During a 13-day period in October in the year that I was born, a political and military standoff nearly turned into a worldwide nuclear conflict. Known in this country as the Cuban Missile Crisis (it was known as the October Crisis in Cuba and the Caribbean Crisis in the former Soviet Union), leaders of the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a tense confrontation in October of 1962 over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Cuba, just 90 miles from U.S. shores.
In a nationally televised address, President Kennedy notified Americans about the presence of the missiles and explained his decision to enact a naval blockade around Cuba. The President made it clear the U.S. was prepared to use military force if necessary to neutralize this perceived threat to national security. However, 51 years ago today, disaster was avoided when the U.S. agreed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s offer to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the U.S. promising not to invade Cuba. Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.
So I took a bike ride to the location where many historians contend the agreement to end the crisis was negotiated, the Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant. Tucked between the D.C. Fire Department’s Engine Company 28 and a 7-Eleven, it was located at 3524 Connecticut Avenue (MAP). The Yenching Palace was opened in the 1950’s by Van Lung, the son of a Chinese warlord, and remained a landmark in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of northwest D.C. for more than 50 years.
In its heyday, diplomats, politicians, movie stars and musicians dined there alongside neighborhood regulars. In the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger was a regular visitor, Chinese diplomats often his companions. Kissinger used to drink Moutai — a powerful liqueur popular in China — and eat the duck. A few of the other customers included Mick Jagger, Danny Kaye, George Balanchine, Ann Landers, Jason Robards, James Baldwin, Arthur (that’s how he signed the guest book) Garfunkel, famed architect I.M. Pei (whose signature is completely unreadable), Daniel Ellsberg, “Alex” Haig, Lesley Stahl, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and so many ambassadors and Senators it’s hard to keep track. But perhaps the most famous customers and the most oft-told story about Yenching Palace is how emissaries representing President Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev clandestinely met there on the evening of October 27th to negotiate during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and legend has it that they hammered out the final details, and avoided a war, in the second-to-last booth on the left.
The Yenching Palace closed – to the dismay of many regulars – in 2007 when the building was leased by the Lung family to a Walgreens – the first Walgreens to locate in D.C., in fact. In a nod to the building’s history Walgreens attempted to recreate the façade of the building to imitate its original appearance.