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How the world was saved from nuclear war in this restaurant booth


WASHINGTON (Circa) — Located just steps from the White House, the Occidental Grill, a mainstay for Washington's elite for more than a century, has had more than its fair share of historical moments. However, none compare to the role it played in solving the the Cuban missile crisis 58 years ago.

In October of 1962, the world stood still for 13 days as the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a standoff that threatened nuclear Armageddon. However, that ghastly outcome never happened thanks to a lunch meeting in an Occidental booth. It was during this meeting, while the world was on the brink of a crisis, that Soviet embassy counselor Alexander Fomin passed papers to ABC News correspondent John Scali, indicating the U.S.S.R. was willing to make a deal which would eventually see a peaceful resolution to what could have killed millions on both sides.

"That’s probably the biggest event and our claim to fame," said Travis Gray, the restaurant's manger.

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This military photo shows one of the Soviet missile sites in Cuba during the crisis. A missile erector and shelter tent can be seen marked. Source: NSA Archive

That's saying something for a restaurant which has hosted some of the most notable political leaders, celebrities, and a sizable share of presidents. The Occidental's history is quite literally written on its walls, with pictures complete with autographs of some of its most notable customers covering almost every inch. While the list is certainly impressive, only the picture of Scali, conspicuously placed inside a booth remains a constant. A plaque denoting the important event that took place there sits beneath it.

The Cuban missile crisis wasn't the first Cold War stand off between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and it certainly wouldn't be the last. It is still a consistent reminder of just how close the two sides came to destroying each other.

After Kennedy's failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, and the placement of U.S. nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev decided to place Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962 as a deterrent to future U.S. invasions. This put Soviet nuclear warheads just 90 miles off the U.S. coast, well within range of much of the eastern seaboard.

"The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the western hemisphere," Kennedy told the nation during a televised address.

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A map depicting the various ranges of missiles in Cuba during the missile crisis. Source: National Geospatial Intelligence Agency

He responded by effectively blockading Cuba, turning around any ships carrying military equipment. It wasn't until four days after Kennedy's address that Fomin — who was actually a KGB agent named Aleksandr Feklisov — met with Scali at the Occidental.

He told Scali that "war seems about to break out" and asked Scali to talk to his contacts in the State Department if the U.S. would be open to a solution to the crisis.

Eventually, the two sides were able to come up with a deal. In exchange for removing the missiles from Cuba, the United States agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey. Khruschev took to the radio to announce removal on Oct. 29. Kennedy would follow up by calling off the blockade in late November.

While the crisis in Cuba was averted, it would not stop an arms race between the two sides which continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union decades later.

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