On this day in 1962, President John F. Kennedy announces to the American people that he has ordered a blockade of Cuba in response to the discovery that Soviet missiles were being installed on the island. In his televised speech, he condemned Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for the “clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace” and warned that the United States was fully prepared to retaliate should the missiles be launched.
Four days earlier, Kennedy had been shown photographic proof that the Soviets were building 40 ballistic missile sites on Cuba—within striking distance of the United States. In secret meetings, Kennedy and his closest advisors agreed he had three choices: to negotiate with the Russians to remove the missiles; to bomb the missile sites in Cuba; or implement a naval blockade of the island. Kennedy chose to blockade Cuba, deciding to bomb the missile sites only if further action proved necessary.
The blockade began October 21 and, the next day, Kennedy delivered a public address alerting Americans to the situation. In his speech, he warned a frightened American public that the missiles on Cuba were capable of hitting Washington, D.C. or anywhere in the southeastern portion of the country, the Panama Canal, Mexico City or “as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far south as Lima, Peru.” A military confrontation appeared imminent when Kennedy told his audience that he ordered the evacuation of the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and put military units on standby. Boldly, he stated, “one path we shall never choose is the path of surrender or submission.”
Khrushchev responded by sending additional ships—possibly carrying military cargo—toward Cuba and by allowing construction at the missile sites to continue. Over the following six days, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as it is now known, brought the world to the brink of global nuclear war while the two leaders engaged in tense negotiations via telegram and letter.
Fortunately by October 28, Kennedy and Khrushchev had reached a settlement and people on both sides of the conflict breathed a collective but wary sigh of relief. The Cuban missile sites were dismantled and, in return, Kennedy agreed to close U.S. missile sites in Turkey.