The Most Dangerous Moment in Human History

It’s a popular quote about the Cuban Missile Crisis. But where did it come from?

A quote by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. is often used in talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis. And it’s easy to see why — it’s a pithy, evocative quote. He described the crisis as “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

But where and when did he say it? It often appears without a source reference.

Robert Kennedy Thirteen Days

Schlesinger used it in the Foreword of the 1999 reissue of Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Schlesinger wrote that “Now that the Cold War has disappeared into history, we can say authoritatively that the world came closest to blowing itself up during thirteen days in October 1962” and that “Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days has become a minor classic in its laconic, spare, compelling evocation of the shifting moods and maneuvers of the most dangerous moment in human history.”1

Schlesinger was a roving Presidential special assistant in Kennedy’s White House. He was close to the action, but not part of the action. He did not personally participate in the ExComm meetings, but during his White House service he did have broad access to highly classified materials like Current Intelligence Bulletins and the daily brief.

[T]he world came closest to blowing itself up during thirteen days in October 1962.

He also served as a channel between President Kennedy and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson. In that role, Schlesinger was called on twice. The first time was to massage the announcement naming John McCloy to the Coordinating Committee for the New York negotiations. The second time was during the controversy caused by Stewart Alsop’s and Charles Bartlett’s article in the Saturday Evening Post that said that Stevenson had wanted to trade the NATO missiles in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba and quoted an unidentified source that Stevenson “wanted a Munich.”

After JFK’s assassination, Schlesinger wrote an extraordinarily influential history of Kennedy’s presidency, A Thousand Days (1965). In writing his book he essentially had open access to the White House’s files. Schlesinger followed that up with a biography of RFK, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), for which he was given access to RFK’s papers, many of which historians still don’t have access to.

  1. Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999) p. 7. The 1968, 1969, and 1971 editions obviously did not include Schlesinger’s quote.

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