On the morning of October 14, 1962, Major Richard Heyser flew his sophisticated U-2 spy plane high above the island nation of Cuba. The pictures he would take would soon lead the world to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon. But should they have?
A few years earlier, former member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and subsequent Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) head of Directorate of Plans, Frank Wisner, convinced his friend Richard Bissell to join him at the CIA. Bissell previously worked closely with the OSS as well in the late 1940s before the creation of the CIA. Wisner had been a member of Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) since 1947. In 1954, Bissell would join him in that organization. That same year, he developed the U-2 spy plane in conjunction with the Lockheed corporation. Gary Powers’ U-2 would famously be shot down May 1, 1960, completely derailing President Eisenhower’s peace talks with the USSR.
Strangely, in the five weeks prior to Heyser’s fateful flight, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy — both longtime members of the CFR — had restricted reconnaissance missions over Cuba. Those five weeks would come to be known as the “Photo Gap.” The CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) would identify multiple missile launch sites on October 15, 1962. Although nuclear ballistic missiles may have been present dangerously close off the coast of Florida, Bundy curiously waited until the next day to inform President Kennedy.
Upon receiving this information, Kennedy quickly formed the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM). EXCOMM was comprised of Vice President Johnson, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, NSC officials, numerous foreign policy advisors and Robert Kennedy, the President’s younger brother and Attorney General. The committee was loaded with CFR members including: Deak Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Douglas Dillon (Treasurer), John McCone (CIA Director after Allen Dulles’s firing), General Maxwell Taylor (Chairman of the JCS), George Ball (Undersecretary of State), Roswell Gilpatric (Deputy Secretary of Defense), Adlai Stevenson (Ambassador to UN), Paul Nitze and Dean Acheson.
In his memoirs of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy described EXCOMM’s first viewing of the photos taken by Heyser over San Cristobal, Cuba. CIA officials were meticulously describing the reconnaissance pictures to the group, pointing out all the missile sites. There was only one problem: the Attorney General couldn’t see anything they were talking about.
“I, for one, had to take their word for it,” Robert said. “I examined the pictures carefully, and what I saw appeared to be no more than the clearing of a field for a farm or the basement of a house.”
The Attorney General wasn’t the only one in the room who had no idea what the CIA was talking about. RFK went on to say, “I was relieved to hear later that this was the same reaction of virtually everyone at the meeting, including President Kennedy.” Robert even mentioned that a few days later his brother remarked “that it looked like a football field.”
Were missiles ever actually seen? No. Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, CIA expert and inspiration for the character Mr. X in the Oliver Stone film JFK, wrote in his book JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy, “No actual missiles had been observed or photographed in Cuba…”
How was it possible that the Russians had managed to covertly send medium and long-range ballistic missiles and the equipment necessary to launch them to Cuba right under our noses with so much surveillance going on since 1960? Apparently these actions were so covert that even the Russians didn’t know it happened. In September 1962, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin promised RFK that the USSR would not place missiles in Cuba. When Robert confronted him with the information from the spy photos, Dobrynin was shocked. “[H]e told me there were no missiles in Cuba; that this was what Krushchev had said, and, as far as he knew, there were still no missiles in Cuba.” The photos showed no missiles. The Soviets — who also did not want a nuclear war — denied sending missiles. Yet EXCOMM still felt it had sufficient evidence to act.
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Although some present — namely Adlai Stevenson, George Ball, and Robert McNamara — joined JFK in the idea of using a quarantine of Cuba (which they referred to as a “blockade”), many began to vehemently argue in favor of a first strike against Cuba, nuclear if need be. With only the flimsy (at best) intelligence provided in the U-2 photos, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Gen. Taylor claimed that a surprise attack followed by an invasion was the only sure option to keep the citizens of the U.S. safe. The idea of launching a surprise attack caused RFK to pass a note to his brother that read, “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor.”
Based on a note scribbled by Robert Kennedy, it would seem the room was fairly split on viable options. It should be noted that although he initially favored a blockade, Paul Nitze eventually came out in favor of a military strike.
But in the shadows, there were others who were secretly putting into motion plans that would provoke a full scale war between the U.S. and Cuba. While the President and Attorney General feverishly attempted backdoor diplomacy with Ambassador Dobrynin, the CIA was transporting unauthorized commando teams into Cuba. In his book Brothers, David Talbot describes the reckless actions CIA operative William “Bill” Harvey. Not wanting to unnecessarily provoke Cuba, JFK had halted any raids against the Communist country during the crisis. However,
In defiance of Kennedy’s order, Bill Harvey mobilized sixty commandos — “every single team and asset that we could scrape together” — and dropped them into Cuba, in anticipation of the U.S. invasion that the CIA hoped was soon to follow.
Luckily RFK caught wind of the plan and immediately admonished Harvey for risking WWIII. Much like most of the intelligence community believed, Harvey shot back that if the President had done his job at the Bay of Pigs, none of this would have been an issue. Harvey and his close CIA colleague Ed Lansdale (also of the CFR) would later be implicated in the assassination of JFK.
For 13 harrowing days, we were mere minutes away from a world-ending nuclear exchange. Despite the arguments of the Hawks in the EXCOMM, and despite the unauthorized and covert actions of the CIA, John Kennedy’s cool demeanor, sharp intellect and iron will were crucial in averting certain annihilation. The blockade was successful and in exchange for the future removal of offensive American missiles in Turkey, the Soviets agreed to withdraw any nuclear missiles from Cuba…if there ever were any.
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