A Look Back ... Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis began on Oct. 16, 1962 -- the first of the "Thirteen Days of October." On that day, President John F. Kennedy was informed that a U-2 mission flown over western Cuba two days before had taken photographs of Soviet nuclear missile sites. The event was a watershed for the Intelligence Community (IC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in particular. It demonstrated that the technological collection capabilities so painstakingly constructed to monitor the Soviet Union had matured to give the IC an unmatched ability to provide policymakers with sophisticated warning and situational awareness.
Rumors of Nuclear Missile Deployment in Cuba
After the Soviet Union began supplying Cuba with conventional arms during the summer of 1960, rumors about a nuclear missile deployment on the island began emanating from Miami's Cuban émigré community. Despite an extensive array of assets targeted at Fidel Castro's regime, the IC could not substantiate the expatriates' reports. And not for a lack of trying: the CIA deployed collection teams and conducted technical operations; the US military's intelligence services and the FBI reached out to sources; the government had twice-a-month U-2 flights; the IC monitored official and nonofficial third country sources, travelers, and media reports. The IC concluded that the expatriates were trying to provoke the United States into taking military action against Castro.
Sometime around April 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to develop Cuba into a nuclear base, and in mid-July Soviet shipments of conventional weapons and military equipment intensified. Throughout the summer, American policymakers and intelligence officials speculated about what the buildup meant. The IC concluded that Moscow's actions in Cuba were defensive, designed mainly to shore up a revolutionary ally while marginally improving its own political position in the region.
Director of Central Intelligence John McCone was virtually alone in assessing that the Kremlin had more malevolent intentions: the buildup was a prelude to the deployment of nuclear missiles. McCone believed that Khrushchev was trying to overcome US strategic superiority and extort diplomatic concessions by establishing a nuclear outpost near the United States.
Even after Soviet surface-to-air missile sites were detected in late August -- the first time such weapons had been seen outside Soviet-controlled territory -- McCone's judgment sounded like a worst-case scenario at best, an unfounded hunch at worst, and might have been discounted somewhat because of his widely known, visceral distrust of the Soviet Union.
The DCI found his case even harder to make because of headline-grabbing allegations by Kenneth Keating, a Republican Senator from New York, an ardent critic of the Administration's policy toward Castro, and a friend of McCone's. Keating's alarmist assertions provided fodder for GOP candidates in the Congressional campaigns then getting underway and inclined Administration officials to discount intelligence that tended to corroborate them. Some officials even suspected that McCone was secretly collaborating in the Senator's disclosures to force the White House to take strong action against Cuba.
The U-2: High-level Aerial Reconnaissance
The intelligence picture was complicated further when the best source of information on Soviet military activity in Cuba -- high-level aerial reconnaissance -- was curtailed at a crucial time for diplomatic reasons. In mid-September the Kennedy Administration placed restrictions on US Air Force U-2 flights over Cuba after the Communist Chinese shot down a U-2 over the mainland and the Soviets protested an accidental U-2 overflight of Sakhalin Island.
The restrictions limited aerial reconnaissance over Cuba to a few peripheral and in-and-out flights by CIA-piloted U-2s. Other intelligence -- such as refugee and agent reports, intercepted communications, and shipping information -- could not fill the gap. Unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, the first Soviet Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) arrived at the port of Mariel on Sept. 15, 1962.
In early October, the National Security Council's Special Group relaxed the restrictions on U-2 flights after receiving more reliable HUMINT reports about suspicious Soviet activities in western Cuba. Bad weather and bureaucratic delay kept the first Air Force-piloted U-2 mission under the new reconnaissance schedule from being flown until Oct. 14. The flight crossed the island and brought back photographs of what analysts at the National Photographic Interpretation Center determined were three MRBM launch sites near San Cristobal.
The Deputy Director for Intelligence at CIA, Ray Cline, passed the momentous news to the President's National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, on the evening of Oct. 15. Bundy told President Kennedy the following morning. Speaking over an open line early on the 16th, the DCI's executive assistant, Walter Elder, told McCone, "That which you and you alone said would happen, has happened."
Managing the Crisis
To help him manage the crisis, President Kennedy set up a working group within the National Security Council called the Executive Committee, better known as the ExComm. McCone was the only member from an intelligence agency. During the “Thirteen Days,” he attended more than two dozen meetings to deal with specific issues. For him and his colleagues, this episode probably was the most grueling of their careers -- a frantic marathon of 16-hour-plus workdays filled with urgent discussions and telephone calls; hurried limousine trips, briefings and corridor conferences; catnaps in the office and meals on the run; political frustrations and bureaucratic wrangles; and social commitments that had to be kept to avoid arousing suspicion that something dire was afoot.
The DCI and several assistants -- DDI Cline, NPIC director Arthur Lundahl, and chief science analyst Sidney Graybeal -- translated the arcana of strategic weapons intelligence and U-2 photography at regular briefings to the President and the ExComm. A vital part of the information they considered came from a Soviet military intelligence officer, Oleg Penkovsky. During the previous two years, Penkovsky had provided to the United States and Great Britain technical specifications about Soviet nuclear missiles--their range and destructive power, and how long they took to become operational after they were shipped to a given location. That last bit of intelligence persuaded Kennedy that he did not need to order air strikes to take out the missile sites immediately and instead had a brief time to pursue a diplomatic settlement.
By Oct. 20, the ExComm had reached a consensus in favor of a naval "quarantine" on Soviet military shipments to Cuba as a tactic to force Khrushchev's hand. McCone at first favored immediate air strikes but soon agreed that a quarantine -- combined with a deadline for withdrawing the missiles -- was the best option. The president announced the presence of the missiles and the imposition of the quarantine to the world in a television address on the evening of Oct. 22.
After six more nerve-wracking days, Khrushchev backed down and agreed to withdraw all the missiles and launch equipment. During those six days, all 24 MRBM launchers became operational, construction on several intermediate range missile sites proceeded rapidly, and sensitive back-channel talks took place between the Soviet ambassador and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
In exchange for the withdrawal, Washington agreed not to invade Cuba and, several months later, to withdraw obsolete nuclear-tipped missiles from Turkey. Because Castro ultimately refused to allow the agreed-upon on-site inspections, Kennedy later revoked his non-invasion pledge.
For the next several months, the IC monitored Moscow's compliance through all-source collection against a wide range of Soviet and Cuban targets. By early February 1963, IC agencies concluded that the Soviets had withdrawn all strategic weapons and support personnel from Cuba and dismantled the missile sites.