Introduction to The Presidential Recordings of John F. Kennedy, Volume 5

By David Coleman

Eleven days earlier, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had given in to President Kennedy’s demand that the Soviets remove their offensive nuclear missiles from Cuba. It had brought to an end a period of intense global crisis.

But Cuba still dominated the attention of the President and his national security team. Tens of thousands of Soviet troops, long-range nuclear bombers, nuclear missiles, and other military equipment remained in Cuba. Negotiating their removal was the highest priority of the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. The U.S. naval quarantine of Cuba remained in effect, although in practice a number of Soviet-flagged ships had been waved through without being searched.

The Central Intelligence Agency, along with military intelligence agencies, continued to monitor the situation in Cuba closely and carefully track Soviet shipping to and from the island. Even as some intelligence sources continued to suggest that the Soviets might still be continuing to build missile bases in Cuba and hiding missiles in caves, the administration sought to convince the American public that the threat had greatly diminished. But the American public stood squarely behind a policy of standing firm; one poll indicated that 17 percent of respondents even favored an invasion of Cuba and the overthrow of Cuban Premier Fidel Castro.1

For the White House, the Cuba issue was also spreading to other fronts, complicated by growing debate at home about issues raised by the crisis, such as what the administration knew and when and whether the White House was unduly restricting the flow of information to the press and public.

The result was that days after the world applauded the peaceful end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, much of President Kennedy’s time and that of his senior national security team was still consumed by trying to find a way to bring the matter to a close. That fluid situation, with negotiations centered at the United Nations in New York, would consume much of their time through November. The pace and pressure had subsided from the height of the famous 13 days, but the stakes remained high. The U.S. military remained on alert, with nuclear forces still on DEFCON 2 (the highest state of alert below actual war), and the Pentagon’s planners continued to prepare for a contingency in which the President might order military action against Soviet forces in Cuba.

Other matters were slowly finding their way back on the President’s agenda. At home, voters had gone to the polls in a midterm election. Although the presidency itself was not up for decision, it was the voters’ first opportunity to pass electoral judgment on Kennedy’s presidency. Responding to those political stakes over the summer and against the advice of many of his advisers, Kennedy had inserted himself personally into the campaign. He had ventured across the nation to make the case not just for local Democratic representatives, but also for electing a Congress that would be more amenable to passing his New Frontier domestic legislation. In mid-October, Kennedy had been forced to withdraw himself from the campaign to race back to Washington to deal with the Cuba issue.

On election day, Democrats had fared surprisingly well, defying expectations and historical patterns. Turnout had been high for a nonpresidential election, and it had been a good day for incumbents. The overall mood of voters still seemed firmly in support of the centrism of the postwar years, but there was encouragement for conservatives, with pro-Goldwater Republicans winning several important races. Yet despite a generally good result for Democrats, the practical reality was that President Kennedy’s legislative program was unlikely to fare much better under the new Congress than it had under the old one. As the editors of Life summarized the result: “If Kennedy won a moral victory and more personal prestige, his New Frontier won no victory at all.” Nevertheless, many Republicans blamed the Cuba crisis for their disappointing showing. “We were Cubanized and gerrymandized,” complained Representative Bob Wilson (R-California), chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, referring to redistricting by state legislatures controlled by Democrats.2

Even as Washington’s attention had been focused intently on the island 90 miles from Florida’s coast, trouble brewed elsewhere. China and India, each with massive populations, were at war over disputed borders. And the situation in Laos remained fragile, with the constant threat that Communist forces there might secure control of the whole country and use it to aid their allies in North Vietnam.

It was also budget time. The sprawling departments and agencies of the United States federal government were in the process of drawing up their budgets to be put to Congress in coming months. It was already shaping up to be the nation’s largest budget ever, but Kennedy was trying to rein it in. In order to provide a framework for establishing priorities in making budget decisions, it fell to President Kennedy to lay out his government’s priorities across a broad range of issues, including crucial areas like national defense and his bold public promise that the United States would put a man on the moon before the decade was out.


[1] Memorandum, CIA, “The Crisis: USSR/Cuba,” 8 November 1962, in “Countries: Cuba, CIA Memoranda, 11/8/1962–11/12/1962” folder, Box 46, National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Library; Telegram, CIA, “Information Report TDCS-3/527,624,” 6 November 1962, in “Countries: Cuba, Intelligence Material—TDCS & CSDB, 6/62–2/63” folder, Box 52, National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Library; Telegram, CIA, “Information Report TDCS-3/527,597,” 7 November 1962, ibid; Telegram, CIA, “Information Report TDCS-3/527,985,” 10 November 1962, ibid; Gallup Poll, November 1962.
[2] “The Voters: What They Said,” Life, 16 November 1962; Cabell Phillips, “G.O.P. Finds Cuba Caused Defeats,” New York Times, 8 December 1962.