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
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
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.
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
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
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.