The Photographs That Prevented World War III

While researching a book on the Cuban missile crisis, the writer unearthed new spy images that could have changed history

Low-altitude images, previously unpublished, reveal gaps in U.S. intelligence. Analysts failed to detect tactical nuclear warheads at a bunker near Managua. (Michael Dobbs)
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“No apparent change,” CIA analysts wrote in an October 27 report. “Vines have grown on fence in some sections.” From Soviet sources, we now know that the bunker—which the CIA believed hid conventional munitions—was used to store warheads for the tactical FROG missiles that could have been used to destroy an American invading force.

A more ominous gap concerned the location of the warheads for the 36 medium-range missiles capable of hitting Washington and New York. The whereabouts of the warheads was critical, because the missiles could not be fired without them. Kennedy asked for the information repeatedly, but the CIA was never able to answer him definitively. By the second week of the crisis, the photo interpreters had concluded that the warheads were probably stored in a closely guarded facility near the port of Mariel. But by analyzing the raw intelligence film and interviewing former Soviet military officers, I discovered that they were wrong. The one-megaton warheads (each 70 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima) were actually stored some 20 miles away near a town called Bejucal, a few miles south of the Havana airport. The CIA—and, by extension, Kennedy—was completely unaware of this at the time.

The giveaway was the presence of specially configured vans that were used to transport the warheads from Bejucal to the Sagua La Grande missile site starting on the night of October 26, as the crisis was approaching its height. The CIA analysts noted six strange-looking vans at the Bejucal site, but failed to understand their significance.

I was intrigued to learn that the Bejucal facility had been photographed on several Blue Moon missions. At the beginning of the crisis, a CIA briefer had even told Kennedy that it was the “best candidate” for a nuclear storage bunker and was marked for “further surveillance.” But the photo interpreters lost interest in Bejucal because of the seemingly lax security arrangements there. They noted that the site was protected by a single fence, rather than the multiple fences used to protect similar installations in the United States and the Soviet Union. As it turned out, the lack of security proved to be the best security of all, from the Soviet point of view.

What might have happened had the CIA interpreted the intelligence correctly? Had Kennedy known where the warheads were stored, he might have been tempted to order a pre-emptive strike to seize or disable them. The mission could have been a success, strengthening his hand against Khrushchev, or it could have gone badly wrong, resulting in firefights between Americans and the Soviets guarding the nuclear weapons. We will never know. As it was, Kennedy, armed with only partial intelligence about what the Soviets were doing, refrained from taking pre-emptive action.

At the same time, the photo interpreters did provide Kennedy with information that shaped his response to Khrushchev at several points. On October 26, they correctly identified a nuclear-capable FROG missile launcher photographed by Navy pilot Gerald Coffee the day before. But their most important contribution was their day-to-day assessment of the combat-readiness of the different missile sites. As long as the president knew the missiles were not yet ready to fire, he had time to negotiate.

That changed on October 27—Black Saturday—when the CIA informed Kennedy for the first time that five out of six medium-range missile sites on Cuba were “fully operational.” (The analysts reached this conclusion by monitoring progress made on the missile sites, even though they still did not know where the warheads were.) The president now understood that time was running out, and the confrontation had to be brought to a close. That evening, he delegated his brother Robert, his confidant and the attorney general, to meet with Soviet Ambas­sador Anatoly Dobrynin at the Justice Department and warn that U.S. military action was imminent. He also offered Khrushchev a couple of carrots: If he pulled his missiles out of Cuba, the United States would promise not to invade the island and would also withdraw similar medium-range missiles from Turkey. Fortunately for humanity, Khrushchev accepted the deal.

But there was still an important role left for the pilots to play. For the next three weeks, they monitored the Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. Not until mid-November, once Kennedy was confident that Khrushchev was keeping his side of the bargain, did he finally call off the low-altitude reconnaissance.


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