White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters

How John F. Kennedy’s most illustrious speeches were constructed.

John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address.

John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address.

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But Sorensen also was a regular and important member of the Ex Comm. Whatever action Kennedy settled on, he would have to explain it to the American people and the world.

Early on, the policy debate focused primarily on military means to eliminate the missiles. During the first Ex Comm meeting, JFK summarized the possibilities open to the United States: a "surgical" airstrike to destroy the missile sites alone; a broader airstrike, which would eliminate any Soviet ability to counterattack; a full invasion of Cuba; or a military blockade to prevent any additional Soviet forces or materiel from reaching the island.

Try as they might, a course of action with an airtight case eluded the group. Debate swung back and forth. On Thursday, October 18, Sorensen wrote a draft of a speech for Kennedy to give after a military strike against the island. "This morning I reluctantly ordered the armed forces to attack and destroy the nuclear buildup in Cuba," the president's speech read. Americans should "remain calm, go about your daily business, secure in the knowledge that our freedom-loving country will not allow its security to be undermined."

That night, the Ex Comm seemed to agree on a blockade with the possibility of military action later, only to revisit the question on Friday morning. Sorensen retired to his office and tried a first draft of a naval blockade speech. But at this hour of maximum danger, his pen faltered.

Sorensen returned to the Ex Comm late that afternoon in the unaccustomed position of being without a speech. Rather, he brought with him the questions that had halted his hand. "As the concrete answers were provided in our discussions, the final shape of the president's policy began to take form," he noted. "It was in a sense an amalgam of the blockade-airstrike routes, and a much stronger, more satisfied consensus formed behind it." That night he stayed up until 3 o'clock writing a draft.

On Saturday, October 20, the group debated Sorensen's draft, and also an airstrike draft, which Bundy had prepared and which was favored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, and Treasury Secretary Dillon. JFK, who always favored leaving an out for an opponent, elected the limited course of a blockade while leaving open an airstrike down the road.

Even then debate continued, with Stevenson, now the ambassador to the United Nations, arguing that the speech should include an offer to trade the missiles in Turkey. Kennedy conceded that such a trade would probably ultimately be necessary, but he insisted that that bargaining chip be held in abeyance rather than played in the opening gambit. (In the end, the missiles in Turkey were secretly bargained away—a fact that would not become public for decades.)

Five minutes before the 7 p.m. airtime on October 22, the president lowered himself onto the seat at his desk, a pair of pillows cushioning him. Wearing a corset to relieve his chronic bad back, Kennedy sat straight and stared into the camera as he prepared to give the most important speech of his life—and of the Cold War:

Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.

Framing the issue as one of Soviet secrecy and deception, JFK quickly won the country's support. The Cuban missile crisis was the Cold War's critical moment. Several factors were important in Kennedy's successful handling of the crisis—perhaps none more important than having time to consider all options. Setting policy into words had raised new questions and exposed possible weaknesses. And choosing the right words for the speech itself helped set the terms of the international debate.

From White House Ghosts by Robert Schlesinger. Copyright © 2008 by Robert Schlesinger. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.