THE INVISIBLE GOVERNMENT -- MISSILE CRISIS
The U-2 had been flying over Cuba from the earliest days of the Castro regime. In 1959 a U-2 was sent over the Zapata swamps near the Bay of Pigs to check an erroneous report that missiles were being set up in the area. By 1962 two U-2s a month were being flown over the island.
That August photographs were taken of SA-2 anti-aircraft missiles being unloaded at Cuban docks. The over-flight program was stepped up and seven U-2s were sent over the island in the five weeks between August 29 and October 7. Each mission returned with new pictures of short-range SA-2 defensive missiles.
But President Kennedy, citing the information provided him by the intelligence community, insisted there was no evidence that the Russians were moving in long-range offensive missiles that could threaten the United States. Kennedy gave his assurances despite the fact that John McCone had a suspicion -- never passed along to the White House -- that the Soviets were deploying ballistic missiles in Cuba.
In testimony before the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee on March 12, 1963, McCone said he had reported this view within the CIA on August 10. "I couldn't understand," he explained, "why these surface-to-air missile sites were there, so useless for protecting the island against invasion. They must be there, in my opinion, to shield the island against observation from aerial reconnaissance."
McCone conceded, however, that his view, was based on "intuition" without "hard intelligence." And although as Director of Central Intelligence he could have ordered that his view be made the official view and reported to Kennedy, he did not do so.
McCone left Washington on August 23 to marry Theiline McGee Pigott, the widow of a rich Seattle industrialist and an old family friend. During his honeymoon cruise to Europe and his three-week stay on Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, he received daily briefing telegrams. They deepened his apprehension, and on September 7, 10, 13 and 20 he responded with telegrams expressing his mounting concern. But, again, he did not direct that the "honeymoon telegrams" be passed along to the President. They were treated as "in-house" messages and were not circulated outside the CIA.
During McCone's absence, the Board of National Estimates was asked to assess the possibility that the Soviets would station offensive missiles in Cuba. And on September 19 a National Intelligence Estimate was produced. It conceded that the Russians might be tempted to introduce the missiles for psychological reasons, particularly to impress the Latin Americans. It also alluded to the possibility that the Soviets might wish to strengthen their position in Cuba as a prelude to a move against Berlin.
Nevertheless, the Estimate stated that it was highly unlikely that offensive missiles would be sent in, because the Soviets would be deterred by their awareness of the violent reaction which such a move would provoke on the part of the United States. The chief Kremlinologists in the State Department, Charles E. (Chip) Bohlen and Llewellyn E. (Tommy) Thompson, Jr., both former ambassadors to Moscow, concurred with the Estimate.*
However, on September 20, the day after the Estimate was handed down, a reliable eyewitness report of an offensive missile reached Ray Cline, the CIA's deputy director for intelligence. A CIA sub-agent had spotted a missile part on a highway on September 12, but had experienced delay in getting his information out of Cuba. Missile experts in Washington, who had rejected hundreds of prior reports by Cuban refugees, concluded that the sub-agent's description checked out against the known features of Russian offensive missiles. In retrospect the CIA decided the/missile part had arrived in a shipment of Soviet cargo on September 8.
McCone returned from his honeymoon on September 26, and on October 4 an urgent meeting of the United States Intelligence Board was called. The members took a look at the "mosaic" -- a photographic panorama of the entire island of Cuba pieced together from the latest U-2 pictures. There were still no photographic indications of offensive missiles. But McCone noted that there had been no pictures of the western sector of the island since September 5. He ordered that overflights be further stepped up and concentrated on that section of Cuba.
Until that time all U-2 flights had been made by civilian CIA pilots. Now, however, the risks would be greatly increased by the expanded schedule of missions and by the presence of the anti-aircraft missiles. The CIA had concluded that an SA-2 had downed Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union in 1960, and that another had accounted for a Nationalist Chinese U-2 over Communist China on October 9, 1962. Rather than risk another U-2 incident involving the CIA, McCone agreed to McNamara's recommendation that the overflight operation be transferred to the Strategic Air Command.
During this interval, on October 10, Senator Kenneth B. Keating, the New York Republican, announced that he had confirmed reports of intermediate-range missile sites under construction in Cuba.
Four days later, early on the morning of October 14, SAC flew its first U-2 mission over Cuba and returned with photographs of mobile medium-range ballistic missiles (MMRBM) at San Cristobal, 100 miles to the southwest of Havana.
The pictures were analyzed by the photo-interpreters in Washington all the next day, and late in the afternoon the findings were reported to General Carter, McCone's deputy (McCone had left Washington earlier in the afternoon for Los Angeles to take the body of his stepson, Paul J. Pigott, who had been killed in a sports-car crash, to Seattle).
General Carroll, the director of the DIA, was next to be informed. Then Carroll took two civilian photo-interpreters to dinner at the home of General Maxwell Taylor. Joining them were Carter, and Roswell Gilpatric and U. Alexis Johnson, both members of the Special Group. When the officials had been convinced that Soviet missiles were in place in Cuba, McGeorge Bundy was notified at his home. He arranged for the photo-interpreters to report to him at the White House the following morning.
Shortly before nine o'clock on the morning of October 16 Bundy took the pictures to President Kennedy, who was in his bedroom in pajamas and robe, reading the newspapers. Kennedy quickly indicated those officials who were to be called to the White House.
At 11:45 the group, which was later to be named the Executive Committee (Excomm) of the National Security Council, gathered in the Cabinet Room for the first of a running series of meetings during the following two weeks. Present were Kennedy, his brother Robert, Lyndon Johnson, Rusk, McNamara, Gilpatric, Bundy, Taylor, Carter, Theodore C. Sorensen, the presidential adviser, Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, Under Secretary of State George Ball and Edwin M. Martin, Assistant secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. Adlai Stevenson joined the group that afternoon. McCone was brought in immediately upon his return from the West Coast. And two Truman Cabinet members were called in later in the week: Dean Acheson, former Secretary of State, and Robert Lovett, former Secretary of Defense.
Kennedy entered the first Excomm meeting with the feeling that two choices were open: knock out the missiles with an air strike or make representations to Khrushchev.
During the next four days the Excomm weighed the alternatives, moving gradually toward a consensus that the safest course was to take the middle way: to set up a blockade and insist that the Soviets withdraw, or direct military force would be applied.
In coming to this decision the Excomm was strongly influenced by Robert Kennedy. Recalling Pearl Harbor, he opposed an air strike against the small island of Cuba. He argued that the nation might never recover from the moral outrage of the world and the shock to its own conscience.
At first, the discussion centered on the immediate problem of getting the missiles dismantled or removed. There were detailed technical analyses of what kind of surveillance and inspection would be necessary to make sure the missiles were rendered inoperable.
Stevenson was troubled that the discussion would bog down in details and that the larger problem of eliminating the Soviets from Cuba would be obscured. He reminded the Excomm that a long period of negotiation would probably follow the removal of the missiles. And he recommended that some thought be given to possible United States proposals during that period.
Stevenson suggested that once the missiles were out, the United States might propose this deal: a pull-out of all Soviet troops from Cuba in return for a promise by the United States that it would not invade the island and would withdraw its missiles from Turkey. Stevenson was aware that the administration had decided the previous year to remove the missiles from Turkey (they were Jupiter IRBMs, obsolescent, clumsy liquid-fuel rockets. The plan was to replace them with missile-bearing Polaris submarines stationed in the Mediterranean. Turkey announced on January 23, 1963, that it had agreed to removal of the Jupiters).
As the Excomm deliberated, the President went through with two scheduled campaign trips, lest their cancellation betray the secret maneuvering. On October 17 he kept speaking engagements in Stratford and New Haven, Connecticut, and on October 19 he campaigned in Cleveland, Springfield, Illinois, and Chicago. He was supposed to go on to St. Louis and Seattle that weekend, but on Saturday morning, October 20, Pierre Salinger announced that the President would return to Washington immediately because he had a cold and was running a slight temperature.
At the White House that afternoon the secret meetings continued. Kennedy approved the Excomm's recommendation that a blockade be imposed around Cuba. The decision was ratified the next day by the National Security Council. (Up to that point the Excomm had been operating without formal, statutory authority. To make its actions official, it was necessary to include the Office of Emergency Planning, one of the five statutory members of the NSC. The Office had been excluded from the previous deliberations.)
The President also arranged to go on television Monday night, October 22, to inform the nation that offensive missiles had been discovered in Cuba and that a blockade would be imposed.
All weekend long, starting the previous Thursday and continuing until the afternoon of the President's speech, the Defense Department had repeated: "The Pentagon has no information indicating the presence of offensive weapons in Cuba." *
In his TV address the President emphasized that the blockade was only an "initial" step and indicated strongly that direct military force would be employed if necessary to get the missiles out.
"It shall be the policy of this nation," Kennedy added, "to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."
For the next four days the world balanced on the brink of war, watching fearfully to see if the Soviets would continue work on the missiles, attempt to run the blockade, or otherwise defy the President's ultimatum.
Finally, late in the night of October 26, a message was received from Khrushchev. It suggested he was ready to withdraw his missiles under United Nations supervision in return for a lifting of the blockade and a pledge by the United States not to invade Cuba.
The Excomm convened the next morning in a hopeful atmosphere. But the optimism was quickly shattered by a second Khrushchev message, which was made public in Moscow. It offered to swap the Soviet missiles in Cuba for the U.S. missiles in Turkey.
The members of the Excomm knew that President Kennedy would not accept such a deal. As Kennedy was later to explain privately, he felt it imperative to reject the missile swap in order to preserve the Western alliance. The Turks had opposed the removal of the Jupiters during 1962. They looked upon the missiles as symbols of U.S. determination to defend them against Russian attack.
To accept Khrushchev's deal, Kennedy reasoned, would be to confirm all the things Europe had said and suspected about the United States: that when the vital interests of the United States were at stake, Europe's interests would be sacrificed.
It was a strange and ironic situation, Kennedy conceded, since he had decided the previous year to remove the obsolescent missiles from Turkey: a future historian might question the wisdom of risking a nuclear war over missiles that the nation did not need or want.
Kennedy issued a public statement, in effect rejecting the missile swap. Then he sent off a private message to Khrushchev, ignoring the Turkey proposal and agreeing to the terms of Khrushchev's first message.
Meantime, the Excomm's apprehension deepened as reports came in, first, that an SA-2 had opened fire in Cuba for the first time, downing a SAC U-2, and second, that a U-2 had wandered over Siberia while on an "air sampling" mission near the Arctic Circle.*
The first U-2 incident that day suggested to the Excomm that Khrushchev might have reversed himself overnight and decided to defy Kennedy's demands. The Excomm also realized the second incident might have suggested to Khrushchev that Kennedy was planning some type of direct military action against Russia.
The President and the Excomm waited uneasily through the night. Then, shortly after ten o'clock on Sunday morning" October 28, Moscow released the text of another message from Khrushchev to Kennedy. The Soviet leader said he had ordered a stop to work on the Cuban bases and had directed that the missiles be crated and returned to the Soviet Union. United Nations representatives would "verify the dismantling."
Kennedy hailed Khrushchev's decision and responded with an expression of "regret" for the Siberian U-2 incident, which the Russian had complained about in his letter.
The missile crisis was over. Kennedy had won perhaps the greatest triumph of the Cold War. And in the November Congressional elections the triumph was reflected in a major Democratic victory .
The crisis had cost the Republicans as many as twenty House seats, said Representative Bob Wilson of California, the chairman of the Republican Congressional Committee. He insisted that the administration had known in late September that Russian missiles were in Cuba but had delayed announcing the fact in order to go into the election in a time of crisis, when the nation traditionally rallies round the President.
Wilson said administration officials had held a secret briefing for him and other members of the CIA subcommittee in the House six weeks before the election and had disclosed that offensive missiles were then in Cuba (Wilson apparently was referring to the eyewitness report of a missile part which reached the CIA on September 20).
The administration denied Wilson's accusation, but its credibility was called into question when Arthur Sylvester, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, made a series of statements which suggested that the administration might have been manipulating the facts in its official announcements.
"The generation of news by actions taken by the government," Sylvester declared on October 30 in commenting upon the Cuban crisis, "becomes one weapon in a strained situation. The results, in my opinion, justify the methods we use ... News generated by actions of the government as to content and timing are part of the arsenal of weaponry that a President has in application of military force and related forces to the solution of political problems, or to the application of international political pressure."
Sylvester went even further in a speech on December 6: "It's inherent in [the] government's right, if necessary, to lie to save itself when it's going up into a nuclear war. This seems to me basic."
In order to keep a closer watch over government information, Sylvester directed that a representative of his office monitor each interview between a reporter and a Pentagon official. Alternately, the official could report the substance of the interview to Sylvester at the end of the day. The State Department instituted a similar practice, but withdrew it a few weeks later under pressure.
Critics accused the administration of "managing the news," using information as a "weapon," even lying to protect itself.
Kennedy's October triumph was further compromised when Castro refused to allow on-site inspection of the missile sites by the United Nations. The Republicans seized upon this to suggest that the Russian military buildup was continuing and that all of the offensive weapons had not been removed.
Leading the Republican attack was Senator Keating, who had gained something of a reputation as an intelligence expert by virtue of his announcement on October 10, twelve days before Kennedy's TV address, that there were offensive missiles in Cuba.
Keating issued a series of post-crisis statements, culminating in a speech on January 31, 1963, in which he said:
"There is continuing, absolutely confirmed and undeniable evidence that the Soviets are maintaining the medium-range sites they had previously constructed in Cuba ... they may have missiles left on the island and need only to wheel them out of caves ... Without on-site inspection, it is hard to see how we will ever know for sure the true missile situation in Cuba."
Keating's statement drew banner headlines across the country. And the administration had difficulty gaining public acceptance of its denials. Its failure to quiet the storm over Cuba was undermining efforts to turn the October triumph into a Cold War breakthrough.
Finally, Kennedy decided he would have to overwhelm his critics with photographic proof. The original idea was to invite the small group of reporters covering Keating to view the special briefing which had been put together for several Congressional committees. At the last minute, however, the President decided that if classified material was to be released, he might as well go the whole way. He ordered McNamara to go on nationwide television that evening -- February 6 -- and display the aerial reconnaissance photos brought back from Cuba.
The decision was reached so quickly that there was no time to check with McCone. The CIA boss would have opposed the idea on grounds that the TV show would reveal the high degree of perfection which had been achieved with the U-2 cameras (much better than those which fell into Khrushchev's hands when Powers' plane was captured in 1960).
At the time of the decision, McCone was on Capitol Hill testifying: "We are convinced beyond reasonable doubt ... that all offensive missiles and bombers known to be in Cuba were withdrawn."
A few hours later McNamara went on TV. For close to two hours the American people were exposed to some of the "blackest" secrets of the Invisible Government. Most of the briefing was conducted by General Carroll's thirty-four-year-old assistant, John Hughes. He displayed dozens of blowups of reconnaissance photos showing the Cuban missile sites first under construction and then in the process of dismantling, and finally he showed the missile equipment being put aboard ships and carried away from the island.
It was a breathtaking demonstration of the high degree of sophistication which had been achieved in electronic intelligence. But the presentation prompted two questions which were to prove embarrassing to the administration. First, no pictures were shown for the period between September 5 and October 14, raising the question of whether the intelligence community had neglected to conduct aerial reconnaissance during this period or whether the administration was suppressing pertinent photos. And second, the briefing added up to a tacit admission that there had been no photographic count of the number of missiles shipped to Cuba and, therefore, there could be no certainty that the number spotted going out represented the total arsenal.
McNamara sidestepped these problems in answering questions after the briefing. But the next day Kennedy admitted frankly to his news conference: "We cannot prove that there is not a missile in a cave or that the Soviet Union isn't going to ship next week." He noted, however, that the Soviets were aware that if any missiles were discovered, it would "produce the greatest crisis which the world has faced in its history."
The President deplored the "rumors and speculations" which, he said, compelled the administration to go on TV and disclose "a good deal of information which we are rather reluctant to give about our intelligence-gathering facilities."
As to the so-called "photo gap" between September 5 and October 4, McNamara finally explained at a news conference in February that the U-2 missions during that period "didn't relate" to the areas where the Russian missiles were found. In plain English, McNamara was saying that the CIA failed to photograph the western half of Cuba during the six weeks preceding the flight which discovered the offensive missiles.
At his news conference on March 6 Kennedy argued that it really didn't matter very much because the Soviets set up their missiles so quickly, there would have been nothing to see until a few days before October 14.
"I suppose," the President remarked, "we could have always perhaps picked up these missile bases a few days earlier, but not very many days earlier ... ten days before might not have picked up anything. The week before might have picked up something ... So I feel that the intelligence services did a very good job ... I am satisfied with Mr. McCone, the intelligence community, the Defense Department and the job they did in these days, particularly taken in totality."
But many important members of the administration were not so satisfied with the Invisible Government. They suspected that someone in the Pentagon or high in the CIA had been funneling incriminating evidence to the Republicans, possibly raw intelligence which had not yet been analyzed or brought to the President's attention. On March 25, when McCone came for one of his periodic meetings with the President, a third person, McGeorge Bundy, was included for the first time. Clearly, Bundy was there to monitor the conversation.
The Invisible Government had taken great pride in its performance during the missile crisis, only to find its achievement compromised by suspicions that it was playing politics with intelligence.
There was no denying, however, that the intelligence community had succeeded in raising the art of aerial photography to unimagined heights. The missile crisis had revealed unmistakably that automation was revolutionizing the spy business as rapidly as it was transforming American industry.
* After the October crisis McCone was urged to make Sherman Kent of the Board of Estimates, the scapegoat for the bad guess. But McCone refused to fire him, despite repeated reminders from the White House that the Estimate was wrong.
* In a speech on March 11, 1963, Salinger insisted that during the Cuban crisis "We did not lie to the American people." He went on to explain that the Pentagon spokesman who issued the denials "was not lying. He was communicating the information as he knew it." By implication, Salinger excused his own statements about Kennedy's "cold."
* The Russians had charged that another U-2 flew over Sakhalin Island north of Japan on August 30, 1962. The United States replied that "severe winds" might have forced the plane "unintentionally" to violate Soviet airspace. After the Powers incident, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy promised there would be no more U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union. But their pledge did not rule out flights over Cuba, other Communist countries or along the borders of the Soviet Union.