Chronicle of a Crisis

December 27, 2012

In October, we passed an unsettling milestone: the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a terrifying 13 days in which President John F. Kennedy steered the nation off the cusp of a thermonuclear war through tense negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, whose nation had hidden missile sites in Cuba.

“People who were old enough … remember [the crisis] clearly; they want to tell you where they were and what they were doing while these events were unfolding,” says Stacey Bredhoff, curator of the National Archives’ exhibit “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Documents, footage and artifacts from the period tell the story from the U.S. perspective. There’s an emphasis on daily discussions Kennedy and his advisers held as they navigated the situation — which were recorded secretly by Kennedy. Portions of the audio play in loops around the exhibit, creating an element of immediacy. “You can actually hear the tension growing,” Bredhoff says.

The Photo: Americans React to the President’s Speech
This image, shot at a California department store by photographer Ralph Crane for Time & Life Pictures, is one of the first things visitors see when they enter “To the Brink.” It depicts President Kennedy briefing the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis on Oct. 22, 1962. “We don’t know very much about” who’s in the photo because it isn’t part of the Archives’ collections, Bredhoff says. But then again, “you can read the faces of the people, and that kind of tells you everything you need to know: just how shocking it was.”

Kennedy delivered his speech (which was kept under wraps until right before its broadcast) live at 7 p.m. Eastern Time, beginning with a somber “Good evening, my fellow citizens.” He went on to explain that the government had discovered the construction of Soviet missile sites in Cuba, and he called upon Krushchev to “halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace.” The broadcast “took the country by surprise,” Bredhoff says. “And this was the first time the Soviet Union learned that people in the U.S. were aware of what was happening in Cuba.”

National Archives, Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th streets NW; free, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Archives)
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Mark Jenkins | December 27, 2012