On Saturday, Oct. 20, 1962, President John F. Kennedy entered the Oval Room in the family living quarters of the White House.
He joined 12 of his closest advisers, whom he had called to help him wrestle with the most important decision of his brief presidency, perhaps even the most critical judgment in the country’s modern history.
As the men quietly found seats, the president said, “Gentlemen, today we’re going to earn our pay.”
Fifty years ago this month, the United States and the Soviet Union faced off over a threatening hot spot in the Cold War. On Oct. 16, which would become Day One of the Cuban Missile Crisis, intelligence officials showed Kennedy aerial photographs of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast.
The deployment represented a serious escalation in the continuing confrontation between the two countries and their respective allies.
Kennedy’s biographer and intimate, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., described the Cuban Missile Crisis as “the most dangerous moment in human history.” Other experts have been less dramatic, but most have considered the episode to be America’s closest brush with nuclear war.
Various memoirs and other accounts, as well as a number of films, have chronicled the tense, 13-day standoff. But few people are aware of the precautions Kennedy and his advisers took to safeguard government officials in the event the crisis provoked a catastrophe.
Even fewer appreciate the parallel crisis that arose among government leaders and their families, tensions that doubled the anxieties of the men who toiled day and night to prevent war. This is an untold story.
From the start of the crisis, Kennedy met regularly with a select group of advisers – the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, the ExComm – to discuss possible responses to the Soviet missile installations in Cuba. Options ranged from diplomatic initiatives to aggressive military strikes, urged by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even if those actions might lead to all-out war with the Soviets.
By Day Five, Saturday, Oct. 20, the president’s advisors finally had reached a consensus on implementing a naval “quarantine.” International norms held a blockade to be an act of war, so the group chose a less hostile term, one that, coincidentally, did not require a congressional declaration of war.
Regardless, the U.S. Navy would stop ships en route to Cuba and search their cargo for offensive weapons. Kennedy hoped that a measured first step might allow Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev an opportunity to back away from the brink.
With that consensus, Kennedy’s staff summoned his top advisors to the executive mansion for the decisive meeting.
One of those present, Edward A. McDermott, was the head of the Office of Emergency Planning, a position now held by the director of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. His main responsibility was to protect the American public in the event of a natural catastrophe or, worse, a manmade holocaust. His presence explicitly reflected the situation’s gravity.
“I received a request about noon that I attend a meeting later that afternoon at the White House with the president,” McDermott later wrote in his journal. “We were told to wear casual clothes and enter the compound by different routes and cars.”
An innovative and detail-oriented lawyer from Dubuque, Iowa, McDermott had been that state’s coordinator for Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. This would be his first involvement in the ongoing international crisis, but he knew it involved the discovery of aggressive and potentially hostile activity by the Soviet Union in Cuba.
“I shall never forget that scene,” McDermott wrote. “President Kennedy asked each person present for his personal recommendation on alternative actions.”
After everyone spoke, the president stepped out onto the Truman Balcony to think alone. As Kennedy paced about, the group watched him through the windows. McDermott captured the tension in his journal: “All twelve in the room sat silently, and one could hear a pin drop.”
THE BRINK OF WAR
Kennedy remained alone on the balcony for a few moments, until his brother Robert, the attorney general, and presidential aide Theodore C. Sorensen joined him. They talked briefly, and then returned to the group.
As the ExComm members rose to their feet, Kennedy, McDermott wrote, said, “I know each of you is hoping I didn’t take your advice.” Then he announced his decision to proceed with the quarantine.
McDermott began to prepare the non-military parts of the government for nuclear war in the event the situation spun out of control. He and his staff initiated secret “continuity of government” procedures, which, among other steps, enabled the evacuation of the president and hundreds of key officials to safe sites outside the Washington area.
Just as others around him, McDermott started to think of his family’s welfare if war were to start.
“We lived in Bethesda, just across the line from the District,” recalled his widow, Naola McDermott, now 88. “He came home late that night, and the kids were upstairs in bed. We sat in the kitchen and he told me that the country faced a crisis with the Soviet Union over its installation of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. He said that he would be very busy over the next few days and that I should keep our conversations from the children – just carry on with the daily routine.”
On Day Six of the crisis, Sunday the 21st, the State Department notified allies, and the Defense Department ordered 180 warships and firmed contingency plans for airstrikes and troop movements. Aides prepared a speech for Kennedy to deliver to the nation Monday night. Others drafted an ultimatum to Khrushchev, demanding the missiles’ removal. The president met with his full Cabinet and then briefed congressional leaders for the first time.
“The president’s problem was to prepare for diplomatic and military actions, but not panic the American people,” McDermott wrote later. “There was a sense that anything could happen.”
On the same day, Kennedy spoke to the American public on television at 7 p.m. Washington time.
“No one can foresee precisely what course it will take, or what costs or casualties will be incurred,” he said.
Naola McDermott, then just 38, shuddered at the immense leap her family had made from small-town Iowa to the center of a possible world war.
The Navy implemented the quarantine on Day Nine, Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 10 a.m. Washington time.
In preparation for a possible aggressive Soviet response, the Strategic Air Command declared Defense Condition 2, the brink of war.
To Kennedy’s great relief, the Soviets ships en route to Cuba either stopped or turned around.
After a period of immense tension, the men sensed a glimmer of hope. Nevertheless, the missiles and nuclear warheads remained in Cuba.
Khrushchev sent a strident letter to Kennedy late on Oct. 24, one more edgy than his initial response to Kennedy’s speech and the private, parallel ultimatum. He called the proposed U.S. actions “outright banditry” that would push mankind “to the abyss of a world missile-nuclear war.”
McDermott had dinner at home for the first time since the previous Friday. He told Naola about the scheme to relocate key government leaders, including himself.
“He said that if an attack was imminent, I should take the children to Col. Joe Chambers’ house in Rockville, Md., about six miles from our home,” she recalled.
Chambers was McDermott’s deputy, a Marine who had won the Medal of Honor in World War II and had a bomb shelter in his basement.
“Ed told me to place a change of clothes for myself and the kids in the car trunk, as well as some canned food and water jugs,” Naola McDermott said. “If he called to warn me, I was to pick up the children if they were in school and drive to Joe’s house.”
McDermott’s activity reached a fevered pitch on Day 10. His staff notified Vice President Lyndon Johnson and congressional leaders of specific contingency plans, such as where to meet helicopters that would fly them to safety. Regrettably, he told them, the relocation facilities would not accommodate their families.
In a meeting with Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, McDermott briefed him on the justices’ evacuation procedures. According to his journal, Warren, who said that he spoke for the other eight justices, told McDermott that they wouldn’t go without their families.
Warren, according to a separate New York Times account, pointed to a photo of his wife and said, “If she’s not important enough to save, neither am I.”
Secretary of State Dean Rusk had a similar response, and after McDermott gave the continuity of government packet to Kennedy aides Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers, both worried about the fate of their families.
Powell later wrote of his wife, Helen’s, reaction: “While you’re safe with the president under a rock somewhere, what am I supposed to do with your five children?”
Hugh Sidey, who covered the White House for Time magazine, reacted similarly. Assigned to a media pool scheduled to accompany an evacuated president, he withdrew and said that he could not leave his wife and three small children behind.
Another of Kennedy’s aides told the president, according to Sidey, that he had no plans to leave. “That’s OK,” Kennedy said. “Neither do I. I’m staying right here.”
The backlash over the fate of families grew to the point that McDermott and the president’s naval aide, Cmdr. Tazewell Sheppard, organized a last-minute plan. If Kennedy ordered an evacuation, families of senior officials should rendezvous at the Fort Reno Reservoir in upper northwest Washington. From there, McDermott staffers would escort a motorcade out of town.
“Ed and the other men were under great pressure,” his wife recalled. “They had their jobs to do, but they worried about their families. Ed told me that everyone struggled with the same problem – their job protected themselves, but not their loved ones.”
Meanwhile, the American Embassy in Moscow transmitted another letter from Khrushchev. After a cynical aside about Kennedy’s election-year grandstanding, Khrushchev promised to remove the missiles if the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba.
An informal communication from a Soviet intelligence officer in Washington to ABC TV reporter John Scali made the same offer. The ExComm members suspected that this might be the turning point.
Nevertheless, U.S. Army and Marine units prepared for an invasion, just in case.
Naola McDermott shopped for groceries that day and recalled running into a friend.
“Just as everyone else in Washington, she wanted more details than the media provided,” Naola McDermott said.
“I’m watching what’s in your cart!” the neighbor said to her worriedly. “Should I get some canned food?”
“That’s probably a good idea,” McDermott’s wife replied.
The following morning, Oct. 27, on what should have been a day of eased tensions, events quickly turned sour. Bobby Kennedy later called it “Black Saturday.”
The FBI reported that Soviet personnel at the United Nations in New York had begun to destroy sensitive documents. A second letter in as many days from Khrushchev demanded that the U.S. withdraw its Jupiter medium-range missiles in Turkey in exchange for the dismantlement of the Soviet weapons in Cuba.
Then, what could have been a disastrous tipping point occurred.
A Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile brought down an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over Banes in eastern Cuba and the pilot perished. The Joint Chiefs reacted aggressively and urged an airstrike on Cuba on Monday, followed the next day with a ground force invasion.
In “Thirteen Days,” Robert Kennedy’s account of the crisis, he wrote that his brother urged caution.
“It isn’t the first step that concerns me, but both sides escalating to the fourth or fifth step,” the president said.
Nevertheless, he tentatively agreed to the military plans.
Kennedy sent a carefully worded reply to Khrushchev late in the day, one that hinted at a Jupiter withdrawal. The president then ordered all potential attacks on Cuba be delayed until Tuesday, but he still authorized the call-up of Air Force Reserves needed for a Cuban invasion. The roller-coaster that took Kennedy’s team from despair to hope seemed headed down into another abyss.
Ed McDermott came home after nightfall, showered and changed clothes, and went back to his office. He didn’t say much, but his wife knew things were serious. She kept busy with the kids but dreaded “the phone call” from her husband.
On Sunday, Day 13, Khrushchev, with Kennedy’s sweetened offer in hand and concerned by the observable U.S. preparations for a Cuban invasion, urgently sent his capitulation to the White House.
The Soviets agreed to withdraw the missiles and warheads under U.N. observation. The crisis seemed to end as quickly as it had started.
At the McDermott home, Ed cautiously told Naola, “I think we have turned the corner, but I want you to keep the extra clothes and food in the car for a while.”
But it was not until years later that they told their children about the extraordinary crisis that both their country and family faced during those fateful 13 days.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bohn is a former director of the White House Situation Room. He last wrote about events involving the Situation Room during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks