At 9 AM the next day, Moscow issued a more belligerent message, one that conditioned the Soviet removal of its missiles in Cuba with the Americans removing its Jupiter missiles from bases in Turkey and Italy. Analysts interpreted the demand as coming from hard-liners in the Soviet government. If so, there was dissent among their leaders, just as there was within Kennedy’s Executive Committee. There was growing concern that Khrushchev’s control over his own government was shaky.

One of 100 U.S. missiles installed in Turkey and Italy in 1961.

Most of the American team agreed that the Soviet’s new demand was unacceptable. They believed that the Soviet move in Cuba had upset the existing balance of power. They didn’t want to set a precedent whereby future such moves could be used as bargaining chips for dismantling US installations elsewhere. The governments of Turkey and Italy were strongly opposed to the proposal, as well.

Tensions escalated when a second message came in from the Soviets two hours later, reiterating the trade demand. Things got worse when a US reconnaissance plane was shot down, killing the pilot. Kennedy waivered on how to respond. Previously he had told his team that he would retaliate were that to happen. But when faced with the decision, he realized that the hostile action might have been taken independently by a Soviet officer, operating on his own without orders from higher up.

In the midst of all this, the Americans still had to respond to the new, harsher Soviet demand. Attorney General Robert Kennedy (and likely others, as well) reportedly argued that it simply be ignored. Refusing the demand would only paint the Soviets more tightly into a corner. Instead, they suggested building on the positive points in Khrushchev’s earlier message. And that’s what supposedly ensued. The Soviets announced they were removing the missiles, and the United States pledged it would not invade Cuba.

That was the accepted story for several years, but, as information leaked out, it became apparent that the agreement was more complex and subtle. While public statements made no mention of removing the missiles in Turkey—at the insistence of US Secretary of State Dean Rusk—oral assurances were given to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that they would be decommissioned “voluntarily” not long thereafter. Keeping that provision out of the written agreement was a face-saving measure for the United States. When the missiles were removed, the explanation was that they had become obsolete in light of the capability of the growing US fleet of nuclear-powered, heavily-armed submarines.