John Kennedy looked down at the single pen on the desk. Even though he had been president less than 2 years, he was used to signing milestones with many pens, then giving them away as mementos. But this signing would take place with a single pen. Never in the history of the world had an American president signed such a document. It called for a quarantine of the tiny island of Cuba where the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles aimed at the U.S. Everyone in the silent room realized that Kennedy could be signing a call to action that could trigger thermonuclear war and worldwide destruction.
Kennedy completed the signing and slipped the pen into his pocket. "I am going to keep this one," he said.
Today, that pen in one of the key artifacts included in the To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis exhibition now on display at the National Archives.
After an introductory section giving the back story on the 13-day October, 1962 stand-off, the exhibit proceeds with 6 chronological stations where visitors can hear excerpts of actual White House tapes made of crisis participants discussing the challenge and options. Each station contains a quotation from the terrifying ordeal as a thematic organizer. They are:
- "We do not believe they are ready to fire." Sandy Greybeal of the CIA
- "Is there anyone out there who doesn't think that we to do something [about the missiles]." JFK
- "You're talking about the destruction of a country." JFK.
- "If we go to Cuba we are taking a chance that their missiles which are ready to fire won't be fired ... is that really a gamble we should take?" JFK
- "OK, let's proceed." JFK.
- "Time's tides are on us." JFK
Finally, on Oct. 28 Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev said "Remove them. As quickly as possible before something terrible happens." On Nov. 20, after more than a month of the world holding its collective breath, the quarantine was lifted. The leaders of the world's 2 greatest powers had been to the nuclear brink. This time the world survived.
But even today, the exhibit demonstrates the terror and horror of the Cuban Crisis. One of the most chilling reminders of the real possibility of annihilation is a simple, one-page declassified CIA document. The document contains 3 red circles, showing the nuclear destruction capabilities of the 3 types of missiles the Russians could have used. The 1st, at 630 miles, would have meant the end of all of Florida and the southern cities of Savannah and New Orleans. The 2nd circle would threaten San Antonio, Dallas, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. The last circle at 2220 miles demonstrated that the Soviets could have destroyed any continental city except Seattle.
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Whether you want to relive your own experiences of October, 1962 or come to understand them for the 1st time, you should check the To the Brink exhibit out. It will be open until Feb. 3, 2013.