The Atlantic alliance hasn’t always been quite as special as politicians on both sides of the sea like to pretend. To take just the last sixty years: there were the differing views on Vietnam that led Lyndon Johnson to assess the British premier Harold Wilson as "a creep," while Richard Nixon privately considered Ted Heath "weak" and "as crooked as a corkscrew" (which was saying something coming from him).

In October 1962, however, the principal Western leaders really did have something special. Between them, they probably helped save the world from nuclear annihilation.

When on October 16,...

The Atlantic alliance hasn’t always been quite as special as politicians on both sides of the sea like to pretend. To take just the last sixty years: there were the differing views on Vietnam that led Lyndon Johnson to assess the British premier Harold Wilson as “a creep,” while Richard Nixon privately considered Ted Heath “weak” and “as crooked as a corkscrew” (which was saying something coming from him).

In October 1962, however, the principal Western leaders really did have something special. Between them, they probably helped save the world from nuclear annihilation.

When on October 16, President John F. Kennedy learned of Nikita Khrushchev’s construction of Soviet-manned rocket sites just 80 miles off the coast of Florida, one of the first things he did — even before informing the American public — was to call in his old prewar London undergraduate drinking friend, David Ormsby-Gore, who had since become Britain’s ambassador to Washington. After lunch in the family quarters of the White House, JFK drew Gore aside and laid out his options in Cuba as he saw them: “bomb the hell” out of the sites, or impose a restrictive quarantine around the island and appeal to the United Nations. It was the essential dilemma of all postwar foreign policy crises. “What would you do?” Kennedy asked.

Thinking well ahead of events, Gore replied that he saw “very serious drawbacks in the first course of action… Few people outside the US would consider the provocation serious enough to merit an American attack… I said that a bombing would not be understood in the rest of the world, and that I felt sure some sort of blockade was the right answer.”

“So do I,” said Kennedy.

Two days later, the president called Gore back to discuss how the embargo on Soviet ships steaming towards Cuba with more missiles might work. Kennedy’s brother Bobby, the attorney general, joined them in the Oval Office, but no other US officials were present. JFK wanted to know what he could do to spin public opinion in Western Europe, and Gore advised him to release a selection of the aerial-reconnaissance photos of the sites so that the evidence would be there for everyone to see in the papers. No one at any level of the government had previously thought of this idea, which Kennedy immediately accepted. Gore then went on to propose that, to give the Russians the maximum time to consider their position, the line of interception around Cuba should be reduced from 600 to 300 miles, a concession Kennedy also readily agreed to.

This was very far from the end of the UK’s contribution to resolving the crisis. Unknown even to his own cabinet, Kennedy regularly took the opportunity to ride down to the newly created Situation Room in the basement of the White House West Wing and pick up the hotline to British prime minister Harold Macmillan. There’s a certain poignancy to the image of the 45-year-old president in his large, softly lit underground bunker, furnished with satellite maps and futuristic steel chairs, discussing the fate of the world with the 68-year-old PM in his modest, book-lined upstairs den in London’s Admiralty House (Downing Street then being under urgently needed repair), with a view across the rooftops to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Shortly after 11 p.m. UK time on October 24, an hour at which Macmillan was known to turn in with his cocoa and Jane Austen, Kennedy called again. He was seeking advice as well as affirmation:

MACMILLAN:  What’s the news now?

KENNEDY: Well, we have no more word yet on what’s going to happen. Some of the [Soviet] ships, the ones we’re particularly interested in, have turned around. Others are going on… I don’t know whether we are going to be permitted to search them. That’s still in question.

Also in doubt, Kennedy admitted, was what action he might take to remove the rockets already in Cuba.

“We’re going to have to make the judgment as to whether we invade Cuba, taking our chances, or whether we hold off and use it as a sort of hostage in the matter of Berlin. Then any time Khrushchev takes action against Berlin, we take action against Cuba. What’s your judgment?” Kennedy asked.

Macmillan replied that this was a “big issue” and that, like Ormsby-Gore, he felt Kennedy ought not to escalate the situation.

The following night, after reading Khrushchev’s latest threats of global annihilation, Macmillan told Kennedy, “After much reflection, I think that events have gone too far.” He could no longer see a case for America “taking out” Cuba. Instead, he wanted Kennedy to insist that, while the existing missile sites should go — and he, Macmillan, would do everything in his power to that end — “some system of inspection” should take the place of the naval blockade. It was this firmness with flexibility approach that soon also found favor in Washington.

In a conversation on October 26, which also began at close to midnight, the British premier, born in 1894, showed his affinity for the broader historical perspective:

KENNEDY:  There are some reports around, some Russian conversations… they might do something about withdrawing the weapons if they can get a territorial guarantee in Cuba…

MACMILLAN: The idea should be that Cuba [is] made like Belgium [pre-1914] by international guarantee — an inviolable country, and all of us would guarantee its neutrality. Is that a possibility?

By now the PM also had some specific suggestions to help end the impasse:

MACMILLAN: There is another alternative that occurred to us. If we want to help the Russians save face, would it be worthwhile our undertaking to immobilize our Thor missiles here in England, [and then] call a conference?

KENNEDY: Well, let me put that into the machinery, and I’ll be in touch with you.

Macmillan went on to tell Kennedy that he was sure the Russians would see reason provided “we on our side dismantle certain missiles as an incentive,” which is essentially what then happened. Kennedy secretly offered to withdraw the wing of fifteen PGM-19 Jupiter long-range rockets stationed at Izmir, about 400 miles (or two minutes’ flight time) from the southern coast of Russia, and Khrushchev quickly saw the wisdom of this arrangement. On October 28, the Soviet dictator cabled the president to say that he had “given a new order to disassemble the arms which you describe as offensive, and to crate and return them to the USSR.”

It remains debatable whether the Cuban adventure did much for the solidarity of the communist bloc, as Khrushchev had hoped, but it undoubtedly helped bring the British and Americans closer together. As Macmillan cabled Kennedy on October 28, “Whatever dangers and difficulties we may have to face in the future, I am proud to feel that I have so resourceful and so firm a comrade.” Perhaps the “comrade” was ironic. Soon there was an even more effusive note to the president from Ambassador Ormsby-Gore:

Dear Jack

I am lost in admiration for the superb manner in which you handled the tremendous events of the critical week we have just lived through. I know what a mass of conflicting advice you received, and I can only say that looking back at it you acted at each stage with perfect judgement. I and countless millions are deeply in your debt. Well done. With best wishes as always, David.

Kennedy kept this testimonial from his closest British friend in his office desk for the remainder of his life.