John F. Kennedy: Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Russian men read coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the Russian newspaper Pravda. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation. Russian men read coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the Russian newspaper Pravda. Published by Gale Cengage Corbis Corporation
A Cuban refugee in Miami, Florida, watches U.S. president John F. Kennedy address the nation on TV. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation. A Cuban refugee in Miami, Florida, watches U.S. president John F. Kennedy address the nation on TV. Published by Gale Cengage Corbis Corporation

Excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba, October 22, 1962"

Originally published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962, published in 1963

"It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) addressed the American people on the evening of Monday, October 22, 1962, to inform them about the crisis in Cuba. He explained the United States had undeniable evidence that Soviet missiles were in place in Cuba to provide "nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere," consisting of North, Central, and South America. Kennedy announced that a naval "quarantine" of Cuba would begin on Wednesday morning, October 24. That meant that all ships approaching Cuba would be stopped, searched, and could only proceed if no military equipment was onboard. This was essentially the same thing as a blockade, but because blockades were illegal under international law and considered an act of war, the term "quarantine" was used instead.

Kennedy also announced that the U.S. military was on full-alert status; that any nuclear missile launched by the Soviets would be met with a "full retaliatory response" aimed at the Soviet Union; called for an immediate meeting of international peacekeeping organizations; and called on Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) "to halt and eliminate this clandestine [secret], reckless, and provocative [challenging] threat to world peace."

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba, October 22, 1962":

  • President Kennedy believed the blockade most likely would not trigger an immediate nuclear war. It gave Khrushchev time and a way to withdraw from the situation.
  • Grim-faced leaders in Moscow gathered to await Kennedy's words, not knowing what his plan of action would be.
  • U.S. leaders had decided they would never back down from their demand that the missiles be removed.

Excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba, October 22, 1962"

Good evening, my fellow citizens:

This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.

Upon receiving the first preliminary hard information of this nature last Tuesday morning at 9 A.M., I directed that our surveillance be stepped up. And having now confirmed and completed our evaluation of the evidence and our decision on a course of action, this Government feels obliged to report this new crisis to you in fullest detail.

The characteristics of these new missile sites indicate two distinct types of installations. Several of them include medium-range ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 nautical miles. Each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area.

Additional sites not yet completed appear to be designed for intermediate range ballistic missiles—capable of traveling more than twice as far—and thus capable of striking most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere, ranging as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far south as Lima, Peru. In addition, jet bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, are now being uncrated and assembled in Cuba, while the necessary air bases are being prepared.

This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base—by the presence of these large, long-range, and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction—constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas.…

This action also contradicts the repeated assurances of Soviet spokesmen, both publicly and privately delivered, that the arms buildup in Cuba would retain its original defensive character, and that the Soviet Union had no need or desire to station strategic missiles on the territory of any other nation.…

Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.

For many years, both the Soviet Union and the United States, recognizing this fact, have deployed strategic nuclear weapons with great care, never upsetting the precarious status quo which insured that these weapons would not be used in the absence of some vital challenge. Our own strategic missiles have never been transferred to the territory of any other nation under a cloak of secrecy and deception; and our history—unlike that of the Soviets since the end of World War II—demonstrates that we have no desire to dominate or conquer any other nation or impose our system upon its people. Nevertheless, American citizens have become adjusted to living daily on the bull's-eye of Soviet missiles located inside the U.S.S.R. or in submarines.

In that sense, missiles in Cuba add to an already clear and present danger—although it should be noted the nations of Latin America have never previously been subjected to a potential nuclear threat.…

We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth—but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.

Acting, therefore, in the defense of our own security and of the entire Western Hemisphere, and under the authority entrusted to me by the Constitution as endorsed by the resolution of the Congress, I have directed that the following initial steps be taken immediately:

First: To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.

Second: I have directed the continued and increased close surveillance of Cuba and its military buildup.… Should these offensive military preparations continue, thus increasing the threat to the hemisphere, further action will be justified. I have directed the Armed Forces to prepare for any eventualities.…

Third: It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

Fourth: As a necessary military precaution, I have reinforced our base at Guantanamo, evacuated today the dependents of our personnel there, and ordered additional military units to be on a standby alert basis.

Fifth: We are calling tonight for an immediate meeting of the Organ of Consultation under the Organization of American States, to consider this threat to hemispheric security.…

Sixth: Under the Charter of the United Nations, we are asking tonight that an emergency meeting of the Security Council be convoked without delay to take action against this latest Soviet threat to world peace. Our resolution will call for the prompt dismantling and withdrawal of all offensive weapons in Cuba, under the super-vision of U.N. observers, before the quarantine can be lifted.

Seventh and finally: I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction—by returning to his government's own words that it had no need to station missiles out-side its own territory, and withdrawing these weapons from Cuba—by refraining from any action which will widen or deepen the present crisis—and then by participating in a search for peaceful and permanent solutions.…

We have no wish to war with the Soviet Union—for we are a peaceful people who desire to live in peace with all other peoples.

But it is difficult to settle or even discuss these problems in an atmosphere of intimidation. That is why this latest Soviet threat—or any other threat which is made either independently or in response to our actions this week—must and will be met with determination. Any hostile move anywhere in the world against the safety and freedom of peoples to whom we are committed—including in particular the brave people of West Berlin—will be met by whatever action is needed.…

My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.…

The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are—but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high—but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.

Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right—not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

Thank you and good night.

What happened next …

On Tuesday, October 23, Khrushchev vowed Soviet vessels would continue on course to Cuba. If stopped by American naval ships, Soviet submarines, stationed around Cuba and armed with nuclear warheads, would fire. It was apparent to all sides that the world was at the brink of nuclear war. U Thant (1909–1974), the secretary general of the United Nations, pleaded with the superpowers to refrain from plunging the world into a nuclear holocaust.

Twenty-four hours later, on Wednesday morning, October 24, the United States began the quarantine as Kennedy's speech had promised. The world held its collective breath. Many historians believe that morning provided the Cold War's most intense and terrifying moments. Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy calling the quarantine "an act of aggression."

Given Khrushchev's statement to Kennedy, the next events seemed almost miraculous. The U.S. communications intelligence service (SIGINT) reported to President Kennedy that interception of radio messages from Soviet vessels approaching Cuba indicated the Soviets were stopping short of the quarantine circle. In fact, when SIGINT plotted the location of the Soviet vessels they were stopped dead in the water outside the ring of U.S. ships. They were avoiding confrontation. As noted in Dino A. Brugioni 's Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. secretary of state Dean Rusk (1909–1994) commented, "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked." Sergei Khrushchev (1935–), son of Nikita Khrushchev, reported in his 2000 book Nikita Khrushchev: and the Creation of a Superpower that his father believed, "the one who decides to blink first doesn't have weaker nerves but possesses greater wisdom."

Did you know …

  • Anatoly Dobrynin (1919–), the Soviet ambassador to the United States, had no knowledge of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. A text of Kennedy's speech was given to him before Kennedy went on television. Dobrynin was dumb-founded and had to gather himself together before he could relay the speech to Moscow.
  • Although the United States had been targeted for some time by nuclear missiles located in the Soviet Union, Central and South America had never before been within reach of nuclear weapons.
  • The missiles in Cuba were the first Soviet missiles located outside the Soviet Union. The United States had missiles with nuclear warheads placed in Turkey, Italy, and Great Britain, all within easy range of the Soviet Union.

Consider the following …

  • Stand in the shoes of President Kennedy or Soviet Premier Khrushchev. What would you have done the morning of October 24? Remember you carry the responsibility of the world's safety on your shoulders.
  • Kennedy suggested it was impossible to discuss peace between the superpowers when the Soviets intimidated the United States with the Cuban missiles. What do you think the Soviets thought about having U.S. missiles relatively close in Turkey, Italy, and Great Britain and pointed at their country?
  • Explain Kennedy's statement that even victory would be "ashes in our mouth."

For More Information


Brubaker, Paul E. The Cuban Missile Crisis in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2001.

Brugioni, Dino A. Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Random House, 1991.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro & Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

Khrushchev, Sergei. Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Paterson, Thomas G., ed. Kennedy's Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963. New York: Random House, 1995.

Web Site

"The World on the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis." John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library. (accessed on September 20, 2003).