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This week in history: The Cuban Missile Crisis begins

President John F. Kennedy announced his intent to form a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent the Soviet Union from storing nuclear missiles there. The event became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy talk in the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in a suburb of Vienna
In this June 3, 1961, file photo, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy talk in the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in a suburb of Vienna. A little over a year later, the two leaders faced the prospect of nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
AP

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

On Oct. 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy informed the nation that the Soviet Union had stockpiled missiles in Cuba — just 90 miles from U.S. shores and within striking distance of many southern U.S. cities, including Chicago. In his televised speech, the president said he ordered a naval blockade around Cuba to halt the flow of any more weapons to the island nation. The address touched off the most tense confrontation between the two superpowers during the Cold War: the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The blockade “puts the next move squarely up to Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev,” Chicago Daily News reporter William McGaffin, who was part of the paper’s Washington Bureau, wrote on Oct. 23.

“No one here was willing to guess how he might react,” he continued. “The possibilities open to him, however, make this without doubt the gravest crisis since the state of the cold war.”

Now the country waited to see if Khrushchev’s vessels, which U.S. officials knew to be headed for Cuba, would test the blockade, McGaffin reported. Should any vessel try to test the blockade, it would be sunk.

The crisis first began on Oct. 16 when officials briefed Kennedy on photos taken days earlier from a U.S. spy plane over Cuba that showed construction on a site for medium- and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles, though only the medium-range missiles appeared operational, according to McGaffin. For the next few days, the president met with officials and advisors to discuss what to do. Although rumors of something big happening in Washington circulated, Kennedy’s address on Oct. 22 alerted citizens to just how precarious the situation was.

But the president did try to offer some encouragement to the country.

“A showdown talk — rather than a war — with Khrushchev, was not ruled out,” McGaffin explained. “The officials said this was what the President had in mind when he said, ‘We are prepared to discuss new proposals for the removal of tensions on both sides — including the possibilities of a genuinely independent Cuba.’”

The Daily News published the full text of Kennedy’s speech just below a reaction story from political writer Charles Cleveland. The paper sent him out to the Hillside shopping center immediately after the address to ask for opinions.

An insurance company district manager who identified as a Republican felt Kennedy was “doing his best” and added, “We are definitely risking war when we act to stop Russian ships. If it’s true that they (the administration) have evidence that launching pads are being set up, there comes a time when some action must be taken, even when it means a risk of war.”

Another Republican from Tinley Park said he “felt better towards Kennedy” but wished he had acted sooner.

Cleveland spoke with three housewives, all from Forest Park, who felt nervous and anxious at the threat of nuclear war.

“Halfway through it (the President’s speech) I felt like crying so I got up and went to the shopping center and did some shopping. I was afraid that if I heard the rest of it, Mr. Kennedy might have declared war.”

Another told him, “I got butterflies in my stomach just listening. It sounds ominous to me.”

The third said she listened to the president with her children. One of them sensed her nervousness and assured her, “What are you worrying about, Mom? We can beat him.”

“I’m scared, really I am, scared to death,” a Northlake woman told Cleveland. “But we just can’t keep getting pushed around.”