"To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis," a new exhibition at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, takes visitors well beyond the president’s carefully delivered message for a fly-on-the-wall perspective of how the White House handled the crisis moment to moment. 

The searing insight comes from secret recordings the president had made inside the Cabinet Room.

Curator Stacy Bredhoff said the exhibition made her realize how close the world came to a nuclear catastrophe over the course of 13 days in October, 1962.

"Just to hear people, you can hear the fear and anxiety in their voices, and you can see that there was no certainty about the outcome," she said. 

Recordings animate the unfolding drama

The show pulls the president and his cabinet out of myth. Rather than iconic figures, they are real men grasping to make critical decisions on the fly. 

"You’ll hear the president receiving all kinds of different advice," said Bredhoff. "It’s conflicting, and everybody has very strong opinions about what is the right thing to do. And it’s just, it’s almost unimaginable to have to filter through all of the information that’s coming through and to filter through all of the advice that you’re getting, remain calm, and somehow arrive at a decision." 

The tapes surfaced in 1973, and long available to researchers, they reveal the emotional impact Kennedy’s prolonged showdown with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had, including the fact that the Kennedy administration was very prepared for an attack. 

"There was a speech, the synopsis of a speech prepared, announcing to the American public that reluctantly he had ordered an attack on these sites in Cuba, said Bredhoff. "It's terrifying," she added, "because all of a sudden, these things are not theoretic. It was a real possibility." 

Exhibit explores drawings and international personalities from the period

There is a trove of original artifacts in the show that give insight into how the president coped with the stress.

"He had a habit of taking notes and doodling," Bredhoff said. "And so we have several examples of that, and you see sometimes words being repeated and repeated, and certain designs that he made."

We find early CIA personality studies of both Khrushchev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, neither of which are kind. And the show displays the two chairs used by Kennedy and Khrushchev in their only face-to-face meeting.

"After the meeting, President Kennedy, aware of the significance of what had happened at the meeting, decided that he wanted to have them for his library," Bredhoff said. "And so he bought them, paid $500 and something."

The chairs were used in 1961, well before the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. Book-ending the show in the opposite direction is the Nuclear Test Ban treaty agreed upon by the U.S. and Russia less than a year after the nations’ epic showdown.

"To actually be in the physical presence of these original notes and treaties and objects, chairs, pens that actually President Kennedy handled, there’s just a certain magic in that," Bredhoff said. "And it brings the reality of the history that much closer."