Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery

To The Brink

To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Closed February 3, 2013:

For two weeks in October 1962, the world teetered on the edge of thermonuclear war and the end of civilization as we know it. Earlier that fall, the Soviet Union, under orders from Premier Nikita Khrushchev, began secretly to deploy a nuclear strike force in Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States, with missiles that could reach most major U.S. cities in less than 5 minutes. President John F. Kennedy said the missiles would not be tolerated, and insisted on their removal. Khrushchev refused. The stand-off nearly caused a nuclear exchange and is remembered in this country as the Cuban missile crisis.  

“To the Brink” is a look back at the most dangerous episode in human history. Featuring clandestine real-time White House recordings from Kennedy’s meetings in October 1962, the exhibit allows visitors to listen in on the government’s highest level meetings as the President and his advisers worked intensely to avert a nuclear confrontation. Original documents, artifacts, and photographs help bring this milestone event to life.

While it may be comforting to believe that it was the thoughtful deliberations of the leaders of the two protagonist nations that drove the events of October 1962, the historical materials presented in this exhibit shows that a series of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and random happenings also played a role, and could easily have led to a catastrophic outcome.

Exhibit highlights include:

  • Chairs used by President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev during the June 1961 Vienna Summit, the only time the two leaders formally met, face-to-face. President Kennedy later purchased the chairs from the State Department for their historic value; he intended to donate them to his Presidential Library, where they now reside.
  • Personality Studies of Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, prepared by the CIA, 1961;
  • Satellite photographs of missile sites under construction in Cuba, the first hard evidence of the Soviet nuclear deployment;
  • Map of Cuba used and annotated by President Kennedy when he was first briefed by the CIA on the Soviet missile sites in Cuba. The President’s annotations mark the locations where the Soviets were believed to have placed nuclear weapons.
  • Secret Correspondence between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev;
  • Synopsis of a speech (not delivered) in which President Kennedy announces an attack to “destroy the nuclear build-up in Cuba.”

At the National Archives October 12, 2012 - February 3, 2013

Also on Exhibit:
Honoring the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement"

Coming Soon:

Searching for the Seventies: the DOCUMERICA photo project

Visiting the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery

Preview: “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis

"To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis" was created by the National Archives and its John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and made possible in part by the Foundation for the National Archives, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, and the generous support of Lead Sponsor AT&T. Special recognition to the Lawrence F. O'Brien Family.