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Usually in the most important presidential addresses, the American people have had some idea what their leader was about to say. In this instance, on October 22, 1962, Americans were learning for the first time that they stood closer to nuclear holocaust than they had ever stood before. (pp. 646-647)


Book Excerpt
Audio Clip 11, pp. 646 - 647

Kennedy sat down at his desk shortly before 7:00 P.M. to give as dramatic a speech as any American president had ever given. Always before when the president made an important address to the American people, they had had some hint of what was to be said, be it the sight of the unemployed wandering the streets or news reports of ships smoldering at Pearl Harbor. But across the nation, people had little idea why the president had usurped airtime on this Monday evening.

Kennedy did not seek to soothe the nation but spoke with words that would create apprehension in even the stoutest of hearts. Kennedy laid out the threat: the Soviet ballistic missiles sailing toward Cuba were capable of "striking most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere, ranging as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far south as Lima, Peru."

As Kennedy addressed the American people, it was the image of Munich that stood starkly before him, in an era before nuclear weapons. "The 1930s taught us a clear lesson," Kennedy said. "Aggressive conduct, if allowed to grow unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war."

In Sorensen's words lay some of the tensions and arguments of the Ex Comm deliberations congealed into a few passages. "Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead-months in which both our patience and our will will be tested, months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing." In his inaugural address Kennedy had not promised ease and blissful peace but challenge, and he delivered on that pledge a hundredfold this evening. "The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are, but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world,"

When Kennedy finished, many of the residents of the great cities of America feared that death stalked them, and they looked up at the silent skies with foreboding.