In October 1962, the world came perilously close to a global nuclear war that would have resulted in the destruction of human society. President John F. Kennedy was told the Soviet Union was assembling nuclear warheads on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles from the Florida coastline. Atomic Gambit takes a deep dive into the actions taken by President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, and other major players during those days of crisis. The podcast looks at how, in a time before the immediacy of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, the general public remained largely unaware of the crisis early on and then how the world leaders miraculously found a way to peace after 13 dangerous days.
Atomic Gambit tells this dramatic story of the Cuban Missile Crisis by drawing on archival documents, audio and film recordings at the JFK Presidential Library including secret recordings made by President Kennedy of meetings at the White House. The podcast is aimed at educating audiences who have some knowledge of the crisis along with those who have never heard of it. We set out to establish a documentary style series that takes listeners from the origins of the crisis to the legacy we live with today. We targeted 125,000 unique downloads for the podcast and built a companion website with episode transcripts, primary sources, and a bibliography for listeners to learn more on their own.
Atomic Gambit was the most ambitious project taken on by the small but dynamic JFK Library Foundation podcast team. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis remains the closest, as we know it, the world has come to nuclear annihilation. We believed it was immensely important to provide context for the crisis, bring the listener into the Cabinet Room where President Kennedy and his advisors debated what to do - including using nuclear weapons - and how the two rival superpowers ultimately worked together to preserve the peace.w
The planning for Atomic Gambit started in 2021. Developed by a team of four in the Foundation’s Communications Department, we decided early on to tell the story in an episodic documentary style format from both U.S. and Soviet sides. We interviewed leading historians of both U.S. and Soviet history regarding the crisis as well as other experts that offered a unique perspective.
Much of the early planning of the podcast was done while the JFK Library was still closed or had limited access due to the pandemic. We also faced a major obstacle in that most of the secret audio recordings had poor audio quality, and our staff - with limited audio engineering capabilities –- learned, in the midst of producing the series, how to try to clear up the audio as much as possible. We also made sure to make transcripts of each episode available online for anyone who may have had difficulty hearing some of the original audio.
As so much of the podcast’s material came from primary sources in the archives at the JFK Library, we created pages for each episode that linked material referenced in each episode and media galleries of primary sources. This way, a listener could dig deeper and explore the documents and photographs that tell the story of the crisis.
As part of spreading the story to audiences hungry for history, we partnered with Lillian Cunningham at The Washington Post and her podcast, Presidential. Through the partnership, we were each able to reach out to the other’s audiences to help spread awareness.
One challenge we wanted to make sure we tackled was making sure the podcast didn’t get lost in the past. It was important to forward the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis to today. In the final episode, we assembled experts including former White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jonathan Kaufman, and director of the Davis Center for Eurasian Studies at Harvard University Alexandra Vacroux to discuss the legacy of what happened in Cuba 60 years ago.
While the Cuban Missile Crisis story has been told before, telling the story through the collections found in the JFK Library’s archives is unique. Unlike others, we were also able to provide access to digital copies of declassified memos, letters, surveillance photographs and more for the listener to explore. Atomic Gambit allows the listener to experience and view the crisis through the same lens as historical researchers making archival discoveries along the way.
Our primary goal was to tell a story of the Cuban Missile Crisis that would not only be educational to a wide spectrum of experiences, but also convey the danger and drama as the crisis unfolded. Whether you knew a lot about the crisis before or knew nothing about it before listening, the chronological storytelling allowed listeners of all backgrounds to walk away with new information, and understand the challenges President Kennedy faced.
We believe the podcast provides a unique look at what happened in Cuba. The podcast was well received and praised by listeners ranging from experts in the field of foreign policy to those who had never heard about the Cuban Missile Crisis before. We received more than 140,000 unique downloads for the seven-episode series and climbed as high as the top 20 in Apple’s history podcast rankings. On our website, Atomic Gambit’s pages had a 24 percent increase in pageviews over our previous podcast special, and the time visitors spent there tripled, suggesting a highly engaged audience.
We believe the podcast will have a lasting influence as a strong deep dive into the Cuban Missile Crisis and the podcast pages we created will live on as an outstanding resource for researchers and others who visit the Library’s digital offerings for years to come.