In October 1962, on the morning after Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba and end the most nerve-racking standoff of the Cold War era, speechwriter and special counsel Theodore Sorensen spoke with President John F. Kennedy and another presidential adviser outside a conference room at the White House. The news, the second adviser said, had made Kennedy seem “10 feet tall” in the world of international diplomacy. The president replied, “That’ll last a couple of weeks.”
To Sorensen, it has lasted 45 years. On Oct. 10, he joined two other panelists at the Woodrow Wilson School to discuss the Cuban missile crisis. Sheldon Stern, the former historian of the JFK Library, spoke about the tapes of the National Security Council’s executive committee meetings, which revealed a litany of potentially disastrous suggestions that Kennedy rejected. Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, analyzed the heated atmosphere in domestic politics that preceded the crisis. But Sorensen was the main attraction.
At age 79, Sorensen spoke with no notes and briefly covered the timeline of the crisis’s 13 days. After a U-2 spy plane photographed the missile sites in Cuba, Kennedy convened a small circle of advisers, to ensure secrecy, and when it came time to communicate with Khrushchev, he called on Sorensen to draft the letter. Conversations about that first letter eventually steered Kennedy toward the idea of a naval blockade, or in the president’s words, a “quarantine against offensive weapons.” Sorensen later worked with Robert Kennedy to write the American reply that would help resolve the conflict. President Kennedy’s approach throughout the crisis was to ask for every option, military or diplomatic, unilateral or multilateral, according to Sorensen. His experience as a naval officer in World War II also shaped his decisions. “He knew war, and did not want war,” Sorensen said.