Media's Role in the Cuban Missile Crisis

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which unfolded over thirteen days in 1962, from October 16 to 28. The dramatic standoff between two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—was one of the most important events not only in cold war history, but also in the evolution of television.

After learning that the Cubans, with the aid of the Soviets, were building bases for medium- and intermittent-range ballistic nuclear missiles that would have the capability of reaching most of the United States, President Kennedy requested television time from all three of the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) for 7:00 pm on Monday, October 22. Kennedy was being advised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to destroy the missile sites through airstrikes and invasion, but opted instead for an alternate plan, supported by Robert Kennedy, initiating “a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba,” as the president described it during his televised address. The president also demanded that the Soviets remove all missiles from Cuba, adding that failure to comply would result in a military action: “I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination and join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and transform the history of man.”

The crisis ended on October 28 when the Soviets agreed to dismantle the missile sites and withdraw all offensive weapons from Cuba, in exchange for a public declaration from the United States that it would not invade the island nation. The U.S. also secretly agreed to dismantle its ballistic missiles stationed in Turkey and Italy.

That Kennedy chose to deliver this message via television rather than through diplomatic channels was part of a deliberate plan to give the ultimatum “maximum force,” according to media historian Erik Barnouw, writing in Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, his landmark history of the medium. This was particularly important politically because the Bay of Pigs fiasco had left the president vulnerable to charges that he was soft on communism. “The televised commitment, relayed throughout the world by satellite, would create a situation from which retreat would appear impossible,” Barnouw wrote.

Here we present two sets of clips. The first is from the landmark twenty-four-part CNN documentary series Cold War (1998) and includes excerpts from a five-and-a-half-hour interview with Fidel Castro by Pat Mitchell, now president of the Paley Center but president of CNN Productions and an executive producer of the documentary at the time. The second set of clips is from a 2002 Paley Center panel discussion titled Cuba and American Television: The Missile Crisis and Beyond: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Television, featuring Robert M. Batscha (then president of the Paley Center, or Museum of Television & Radio, as it was known at the time), Donald M. Wilson (former member of President Kennedy’s National Security Council), Richard C. Hottelet (former United Nations correspondent for CBS); Sander Vanocur (former political reporter); Edmundo Desnoes (author and former participant in the Cuban revolutionary government); and Jane Franklin (historian/author).