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Through These Halls: Ted Sorensen

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A Nebraska advisor to President Kenney played a major role in the Cuban Missle Crisis

Office of University Communications - Craig Chandler

Note: Based on the comments in the previous alumni profile from the hint I gave on today’s subject, I figured I better add a “keep in mind” note. Yes, this is a political figure. The comments section will likely reflect that. It’s okay to disagree, but don’t get personal and stay on topic. I hope you enjoyed your Memorial Day weekend!

Ted Sorensen, Theodore Chaikin Sorensen, graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1951 with his law degree (first in his class).

Below is a picture I snipped from the 1949 Cornhusker yearbook. I believe Sorensen is the student on the right hand side (as we look at the photo) of the podium. Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.

1949 Cornhusker yearbook

Sorensen is most famous for serving John F. Kennedy as White House counsel from 1961-1964 (through the transition after Kennedy’s assassination). He served Kennedy earlier that that, starting in 1953 as a speech writer for the then-Senator.

One of the defining moments of the Kennedy presidency was the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the U.S. determined that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, right off the shore of the U.S. Kennedy set up a committee of trusted advisors, ExComm, which included Sorensen.

This interview gives Sorensen’s impression from the first meeting of that group:

No decision was made at that first meeting. But if a vote had been taken there - and fortunately it was not; it was not President Kennedy’s method to take votes - an air strike was probably number one on everybody’s list.

The group continued to debate options and Sorensen was asked to write speeches for the president to deliver to the public for both the air strike and blockade options (from the same interview linked above):

And then I was asked to write a... because time was getting short; we didn’t know how much longer we had before the missiles were operational and whatever plan the Soviets had in mind might commence, or how much time we had before the Soviets discovered that we knew about it and that might precipitate action on their part. So I was asked to draft both speeches, both the speech for an air strike, because the President would certainly announce it to the world and the nation about the time the planes took off, and the speech for the blockade. And I came back again and said, “Well, now, the blockade speech - how do we explain this, and what’s the blockade got to do with the missiles, and how’s the blockade going to help?” And by getting answers to those questions, it not only strengthened my ability to write the speech: it strengthened the blockade camp, because we began to put together a much more coherent and, I might add, strong and logical approach. And... it was after that speech had been reviewed that the majority felt that’s the way we should go, and we called the President, who was out on a campaign trip, back to hear our recommendation.

It is somewhat fascinating that in the process of trying to explain both options in a way that would make sense to the public, one of the options began to separate itself from the other. Instead of an air strike, the U.S. instead sent ships to blockade Cuba and prevent the Soviets from delivering any additional materials for missiles.

The blockade was the public action, but in the background Sorensen is often credited with the communication that resulted in the Soviets removing the missiles from Cuba (and the U.S. eventually removing their missiles from Turkey).

The solution, finally, was to respond to the [Khrushchev’s] first letter and largely ignore the second. And the President asked me to go back to my office, asked the Attorney General to come with me, and to prepare a letter... I’d had the primary responsibility for answering all of these Khrushchev messages during the week for the President’s signature... and to prepare a letter which interpreted the previous night’s letter as a solution that we could accept, and so worded, and simply say: “Other disarmament measures can then be discussed after this crisis has been resolved.” And that was the letter that Robert Kennedy took that evening to the Soviet Embassy.

The immediate crisis was resolved and remains the subject of much historical inquiry as well as movies and books.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Sorensen continued to remain active in international circles and in supporting the University of Nebraska. According to a UNL news article put out after his death, Sorensen set up an endowed fellowship and scholarship for UNL students. He also went on to author several books about Kennedy and about his time advising Kennedy.

He died in 2010 at the age of 82. He was survived by wife Gillian and four children (three sons and one daughter).