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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Fifty years ago, the United States stood on the brink of nuclear war. On October 16, 1962, the president's national security adviser handed him black-and-white photos of Cuba taken by American spy planes. President John F. Kennedy asked what he was looking at. They told him: medium-range ballistic missile sites. Here, President Kennedy asks CIA analyst Arthur Lundahl about the discovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: How do you know this is a medium-range ballistic missile?

ARTHUR LUNDAHL: The length, sir.

KENNEDY: The what? The length?

LUNDAHL: The length of it, yes.

HEADLEE: Kennedy asks: How do you know this is a medium-range ballistic missile? Lundahl's response: The length of it. The sites were close enough - just 90 miles from the U.S. - to reach major American cities in mere minutes. The Cold War was heating up to a near boiling point. The stakes: nuclear destruction at a global level.

And the fate of the world lay largely in the hands of two men: President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. For a two-week period fraught with tension, President Kennedy consulted with his closest advisers about what to do. Today, we know what they said, because the president had a secret tape recorder rolling.

STACEY BREDHOFF: While these discussions are going on, the clock is ticking.

HEADLEE: Stacey Bredhoff is curator of a new exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It showcases the audio as well as documents and artifacts from the Cuban missile crisis.

BREDHOFF: I mean, at one point, the president says time ticks away on us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: Time ticks away on us.

BREDHOFF: Because with each passing moment, those missile sites are getting closer and closer to being fully operational, and that's what the president wanted to avoid, to find a resolution before those missiles are ready to be launched.

HEADLEE: Kennedy turned to his group of advisers known as the EXCOMM to help find that resolution.

BREDHOFF: The president really wanted a range of opinions.

HEADLEE: George Ball, undersecretary of State, voiced restraint.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE BALL: A course of action where we strike without warning is like Pearl Harbor. It's the kind of conduct that one might expect of the Soviet Union. It is not conduct that one expects from the United States.

HEADLEE: Striking without warning is like Pearl Harbor, Ball says. It's the kind of conduct one might expect from the Soviet Union, not the United States.

BREDHOFF: And we'll hear in some of the tapes how his military advisers, particularly Curtis LeMay, was almost baiting him, accused - almost just falling short of calling him a coward for not taking direct quick military action.

HEADLEE: Curtis LeMay was the Air Force chief of staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GENERAL CURTIS LEMAY: You're in a pretty bad fix at the present time.

KENNEDY: What did you say?

LEMAY: You're in a pretty bad fix.

HEADLEE: President Kennedy was in a pretty bad fix. Invade Cuba? Bomb Cuba? Both could result in World War III. Four days after learning about the missile sites and meeting daily with the EXCOMM, Kennedy made a decision. He ordered a military blockade of ships to surround Cuba. This so-called quarantine would keep the Soviets from bringing in any more military supplies.

BREDHOFF: On the 22nd, he met with leaders of Congress, and they urged him to take military action. They thought a quarantine was a weak response.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR RICHARD RUSSELL: I think that our responsibilities to our people demand some stronger steps than that (unintelligible).

HEADLEE: Senator Richard Russell, majority leader from Georgia, tells Kennedy that responsibilities to our people demand stronger steps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSSELL: It seems to me that we're at the crossroads. We're either a first-class power, or we're not.

KENNEDY: But, Senator, we can't invade Cuba. We don't have the forces to seize Cuba.

HEADLEE: Russell tells Kennedy: We're at a crossroads. We're either a first-class power, or we're not. Kennedy tells Russell: We don't have the forces to seize Cuba. That same day, President Kennedy came clean to the nation about what was happening. October 22nd, 1962 marked the first time the president spoke publicly about the missile crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: My fellow citizens, let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.

HEADLEE: There was a single combat casualty. On October 27th, Air Force pilot Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down during a reconnaissance mission over Cuba. But overall, the resolution was a resounding success. Kennedy and Khrushchev had made a deal. The Soviets dismantled their weapons site in Cuba. In exchange, the U.S. pledged never to invade Cuba.

Back at the National Archives exhibit, Stacey Bredhoff says we can be grateful for President Kennedy's clear, disciplined thinking that pulled us back from the precipice.

BREDHOFF: Half a century later, it's just a great time to look back with this perspective and with the wealth of historical resources that have become available in recent years and take another look at this moment in history, which was really one of the most dangerous moments in the world.

HEADLEE: To The Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis runs through February 3rd at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

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