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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5 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?

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