On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy went on national television to tell the American people they were in the gravest possible danger imaginable.
The Cold War that commenced in 1947, and persisted throughout the 1950s, had gotten even colder after the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane over the USSR and captured its pilot in 1960. A year later, the Berlin Wall went up in Germany and the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion went down in Cuba, adding to the tensions.
Then, the Soviets severely upped the ante when they stationed missiles, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, in Cuba in mid-October 1962.
Of course, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev denied the weaponry’s existence; but, the United States had proof – photos taken by a U-2 plane, just like the one the Soviets shot down two years earlier.
Consequently, when the Soviets positioned themselves to attack America from just 90 miles away, it became a test of wills between Kennedy and Khruschev as they played the most dangerous chess game imaginable, with millions of lives at stake and possibility of World War III looming.
Kennedy took to the airwaves on October 22, 1962, to brace Americans for the worst. He invoked the Monroe Doctrine, which President Monroe established in 1823 proclaiming that America would respond to any intervention by a European power, considering it an act of aggression.
He demanded that Khruschev turn back Soviet ships to Cuba, to remove Soviet armaments from Cuba immediately. He ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, telling the world the U.S. would use military force if necessary to prevent “a clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace.”
It was no idle threat. The U.S. kept B-52s carrying nuclear warheads in the air at all times. If the Soviets made a move to attack, the Kremlin and all around it faced obliteration. The nuclear war the world feared would become a reality.
On October 28, a B-52 from Castle Air Force Base in Atwater carried Mark-VI nuclear weapons in its bomb bay as it refueled in mid-air over the Atlantic Ocean and again over Greenland, destination Moscow.
Pete Komlenich of Merced, a former POW held by the Nazis during World War II, was the plane’s radar man-bombardier. He controlled the four bombs that would have started World War III, he said in 2007. He and his crewmates awaited the order to attack, and was prepared to do so.
Then, just like that, the B-52 – and its mission — reversed course.
“I heard a shout from upstairs that the Soviet leader had ‘blinked first,’ and the Russian ships had turned back, and we received the ‘Green Dot’ message and could head for home,” Komlenich, wrote in his memoir. “When I got back with my family, I gave each one of them an extra hug and thanked the Lord for a safe mission.”
Armageddon, Komlenich said, would have to wait for another day, and happen on someone else’s watch. “That was something,” said Komlenich, who died at 101 in 2014. “You never hear about this. Few people ever knew about it.”
Nor did they learn for many years that Kennedy had dispatched his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, to pursue back-channel negotiations with the Soviet Ambassador that ended the stalemate. The U.S. agreed not to attack Cuba, and to pull missiles from Turkey. In return, the Soviets removed their weaponry from Cuba.
The nations also agreed to improve communications, which they did by establishing the “hot line,” a direct phone line connecting the White House and the Kremlin to avoid any future “misunderstandings.”
An assassin’s bullet killed President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. A year later, the Soviets removed Khruschev from power in 1964 and replaced him with Leonid Brezhnev.
The Cold War finally thawed when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991 – in no small part due to the words Kennedy spoke 58 years ago today.