When the U.S. was on the brink of nuclear war

CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 1962: People watching President John F. Kennedy's TV announcement of Cuban blockade during the missile crisis in a department store. (Photo by Ralph Crane/Life Magazine/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Ralph Crane

(CBS News) For 13 days in the fall of 1962 the world stood on the brink of nuclear war. In our Sunday Morning Cover Story, national security correspondent David Martin looks back at those frightening days of the Cuban Missile Crisis ...

The picture that launched the Cuban missile crisis, taken by a U-2 spy plane flying at 60,000 feet on October 14, 1962, was shown to President Kennedy two days later by CIA officers.

Acting CIA Director Marshall Carter described a medium range ballistic missile launch site with two new military encampments."

That briefing and other critical meetings during the 13-day crisis were secretly recorded and preserved for history.

When the president saw that U-2 photo, said Martin, he had the same question you and I would have: "Is this ready to be fired?"

Missile Analysist Sidney Graybeal: "No, sir."

Kennedy: "How long have we got? We can't tell? Can we, how long before it can be fired?"

Graybeal: "No, sir."

Faced with the prospect of nuclear-tipped missiles that could strike targets up and down the East Coast of the U.S., many of the president's top military and civilian advisers wanted to launch air strikes on the missile sites and follow up with an invasion of Cuba.

Kennedy: "We are going to move all of the available forces that we have to be in a position to carry out this invasion as quickly as we possibly can . . . so we may have the war by the next 24 hours."

The president even prepared a speech announcing the attack. You can see it at the National Archives, where curator Stacy Bredhoff has assembled a 50-year anniversary exhibit.

The first line of this speech would have gone, 'This morning I reluctantly ordered the armed forces to attack and destroy the nuclear build-up in Cuba,'" Bredhoff said.

"I think these are the kinds of things that really bring home the fact of how close we actually came."

A synopses of President Kennedy's prepared speech announcing U.S. military airstrikes on Cuba, not delivered. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

The speech he did give stopped short of declaring war, but not by much:

"This government feels obliged to report this new crisis to you in fullest detail. . . . It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

Before he started a chain reaction that could lead to all-out nuclear war, the president needed better pictures of the missile sites - the kind that could only be taken by low-level reconnaissance flights.

So on October 23, 1962, six Navy jets, one of them piloted by Lt. Gerald Coffee, took off from Key West, Florida, on an operation code-named Blue Moon.