Cold War tension comes to Springfield

President Kennedy, Congressman Yates, and Governor Kerner
sit in the back of a convertible, Springfield, Illinois, 1962.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.
In October 1962, an American U-2 reconnaissance plane photographed a series of Soviet missile bases being built in Cuba. Alerted to this serious threat, President John F. Kennedy and his defense and foreign policy advisers launched an effort to remove the missiles, either through diplomacy or by force. Global tensions soared to a point where any spark might have ignited World War III.

Four days into the crisis, that spark nearly happened; not in Cuba or Berlin or any other Cold War flashpoint, but in Springfield, Illinois.

The presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba was brought to Kennedy’s attention on Tuesday, October 16. As the military raised its alert level and prepared for either an airstrike on the missile sites or an all-out invasion of Cuba, Kennedy and his advisors tried to determine what to do. To avoid alerting the Soviets before the United States had decided upon its course of action, Kennedy was urged to keep to his normal public schedule during the first days of the crisis. That schedule brought him to Springfield on Friday, October 19.

Kennedy had come to the Prairie State to campaign for Congressman Sidney Yates of Chicago who was challenging Illinois’ U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen in the upcoming election. Air Force One had brought the President into Springfield’s airport where a motorcade; with an open-topped limousine at its center; would conduct the President to his planned stops. The route had been published in that morning’s newspaper and a crowd had gathered to see the President and Illinois Governor Otto Kerner drive through the city.

The first stop was at Oak Ridge Cemetery so that Kennedy could pay his respects at the tomb of President Abraham Lincoln. A Secret Service report would later say that while he was there, “an employee of the Illinois Department of Public Safety saw a rifle barrel with telescopic sight protruding from a second story window,” somewhere along the President’s route.

Kennedy’s drive into the cemetery had taken him past the building (which was not identified in the report), and the road back out would pass along the same course. Police rushed into the building and found two young men with a .22 caliber rifle and a box of ammunition. They were quickly delivered into the custody of the Secret Service, where they admitted to pointing the rifle out the window and looking through the scope, but claimed that they had only been “testing the power of the telescopic sight to determine if it would be worthwhile to remove it in order to get a better look at the President when the motorcade returned,” according to the Secret Service report.

Both men gave agents the identical story. “As there was no evidence to the contrary, and neither man had any previous record, prosecution was declined,” the report goes on.

The incident was briefly mentioned in the next morning’s Springfield newspaper. “Police arrested two youths, aged 19 and 16 for investigation, but would not explain details. The arrest sheets were marked ‘hold for secret service,” read the news item on Page 7 of the Illinois State Journal.

For more than 50 years, the Springfield incident was forgotten about, the Secret Service report classified and stored away. In 2016, it was among a set of documents declassified at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. There, historian Stephen Knott stumbled upon the report while researching a book on Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Knott, a professor at the United States Naval War College, wrote about the incident in the Washington Post in 2018.

“There is no evidence to suggest a connection between these two men and the Soviet Union. But at the time, any violence waged against Kennedy probably would have set off war,” Knott wrote. “An enraged public and a core group of advisers predisposed to think the worst of Soviet intentions would have exerted enormous pressure upon (Vice President Lyndon) Johnson to respond with force.”

President Kennedy departs Lincoln's Tomb
after laying a wreath, Springfield, Illinois, 1962
Knott also examined the response of the Secret Service to the incident, observing that, “nothing was learned by government security officials in the aftermath of the near miss on the road to Lincoln’s tomb. Had they grasped the red flags from the close call, such as the risk of open limousines and the need to protect against shootings, they might have saved Americans from the searing trauma ahead.”

Knott’s article caused a stir in Springfield, and the re-discovery of the incident (and its previously unknown details) were extensively covered in the Springfield State Journal-Register. While the Secret Service report named both men involved, their names were not in the newspaper because no charges were filed and “neither has a criminal record of any significance.” One of the men still lived in Springfield at the time of the article last year, but declined to comment to the newspaper beyond denying any intention of harming the President that day.

Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine, who was the advance agent for the President’s visit to Springfield later wrote a book about his time on Kennedy’s protective detail. He mentioned the Springfield trip in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but did not write anything about the suspected riflemen. Blaine was in the lead car of the motorcade through the city, and says he did not even know about the incident until afterward.

In stark contrast to the army of security which follows the President everywhere he goes today, Blaine said there were only five Secret Service agents assigned to the Springfield trip in 1962. They could not spare anyone to investigate the incident any further, and left the matter in the hands of the two agents assigned to the local Springfield office. The Springfield agents had taken precautions before the trip, sweeping the motorcade route for bombs and providing local police with photos of individuals who had attracted the agency’s suspicion.

“A lot of times things like that would happen and we would never tell the President. He had enough on his mind,” Blaine, now 86, told the State Journal-Register in 2018. “Every time you went on a trip, something would usually happen. If it was worthwhile, you would get a briefing on it.”

The mental picture conjured by accounts of the October 1962 Springfield incident is eerie: the sunny autumn Friday; President Kennedy waving to spectators from his open car, the Governor seated nearby; the rifle emerging from the window overlooking the motorcade route. As Knott suggests, thirteen months later a grieving nation might have wondered if things could have been different had the Springfield incident led to the kinds of changes in Presidential security which were implemented after the tragedy in Dallas.

The international what-ifs of this incident are also staggering to consider. American political and military leaders were on high alert for the first signs of a surprise Soviet attack. The flight time of the missiles from Cuba to Washington was only a few minutes. If an attempt on the life of the Commander in Chief was believed to be the opening move in the attack everyone feared was coming, how might the nation’s leaders have reacted in that tiny window of time? Even if given more time, would a Soviet denial of involvement have been believed just days after the United States discovered the Soviets had lied about putting missiles into Cuba? What if the President had actually been harmed? Some of the possible outcomes are nothing short of terrifying.

But instead, no shots were fired, no one was prosecuted, President Kennedy delivered his speech and departed on Air Force One after about 90 minutes in Springfield. The next morning, the Illinois State Journal printed an interview with the Special Agent in Charge of the Secret Service office in Springfield Fred Backstrom. Its headline read: “Secret Service Agent Heaves Sigh of Relief: Happy to see JFK Leave Town – Safely.”

President Kennedy gives remarks at a rally in the Coliseum at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois, 1962