Presidents aren’t just government leaders, they are also party leaders. So they frequently leave the White House in the weeks before midterm congressional elections to campaign for their fellow party members. That’s precisely what President John F. Kennedy found himself doing on Friday, October 19, 1962, the fourth day of the Cuban missile crisis.
Kennedy’s campaign trip took him to Cleveland, then Springfield, Illinois (where he placed flowers on Lincoln’s tomb), and finally to Chicago in late afternoon. An estimated half million people stood along the side of the road as Kennedy’s limousine took him from O’Hare International Airport to a $100-a-seat fundraiser at McCormick Place downtown. After watching fireworks over Lake Michigan, Kennedy retired to the Blackstone Hotel for the evening. He would decide the next morning whether to continue with the second day of his campaign swing or return to the White House.
As Kennedy hop-scotched across the Midwest, the ExCom continued to meet. The focus was on two options: a blockade or an air strike. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was the leading proponent of the blockade. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor argued for an air strike. Attorney General Robert Kennedy argued against an air strike, saying that “for 175 years this has not been the kind of country which launches Pearl Harbor attacks on Sunday morning. The first American president to do anything like this would not be forgiven by history, by his own people, or by the world.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk missed much of the discussion, as happened frequently over the course of the crisis, because his job required him to meet with so many visiting foreign dignitaries.
Meanwhile, a few reporters began to suspect that something was up. In response to a press inquiry, the Defense Department issued a statement: “A Pentagon spokesman denied tonight that any alert has been ordered or that any emergency measures have been set in motion against Communist ruled Cuba. Further, the spokesman said the Pentagon has no information indicating the presence of offensive weapons in Cuba.” Kennedy would have to act soon, or find himself chasing the American public reaction rather than shaping it.
For other posts in this series or for more information on the Cuban missile crisis, click here.