The War Room – Historical Fiction

Missiles. Three of them. Sitting patiently in Cuba…waiting. Their dark casings housing a more destructive potential than the atomic bombs let off over Japan.

Missiles on Smathers Beach, October 1962. Photography: Don Pinder Image Credit: Florida Keys Public Libraries
Missiles on Smathers Beach, October 1962.
Photography: Don Pinder.
Image Credit: Florida Keys Public Libraries.

The photographs arrived at 1:03 pm and sent the whole West Wing into a spin. Finally the war that had lain dormant for so long was now a very real possibility…too real and too close to home. It was only a matter of time, twenty-four hours to be precise, before the President rounded up his best military advisers, including a certain Robert McNamara, to form EX-COMM to deal with this latest threat.

All thirteen of them filed into the war room, each face as grim as the last, and took their places around the large black table at the centre of the room. Among them is the President’s personal adviser, Ted Sorensen, a man who believed that if the crisis was not dealt with swiftly and diplomatically, the whole thing could blow out of proportion and become the catalyst for a nuclear war, for which America herself would be the first to fall. But of course, Sorensen did not share these thoughts with the rest of the board, for such pessimistic thoughts would surely be dismissed. These unassuming qualities of Sorensen seemed to almost juxtapose McNamara, who was a bold, bloodthirsty man who achieved his childhood dream of eliminating all those who opposed his mother country by becoming Kennedy’s military adviser.

“Gentlemen, it appears that we have a major problem on our hands,” stated McNamara as he plastered the photographs on the table.

Silence reverberated around the room as each individual analysed the menacing weapons of destruction. They all looked to their leader, who only crossed his hands above his head and rested his face upon them. Aware that the others were waiting for a response, Kennedy looked to McNamara and motioned him to speak before putting his head back in his hands.

McNamara, who had been waiting for many months to share his plan, began to speak.

“This proves that we have no choice but to go on with the invasion. With Castro down, the Cubans will welcome us for overthrowing their dictator of a leader with open-”

McNamara, when in his element, did not like to be interrupted, especially by a nervous cough. He glared angrily at the offender, Sorensen, as he stood up. Sorensen could feel his legs shaking underneath the table as he glanced around the room, pausing only momentarily on the President who still had his head on his hands before meeting the gaze of McNamara who stood opposite him. He knew of McNamara’s violent wrath, of how even the Secret Service quivered under his very gaze as they carried out his orders, despite no obligation to McNamara.

“Well man? Speak!” commanded McNamara.

Under his command, Sorensen addressed the committee.

“How do we know that the Soviets will not simply launch their missiles before we topple Castro? How do we know that the Cubans will willingly allow foreigners to invade their country?” Sorensen spoke, each question said in a higher tone than the last as his voice echoed around the room.

Sorensen was running on fever-pitched adrenaline, fuelled by the frustration he experienced since McNamara became the Secretary of Defence. He was further egged on by the nods of his fellow colleagues. In contrast, McNamara stared back at him, face as blank as the black table that reproduced his reflection.

“It is too much of a risk to allow our men to undertake such a task! We cannot afford another incident like the Bay of Pigs, which, from what I remembered, was under your watch McNamara!”

Gasps erupted around the table. Even Kennedy looked up from his hands. Sorensen had done the unthinkable: blaming McNamara for the disastrous incident that was the Bay of Pigs. All faces ventured back and forth between Sorensen and McNamara like a tennis match.

McNamara, whose face had remained expressionless, declared: “That was based upon misinterpreted information provided by the CIA, from which I recall, you dealt with during that incident. I suggest that you check your facts before you start making accusations, Sorensen. It does not look good for a man that prides himself on being the President’s personal adviser.”

Heads bobbed up and down around the table once more. Sorensen could see at once that he had lost them. McNamara had made a good point, one that he could not argue with without causing more fuss, which was certainly unwanted at such a critical point in time. The threat of nuclear war was looming, and he refused to be a part of the petty games that McNamara was playing with the rest of EXCOMM.

“Gentlemen please. We have three missiles that could be heading right towards us now as we speak. We are grown men. It is vital that we all co-operate,” Kennedy directed this at Sorensen and McNamara, “Now Sorensen, if you don’t mind, please take a seat and let McNamara finish.”

McNamara gloated as Sorensen sat down silently in disgust. How could Kennedy be such a fool? Did he not see that, with McNamara as leader, the world would surely be headed towards a catastrophe? Sorensen looked around the room, aware that his treasonous thoughts might have been translated into his facial expressions, but nobody paid him any more attention for McNamara had begun to speak again.

“With a full-scale invasion, we can guarantee that the missiles can be safely disposed of by our armed forces. The Cubans are only in league with the Soviets because of Castro, so if we can get rid of him, we can cut off any ties Cuba has with Russia and secure it as an American ally…”

Nearly a year on from the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK meets with General Maxwell D. Taylor and Secretary Robert S. McNamara, at the Oval Office, White House. Photography: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Image Source: Manhhai, Flickr. Click through link.
Nearly a year on from the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK meets with General Maxwell D. Taylor and Secretary Robert S. McNamara, at the Oval Office, White House.
Photography: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Image Source: Manhhai, Flickr. Click through link.

We are doomed, thought Sorensen. He could not believe that the future of this country, the world, rested on the half-arsed plans of some idiot whose only desire was to eliminate all those who opposed him. What was worse, the rest of EXCOMM appeared to believe the ranting of this mad-man. How they could not see the flaws in his plan was beyond Sorensen’s comprehension.

After McNamara had finished, applause erupted from around the table. He beamed as he soaked up the approval that came from all directions. His plan had been welcomed with open arms! He would be recognised for his greatness, in league with Kennedy himself, or perhaps, even greater.

It was too much for Sorensen. He could feel that his emotions were preparing to leave his control if he did not find a way to rein them in. He could see the other advisers cheering McNamara on maniacally like hyenas after a kill. He was frightened, genuinely frightened by the events unfolding before his very eyes. He could see now that he never even had a chance in convincing EXCOMM to dismiss McNamara’s plan. They had already come to a decision since the Bay of Pigs. They wanted revenge for the humiliation and torment they had to face in its aftermath at the hands of the international media, and nobody on this planet could stop their bloodlust for vengeance.

It was too late for Sorensen to save himself. It was too late to save anyone from what was about to happen. Amidst all the cheering, the President stood up. He only coughed once before declaring to the world, “I have now come to a decision…”


On October 28, 1962, fourteen days after the missiles were spotted by an American spy plane, President Kennedy publicly agreed to a deal with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in which the Soviets would dismantle the weapon sites in exchange for a pledge from the United States not to invade Cuba. By June 1963, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States lessened as both super powers recognized the devastating possibility of a nuclear war. When later questioned about his decision, Kennedy responded “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”


T. Tharumalingam

Originally from Sri Lanka, Tharsika Tharumalingam now lives in Sydney, Australia. She has had short works previously published in various anthologies and in her spare time likes to question the unquestionable in the pursuit of a good story. Tharsika is currently about to undertake a university degree.

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