Today marks 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was shown aerial photographs of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, setting off a 13-day confrontation during which the U.S. and Soviet Union nearly descended into war before a resolution was ultimately reached.
To mark the anniversary, Nicholas Thompson, a senior editor at The New Yorker magazine, has released never-before-seen notes taken by his grandfather, Paul Nitze, during 39 tense meetings that took place during those 13 days. Nitze, Thompson writes for The New Yorker, was a high-ranking official in the Defense Department and "a member of ExComm, a small group of men who debated how the United States should respond. The President secretly recorded many of the conversations, but Nitze was the only participant authorized to take notes."
Thompson found his grandfather's notes a few years ago, he writes, in a box behind a boiler in the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a school which Nitze helped to found.
To learn more about the Cuban missile crisis, view the excellent documentary "Clouds Over Cuba" from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.
More from Thompson's article:
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In the fifty years of scholarship that have followed the crisis, we have learned ever more just how close the world came to calamity. Fidel Castro, Cuba's new Prime Minister, wanted the Soviets to strike. The United States dramatically underestimated the Soviet troops on the island and didn't know that the Soviets had secreted away scores of missiles around the island. If the U.S. had launched a strike, disaster would have followed.
Ultimately, of course, through credible threats of force, and concessions both open and secret, Kennedy persuaded Khrushchev to back down. Politics succeeded in a way war would not have. Late in the crisis, Nitze met again in George Ball's office. The notes begin with a summary from the Undersecretary of State: "Unless we return to political arrangement we will all fry. Need a bridge back."