Jacqueline Kennedy's Audio Tapes: JFK References Lincoln Assassination After Missile Crisis

Jacqueline Kennedy eavesdropped through a White House door during the crisis.

ByMark Mooney
September 12, 2011, 9:29 AM

Sept. 13, 2011— -- President Kennedy, a student of history and President Lincoln, joked darkly after his triumph in the Cuban Missile Crisis that it might be a good night to go to the theater.

JFK was referring to Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater after being victorious in the Civil War at the height of his political reputation.

The remark is a footnote in the notes of the oral history that former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy recorded for posterity nearly 50 years ago, which have not been heard publicly until this week. For the first time, extended portions of the tapes will be aired in a two-hour Diane Sawyer special "Jacqueline Kennedy: In Her Own Words" on Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 9 p.m. ET/ 8 p.m. CT. They will also be included in the new book "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy," edited by Caroline Kennedy.

Mrs. Kennedy said in her interviews with family friend and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. just four months after her husband was killed that JFK once asked Princeton historian David Donald, "Would Lincoln have been as great a president if he'd lived?"

Donald reluctantly replied that it "was better for Lincoln that he died when he did," Mrs. Kennedy recalled, rather than having his reputation tarnished by having to deal with "this almost insoluble problem" of reconstructing the South.

"And then I remember Jack saying after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it all turned (out) so fantastically, he said, 'Well, if anyone's ever going to shoot me, this would be the day they should do it,'" Jacqueline Kennedy said.

"I mean it's so strange, these things that come back," Mrs. Kennedy mused to Schlesinger. "Because he saw then that he would be -- you know, he said, it will never top this. Strange those things come back now."

A footnote in the oral history notes that at the conclusion of the missile crisis the president said to his brother Robert Kennedy, that it "might be the night to go to the theater," an obvious reference to Lincoln and Ford's Theater.

The remark was an expression of JFK's puckish humor as well as his recognition that his triumph in the nuclear-tipped showdown with Russia was of historical importance.

Cuba haunted the Kennedy administration. His early months as president were marked by the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion, and those years were filled with dread that Cuba would be the tripwire for a nuclear war. And the missile crisis brought the U.S. the closest it has ever come to nuclear war.

As Mrs. Kennedy describes it, "It was just Cuba, Cuba, all the time in one way or another."

The ordeal of the missile crisis also brought Jacqueline and Jack Kennedy closer together than they ever were, she says.

During the 13-day stare-down with Russia, tension was unrelenting, meetings were constant and there was very little sleep.

"There was no day or night," Mrs. Kennedy said in the oral history.

Watch the two-hour Diane Sawyer Special "Jacqueline Kennedy: In Her Own Words" Tuesday 13 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

The crisis began on Oct. 14, 1962 when U.S. spy planes detected Russian missiles being installed on the island, putting nukes in lobbing distance of the U.S. mainland.

Kennedy insisted the missiles be removed and threw up a naval quarantine around the island as more Russian ships headed towards Cuba. The world held its breath for two weeks, waiting to see which side would blink.

Jacqueline Kennedy was aware that some administration officials were sending their wives and children out of Washington in case of a possible nuclear attack. She pleaded with her husband to not send her away.

"Please don't send me anywhere. If anything is going to happen, we're going to stay right here with you," she remembered telling JFK. When he suggested there might not be room for everyone in the bomb shelter, she was undeterred.

"Please, then I just want to be on the lawn when it happens… but I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do too, than live without you." The president agreed he would not send her away.

The ensuing two weeks were a marathon of negotiations, meetings and strategy sessions that erupted even in the middle of the night.

"I remember [National Security Adviser McGeorge] Bundy at the foot of both our beds, you know, waking Jack up for something," she said.

Mrs. Kennedy stayed close to JFK during the ordeal.

"Well, that's the time I've been closest to him, and I never left the house or saw the children, and when he came home, if it was for a sleep or for a nap, I would sleep with him."

"I'd walk by his office all the time and sometimes he would take me out... for a walk around the lawn, a couple times... We just sort of walked quietly, and then go back in."

She also admits to eavesdropping on her husband and his advisers one morning when the emergency committee in charge of the crisis gathered in the Oval Room, unbeknownst to the press.

"So then, I went in the Treaty Room where I well, just to fiddle through some mail or something, but I could hear them talking through the door. And I went up and listened and eavesdropped," she confided.

The tension grew as a Russian ship approached the U.S. quarantine around Cuba.

"The only thing I can think of what it was like, it was like an election night waiting, only much worse," she said. "Then finally, some ship turned back… then that was when you heaved the first sigh of relief."

JFK had prepared for the missile crisis with the humiliating defeat at the Bay of Pigs at the start of his term.

The young president had learned almost immediately upon taking office that he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration an army of Cuban refugees and plans for an invasion. But Kennedy determined that the U.S. would not be involved in fighting and withdrew planned attacks by the U.S. Air Force.

The subsequent offensive in April 1961 was a disaster. The CIA trained Cuban invaders quickly were defeated at the Bay of Pigs, with hundreds shot and killed, and the survivors rounded up and imprisoned.

It was a bitter start to the president's term and although Kennedy was a decorated veteran of World War II, he was badly shaken by the loss of life and the wreckage of the Cuban force. It was one of only three times Jacqueline Kennedy saw her husband cry.

"He came back over to the White House to his bedroom and he started to cry, just with me…..Just put his head in his hands and sort of wept," she recalled.

"All those poor men who you'd sent off with their hopes high and promises that we'd back them and there they were, shot down like dogs or going to die in jail," she said.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who wrote the introduction to Mrs. Kennedy's oral history book, says that Kennedy was not adequately prepared to take on the competing forces of the presidency when confronted with plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

"He was in a way, a sitting duck for the CIA to say, 'We've got this great plan to invade Cuba.' He did not yet have the kind of knowledge that would have allowed him to say, 'This is going to be a failure,'" Beschloss says.

The president subsequently addressed the nation and took responsibility for the fiasco. In what would be almost unthinkable in today's political climate, his approval rating soared to 81 percent.

Click Here to Pre-Order "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John. F. Kennedy"

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