Imagine you are just starting a new school year and your teacher gives you an assignment: create a scrapbook of news stories about the president of the United States. Then, unexpectedly, a terrifying international conflict brews while you’re on the president’s beat. The weeks of this assignment end up being so memorable that you hold onto your scrapbook your whole life—and it eventually ends up in a special collections library.
That’s exactly what happened to Marsha Sorotick, who was a sophomore at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, New York, in October 1962. From October 16–28, 1962, events now referred to as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, bringing the U.S. and the Soviet Union closer to nuclear war than ever before. Just before this crisis unfolded, Marsha started clipping headlines and articles about President John F. Kennedy for a school assignment. The first page of her scrapbook tracks Kennedy as he was out meeting voters.
Then news about the crisis broke and Sorotick’s scrapbook shifts its focus. Sorotick followed the Cuban Missile Crisis from October 22 through its resolution on October 28, after which she returned to covering other aspects of Kennedy’s presidency. Through the articles, images, and graphics that she included, you can see the whole conflict reach a boiling point and then resolve.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most heated 13 days of the Cold War, the decades-long indirect and direct conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over the international spread of Communism. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the State Department hit DEFCON 2, meaning the military was ready to mobilize in minutes—just one step away from nuclear war. Fear of nuclear war was already very present in American lives. School children did drills to practice “duck and cover” during an air raid. People also had to know where their closest fallout shelter was if a nuclear warhead was on its way. This pamphlet from our Library collections called “YOU and the ATOMIC BOMB” issued by the New York Civil Defense Commission in 1950 is overlaid with a notice that “In case of an air raid signal, guests of apartment 210 will walk immediately to shelter on the 2nd floor.”
This pamphlet goes on to explain what was known at the time about the effects of an atomic bomb at various distances and how best to take cover wherever one may be when a bomb comes. We’re not sure how much it would have helped to do what the gentleman in this image below on the left is doing, but the idea is—do something! This pamphlet has some other questionable words of wisdom— for example, that showering would wash away radiation.
Because the Cold War was so ever-present, Marsha Sorotick could have done her scrapbook assignment at any point after 1945 and encountered some news stories about the threat of nuclear weapons. But it just so happened that Marsha’s assignment started just as the Cold War nearly hit its boiling point. Following the Bay of Pigs incident—in which the U.S. botched an attempt to overthrow Cuba’s communist leader Fidel Castro—U.S. intelligence officials discovered evidence that the Soviets were creating nuclear warhead launch sites in Cuba, with the U.S. as their target. Despite the president publicly warning the Soviets to stop the arms buildup in Cuba, just 90 miles south of the Florida coast, photos showed the missile sites advancing. On October 16, the president met with advisors to discuss military mobilization and further intelligence gathering. On the 18th, Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who insisted that the Soviets were only helping Cuba defend itself. The issue of whether or not the missile launch sites were offensive or defensive was a major point of contention. Kennedy and his advisors believed the Soviets were placing nuclear warheads in Cuba to start a war, and Soviets insisted they were only there for protection against U.S. aggression.
Some of Kennedy’s administration felt the site buildup was itself an act of aggression, and the U.S. should immediately use force to stop it. Kennedy wanted to proceed diplomatically at first, but also use some kind of non-combat force to stop the sites from being built. Kennedy authorized a “quarantine” of Cuba’s coast on October 20 and sent the U.S. Navy to block ships from coming in if they were carrying materials related to the missile sites (some other ships were allowed to pass). Kennedy called it a “quarantine” because calling it a “blockade” would be an act of war. But that didn’t stop U.S. news outlets from calling it a blockade, which you can see in this headline from Sorotick’s scrapbook from around October 22.
On October 22, Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev began exchanging private letters in which each exhorted the other not to be crazy enough to start a nuclear war, and each laying out terms for how they would back down and believe the other side was doing the same. On the 22nd, President Kennedy went on live TV to tell the American public about the launch sites, the quarantine, and his interpretation of the missile sites as Soviet aggression, not defense. Most of the news clippings in Sorotick’s scrapbook are from the 22nd. By the 24th, Kruschev sent Kennedy a letter indignantly refusing to agree to U.S. and UN demands to stop sending Russian ships to Cuba. The crisis only seemed to be worsening. By the next day, the U.S. knew some Cuban missiles were already operational. The UN asked for a pause in negotiations, which Kennedy refused to do. The next day, Aleksander Fomin of the Soviet Embassy staff talked to an ABC news reporter named John Scali about a potential resolution to the conflict. Kruschev also privately wrote to the president with the same proposed resolution: the Soviets would agree to remove the missiles if the U.S. ended the quarantine and promised not to invade Cuba. Then on October 27, Kruschev wrote again with an angrier tone, including a demand that the U.S. remove its own missiles from Turkey. Kennedy made the wise decision—against his team’s advice—to reply only to the nicer letter from Kruschev and ignore his later message. Later, Robert Kennedy echoed the president’s agreement to the first terms offered when he met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Robert Kennedy also said the U.S. would later remove the Turkish missiles, but wouldn’t publicly agree to that as part of the resolution to the current conflict. With these steps taken, the most dangerous element of the crisis resolved on October 28. Here’s a page of Sorotick’s scrapbook with headlines from that day and the 29th.
We’ll leave you with one more image from Sorotick’s project: her bibliography!
There’s so much more to learn about those scary thirteen days in October as a family, or in your classroom. Here are some ideas and resources for further exploration.
First, we highly recommend digging into the sources on the JFK Library’s wonderful microsite about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kruschev’s and Kennedy’s letters to each other are particularly worth a read! It might even be fun to pretend you are their advisors and suggest some edits. After you know more about the crisis, return to Sorotick’s scrapbook and bibliography: Can you find out which of the headlines she clipped came from which source? To do this, you may have to use online databases, such as the New York Times’ TimesMachine archive. Other than Time magazine, Sorotick only looked at New York publications. What were newspapers from other states or countries saying about this conflict? What was Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, thinking, saying, and doing while Kruschev and Kennedy were negotiating? Find out more about him and learn about the secret deal that almost allowed Cuba to keep more than 100 tactical nuclear weapons that the U.S. didn’t know about after the Cuban Missile Crisis had supposedly ended. Finally, register to use our Library and come see Marsha Sorotick’s scrapbook for yourself.
…And by the way, we hear that Marsha got an A on her assignment!
Written by Rachel Walman
Assistant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum