Inside the State Department’s auditorium, John T. Hughes ’50 is ready to address his country. A makeshift pointer, fashioned moments earlier from two fishing poles and tape, awaits him at the back of the stage. It leans against a 12-foot-tall projection screen. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stands at a nearby podium, speaking between two microphones: “Mr. John Hughes, the special assistant to the director of our Defense Intelligence Agency, will now present to you a detailed photographic review of the introduction of Soviet military personnel and equipment into Cuba,” he says, “with particular emphasis on the introduction and removal of the offensive weapons systems. Mr. Hughes.”
There is no applause as Hughes rises from his chair and strides to the podium. This isn’t a rally or a jolly White House celebration. He isn’t a celebrity or a big-name politician; in fact, few people outside Washington even know what he does. Yet President John F. Kennedy believes Hughes can extinguish Americans’ panic over the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tonight, Feb. 6, 1963, Hughes will speak on live TV for an hour straight, presenting the same report he gave Kennedy and the House Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations that morning. His words will comfort millions of Americans and earn him a place in history. He will brief three other presidents on highly classified military photographs and surveillance operations before his 1984 retirement and death in 1992.
On this chilly winter night, speaking to Americans about Soviet missiles is an even taller order than it sounds. Four months earlier, in October 1962, the country received startling news: The Soviet Union had been spotted building nuclear missile sites in Cuba, and President Kennedy—the same President Kennedy who had botched the Bay of Pigs invasion a year earlier—had demanded the missiles be removed and placed a naval blockade around the Caribbean country to “quarantine” it. Nuclear war with the Soviet Union suddenly seemed like a strong possibility. Even as U.S. government officials insisted that the missiles were gone, rumors and fear continued.
“The American people were terrified,” says Christopher Fisher, a TCNJ history professor whose work focuses on the Cold War. “Nuclear fear was huge, and with that discovery of missiles in 1962, it seemed all those fears were coming to fruition. Meanwhile, they have [JFK] in the White House, who many of them have deep reservations about…Hughes was able to, in effect, become the ultimate confidence man.”
That evening in early 1963, Hughes made Americans feel safe. Speaking without notes, he told them that the missiles were gone and showed more than 100 military photographs to prove it. He finished with this: “In conclusion, ladies and gentleman, there is little doubt that the Soviet Union did embark upon a bold venture to establish clandestinely a major offensive weapons base in the Western hemisphere.” He continued, “That the United States was able to deter this effort and is now able to monitor the remaining defensive forces is in large part attributable to the reconnaissance photography that we have reviewed this afternoon.”
From their nearby home, Hughes’s wife, Pauline (née Veldof), also a 1950 graduate of the College, watched the whole thing on television with the couple’s four young sons. To Michael Hughes, the second-oldest boy, this impressive man presenting game-changing information was just Dad. Dad, who frequently asked his children, with complete sincerity, “How’s your morale?” Dad, who would slam on his breaks if he saw a turtle crossing the road, pick it up, and drive it home to his delighted sons. (The family had close to six turtles from this at one point.) “He was generally a very quiet man,” Michael says. “By nature he was very modest and unassuming. He was utterly ungiven to boasting or bravado, and he never brought the stress and angst from work home, whether it was the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War. He was a laid-back, easygoing father.”
Yet quiet, modest Dad made history with his television appearance that night. His public presentation of typically classified information was “one of the most unusual showings of such material ever made by a government,” a New York Times reporter wrote in the next day’s paper. “[It] suggested a major Administration effort to restore popular confidence on the Cuban situation.” As Fisher puts it, “Having Hughes come in and meticulously explain those images is one of the things that saves Kennedy’s presidency.”
It seems Kennedy realized that, too—or at least appreciated Hughes’s work. He sent a note the following morning:
Dear Mr. Hughes:
I thought you did an excellent job on television in explaining our surveillance in Cuba. I understand it was done on short notice. I want you to know how much I appreciate your efforts. With best wishes.
John Hughes’s journey to that State Department stage began years earlier at TCNJ, then known as New Jersey State Teachers College. As a work-study student, Hughes spent months poring over old U.S. Army maps that had been donated to the College after World War II. He helped the geography department sort, categorize, and store these surplus maps, igniting his own passion for geography in the process. After graduation, he went on to earn a master’s degree in geography from Clark University and to serve as a photo interpreter in the Army Photographic Intelligence Center from 1954–57.
While training as an educator at New Jersey State Teachers College, Hughes also learned “how to explain complicated things in a straightforward, understandable, interesting manner,” son Michael says. “He was an excellent briefer, and though he never went on to teach in a classroom, he always said that his training as an educator was vital to his success explaining those aerial images to the public. He was very proud of his Trenton ties and New Jersey roots.”
Hughes started work at the Pentagon in 1957 as a civilian in Army intelligence. Four years later, he joined the newly created Defense Intelligence Agency, where he specialized in photographic interpretation and wound up briefing the country in 1963. (According to Michael, Hughes loved photography outside the office, too; he could often be found snapping photos of his family and vacation scenery.)
Following his landmark TV appearance, Hughes went on to brief Congress, various U.S. allies, and presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan on classified photographs of Soviet military installations and other sensitive security and surveillance matters. As deputy director for collection and surveillance operations at the DIA, the intelligence he gathered helped spur a raid in 1970 to free U.S. prisoners in North Vietnam. In the early 1980s, he helped monitor Nicaraguan military buildup and briefed journalists on the matter. Over the years, he earned five distinguished service awards for his work.
In a 1983 Washington Post article, Fred Kaplan wrote that a “soft-spoken, wiry, increasingly frail 54-year-old photo-intelligence analyst named John T. Hughes…stand[s] out among [other] briefers in a class all his own.” Hughes retired a year later as deputy director for intelligence and external affairs at the Defense Intelligence Agency. By that time, according to Michael, the stressful work had indeed left his father in poor health. “I believe he sacrificed his health in the service of his country,” Michael says. “He died [in 1992] from a cerebral hemorrhage at the too-young age of 64. He developed Parkinson’s disease in his late 40s and he also had adult-onset diabetes. I think stress can often be a trigger for health issues.”
Last year, the Defense Intelligence Agency named Hughes one of its “torch bearers.” “Mr. Hughes was recognized as an acclaimed defense intelligence leader throughout his 22-year DIA career,” the program reads. “He rose through the ranks at DIA where his meticulously documented briefings on foreign military forces were widely recognized by senior leaders for their thoroughness and excellence.”
As for Hughes’s broader place in history, Fisher says his televised briefing “provided an invaluable service at a time when America was in one of its deepest crises during the Cold War. He helped pull the president back from the brink and the country back from the brink. Very few people have that kind of impact in their time. He’s one of those unnamed people who do marvelous things under great duress.”