James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: The United States Discovers Soviet Missiles in Cuba

by James M. Lindsay
October 15, 2012

A Soviet medium-range ballistic missile on parade in Moscow's Red Square. (Dino A. Brugioni Collection, The National Security Archive, Washington, DC) A Soviet medium-range ballistic missile on parade in Moscow's Red Square. (Dino A. Brugioni Collection, The National Security Archive, Washington, DC)

The phone call came at an inconvenient time for McGeorge Bundy. The forty-three year-old national security adviser was hosting a sendoff dinner for the new U.S. ambassador to France, Charles “Chip” Bohlen. Bundy excused himself and left his guests to take the call. On the other end of the line was Ray Cline, the CIA’s deputy director of intelligence. He was delivering bad news: “Those things we’ve been worrying about,” he told Bundy, “it looks as though we’ve really got something.” It was just after 9:00 p.m. on Monday, October 15, 1962. The Cuban missile crisis had begun.

Kennedy administration officials had been worrying for months that the Soviet Union might be installing offensive weapons in Cuba. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had written President John F. Kennedy accusing him of unnecessarily increasing tensions with his September 4 statement on Cuba, and Soviet leaders had publicly denied that they had any intention of using Cuba to threaten the United States.

The Soviet reassurances did not persuade U.S. officials. The day before Bundy’s dinner was interrupted, a U-2 spy plane had flown over Cuba taking surveillance photos. The U-2 landed at McCoy Air Force Base near Orlando, Florida, and a courier plane then flew the raw film to the Naval Photographic Interpretation Center in Suitland, Maryland. The plane arrived late that Sunday, and center personnel worked throughout the night to develop the film and make special, clear prints on acetate that trained photo analysts could study over a light table.

The first photos reached the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) around 10:00 a.m. on Monday morning. Six hours later they concluded that the photos almost certainly showed SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles, presumably equipped (or ready to be equipped) with nuclear warheads. The conclusion was based in part on comparing the U-2 photos with photos that a Soviet intelligence officer, Lt. Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, had previously passed along to U.S. intelligence. (The Soviets arrested Penkovsky exactly one week after the NPIC’s analysts reached their conclusion, and he was executed for treason in 1963.) When told what the analysts had concluded, NPIC director Arthur Lundahl said, “You know, boys, we could be sitting on the biggest story of our time.”

Lundahl pushed his analysts to double check their findings. By 9:00 p.m. they were certain. Lundahl picked up the phone and called Cline, who happened to be at a conference with intelligence officials from Commonwealth countries. Cline in turn began informing other government officials of the news. CIA director John McCone had left Washington just hours earlier to fly to Los Angeles to take the body of his stepson, who had been killed in a car crash, to Seattle for burial.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara received the news of the Soviet missiles while hosting a Hickory Hill Seminar (so-named because the seminars were usually held at Robert F. Kennedy’s Hickory Hill estate) on Soviet cybernetics in his home. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was pulled away from a dinner he was hosting for the West German foreign minister, and he learned the news by phone while standing in the pantry outside the State Department’s State Dining Room. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was hosting a dinner at his house with the deputy secretary of defense, the deputy director of the CIA, and the deputy undersecretary of state among the guests, when a team from the Defense Intelligence Agency arrived to brief him on the photos.

One person who wasn’t briefed that night about the U-2’s discovery was President Kennedy. He had wrapped up a five-state campaign tour in Buffalo the day before, and he had returned to the White House well after midnight because of an unscheduled stopover in New York City to discuss the situation in Congo with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson. Despite the short night’s sleep, Kennedy hosted Algerian president Mohamed Ahmed Ben Bella at the White House. Later in the day, the two presidents issued a joint statement hoping for friendship between the two countries.

Bundy’s reason for not informing the president immediately was simple: “I decided that a quiet evening and a night of sleep were the best preparation” that Kennedy could have for the crisis that he now confronted.

For other posts in this series or more information on the Cuban missile crisis, click here.

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