C-SPAN’s In the Classroom Podcast: 60th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

By | November 5, 2022

October 1962 was a heated time during the Cold War for the U.S. and the Soviet Union. These two superpowers were on the brink of engaging in a nuclear conflict after the discovery of missiles in Cuba. In this episode, the team speaks with U.S. Naval Academy History Professor Brian VanDeMark to talk about this significant time in history and share C-SPAN resources to learn more about this topic.

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They revealed the existence of Soviet Ballistic missiles that were capable of Carrying nuclear warheads and that was a Really dangerous thing especially since President Kennedy twice the previous Month said that if the Soviets had Decided to place offensive weapon Systems in Cuba the gravest issues would Arise so Kennedy had essentially laid Down his Red Line twice once on September 4th because there was chatter In Washington that the Soviets were Bringing missiles into Cuba and there Were pictures revealing that they were Those missiles happen to be Surface-to-air missiles but what was Really dangerous were the ballistic Missiles that could land on the United States and there were two kinds that the Soviets were trying to bring in Medium-range ballistic missiles with a Radius of about 1100 miles or so and Intermediate range ballistic missiles Which would have covered almost the Entire night United States and so when Kennedy was shown pictures of these Likely installations that were going up On the 16th of October 1962 that was Gravely concerning and so he decided to Gather together the senior most Officials in his government defense State intelligence as well as others who He was particularly close with to try to Figure out what to do about it and

Fortunately for Kennedy he was able to Keep this under wraps for roughly a week So it was a Tuesday when he found out Kennedy would not go public with this Information until the following Monday When he delivered this televised address To the American people laying out what The Soviets had done and what he Proposed to do about it which was to Impose a blockade of Cuba in an effort To try to get those missiles crated and Then moved out of uh off of of Cuba That's a that's a tough ask and so for The next several days from the 22nd all The way up to the end of the crisis on October 28th there was a lot of Diplomatic wrangling Threats bargaining back Channel Diplomacy to try to figure out how to Get the weapons off and what to give Khrushchev essentially in return As a diplomatic bargaining hi I'm Zach And I'm joined by my colleague Craig 1962 was a heated time during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union The primary concern about the spread of Communism around the globe put the two Superpowers at odds According to the U.S state Department Quote after the failed U.S attempt to Overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba with The Bay of Pigs invasion and while the Kennedy administration planned operation

Mongoose in July 1962 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reached a secret Agreement with Cuban Premier Fidel Castro to place Soviet nuclear missiles In Cuba to deter any future Invasion Attempt In the earlier clip of University of Virginia Miller Center's presidential Recordings program chair Mark Silverstone we heard of President John F Kennedy's quote Red Line regarding Surface-to-air and medium and Intermediate-range ballistic missiles in September of 1962. After the United States discovery of the Existence of nuclear missiles present in Cuba these two superpowers were on the Brink of engaging in a nuclear conflict President Kennedy subsequently gathered His advisors and prepared to inform the Public Let's now listen to a portion of President Kennedy's Oval Office address From Monday October 22nd 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 00 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 characteristic 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 one thousand Nautical miles Each of these missiles in short Is capable of striking Washington DC 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's 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 Or 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 In the clip President Kennedy described To the public the evidence that was Discovered in Cuba as a result of U.S Surveillance but how would the rest of The crisis unfold and how would the two Nations resolve the issue joining us for A conversation today on this topic is Brian vandermark professor of history at The U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland we'll talk about this time in History including the state of global Affairs the discovery of missiles in Cuba and the significance of these 13 Critical days in 1962. so stick around We'll be right back Joining us today is Brian vandermark

Professor of history at the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland so Brian Can you tell us a little bit about your Background and your role at the Naval Academy Well I uh I've been teaching history at The Naval Academy for 32 years I have a PhD from UCLA and between the time I Completed my graduate degree and again Teaching the Naval Academy I had moved To Washington and worked with Richard Holbrook on Clark Clifford's Memoir and A few years into my teaching duties at The Naval Academy I took a leave of Absence to help Robert McNamara co-write His Vietnam Memoir in retrospect Excellent yeah so uh so for our Listeners who may be new to learning About the period can you set the scene Of the events and the global tensions Leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis Yes Um when we look at the Cuban Missile Crisis we're looking at 13 days in October of 1962. But in order to understand we have to Look at them in a larger context of the Cold War Which had been underway since the late 1940s between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 60s are Probably the most dangerous most Confrontational phase of the entire Cold War

You also have to keep in mind the failed Tonight April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion Where CIA supported Invasion force of Cuban Exiles Failed to topple Castro And I think this created the fear within The Cuban government that there would be Another U.S Invasion and that is what Encouraged them to seek Soviet Protection in the form of defensive Missiles Uh at the same time the presence of the Missiles in Cuba once they were Discovered The exacerbated American fears of Expanding communist influence near our Own Shores So specific to Cuba and thinking about The role of the president in in that Situation that you just described can You talk a little bit about the Circumstances that President Kennedy Faced during that time in his initial Response Well the installation of nuclear Missiles in Cuba Um were viewed by the Cubans who Requested Soviet Aid as defensive I.E intended to prevent another Pig's Invasion But the Americans perceived them as Exactly the opposite manner which is as Offensive weapons that pose a strategic Threat to American Security

And in addition to that because President Kennedy was the leader of a Democracy public opinion was always very Important in terms of shaping American Policy and his Outlook and he lived in An era in which Cold War atmosphere in The United States was quite strong Too but always viewing the situation and Choosing one Alternatives in the context Of a American public which is very Hawkish in its attitude toward the Soviet Union well I'm thinking about That public opinion and moving through The 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis Can you talk about any of the major Events that occurred during those two Weeks and a little bit about the Significance of each Well I think if you look at the 13 days And they've been examined quite Intensively by a lot of Scholars and Journalists you can see that there is a Series of reactions to the crisis that American decision makers and Soviet Leaders go through in the case of Kennedy and his advisors Once they discovered evidence of the Missile's installation Their first reaction was to Initiating this airstrike to take them Out that included President Kennedy as Well as all of these advisors this is on The morning of October 16th By that evening emotions had cooled a

Bit and by then both Kennedy and defense Secretary McNamara both stated their Belief that Soviet missiles in Cuba Frankly didn't affect the Strategic Balance of Terror That the Soviet Union already possessed The capacity to fire at least a small Number of nuclear weapons on the American Homeland which would have done Devastating damage regardless of whether Or not 30 Soviet missiles in Cuba And it was also what this means that Mcmur questioned the wisdom of U.S Airstrike believing that could lead to a Nuclear war At the time Kennedy acknowledged the Domestic political pressure on him to do Something forceful Um and McNamara's advised him was to Implement a naval blockade instead Now as the days went by as he saw it and Received a lot of advice from various People the following day on the 17th of October he met with the U.S ambassador The U.S adley Stevenson who had been the Democratic party nominee for president In both 1952 and 1956 Stevenson urged Kennedy not to rush into Elder reaction instead he urged him to Negotiate a solution particularly Swapping the removal of U.S missiles in Turkey for the removal of Soviet Missiles in Cuba As the days went by Kennedy had many

Meetings with his advisors in the Cabinet room going back and forth over The best response he also met with the Soviet foreign minister Andre carmenko In the Oval Office on the evening of the 18th of October At that time remainko reiterated the Defensive intent of Soviet actions in Cuba and I think for the first time that Really registered with Kennedy Later that night he expressed his Preference for Naval blockade which I Haven't traveled a long road from Favoring an airstrike on the first day That he had learned that the missiles Existed He also however had to deal with other Constituents the American government Particularly the military service Chiefs The next day he met with him in the Cabinet room and they unanimously and Aggressively criticized Naval blockade As too weak and pressured him to attack Cuba immediately Kennedy refused the advice and he Reminded him that his overriding desire Was to avoid a nuclear war not to start One The next day he continued to meet with His advisors The Service Chief the chairman of the Joint Chief Maxwell Taylor who was Probably the most moderate of all the Senior Military Officers argued with

Defense secretary McNamara over the Merits of an airstrike versus upload Arcade Uh but Kennedy decided on the naval Blockade Um he also the following day Converted to the British ambassador to Washington who he had known for many Years and trusted his discretion That he was willing to accept the Missile support Soviets but he feared That acknowledging that would create a Lot of political criticism from the Right within the United States to such a Compromise And the following afternoon on the 22nd Of Kennedy met with Congressional Leaders to notify them he was going to Announce the naval blockade in a Television address And one of the most powerful and Influential senators in the U.S Congress Gentleman named Richard Russell from Georgia criticized what he termed the Weakness of a naval blockade and Demanded the Canadian Bay Cuba Kennedy resisted the pressure The following day he actually reached Out to a journalist with a close friend Of his by the name of Charles Bartlett And urged him to float the idea of Missile exchange with the Soviet contact He had in Washington The sewing contact passed the proposal

Along But mourned Bartlett and therefore Kennedy that if the blockade implemented Soviet ships would not stop in the face Of it Um of course of course the tension is Rising the results well with this on the Following day the 24th Chris job ordered Soviet shifts to stop short of a Blockade line so he's seeking to avoid Irreversible confrontation And he soon thereafter decided Privately to remove the missiles from Cuba and return for another Invasion Pledge from the United States That angered a lot of the hardliners in The Kremlin And at the same time Kennedy decided to Let non-military Soviet ships through The blockade line so Mike Kruse job he Was seeking a way of avoiding a showdown That would be have irreversible Consequences On the 26th of October in the morning he Had another meeting with his advisors he Used Adelaide Stevenson who had Privately urged him to find a negotiate Solution to Advocate the no Invasion Pledge in the missile swap [Music] And all of the advisors criticized Stevenson as being too solved and weak On the Soviets in this regard Um that night Kennedy received a letter

From career's job accepting Um the idea of a no Invasion pledge and Then into the naval blockade and Returning in return for removing the Missiles from Cuba The following day cruise jobs added the Condition that there needed to be a Missile swap because by then he had Received we had the proposal via Bartlett and the contact in in Washington That same day Kennedy endorsed the Missile swap in a meeting with his Advisors over the unanimous objection of All of them And I think that's quite significant Because in the sense he proved to be the Most obvious of everyone in the room in Terms of his determination to avoid a War with the Soviets over this issue it Was that same afternoon that U.S Reconnaissance plane straight over Siberia which prompted the Soviet Union To scramble a war plane to shoot it down Which was a mere disaster Um and later that same afternoon he Tended to continue to express his Um preference for a missile swap in the Face of opposition from all his advisors Except now his brother Bobby who I'm Certain he had informed in the meantime As to what his position was Um McNamara also reported at this Meeting that the U.S reconnaissance plan

Had been shot down over Cuba Which of course is raising the threat Level of the confrontation even higher The service Chiefs the military Urgent retaliation Kennedy refused to do That Um and after that he privately Um announced to his closest advisors he Was going to inform the Soviets through His brother Bobby that he had accepted a Missile swamp as well as an innovation Pledge but the missile swap would have To be done secretly In other words the Soviets would not be Uh allowed to mount that the United States had reciprocated the removal of Q So this was from Cuba for U.S missiles Being withdrawn from Turkey because of His fear that the domestic political Reaction were part of the American People would be ferociously critical of That and again it illustrates how Extraordinarily influential the hawkish Movie the American people was in terms Of shaping his perception of what was Feasible in terms of decision making To use his brother to inform the Soviets Through their Ambassador in Washington And almost exactly that same moment the Soviet nuclear submarine came close to Firing the nuclear torpedo at a U.S Navy Ship which was tracking it in the Caribbean Um and of course that again it's just

It's miraculous it's uh none of these Particular incidents during these 13 Days didn't Ignitive conflagration between the two Countries It was the following day on the 28th at The Clarice was resolved to improve Child accepted Kennedy's proposal and he Rushed a public announcement of the Missiles removal from Cuba because he Too likely realized that things were on The edge of the catastrophe That's fantastic and it answers a lot of The questions that we had but um if We're considering the current Geopolitical climate and even future Tensions what are some of the lessons That we can learn from the de-escalation Of the crisis and this era of the Cold War well I think there there's several Important lessons to to be learned from This and that is that To prevent a crisis from becoming a Catastrophe it requires leaders on both Sides of Crisis to Place primary importance on diverting The catastrophe of a nuclear war between Each other And I think Kennedy Kristoff at the end Of the day thankfully made that their Priority and in relationship to a lot of Their own advisors they proved to be Some of the most other people of all Because they understood

The risk that this thing could spill Over into a nuclear war which would then Catastrophic for both countries In other words it demonstrated the Fundamental rationality of both of them Um because they understood the insanity Of a nuclear war I think as I said before too that entire Crisis demonstrated how hawkish The Cold War atmosphere of American Early 60s was Kennedy's intuition in his Inclinations after the first day or so Were very dovish but he was reluctant To pursue that approach or to publicize Without a fear that he would be attacked For being too soft on the Soviets of This crisis and that to me leads to Another important lesson which is the Crucial factor of domestic political Pressures and presidential decision Making not only in domestic issues but Foreign policy and National Security as Well And for the United States that's a very Important dynamic because of democracy Public opinion is ultimately sovereign Didn't have to worry about Soviet public Opinion but Kennedy did So in thinking about the history that You've walked us through and uh the Present day and potentially future Lessons that we can take from the Cuban Missile Crisis you know as our audience For this podcast primarily consists of

Teachers and Educators across the Country do you have any other Significant information or stories or Resources that you'd like to share that Might prove useful in teaching young People about this crisis Well I'm just reminded of something that Robert pankmeyer said repeatedly and Publicly in the years after the Missile Crisis which was he it was a miracle That this crisis didn't lead to a Nuclear war between the United States And the Soviet Union it was just plain Dumb luck or the grace of God that kept The two countries from slipping over the Precipice into the abyss In terms of resources uh unquestionably The most significant in terms of Understanding the American side of the Crisis and decision making Are the White House tapes that President Kennedy recorded of meetings in the White House during these days in October Of 1962. they are all available on the Kennedy Library website And it is unquestionably the best and Most insightful single primary source For understanding American decision Making process during that entire period Brian thank you again for your time Today we really appreciate it you're Quite welcome thank you for tuning in to This episode as we reflect upon the 60th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

As you heard before the break our guest U.S Naval Academy history Professor Brian vandermark provided detailed Context and highlighted significant Moments from those 13 critical days in October 1962. he also underscored the Role of the National Security Council And importance of considering differing Perspectives throughout the crisis On C-Span classroom we offer a variety Of resources for you to dive deeper into That moment in time whether it's for Your own interest or for use in your Classroom and we have a recent lesson Featuring Mark Silverstone who heads up The presidential recordings program at The University of Virginia's Miller Center and we begin that Lesson by Examining some of the actual Surveillance images that were initially Captured over Cuba the lesson goes on to Explore various additional aspects of The crisis and notably includes archival Audio recordings of conversations Between President John F Kennedy and Various members of his Advisory Board as They strategize throughout the crisis After students view the videos they can Reflect upon the characteristics of the Leaders involved and explain the role That leadership played throughout the Crisis and they can also discuss the Perspectives that President Kennedy and His advisory team had to consider as

They weighed their options on how to Solve this crisis and how they were able To successfully resolve the situation Without going to war The lesson culminates with an activity For students to synthesize and Contemplate all of that information Through the lens of present-day tensions Between Russia and the United States Thanks for sharing that lesson uh Craig And that was actually designed by our Other colleague Pam and really includes A lot of great activities for your Students to to use in your classroom but If you're looking for something maybe a Bit less lengthy for your students make Sure to check out our on this day in History resource for the Cuban Missile Crisis I know as a former South Carolina History teacher I didn't even have an Entire class period let alone an hour or A half hour of time to dedicate to this Historic geopolitical event But our on this day in history resources Feature just a few video clips along With a brief graphic organizer that Supports students analysis and Reflection of the event whether it's Done individually or in a jigsaw with a Small group of students Specific to the Cuban Missile Crisis Resource students watch an archival CIA Film about the era a 1962 news reel

Featuring video and audio recordings From the time contemporary commentary And panel discussions from historians A lecture on the aerial reconnaissance Of Cuba and primary source audio Recording from the Kennedy tapes as Students watch each of the short video Clips they respond to prompts including What occurred during the event what were The different perspectives of the event And what is the legacy of the event Supporting each of their responses with Evidence from the video clips as with All key events in history we reflect on The Lessons Learned what worked and what Didn't work so as to inform decision Making for the future and as we Discovered from our conversation with Professor vandermark and through our C-SPAN video resources President Kennedy Led the country through this crisis with Reflection collaboration and Communication As we wrap up today's podcast President Kennedy's grandson Jack Kennedy Schlossberg reflects on his Grandfather's approach to dealing with This conflict and his vision for the Future the Cuban Missile Crisis is now Part of America's storied history it's a Signature moment of the 20th century That we are here together To remember today is a testament to the Wisdom of my grandfather and all those

Who 50 years ago Brave the most trying 13 days in our nation's history My grandfather would love this event not Just because every Irishman loves a bit Of Praise but because today we are here To Bear witness to the Past for the sake Of our future Admirers of President Kennedy know that He was a student of History I try to be and as I study my Grandfather the man and the president I Believe his greatest asset was indeed His understanding of the past The inspiration he found and the Achievements of others are what guided Him through the crisis It's what inspired him to send a man to The moon and it is what compelled him to Search for a lasting peace President Kennedy is known for his own Inspiring words But he also looked to the great men of History for guidance just as I do to him He knew That the problems of the 1960s had their Counterparts in other struggles In his address at Rice University in 1962 President Kennedy quoted William Bradford speaking in 1630 of the Founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony who Said that all great and honorable Actions are accompanied with great Difficulty and both must be Enterprise And overcome with answerable courage

Once again we'd like to thank Brian Vandemark professor of history at the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland For being part of the discussion today And for offering his expertise on the Cuban Missile Crisis and its Implications for society and education In today's world and for listeners who Would like to take a deeper dive into Those 13 days you can listen to a bonus Episode from c-span's presidential Recordings podcast that focuses on the Cuban Missile Crisis and includes Original primary source phone calls Between JFK and his senior advisors As well as recordings of press Conferences and audio tapes of Oval Office addresses you can tune in Wherever you listen to podcasts And you can access the lesson that we Discussed and the on this day in history Resources that we highlighted in this Episode on our featured resources page At c-span.org classroom And if you'd ever like to connect with Our team to learn more about what we Have to offer to teachers and students Please email us anytime at educate C Hyphenspan.org that's it for this week Please remember to like and follow our Podcasts wherever you listen so you Don't miss our next episode until then Thank you for joining us [Music]

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