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Disaster averted; JFK Library exhibit examines Cuban Missile Crisis.

Byline: Bill Fortier

BOSTON - Many baby boomers might recall seeing the worried looks on their parents faces as they watched President John F. Kennedy's prime-time speech to the nation on Oct. 22, 1962.

They also may recall that the speech was the public centerpiece of the Cuban Missile Crisis that lasted for 13 days that October in a series of events many historians believe brought the world closer to nuclear war than anything before or since.

People who want to get the inside story and the previously secret diplomacy that took place during the height of the Cold War can go to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum through Dec. 1 for an exhibit titled "To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis," which chronicles in great detail the crisis considered by most to be a signature moment in the Kennedy presidency and the then red hot Cold War.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation from Oct. 15 through Oct. 28 between the United States and the U.S.S.R. over nuclear weapons that were detected by American spy planes in several parts of Cuba. The United States responded by blockading Cuba in an effort to keep Russian ships from bringing in more weapons American officials felt could put many East Coast cities, including Boston, in danger of nuclear destruction. The exhibit shows several very detailed aerial reconnaissance photos of Soviet missile sites being built.

The exhibit includes six listening stations in which a secretly installed taping system recorded conversations between President Kennedy and his advisers where strategy was discussed. The crisis wound down when the Soviets withdrew their missiles after the United States pledged never to invade Cuba while also promising privately to withdraw its nuclear missiles from Turkey - something President Kennedy wanted to do even before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The exhibit, which was previously on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., also has many declassified documents, including letters during the crisis between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Many handwritten memos, notes and various, sometimes illegible, scribblings are also on display for public viewing.

Museum curator Stacey Bredhoff said the exhibit was done at a time to mark the 50th anniversary of the crisis and the 50th year of the last year of Kennedy's presidency.

"We expect many people will see it because many people visit Boston in the spring and summer," she said.

Ms. Bredhoff said the thing that impressed her the most while doing her research was how narrowly nuclear war was averted.

"I think you could accurately say it was the closest we've come to a nuclear war," she said in a recent interview. "It really was a very close call."

The exhibit uses much formerly secret information in detailing how close a call it was.

For example, in what Ms. Bredhoff called "Black Saturday" on Oct. 27, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, killing the pilot in what turned out to be the only fatality of the standoff. That same day, an American plane strayed into Soviet airspace near the North Pole. Diplomacy prevailed, however,

Just how tense the situation was is illustrated in a synopsis on display of a never-delivered speech announcing airstrikes in Cuba. No airstrikes were made, but the speech showed how seriously President Kennedy was considering an action most historians believe could have led to a thermonuclear war.

The previously secret tapes also show how some in the military wanted to attack Cuba.

Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay said the president was in a "really bad fix at the present time" and he likened Kennedy's diplomatic response to the appeasement of Germany in the late 1930s.

"I think the blockade and political talk would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this, and I'm sure a lot of our citizens would feel the same way," said Gen. LeMay.

When two Soviet missile-carrying ships reached the blockade 500 miles east of Cuba, they turned around while being watched by American fighter jets. President Kennedy urged that the jet pilots get word on what was happening because he didn't want to see a ship get sunk just as the crisis was being defused.

Rachel D. Flor, director of communications at the library and museum, said she and Ms. Bredhoff were pleased at a reception last Wednesday evening at the facility where more than 300 people got a private preview of the exhibit.

"The word-of-mouth was that people were really fascinated by the psychological profiles of Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, " she said. "They really got a lot of buzz."

The Central Intelligence Agency profile portrays Cuban leader Castro in a less-than-favorable light, at one point saying his "egoism is his Achilles Heel."

"Not crazy, but highly neurotic and unstable personality," the profile states. "The outstanding elements in his personality are his hunger for power and his need for recognition and adulation of the masses. He is unable to obtain complete emotional gratification from any other source."

For many Americans, President Kennedy's historic Oct. 22, 1962, speech is what is most remembered about the Cuban Missile Crisis and those entering the exhibit will be drawn to the replaying of a televised talk when he tells Americans that doing nothing about what he perceived as a major threat to this county was not an option.

Near the end he details the stakes and that the goal would be not the victory of might but the vindication of right.

"My fellow citizens: Let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead - months in which our patience and our will will be tested, months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing ... The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission."

`To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis'

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving Day. Exhibit runs through Dec. 1

Where: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, Columbia Point, Boston

How much: $12; seniors and college students, $10; children 13-17, $9; children 12 and younger free. For more information, visit


CUTLINE: (1) Above, customers in a California department store watch President Kennedy's televised address to the nation about the unfolding crisis in Cuba, Oct. 22, 1962. (2) At right, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro in New York Sept. 23, 1960. (3) President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev at the American Embassy residence in Vienna, Austria, June 3, 1961.

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Title Annotation:LIVING
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Apr 14, 2013
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