“It’s With a Heavy Heart…” – JFK’s Undelivered Missile Crisis Speech Would Have Meant War

President Kennedy was prepared to announce hostilities against Soviet military units in Cuba. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The 11-page typed address was to be delivered in the event that the White House ordered air strikes against Soviet ballistic missile sites on Cuba.”

“MY FELLOW AMERICANS, with a heavy heart… I have ordered – and the United States Air Force has now carried out – military operations… to remove a major nuclear weapons build-up from the soil of Cuba.”

So begins a speech written for U.S. president John F. Kennedy that the citizens of this planet (thankfully) never had to hear.

Simply entitled “President’s Speech – Air Attack,” the 11-page typed address was to be delivered in the event that the White House ordered air strikes against Soviet ballistic missile sites on Cuba in October of 1962. Such a use of force would surely have led to all out war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the historic event in 2012, Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum unveiled the only known copy of the undelivered speech. It was released with a trove of nearly 3,000 pages of other documents from the period that were compiled by the president’s younger brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

A U.S. intelligence photo of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A U.S. intelligence photo of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The remarks were drafted at the height of the tense two-week showdown that followed the discovery by American U-2 spy planes of Soviet nuclear weapon sites on Cuban soil.

The startling revelation touched off a tense game of brinksmanship that propelled the world to the threshold of an armed conflict, one that certainly would have escalated to nuclear Armageddon.

Moscow, having fallen far behind the U.S. in terms of nuclear missile production, hoped to redress the strategic imbalance by introducing intermediate range weapons to the Western Hemisphere — less than 150 miles from the Florida coast.

Although thousands of Soviet military personnel were on the ground in Cuba erecting as many as 75 missile sites and air defence batteries, it would still take some weeks for the launchers to become operational.

American warplanes were poised to strike at Cuba in October of 1962. Any attacks would have likely led to World War Three. (Image Source: WikiCommons)

As Oval Office insiders weighed America’s options, warplanes massed in Florida for air strikes that would be followed by a Marine ground invasion and occupation of Cuba. With tensions approaching the breaking point, Kennedy’s national security advisor McGeorge Bundy drafted a speech that his boss would deliver live on television once the air campaign had been unleashed. It was a task that would normally have fallen to JFK’s designated speechwriter Ted Sorenson. However, the 35-year-old wordsmith was supposedly unable to bring himself to compose an oration that would likely have ushered in a nuclear holocaust. The draft of the document remained top secret for years.

Kennedy eventually opted for a naval blockade of the island nation, which the White House shrewdly characterized as a “quarantine” so as to avoid provoking the Kremlin. The warship screen prevented communist vessels from transporting additional missiles to Cuba, while a marathon round of secret diplomacy between Washington and Moscow hammered out a settlement before the Soviet missiles were activated. The secret deal saw Russia withdraw the contentious warheads in exchange for a pledge by Washington to pull its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

The resolution has largely been heralded as a Cold War victory for President Kennedy.

The pages of the famous undelivered speech, complete with the author’s own handwritten notes in the margins, are available below. You can also download it here as a single PDF (courtesy of the website: https://nuclearrisk.files.wordpress.com).

(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on March 18, 2015)

3 comments for ““It’s With a Heavy Heart…” – JFK’s Undelivered Missile Crisis Speech Would Have Meant War

  1. 19 March, 2015 at 9:03 am

    It is amazing how close we came to war that October. Thankfully, a handful of men in Washington and Moscow, and a second handfull bobbing in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico managed to find a way.

    Thanks for this enlightening (and horrifying) look at what could have happened.

  2. David Hibbert
    12 June, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    You can add a 2 man RAF Regiment duo group call us nuts we did start to do it from 1970 till 2010 but you what we’ve now started to cover from the beginning to now, we are called bikini state andare based at nnewark air museum in Nottinghamshire we’ve been doing it for six or so years and also have permanent display at the museum. We also have weapons and a landy 110 plus plenty of other kit to change our display, we are displaying next week at newarks flag ship event called Cockpit-Fest which is every june so pop along and soak up the fun .

  3. sglover
    28 August, 2017 at 4:36 pm

    As practically always happens in American accounts of the “Cuban” missile crisis, you completely fail to mention that the U.S. had previously placed IRBM’s in Turkey — pretty much right on the USSR’s borders. American self-righteousness about this episode has long been a source of cynical amusement.

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