Learning from the Missile Crisis

What Really Happened on Those Thirteen Fateful Days in October

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet warheads on Cuban soil could have attacked many major U.S. cities. (Bettmann / Corbis)
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American analysts concluded that the president’s strong warnings made it highly unlikely that the Soviets would install a missile base in Cuba. After all, they had never placed nuclear weapons outside their own territory, not even in Communist Europe.

That fixed American mind-set caused Kennedy to dismiss reports from spies in Cuba of missiles much larger than “defensive” antiaircraft SAMs. Then a dumb coincidence delayed photoreconnaissance. Because on September 9 the Chinese shot down a U-2 plane photographing their terrain, the White House ordered U-2 pilots over Cuba to steer clear of areas protected by SAM defenses.

Equally ill timed was the marriage of CIA chief John McCone, a Republican and former businessman who was the only Washington official to have reasoned his way into Khrushchev’s mind. Before embarking on his honeymoon at the end of August, McCone had tried to persuade Kennedy that the SAMs in Cuba could have only one purpose: to prevent U-2 spy planes from observing Khrushchev’s probable next step—the installation of mediumrange missiles capable of striking American cities. McCone’s absence meant his suspicions, and insights, were not heard in Washington for most of September.

Once McCone returned, he learned that an intelligence analyst had indeed spotted, in a photograph, suspicious bulldozer patterns in the terrain in western Cuba—patterns resembling the layout of missile bases in Russia. McCone insisted on more aggressive reconnaissance, and finally, on October 14, in the suspect area near San Cristóbal, U-2 cameras 13 miles up snapped remarkably clear pictures of medium-range missile transporters, erectors and launchpads. It was compelling evidence of imminent deployment of nuclear weapons capable of striking Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Dallas. Khrushchev, deeply committed to defying Kennedy’s warnings, was, in fact, installing at least 24 medium-range ballistic missile launchers (MRBMs), plus 16 intermediate- range missiles (IRBMs) that could reach any point in the continental United States except the northwest corner.

Kennedy, in turn, was just as deeply committed to prohibiting such bases. Upon seeing the U-2 photographs the morning of October 16, he first envisioned an air strike to destroy the missiles before they became operational. His more sober second thought was to keep the news a tight secret until he could take counsel and sift his options. Gauntlets thrown, here began the historic “thirteen days.”

The President’s Men Convene

What appears in retrospect to have been a quickly devised and effective American plan of action was actually the product of chaotic, contentious debate among official and unofficial advisers. They functioned as a rump “executive committee of the National Security Council,” soon jargonized as “ExComm,” and often met without Kennedy, to free up the discussion.

The ranking ExCommers were the president and his brother, the attorney general; Dean Rusk, secretary of state; Robert McNamara, secretary of defense; McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser; Douglas Dillon, secretary of the treasury; Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other chiefs; John McCone of the CIA; and United Nations representative Adlai Stevenson. They all made a show of keeping their public schedules while moving in and out of secret meetings. From Tuesday, October 16, through Sunday, the 21st, they gulped sandwiches for lunch and dinner and kept their own notes in longhand, without secretaries. They shuttled among meeting sites by crowding circus-style into a few cars, to avoid a telltale herd of limousines. They lied to their wives, to subordinates and to the press. For the climactic hours of decision, the president cut short a campaign visit to Chicago, feigning a bad cold and a slight fever.

All this undemocratic secrecy served a policy purpose. The president was afraid that his options could be dangerously reduced if Khrushchev knew he had been found out. Kennedy worried that the Soviet leader might then stake out a preemptive threat to retaliate for any attack on his missiles, either by firing some of them or attacking American forces in Berlin or Turkey. Alerting Congress could have provoked demands for swift military action without allowing time to study the consequences.

The more the ExComm members talked, the less they agreed on a course of action. Every day brought more evidence of Soviet haste. Some of the missiles, the ExComm members speculated, would surely be armed with nuclear warheads within days, and all within weeks.


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