Public Opinion in the JFK Library Archives: The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962
By Dana Bronson and Stacey Chandler, Archives Reference
On October 14, 1962 an American spy plane photographed the construction of missile sites in Cuba - the result of an agreement between Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev and Cuba leader Fidel Castro, made after the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961. The photographs showed that the new missile sites, built with supplies sent by Khrushchev, could be capable of launching thermonuclear weapons into the United States.
President John F. Kennedy and his advisers held hours of secret meetings in the two weeks that followed. Some of his aides encouraged attacking Cuba with an invasion or air strikes, and others argued for a naval “quarantine” to block Soviet ships from bringing more military supplies to Cuba. The President chose the quarantine, and gave a speech on October 22 to tell the world about the missile sites – and what the administration planned to do about them.
After the speech, thousands of people wrote to the White House with their suggestions, criticisms, and concerns. Their letters are now part of the Public Opinion Mail collection at the JFK Library Archives, and we’re working on preserving and organizing them for the first time.
Citizens across the country offered their opinions throughout the crisis – especially about the President’s quarantine decision. Some appreciated what they saw as a cautious approach by the administration, while others worried that the blockade itself could lead to a nuclear World War III.
Other writers urged the President to take an
aggressive stance and order a full invasion or attack on Cuba.
As tensions rose, the press began reporting on possible compromises: if the U.S. would withdraw its own missiles from Turkey, the Soviet Union might dismantle its Cuban missile sites. Another proposed solution, advocated by United Nations Secretary General U Thant, suggested that Cuba halt construction in exchange for an American promise to stop the naval quarantine. Other proposals involved giving up the U.S. Military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some citizens who wrote to the President encouraged him to consider these potential resolutions.
But many writers, including some former residents of Cuba, cautioned the President against making any deals with Khrushchev or Castro.
The Cuban Missile Crisis came to a resolution at the end of October, when it was announced that the Soviet Union would dismantle its Cuban missile sites, while the U.S. would lift the quarantine and pledge never to invade Cuba. In a behind-the-scenes deal that would stay secret for over 25 years, the Kennedy administration also agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey. But while the crisis was over, it remained on the minds of many Americans; the White House continued to receive letters about it for the rest of the Kennedy Presidency.
Spanning roughly 120 boxes in the library’s Public Opinion Mail collection, the Cuban Missile Crisis letters document perspectives that are often overlooked in the telling of this and other famous Cold War histories, including the fears, hopes, and thoughts of ordinary Americans who found themselves living through a tumultuous period.