An account is given of the origin and resolution of the 1962 conflict with the Soviet Union about the deployment of offensive medium-range missiles in Cuba.

President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy [photo]During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, I had a front row seat. I was Under Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and, as a consequence, a member of President John Kennedy’s Executive Committee (ExComm) which dealt with our response. I believe I was the only one permitted to keep notes of the meetings, and have from time to time referred to them over the years. However, my recollections of our debates have been stimulated with the recent release of edited transcripts of the discussions.

When in mid–October reconnaissance photos revealed that the Soviets were building missiles and bomber bases in Cuba, I was not surprised. Since July, there had been an increase in shipping from Soviet ports to Mariel in Cuba. On October 11, the French reported that their diplomats had seen trucks loaded with what appeared to be tarpaulin– covered missiles lumbering through Havana at night. I thought it probable that these were indeed offensive missiles, despite Soviet pledges that they would never put bases in Cuba and only defensive weapons. My thought at the time was that whatever Moscow was up to in Cuba was somehow connected with the lingering crisis over Berlin which had begun the previous August when the East Germans began to construct a wall sealing off the eastern sector. I believed that Khrushchev, recognizing that the importance of the city to the West made the risk of war high, was lying low on that crisis while creating a new one in Cuba with the intent of trading one off against the other, perhaps gaining leverage for concessions. But there were other reasons that the possibility of missiles in Cuba was not far–fetched.

During the Berlin crisis, most of our contingency planning for military options had been based on estimates of impressive Soviet conventional and nuclear capabilities. For that reason, we had thought the possibility of escalation into a nuclear war was likely, and the Soviets could hit us very hard. However since then, the double agent Penkovskiy had confirmed what our own intelligence had been suggesting: that Soviet nuclear capabilities had been overestimated, and that we held the advantage—evidently one of the reasons why Moscow was putting intermediate and medium range missiles in Cuba. I viewed the existence of the missiles as a serious threat. They could reach any number of targets in the United States in a short time and, since we had set up no southern early warning system, a surprise attack would put us in a difficult position.

As a result of the new intelligence on Soviet nuclear forces, and the fact that what was happening was in our backyard where we enjoyed a substantial advantage in conventional forces (unlike in Europe during the Berlin crisis), I was hawkish about what our response should be. I did not think the risk of war, while extremely serious, was as great as I had believed the year before. Like General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I thought we could—and should—strike quickly and knock out the bases before they were operational, destroying the missiles and bombers while they were still in crates.

Looking back at the transcripts of the early ExComm discussions, I am struck that many of us considered military action almost inevitable almost from the outset. As I recall, much of the discussion about the use of force, especially an invasion of Cuba, hinged upon whether the Soviets had already deployed nuclear warheads to the island. We operated on the assumption that it was unlikely Moscow would take such a risk, but that these could arrive at any time. As it turned out, at a conference in 1989 on the Cuban Crisis, a Soviet participant revealed that they had already delivered some warheads, so the possibility of war had been greater than suspected.

Even enforcing the naval quarantine the President decided to impose had its risks. If in the course of stopping a Soviet vessel we had to fire at it, and sank it, the Soviets might respond by ordering their submarines escorting the ships to torpedo our warships. They might also retaliate by taking out our missiles based in Turkey or Italy, which would soon escalate into a nuclear war. However, I thought that an air attack on the bases in Cuba would not prompt the same reaction. Cuba was not a Warsaw Pact ally, and an air attack on it would not require a prompt military response. Fortunately, no incident arose to put any of these theories to a practical test. All Soviet ships carrying missiles or equipment halted before encountering our blockade line, and we were selective in stopping others that we knew probably were not carrying contraband. However, I do recall one incident in which we intercepted radio calls between a Soviet ship and its headquarters. The captain reported that he had been located by American submarines and was now surrounded. He asked whether he should let the Americans board or abandon and then sink his ship. I recommended that we jam the radio frequency before the Soviets made up their minds, prevent them from sinking the ship, board it and take it to a US port as a “prize” of war. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara disagreed, and urged that we give the Soviets a dignified way out and permit the ship to head home untouched. Thus the ship got away, much to my frustration!

Recommended Readings: Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missle Crisis, by Dino A. Brugioni (Random House, New York, 1991) Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Robert F. Kennedy (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1969) From Hiroshima to Glasnost: At The Center of Decision, by Paul H. Nitze (Grove Weidenfeld, New York, 1989) The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997)

Paul H. Nitze (CC ‘85) is a
Professor at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies,
The John Hopkins University,
1619 Massachussetts Avenue, NW,
Washington, DC 20036;
phone: (202) 333-7388

Assembled by the Editor


October 16 -October 28, l962

Prior to October 16, l962, ship traffic to and from Cuba had been under intensive aerial surveillance. Substantial shipments of military equipment were noted, including surface–to–air missiles, military aircraft and guided missile patrol boats (Figure 1).

Figure 1

They were explained as ‘defensive’ measures against a possible attack on Cuba by the United States. There was no confirmed evidence for the shipment of offensive ballistic missiles, even though the quantity of weaponry appeared to be out of proportion for a mere defensive posture. No unusual measures at the highest level of US policy making were taken. Several ships, riding high in the water and without any revealing deck cargo, were photographed on their way to Cuba during the arms buildup (Figure 2). In retrospect, they turned out to carry in their holds more than thirty intermediate–range ballistic missiles, accompanied by their transporters, launchers, and propellant supply systems.

Figure 2

Occasional reports from observers in Cuba suggested that large missiles were being unloaded at night early in October and moved into the interior. A U–2 flight was authorized for October 13, l962, to supplement this inconclusive information.

Painstaking analysis of hundreds of aerial photographs from this flight culminated on October 15 in the identification of several sites showing the construction of launching sites for intermediate–range ballistic missiles and their support systems (Figure 3).

Figure 3

From their shapes and dimensions the missiles were identified as SS–4s, seen previously in Moscow May Day parades (Figure 4). Their capabilities had been known, including the fact that their operational range for the delivery of nuclear war heads included Washington, DC.

Figure 4

This evidence led on October 16 to the convening at the White House of an Executive Committee (ExComm) under the direct supervision of President John F. Kennedy. It met continuously for almost two weeks to respond to the Soviet challenge (Figure 5).

Figure 5

A quarantine was decided on that would interdict any further arms shipments to Cuba. Boardings and inspections of cargos were authorized. It was followed by the positioning of massive numbers of ships, troops and planes along the East Coast in case a direct attack on the missiles sites had to be undertaken to lead to their prompt removal. Additional U–2 flights were authorized (one of which was shot down with the loss of its pilot), confirming and extending the initial findings. Low–level photo reconnaissance flight produced exquisitely detailed information about the state of deployment of the Soviet ballistic missiles (Figure 6).

Figure 6

An intensive diplomatic effort was begun to inform allies and the United Nations about the situation. While the ballistic missile deployment was denied by the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Grominko on his October 18 visit to the White House and by Ambassador Zorin at the United Nations (both unaware of the photographs available to President Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson), the visual evidence presented at a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council on October 25 was so overwhelming that it led to speedy approval of the US military policies that had been put in place (Figure 7).

Figure 7

In view of the firm, uncompromising actions instituted by the United States, Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev reversed his missile deployment venture in the Western Hemisphere. On October 28 the offensive missiles were returned to the Soviet Union (Figure 8).

Figure 8

The crisis was over.


As noted by Frank Gibnay in his Introduction and Commentary to the Penkovskiy Papers (Doubleday & Company, l965):

From April l961 to the end of August l962, Penkovskiy furnished the West with current high–priority information on the innermost political and military secrets of the Soviet Union. The sixteen months during which he was, so to speak, operational, spanned a peculiarly intense time of crisis between the Khrushchev regime and the new administration of John F. Kennedy. Historians may one day term it the near–freezing point of the Cold War.

Throughout the period, at a time when the invaluable U–2 surveillance of the Soviet Union had been necessarily abandoned, Oleg gave information on both the current trend of Soviet political intentions and the current condition of Soviet military preparations—information which effectively cancelled the normal advantage of Soviet military secrecy and diplomatic inscrupability. l961, we must remember, was the year of the Berlin Wall. Khrushchev’s threat grew to force a military showdown, if necessary over Berlin and the East German peace treaty. l962 was the year of continuing crisis in Berlin and the Soviet introduction of long–range missiles into Cuba, a year of nerve–racking maneuvers which ended in the successful American missile confrontation with Moscow in October l962.

A key factor in this was American ability to identify the extent and nature of the Soviet missile sites on Cuba soil. The millions who breathed their sigh of relief after that confrontation will probably never know the extent to which the disclosure of one Soviet officer made the American success possible.

By coincidence Oleg Penkovskiy, who had been extremely helpful in l961 and l962 in transmitting valuable information about Soviet espionage capabilities and weapons performance and readiness, was arrested in Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis and condemned to death early in l963.

Acknowledgement: Dino A. Brugioni, a former member of the National Photographic Interpretation Center that discovered the original missile deployment, supplied the photographs from his large collection. His help is gratefully acknowledged.

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