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Today marks 50 years since the Cuban missile crisis began to unfold in the United States. American satellites had taken photographs showing secret missile bases under construction in Cuba. The Soviet Union was involved. Some missiles were nuclear, and some could reach U.S. soil. The following 13 days would be both tense and delicate for the Kennedy administration, to say the least.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE interviewed author and Journalist Michael Dobbs for our upcoming biography of JFK (Fall 2013). Dobbs first visited Russia when he only was six weeks old, and spent much of his career covering the fall of communism and the Cold War. He is the author of the 2008 bestseller "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War," an hour-by-hour account of the Cuban missile crisis. In 2012, he tought courses on the subject at Georgetown and American Universities.
His interview on the Cuban missile crisis is fascinating. We would love to post all of it here for you, but we have to leave something special for the documentary!
"A lot of information that a President receives in these kind of crisis situations turns out to be incomplete and often inaccurate. For example, Kennedy didn’t know where the Soviet nuclear warheads were on Cuba. He knew where the missiles were, but he didn’t know where the warheads were. The CIA told him that there were 8,000 Soviet technicians in Cuba. In fact, there were 43,000 heavily armed Soviet soldiers at that point. The Soviets possessed, in addition to these longer-range missiles that could hit the United States, they also possessed shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons that could have been used to wipe out the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo or a U.S. invading force. Kennedy didn’t know any of that. So he learned very late about the presence of nuclear missiles, Soviet missiles in Cuba. So he was trying to manage this crisis with only imperfect information. And I think that probably illustrates the position that many presidents are in, at a time of grave national security crisis.
"The Kennedy administration certainly underestimated the scale of the Soviet military presence on Cuba. They knew that if they invaded the island, they would face heavy resistance from the Cubans and there would be very heavy casualties, but the casualties would have been much, much greater than the U.S. military estimated. It would have been in the tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of Cubans, Russians, and Americans, had Kennedy decided to go ahead with an invasion as many of his military advisors were urging to do."