On October 22, 1962, President John Kennedy announced on television the discovery that Soviet missiles were being installed in Cuba. He demanded their immediate removal. That result and its timing were not up for negotiation. Furthermore, Kennedy declared that if any of the missiles were fired in the US, it would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union requiring “a full retaliatory attack” on that nation.

By making this statement publicly, Kennedy deliberately painted himself into a corner from which it would be hard to retreat. Half measures would not suffice. Nor would a summit conference. By stating his position clearly, the President meant to force the hand of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He could only hope that his counterpart would respond rationally.

A US reconnaissance photo showing Soviet missiles, transports, and tents for fueling and maintenance.

Engaging the Soviets publicly—rather than through secret diplomacy—demonstrated Kennedy’s determination, though necessarily at the cost of making it harder for Khrushchev to concede. Backing down could cost the Premier credibility internationally and at home. Even so, this approach seemed better than proceeding privately. Talks with the Soviets could drag on, and all the while they could harden their position in Cuba. When parties are at or near the brink, choices often involve picking the least worst option.