Today, Tuesday, October 16, marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis. With the Soviet Union and Cuba allied on one side and the United States on the other, the crisis stood out as a critical moment in the Cold War. Dino Brugioni, now 91 years old, helped found the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center and surveyed photographs taken of the Cuban landscape, searching for evidence of missile production. Brugioni will be at the Udvar-Hazy Center October 19 to talk about his experience analyzing photographs during the crisis.
Smithsonian magazine writer Megan Gambino visited Brugioni at his home in Virginia to analyze some of the photographs with him. Gambino writes about how the reconnaissance images were used:
At the peak of the crisis, Brugioni and other photo interpreters were reviewing 30 to 40 rolls of film per day. They were familiar with Cuba’s sugarcane fields, ranch land, railroads and baseball diamonds, so Soviet tents and missile trailers stood out. Analysts were also trained to spot certain “signatures,” or man-made patterns in the earth indicative of missile sites.
Aerial photography allowed Brugioni and his team to accurately identify the Soviet threat and plan for counterattacks. After a tense standoff, the crisis was resolved through a mix of public and private negotiations between President Kennedy and Khrushchev but stands out as a tenuous moment in United States history.
“It was such a long period of time, so many days of uncertainty,” remembers Dorothy Cochrane, curator at the Air and Space Museum.
Many of the images Brugioni analyzed are now at the Air and Space Museum, supplementing its collection of Cold War era artifacts. The museum also has the same model camera that took similar reconnaissance photographs over the Soviet Union as well the U-2 plane from that mission. U-2 planes were used for high-level photography and served as the initial phase of intelligence gathering. From that altitude, Brugioni was able to determine that Cuba had missiles with a rang capable of striking the United States. After analysis, low-level planes were sent in to collect more detailed images.
“When you think about these guys flying at that level, you can just imagine the whole scenario of shooting over this area, knowing the critical information you’re supposed to be getting and how important it is,” says Cochrane.
Cochrane explains, “Aerial photography played the critical role certainly in determining that the Soviets had not only set up nuclear missile, or were bringing in nuclear missiles and stockpiling them in Cuba, but also were preparing to launch them.” It was images from the low-level planes which allowed Brugioni to identify operational missile launchers.
A flight suit from one of the pilots who was part of the low-level mission was also recently acquired and will be donated in a ceremony on October 23rd. For his role in the operation, Commander William Ecker was personally decorated by President Kennedy. He also served as a docent at the Air and Space Museum during the 1970s and 80s, making the gift of his flight suit a sort of homecoming.
Brugioni will be at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia October 19th to present “Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside (Photographic) Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Check out the annotated photographs Brugioni showed Gambino during her visit.
Meanwhile, Michael Dobbs found previously unpublished photographs that reveal gaps in U.S. intelligence. Read more about what he discovered.