Speaking on the 45th anniversary of the confrontation, Sorensen, now 79, recounted how he personally drafted the memos that Kennedy sent to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the intense negotiations.
The audience was tense as Sorensen spoke of the caution he had to use. “When I was drafting the letter to Khrushchev, I knew that if I provoked him, his response would be too horrible to imagine,” Sorensen said.
The event also had its lighter moments. Sorensen said with a smile that “young men thanked me for making Kennedy’s speech so dramatic because it helped them convince their girlfriends that it was the last night on earth.”
Sorensen’s dry humor was also directed at the present. He said Kennedy was willing to show American missile surveillance images to French President Charles de Gaulle, and contrasted this with the current president’s treatment of similar evidence of a threat in the run-up to the Iraq war.
In an interview after the event, Sorensen urged Harvard students to rise up to the challenge of public service.
“President Kennedy said in his first inaugural address that he wanted to make public service once again a proud and lively career,” he said. “We need the right leadership.”
Students in attendance reacted positively to Sorensen’s speech, noting that he had to hold back tears when speaking of his former boss.
“How touched he still felt by the death of J.F.K. shows what kind of respect he had for him,” said Susana Bejar ‘08.
Sorensen’s address also praised Kennedy’s resolve under pressure.
“As a Cuban-American, I am glad that Kennedy took the steps to save the island because my dad lived there at the time,” said Elena C. Castaneda ‘08, president of the Cuban-American Undergraduate Student Association.
During the event, Dillon Professor of Government Graham T. Allison Jr. ’62, who interviewed Sorensen, highlighted the importance of the crisis as a “serious moment in human history.”
When Sorensen was asked if he was scared during those critical days, he responded, “I was working too hard to feel scared.”