Americans didn’t know it then, but when President John Kennedy came to Connecticut on October 17, 1962, it was no ordinary campaign trip. More than 100,000 people turned out to see Kennedy at three stops in Bridgeport, Waterbury and New Haven, and hundreds more lined the motorcade route between the three cities.
Unbeknownst to the crowd was that President Kennedy was managing one of the most serious crises ever faced by this country; the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just three days earlier, the President learned with certainty the Soviet Union was secretly setting up missile launches on the Communist island nation of Cuba, just 90 miles from American soil.
Kennedy was shown the photographic evidence on October 15th, and that day and the next he met steadily with advisors about the crisis. On the 17th, he broke away from the extremely tense situation in Washington, to travel to Connecticut, to honor a commitment to campaign for his long time friend Abe Ribicoff, who was running for the Senate seat held by the retiring Prescott Bush. Kennedy also campaigned for Governor John Dempsey and Congressmen John Monagan and Bob Giaimo, but Ribicoff was the focus. Kennedy was also accompanied on the trip by Senator Tom Dodd, father of now former Senator Chris Dodd.
White House records show the president was in the state for roughly four hours. Kennedy flew into the Bridgeport Municipal Airport and spoke on the tarmac there, then traveled by motorcade to Waterbury, and then onto New Haven, where he addressed a crowd of an estimated 55,000 people on the green.
We recently found some old film in the Channel 3 archives of Kennedy’s historic visit, and later learned it was extremely rare. We were contacted by the Kennedy Library in Boston, who asked that we donate a copy. A library spokeswoman told me they had never seen film of Kennedy’s historic trip here, and they are thrilled to have it now, as last year they marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The three speeches Kennedy delivered that day were quintessential JFK; charismatic and humorous, yet filled with a sense of purpose. The president spoke of his political allies here in Connecticut, the space program, national defense, and unemployment. There was no mention of the dire situation in Cuba.
Kennedy flew out of Tweed New Haven Airport at 8:30. Later that night, a U-2 flight over Cuba would discover nuclear missiles, capable of striking most of the continental United States. Americans would learn of the crisis five days after the Connecticut visit, when President Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22, 1962.
As it would turn out, that visit on October 17th would be President Kennedy’s last visit to our state.