When daily intelligence briefings prevented a nuclear war

Sixteen months later, Kennedy learned that the Soviets were constructing medium-range missile sites in Cuba, a move that would place most of the country’s major metropolitan areas—including Washington, D.C.—in jeopardy of nuclear attack and cancel out America’s advantage in long-range missile capacity. Once again, the CIA and the joint chiefs urged swift, aggressive action in the form of airstrikes against Soviet targets in Cuba, with a potential invasion of the island to follow. McNamara feared that such a pre-emptive strike would provoke a nuclear retaliation. “It could be a very heavy price to pay in U.S. lives for the damage we did to Cuba,” he believed.

This time, JFK listened to a wider spectrum of voices. His executive committee (or ExComm) included the secretaries of Treasury, State and Defense; General Maxwell Taylor, the new chairman of the joint chiefs and a much cooler head who showed deference to the president; McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser; Vice President Lyndon Johnson; and the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

He also consulted experienced hands like George Ball, the new under secretary of state, and several sociologists with wide-ranging government experience. Above all, he stayed informed. He knew the maps, studied the intelligence, asked probing questions of his advisers. Tape recordings of ExComm meetings show that over the 13 days that spanned the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was firmly in control of facts and decisions. Much to their irritation, he excluded the joint chiefs from many hours of deliberation. He knew what they had to say and armed himself with a range of countervailing options. When he did meet with them, he knew what questions to ask and what assumptions to challenge.