In 1962 President John F. Kennedy’s administration narrowly averted possible nuclear war with the USSR, when CIA operatives spotted Soviet surface-to-surface missiles in Cuba, after a six-week gap in intelligence-gathering flights.
In their forthcoming book Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis, co-authors David Barrett and Max Holland make the case that the affair was a close call stemming directly from a decision made in a climate of deep distrust between key administration officials and the intelligence community.
Using recently declassified documents, secondary materials, and interviews with several key participants, the authors weave a story of intra-agency conflict, suspicion, and discord that undermined intelligence-gathering, adversely affected internal postmortems conducted after the crisis peaked, and resulted in keeping Congress and the public in the dark about what really happened.
We asked Barrett, a professor of political science at Villanova University, to discuss the actual series of events and what might have happened had the CIA not detected Soviet missiles on Cuba.
The Actual Sequence of Events . . .
“Some months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, an angry member of the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives criticized leaders of the Kennedy administration for having let weeks go by in September and early October 1962, without detecting Soviet construction of missile sites in Cuba. It was an intelligence failure as serious as the U.S. ignorance that preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he said.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara aggressively denied that there had been an American intelligence failure or ineptitude with regard to Cuba in late summer 1962. McNamara and others persuaded most observers the administration’s performance in the lead-up to the Crisis had been almost flawless, but the legislator was right: The CIA had not sent a U-2 spy aircraft over western Cuba for about a six week period.There were varying reasons for this, but the most important was that the Kennedy administration did not wish to have a U-2 “incident.” Sending that aircraft over Cuba raised the possibility that Soviet surface-to-air missiles might shoot one down. Since it was arguably against international law for the U.S. to send spy aircrafts over another country, should one be shot down, there would probably be the same sort of uproar as happened in May 1960, when the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 flying over its territory.Furthermore, most State Department and CIA authorities did not believe that the USSR would put nuclear-armed missiles into Cuba that could strike the U.S. Therefore, the CIA was told, in effect, not even to request permission to send U-2s over western Cuba. This, at a time when there were growing numbers of reports from Cuban exiles and other sources about suspicious Soviet equipment being brought into the country.As we now know, the Soviets WERE constructing missile sites on what CIA deputy director Richard Helms would call “the business end of Cuba,” i.e., the western end, in the summer/autumn of 1962. Fortunately, by mid-October, the CIA’s director, John McCone, succeeded in persuading President John F. Kennedy to authorize one U-2 flight over that part of Cuba and so it was that Agency representatives could authoritatively inform JFK on October 16th that the construction was underway.The CIA had faced White House and State Department resistance for many weeks about this U-2 matter."
What Could Have Happened . . .
“What if McCone had not succeeded in persuading the President that the U.S. needed to step up aerial surveillance of Cuba in mid-October? What if a few more weeks had passed without that crucial October 14 U-2 flight and its definitive photography of Soviet missile site construction?
Remember to check out Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis, which is being published this fall!If McCone had been told “no” in the second week of October, perhaps it would have taken more human intelligence, trickling in from Cuba, about such Soviet activity before the President would have approved a risky U-2 flight.The problem JFK would have faced then is that there would have been a significant number of operational medium-range missile launch sites. Those nuclear-equipped missiles could have hit the southern part of the U.S. Meanwhile, the Soviets would also have progressed further in construction of intermediate missile sites; such missiles could have hit most of the continental United States.If JFK had not learned about Soviet nuclear-armed missiles until, say, November 1st, what would the U.S. have done?There is no definitive answer to that question, but I think it’s fair to say that the President would have been under enormous pressure to authorize—quickly--a huge U.S. air strike against Cuba, followed by an American invasion. One thing which discovery of the missile sites in mid-October gave JFK was some time to negotiate effectively with the Soviet Union during the “Thirteen Days” of the crisis. I don’t think there would have been such a luxury if numerous operational missiles were discovered a couple weeks later.No wonder President Kennedy felt great admiration and gratitude toward those at the CIA (with its photo interpreters) and the Air Force (which piloted the key U-2 flight). The intelligence he received on October 16th was invaluable. I think he knew that if that intelligence had not come until some weeks later, there would have been a much greater chance of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.”