascinating glimpse of the limited options open to the U.S. leader during the tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

"What this document reminds us, vividly, is that if President Kennedy had felt forced to choose what to do in the first 48 or 72 hours after the U.S. discovered the Soviet Union sneaking nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba, he would have conducted an air strike on those missiles, as the speech tries to justify," says Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and an expert on the Cuban missile crisis.

"We would have the seen the chain of events that would have initiated. Down that path we would have come to nuclear war."

Nail-Biting Diplomacy

Kennedy's speech, of course, was never delivered. The U.S. leader instead enacted a naval blockade of Cuba and as the world held its breath, the approaching Soviet ships turned back.

But Kennedy also came close to ordering a strike after the blockade to prevent the missiles that were spotted by the United States from becoming operational.

WATCH: Kennedy announces a naval blockade of Cuba
Kennedy Announces Naval Blockade Of Cubai
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October 19, 2012
In a televised speech on October 22, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy said that the United States had discovered the development of missile sites on Cuba intended to provide "a nuclear strike capability against the Western hemisphere," and announced that he had ordered a naval blockade of the island.
In his notes, Robert Kennedy wrote: "If we go in, we go in hard" -- a reference to the major land invasion of Cuba that was expected to follow roughly 500 bomb strikes.

What no one in Washington knew at the time is that Moscow already had nearly 100 smaller, fully operational nuclear weapons on the island, which would have been enough to eliminate U.S. forces and escalate the conflict into unprecedented territory.

According to Thomas Putnam, the director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the specter of war allegedly compelled the president's usual speech writer to turn down the assignment.

"One story is that Ted Sorensen, who wrote most of [Kennedy's] speeches and, I think, wrote the one where he announced to the world the discovery of the missiles, told [President Kennedy] he couldn't write that speech," Putnam says. "He didn't think we should invade and...he couldn't even come up with words that would perhaps support an invasion that would lead to a nuclear exchange. So I believe the author [of the speech] was [National Security Adviser] McGeorge Bundy." 

After days of nail-biting diplomacy, Moscow pledged to withdraw its weapons and Washington pledged to stay out of Cuba.

Another notable document in the archive is a chart drawn by Robert Kennedy that divides the president's advisers and military leaders into proponents of a blockade and proponents of a strike -- men known to history as "doves" and "hawks." Arrows and question marks indicate that not all were convinced of which option was best.

Raw Material Of History

Memos detail the botched Operation Mongoose, a plan to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro that helped convince Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to send nuclear weapons to the island.

There are also notes referring to a secret deal for the United States to withdraw missiles from Turkey as well as CIA documents describing the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and a 1964 mafia-linked plan to assassinate Castro.

"What these documents are for us is the raw material of history," says Putnam. "They allow you to see Robert Kennedy's thinking, to see the notes, the doodles, [and] what his concerns were. Since he was such a key player in the Cuban missile crisis, having these documents helps to bring history to life."

Graham Allison says one detail from the archive has particularly resonated with him.

"Bobby has his notes after a civil defense briefing in which they've heard planning for what might happen if the actions they choose end up triggering an attack, and he writes down '42 million' and '90 million.' Those, I infer, are the answer[s] to the question [of] how many Americans are estimated to die if the U.S. attacks first, as opposed to waits until the Soviet Union attacks first, in which case 90 million Americans die."

"Well, those are unbelievable numbers, if you try to think of it. There they are in his handwriting with an underline," says Allison. "Who in the world could imagine trying to make a choice about something that has such momentous consequences?"
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Comments
     
by: Sey from: World
October 19, 2012 16:39
The only thing this shows is how stupid it would have been to launch a preventive attack and how smart was Kennedy, or those who advised him, to not do anything and let the situation develop and wither away by itself.

I just hope similarly-minded officials are today within Obama's government or the government of whoever comes into office.
In Response

by: Anonymous
October 20, 2012 04:12
You are saying: "I just hope similarly-minded officials are today within Obama's government" and will "let the situation develop and wither away by itself".
Aha, Sey, the financial crisis will wither away by itself, the US sovereign debt exceding 100 % of the country's GDP will wither away by itself, the US military defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan will also wither away by themselves, the fact that US friends in Syria continue being killed every day - and US embassadors to Lybia get burned alive - and the US is just standing nearby and helplessly looking at this process will also wither away by itself...
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
October 20, 2012 17:27
Ah, I am sorry: I just realized that I did not sign the message above. So, just following the latest fashion established by "Hillary" and "Saddam": "I am Eugenio and I approve of the message above" :-).
In Response

by: Hillary from: US
October 20, 2012 18:06
don't worry, after we finish winning in Afghanistan, we will take care of our debt by printing $20 trillion more so whoever was stupid enough to buy into US government securities will get back, well, dollars so to speak. I'm Hillary and I approve this message.
In Response

by: bathus from: malaysia
October 21, 2012 03:58
And Anonymous, what are you trying to say..that the present administration can wave a magic wand and all these problems will go away. Wise up, the world has changed and the US does not hold sway as it used to and buster you better get used to that. I will go with Sey anyday than throw in my lot with you and the romney ryan kind.

by: seth from: us
October 21, 2012 13:40
I am so tierd of everyone that exspected the us to care for them and there country let alone there money it is far beounde the point where the us needs to let other's sort out there military issues and internalize are efforts and put up a warning sing that says do not disturb , and as far as the magic go's you are a foul my friend if you think for one min that the is not fully capable of dominating any war at this time and date it would just not be what any sane person would dare ask for

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