JFK’s Airstrike Speech

How would the Cuban Missile Crisis have played out if, instead of a naval blockade, President Kennedy had ordered air strikes to destroy the missiles, followed by an invasion of Cuba? Would I be here to write this post, or you to read it?

No one knows for sure, but the Soviet battlefield nuclear weapons on Cuba – unknown to Kennedy’s advisers, and designed to repel an American invasion – indicate that the risk of a nuclear war would have been even greater than with our naval blockade. While there have been reports, and even tidbits, of the “airstrike speech” that JFK would have given in that event, only recently did the Kennedy Library release the entire speech. Unfortunately, it is part of a 166 page collection, and in a form that makes it very hard to find the speech. Mr. Reid Pauly, research assistant to Stanford Prof. Scott Sagan, has gone through the laborious effort of extracting the speech and has kindly given permission for it to be reproduced here. The speech starts out:

My fellow Americans:

With a heavy heart, and in necessary fulfillment of my oath of office, I have ordered – and the United States Air Force bas now carried out – military operations, with conventional weapons only, to remove a major nuclear weapons build-up from the soil of Cuba. This action has been taken under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations and in fulfillment of the requirements of the national safety. Further military action has been authorized to ensure that this threat is fully removed and not restored.

A separate blog post (coming here soon) explores who wrote this “airstrike speech,” and reaches a surprising conclusion.

Martin Hellman

You can also download this airstrike speech as a PDF.

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About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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9 Responses to JFK’s Airstrike Speech

  1. Carl Shulman says:

    These are some fascinating papers. But to help us know what to make of them, do you ever find previously sealed documents that make past crises look less dangerous? I.e. we mostly hear the bad news here, but what is the ratio of good news to bad news from these archives, in general?

  2. jkmhoffman says:

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

  3. Carl: Good question! Mostly the news is that crises were more dangerous than we thought at the time — if we even were aware of them. As former SecDef Gates says in his memoirs, Able Archer 1983 is an example of one we were oblivious to until months afterward. The only way I can think of where things were less dangerous is the Cuban Missile Crisis, and they weren’t less dangerous than we thought at the time, just less dangerous than they might have been if JFK had trusted his military advisers. But the Bay of Pigs had taught him to question their rosy estimates.

    kjmhoffman: Thanks!


    • Ducksfeet says:

      The one thing that is never mentioned that caused the crisis in the first place was that the US had already positioned first strike missles in Turkey which is just next door to Russia ,so who is the agresser here.And now that the cold war is over the Americans are at it again by setting up a missile defence sheild around Russia, but the US says its to protect NATO countries from Iran whom do not yet have a nuke or has attacked a country since 1779.

  4. Nuclear Risk says:

    While I would phrase Ducksfeet’s comment in more neutral terms, I do note that the Soviets’ Cuban missiles were partly a response to our missiles in Turkey in my 2008 paper, “Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence,” accessible at
    Search for the part that starts, “While other factors contributed to Khrushchev’s 1962 deployment of similar missiles in Cuba, this disastrous decision started with a nuclear version of tit-for-tat as noted by Khrushchev’s speech writer.”
    While the popular media usually fails to note that connection, most scholarly papers do. So how do we get the popular media to be more accurate?

  5. It’s a good thing that JFK stood up to Curtis LeMay and the rest of the Joint Chiefs, although they got their revenge the next year in Dallas.

  6. Nuclear Risk says:

    It’s hard to believe the Joint Chiefs would get involved in a plot to assassinate the president, but then again, it was hard (past tense!) to believe they would recommend that, “A ‘Remember the Maine’ incident could be arranged … We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba. … [Or] we could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. … [fostering] attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding.” Yet they did precisely that. So, while I don’t believe the JCS were involved in Kennedy’s assassination, anything is possible.

    • Yes, Operation Northwoods was especially outrageous and JFK fired Lemnitzer for proposing it.

      LeMay was present at the (flawed) autopsy in Bethesda, the highest ranking official there. He hated JFK.

      JFK vowed to scatter the CIA into a thousand pieces and the CIA (and military intel) scattered JFK into a thousand pieces.

      The best summary of the coup is in James Douglass’s book JFK and the Unspeakable: why he died and why it matters. The most recent edition has an endorsement from RFK Jr. on the cover. The editor is a son of Daniel Ellsberg. It’s the most important book of US history I have read in three and a half decades of curiosity about the nuclear age. Reviews: http://www.jfkmoon.org/unspeakable.html

      What would the world be today if the Cold War and arms race had been allowed to end in JFK’s second term, as he was planning to do? We need a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” for the National Security States of America.

      JFK American University speech calling off the arms race, June 10, 1963:

      JFK United Nations speech calling off the Cold War and offering to convert the Moon race into a cooperative effort, September 20, 1963:

      JFK order to start the withdrawal from Vietnam, October 1963:

  7. I, too, had a hard time conceiving that US Government officials, to whit the Joint Chiefs of Staff under JFK, would commit murder and treason by eliminating their own commander in chief. Sadly, life experience has convinced me this is probably what happened.

    First, history contains a wealth of military coup d’etats in which executive assassination is rather the gold standard. Second, no dastardly deed is beyond those who would propose something like Operation Northwoods. Third, the vast preponderance of ‘means-motive-opportunity’ investigation points to a conspiracy by elements of the USA government to kill president JFK. Finally, Eisenhower’s farewell speech warns of the very power that JFK crossed. In that context, the USA Government and the Military-Industrial complex were, and are, intertwined.

    I second Mark’s suggestion of James Douglas’ book, JFK and the Unspeakable.

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