Friday, 21 October 2022 — National Security Archive
British Ambassador First Outsider to Learn of Kennedy Decision for Blockade
British Told of U.S. Preemptive Nuclear Strike Plan if Soviets Moved Against West Berlin
Belgian Foreign Minister “Preferred U.S. to Inform NATO Allies 24 Hours in Advance”
Washington, D.C., October 21, 2022 – President John F. Kennedy made unilateral decisions to impose a naval blockade and approve other military moves, but winning the support of European allies remained central to U.S. policy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to declassified records of briefings delivered to NATO leaders shortly before Kennedy announced the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
While British Ambassador David Ormsby-Gore, an old friend of Kennedy’s, was the first foreign diplomat to receive official word of the crisis, top leaders of other NATO states also received special briefings on the situation from U.S. ambassadors, special emissaries, and CIA officials before President Kennedy appeared on U.S. television to address the nation on October 22, 1962. The previous day, at a private lunch at the White House, Kennedy told Ormsby-Gore about the missile deployments, plans for a blockade, and his overall strategy, saying that he hoped to resolve the crisis through “negotiation and discussion” and that he did not expect or hope for an invasion of Cuba.
Other declassified documents from U.S. and British archives provide detailed accounts of the crisis briefings given to other NATO allies on October 22. Diplomats and heads of state in NATO Europe and Canada supported U.S. actions, although discontent that they had received such short notice lay just beneath the surface. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was “hurt” that he had not received earlier word, while Belgian Foreign Minister Paul Henri-Spaak believed that NATO should have had “24 hours’ notice.”
Today’s posting also includes the accounts of officials who watched the crisis unfold in Washington. A British intelligence officer reported hearing of U.S. plans for a worst-case scenario under which Khrushchev took West Berlin and the U.S. responded with a preemptive nuclear strike on Soviet ICBMs.
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