The truth about the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Philadelphia Inquirer front page of October 23, 1962, the morning after President John F. Kennedy's televised address to the nation on the Cuban missile crisis.
The Philadelphia Inquirer front page of October 23, 1962, the morning after President John F. Kennedy's televised address to the nation on the Cuban missile crisis.
Posted: October 27, 2012

Everybody knows what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

Kennedy and Khrushchev went eyeball-to-eyeball and the Russians blinked, saving humanity from possible nuclear annihilation.

Except that a national security scholar at Villanova University says that's not all that occurred. That we have missed and misunderstood crucial events that took place in the weeks before the confrontation. And that, while John F. Kennedy performed admirably, infighting and distrust between his administration and the intelligence community helped propel a dangerous situation toward a global crisis.

In a new book, Blind Over Cuba, political science professor David Barrett offers a detailed, disquieting analysis of the "photo gap" - a five-week period in which American intelligence flights over western Cuba were suspended. That span proved to be exactly when the Soviets were deploying missiles.

Look closer and "you discover there are all sorts of things that aren't quite the same as the mythology," Barrett said. "This isn't the Hollywood movie."

His book is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the crisis, which played out over 13 days in October 1962.

Coauthored with Max Holland, editor of the online monthly Washington Decoded, it's based on declassified documents, archive materials, and interviews with several participants. Blind Over Cuba tells the story of an intelligence failure as compelling as any in a spy novel. To wit: The CIA director happened to be on a French Riviera honeymoon at a critical moment.

The crisis was the closest the world has come to nuclear war. Anniversary seminars and observances abound, from the Kennedy Library in Boston, to Greenville, S.C., where a wreath was placed at the grave of the incident's only fatality, pilot Rudolf Anderson Jr.

Foreign Policy magazine is chronicling the crisis in real-time tweets, while the National Archives showcases Kennedy's secret White House recordings and his doodles on a yellow pad: "Missile. Missile. Missile."

Probably no foreign-policy crisis generated more books, Barrett noted. But he sought to tell a largely unknown story, documenting how the administration's response was not "wonderfully coordinated and error-free crisis management," as then-national security adviser McGeorge Bundy asserted, but quite the opposite.

The crisis was months in the making.

In spring 1962, the Cold War in deep freeze, Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to place intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, capable of striking cities across the southeastern United States. He believed the move would deter any U.S. attack on the Soviet Union. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro welcomed the missiles as protection against a repeat of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion a year earlier.

During the summer of 1962, the Soviets secretly worked to build the installations. And the U.S. government should have known, Barrett writes.

The United States had been conducting U-2 spy plane overflights since October 1960. Twice-monthly flights commenced in February 1962.

In summer, things got tense. An Aug. 29 flight found that surface-to-air missile sites, designed to bring down enemy planes, were being built in western Cuba.

Kennedy, Barrett writes, was inclined to believe that Soviet military aid to Cuba was defensive. And the U.S. was still traumatized from the so-called U-2 incident in May 1960, when a plane was shot down over Soviet airspace. The U.S. denied it was spying, then had to admit its lie when the Soviets produced the living pilot, Francis Gary Powers.

Then new incidents raised the anxiety. On Aug. 30, a U-2 violated Soviet airspace, causing a public protest by Moscow. Then, on Sept. 8, a U-2 manned by a Taiwan-based pilot was lost over China.

At a meeting two days later, Barrett writes, Bundy rescinded presidential approval of the second September flight. It would instead become four separate missions - none over western Cuba. Two flights stuck to international waters off the coast, and two covered portions of central and eastern Cuba.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk, dealing with Cold War dangers in Berlin and Vietnam, felt the coastal flights sufficient. To the public, and to doubting members of Congress, the administration was reassuring, insisting that U.S. surveillance was vigilant.

Complicating matters, Barrett writes, was that Kennedy and key members of his administration, deeply distrusted the CIA and military leadership, who had pushed for the disastrous Bay of Pigs.

The administration was so wary of a trap from its own people to justify an invasion of Cuba, that when Bundy queried U-2 flight planners, he asked: "Is there anyone in the planning of these missions who might want to provoke an incident?"

Meanwhile, CIA Director John McCone, a 60-year-old widower, had left Washington in late August to be married for the second time.

His absence meant the CIA's senior leader - a man certain in his gut that the Soviets wanted offensive weapons in Cuba - wasn't there to personally press for greater U-2 surveillance.

McCone learned of the photo gap after he returned on Sept. 24. He forcefully pointed out the void to the president and his senior aides.

"Suddenly," Barrett said, "everyone realized, 'This is a problem.'"

Kennedy approved a single flight over western Cuba. On Oct. 14, a U-2 pilot took 928 photos, the first full surveillance of the area in 45 days, Barrett writes.

The next day, photo analysts identified ballistic missile sites. Kennedy was told the following day. What the world knows as the Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.

"It shall be the policy of this nation," the president announced in a tense Oct. 22 address, "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."

Barrett, 60, was then a sixth grader at St. Mary's Elementary School in Natchitoches, La. Students usually went to Mass twice a week, but now they went every day. Confession went from once a month to every other day, the nuns wanting to ensure the children's souls were spotless in case they were incinerated.

"I knew it was serious," Barrett said. "I don't remember fear, because my parents didn't seem afraid."

The nuclear showdown ended Oct. 28, when the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba - and for the unpublicized removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

Barrett sees in the crisis a modern lesson for governments: Keep open the lines of communication to the mavericks, to the iconoclasts who approach matters in a different way. In the Kennedy administration, it was McCone, whom the president privately described as "stupid" and "a bastard," who demanded the resumption of U-2 flights.

In the years after the crisis, many authors wrote that toughness and military strength carried the day. But Barrett sees something else, also useful today: Tact.

"Kennedy was pushing hard to get the best possible deal, but he did make concessions," Barrett said. "Diplomacy. Flexibility."


Villanova professor David Barrett discusses the "photo gap" and the Cuban missile crisis at www.philly.com/missilecrisis


Contact Jeff Gammage

at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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