INT: What were your personal feelings at the time? Were you worried about your family, your own sort of safety, Washington's safety?
TS: I think we, for the most part, were all too intent upon finding a solution to give much concern to personal worries. Some members of our group sent their families outside of Washington, which was likely to be a target. I had no family living with me at the time. The President had joked with me the previous Saturday, after the decision had been made, that there wasn't room for all of us in the White House bomb shelter, but I had a place there if it came to that. But my strongest feeling was of admiration for the President of the United States, who kept cool - the calmest man in the room. And when they said, "Well, we've got to go bomb that Soviet SAM site," he said, "Let's wait, let's wait until we have more information about it, let's wait until we see what the response is to our letter," because he knew the United States dropping a bomb on Cuba could start almost anything.
INT: The following day, the Sunday, the message came through, the first radio-message from Moscow, again saying that Khrushchev was prepared to remove the missiles. Could you tell me how you heard that, and what happened next?
TS: I was accustomed each morning to wake up on the hour and turn on the news to see what was the breaking news, if any, about the crisis. And the first news I heard on Sunday morning, when I woke up after a very rancorous Excom meeting Saturday night, after the messages had already been sent off to the Soviets... of course, the top of the news was this broadcast from Khrushchev over the open air, that Soviet missiles were to be withdrawn under inspection, and the crisis was over. I could hardly believe my ears. I called the National Security adviser, (.?.) Bundy, at the White House. He said, "Yes, it is true, we have received that message, we have verified it, and the crisis is over. Our group is meeting at 11 o'clock, and meanwhile the President and First Lady have gone off to church to thank God." And we gathered for the 11 o'clock meeting; everybody was in smiles. I was standing with the President, talking with him in his office just before we went into the Cabinet Room for the meeting, and one of his other National Security assistants came up to him, who had not been deeply involved in the crisis preparations, and he said, "Now, Mr President, you can step in and solve the India-China war," because the war between India and China over the border had broken out at the same time. The President said, "I don't think either of them, or anybody else, wants me to solve that crisis." And the aide said, "But Mr President, today you're 10 feet tall." And JFK said, "That will last about a week."
INT: Would you say that those two weeks earned Kennedy his place in history?
TS: Yes, because even though the Cold War went on for some years, the tide turned during that October 1962. A British historian once compared it to the Ancient Greek stand that preserved civilisation in the earliest ages. People no longer thought that world war between the Soviet Union and the United States was inevitable. They no longer thought that the only solution to the very real conflicts of interest between Washington and Moscow was to look down the nuclear gun barrel at each other. In the following year, we set up the Hot Line between Moscow and Washington; we agreed to explore outer space together, and to ban mass weapons of destruction from outer space; we agreed to have the first sale of American wheat to the Soviet Union; and most importantly, we took the first step toward arms control in the nuclear age, which was the limited nuclear test ban treaty. At the United Nations, in September of 1963, Kennedy's speech was a speech on peace and all the next steps that we and the Soviet Union could explore together in order to tamper down and ultimately end the Cold War. And then, unfortunately, he was killed.
INT: One final question then, sir, if I may. ... If I can ask you to gaze into the crystal ball, supposing that statement hadn't come through on the 28th, that Khrushchev was to pull out the missiles, what do you think would have happened?
TS: There were those on Excom who wanted us to go immediately to air strike and invasion. The Vice-President of the United States said in that rancorous meeting of late Saturday night, "When I was a boy in Texas, walking along the road, and a snake raised its head, there was only thing to do, and that was to take a club and cut off its head." But there were others on Excom who were determined to find other limited means of turning up the pressure without precipitating war - because we now know that war would have come, that had there been a bombing and an invasion, those missiles might very well have been fired, and at the very least, Soviet troops on the island of Cuba would have fired tactical nuclear weapons which they possessed at the invading American armies, and we would have felt compelled to respond with nuclear weapons ourselves. So there would have been ways of tightening the blockade to include so-called POL - petroleum oil lubricants - which can shut down a country's economy; there would have been bans on air flights to Cuba; there would have been other avenues to explore peace through the United Nations, which President Kennedy discussed with Dean Rusk. I think that we had a President who was determined not to go to war, because he felt that meant the failure of everything he was trying to accomplish.
INT: Mr Sorensen, thank you very much indeed. That was absolutely riveting.