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Cuban Crisis Chronology
Newsletter of «Association of Air Force Missileers».
Volume 20, Number 3, September, 2012.
While some events well before the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis were leading to rising tension between the US and the Soviet Union on the Cuban situation, the level of activity in late 1962 resulted in the crisis that put the two powers as close to nuclear war as has ever occurred in our history. We will continue the chronology in the next issue of the newsletter – this first part takes us to the peak of the crisis, when US forces were in the highest alert posture, DEFCON 2, ever attained. Air Force missileers were prepared to execute the war plan, sitting on alert at missile sites around the world. Note that the titles and names of the key players have been used in the shortest form possible in most instances, since many are repeated. For example, President John F. Kennedy is referred to as “the President” or “Kennedy” while his brother is always referred to as “Robert Kennedy” to save space for this article.
Navy recon aircraft photograph ten large containers on a Soviet vessel – photo-analysts determine that the containers hold Soviet IL-28 light bombers.
Secretary of Defense McNamara meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for a briefing on the latest intelligence on Cuba and to discuss intensified Cuban contingency planning. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts inform the group that some intelligence points to the possibility that Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) have been positioned in Pinar del Rio Province. After the meeting, the commander-in-chief of the US Atlantic Command (CINCLANT), is directed by McNamara “to be prepared to initiate a blockade against Cuba”
CINCLANT directs increased readiness to execute an invasion of Cuba.
State Department Ambassador-at-Large Chester Bowles has a conversation with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. Bowles, after having been briefed by Thomas Hughes of the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, tells Dobrynin that the US “had some evidence” indicating that Soviet nuclear missiles were in Cuba. Dobrynin, who had not been told of the missile deployment by the Kremlin, repeatedly denies that the Soviet Union harbored any intention of placing such weapons in Cuba.
Early Morning – A U-2 flies over western Cuba. The reconnaissance mission, piloted by Major Richard Heyser, is the first Strategic Air Command (SAC) mission after authority for the flights is transferred from the CIA to the Air Force. The photographs obtained will be the first hard evidence of MRBM sites in Cuba.
Morning: Analysis of Heyser’s photos by the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) finds the main components of Soviet MRBMs in a field at San Cristóbal. Further analysis identifies all but one of the remaining twenty-four SAM sites in Cuba and that the IL- 28 bombers are being uncrated. Late afternoon, a senior officer at NPIC phones CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence Ray Cline to inform him of the discoveries. Evening, key Kennedy administration officials are briefed about the discovery of the missiles. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy decides to wait until morning to alert President Kennedy.
0845, Bundy informs the President that “hard photographic” evidence has been obtained showing Cuba has MRBMs. Kennedy immediately calls an 1145 meeting and dictates the names of the fourteen or so advisers he wants present, the group that becomes known as the “ExComm,” or the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (NSC). Later that morning, Kennedy briefs his brother, Robert, who expresses surprise at the news. Kennedy also telephones John McCloy, a Republican lawyer and private adviser to the president. McCloy recommends forceful action to remove the missiles, even if that involves an airstrike and an invasion.
1115, the President confers with Charles Bohlen, the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union. Bohlen later recalls, “there seemed to be no doubt in [Kennedy’s] mind, and certainly not in mine, that the US would have to get these bases eliminated…the only question was how it was to be done.”
1150, the first meeting of the ExComm. Photographic evidence is presented, including pictures of missile sites under construction, with canvas-covered missile trailers. The missiles, initially identified as nuclear-tipped SS-3s by their length are correctly identified as longer range SS-4 missiles. No nuclear warheads are seen in the area. CIA photo-analyst Sidney Graybeal informs the group that “we do not believe [the missiles] are ready to fire.” Further U-2 flights are ordered, and 6 U-2 reconnaissance missions are flown during the day. In the freewheeling discussion, participants cover a number of different options for dealing with the Cuban situation. The principle options discussed are: (1) a single, surgical attack on the missile bases; (2) an attack on various Cuban facilities; (3) a comprehensive series of attacks and invasion; or (4) a blockade of Cuba. Preliminary discussions lean toward taking some form of military action. As discussions continue on proposals to destroy the missiles by airstrike, Robert Kennedy passes a note to the President: “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor. “
Afternoon, McNamara, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, and the JCS meet to begin preparing the military for any actions that might be ordered. At the State Department, additional discussions continue with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Under Secretary of State George Ball, Adlai Stevenson, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter American Affairs Edwin Martin, Deputy Under Secretary of State U. Alexis Johnson and State Department Soviet specialist Llewellyn Thompson. The US Intelligence Board (USIB) meets to examine U-2 photographs and to coordinate intelligence on the crisis. During the meeting, the USIB directs the Guided Missile and Astronautics Intelligence Committee (GMAIC) to prepare an immediate evaluation of the Soviet missile sites. The GMAIC concludes that the missiles are clearly under Soviet control and that there is no evidence that nuclear warheads are present in Cuba. It also concludes that the missile installations thus far identified do not appear to be operational.
The SGA convenes prior to the second ExComm meeting. The SGA discusses but rejects several alternatives for eliminating the newly discovered Soviet missile sites in Cuba, including a proposal to have Cuban émigrés bomb the missile sites. At 1830, Marshall Carter states that the missiles could be “fully operational within two weeks,” although a single missile might achieve operational capability “much sooner.” After the intelligence report is presented, McNamara outlines three broad options for action. The first is “political” involving communications with Castro and Premier Khrushchev; the second is “part political, part military” involving a blockade of weapons and open surveillance; the third is “military” involving an attack on Cuba and the missile sites. The ExComm members debate, but do not resolve, which option should be used.
Khrushchev receives US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Foy Kohler for a three-hour conversation on a variety of subjects. Khrushchev reassures Kohler that the Cuban fishing port that the Soviet Union has recently agreed to help build will remain entirely nonmilitary. Khrushchev adds that the Cuban government has announced the agreement without consulting Soviet officials, and that when he learned of the leak, he “cursed them and said they should have waited until after the US elections.” Once again, Khrushchev insists that all Soviet activity in Cuba was defensive and sharply criticizes US bases in Turkey and Italy.
Morning: Adlai Stevenson writes to Kennedy that world opinion would equate the US missiles in Turkey with Soviet bases Cuba. Warning that US officials could not “negotiate with a gun at our head,” he states, “I feel you should have made it clear that the existence of nuclear missile bases anywhere is negotiable before we start anything.” Stevenson suggests that personal emissaries should be sent to both Castro and Khrushchev to discuss the situation.
Dean Acheson and John McCone attend discussions for the first time, though the President and Vice President Johnson are absent. By this time, McNamara has become the strongest proponent of the blockade option. McNamara reports that a “surgical” airstrike option is militarily impractical in the view of the JCS and that any military action would have to include attacks on all military installations in Cuba, eventually leading to an invasion. McNamara urges seeking alternative means of removing the missiles from Cuba before embarking on such a drastic course of action. However; critics of the blockade, led primarily by Acheson, argue that a blockade would have no effect on the missiles already in Cuba. Airstrike proponents also express concern that a US blockade would shift the confrontation from Cuba to the Soviet Union and that Soviet counteractions, including a Berlin blockade, might result.
Georgi Bolshakov, a Soviet embassy official who served as an authoritative back channel for communications between Soviet and US leaders, relays a message from Khrushchev to Robert Kennedy that the arms being sent to Cuba are intended only for defensive purposes. Bolshakov had not been told by Khrushchev that the Soviet Union is actually in the process of installing MRBMs and IRBMs in Cuba. By the time Bolshakov’s message reaches Kennedy, he has been fully briefed on the Soviet missile deployment. An SS-5 IRBM site, the first of 3 to be identified, is detected in Cuba. The SS-5s have ranges of up to 2,200 nautical miles, more than twice the range of the SS-4 MRBMs. The GMAIC estimates that the IRBM sites would not become operational before December but that 16 and possibly as many as 32 MRBMs would be operational in about a week. No SS-5 missiles actually reach Cuba anytime, although this is not completely confirmed by US officials during the crisis.
At 1100, the ExComm convenes for further discussions. The JCS, attending part of the meeting, recommends that Kennedy order an airstrike on the missiles and other key Cuban military installations. However, Robert Kennedy responds by asking whether a surprise air attack would be morally acceptable course of action. According to Robert Kennedy, the ExComm spent “more time [deliberating] on this moral question during the first five days than on any other single matter.”
1430, more discussions take place in Rusk’s conference room at the State Department. The President, who does not attend the talks, confers privately with Rusk and McNamara at 1530. During the day, Kennedy also meets privately with Acheson for over an hour. When the president raises his brother’s concern over the morality of a “Pearl Harbor in reverse” Acheson reportedly tells Kennedy that he was being “silly” and that it was “unworthy of [him] to talk that way.” Acheson again voices his opinion that the surgical airstrike is the best US option. Acheson, however, is in the minority in dismissing the Pearl Harbor analogy. Although Paul Nitze also recalls thinking that the analogy was “nonsense,” others like Ball find it persuasive. In some cases, as with Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, the moral argument becomes the deciding factor behind their support for the blockade.
1700, Andrei Gromyko and Kennedy meet at the White House. Gromyko states that Khrushchev plans to visit the UN following the US elections in November and that meeting with Kennedy at that time would be useful. After Kennedy agrees to meet the Soviet Premier, Gromyko turns the discussion to Cuba, charging that the US is “pestering” a small country. According to the minutes of the meeting, “Gromyko stated that he was instructed to make it clear... that [Soviet military] assistance, [was] pursued solely for the purpose of contributing to the defense capabilities of Cuba... if it were otherwise, the Soviet Government would never had become involved in rendering such assistance.” Kennedy has decided not to discuss US awareness of the missiles with Gromyko. So, without taking exception to Gromyko’s claim, Kennedy responds by reading a portion of his 4 September statement warning against the deployment of offensive weapons in Cuba. Following the talk with Gromyko, Kennedy directs Thompson to inform Dobrynin that a summit would not be appropriate at that time. Kennedy then meets with Robert Lovett, a former government official brought in to give advice in the crisis. Lovett warns that an airstrike would appear to be an excessive first step. He argues that a blockade is a better alternative, although he expresses a preference for blocking the movement of all materials into Cuba except for food and medicine, rather than limiting the quarantine to offensive weapons.
2100, meeting at the White House, the ExComm presents its recommendations to Kennedy. By this time, most members of the committee support the blockade option. As the meeting progresses, however, individual opinions begin to shift and the consensus behind the blockade breaks down. Kennedy directs the group to continue its deliberations.
Evening, Robert Kennedy phones his deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach, to request the preparation of a brief establishing the legal basis for a blockade of Cuba. The legality of a blockade is also examined independently at the State Department deputy legal adviser.
The first of a series of daily “Joint Evaluation” intelligence reports is disseminated. The evaluation, the product of collaboration between the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee (JAEIC) and the GMAIC, states that the MRBMs in Cuba could probably be launched within eighteen hours.
1100, at the State Department, Katzenbach and Meeker provide the ExComm with their legal opinions regarding a blockade of Cuba. As the meeting progresses, it becomes apparent that sharp disagreements about how the US should proceed still exist. In order to provide clear options to the President, the ExComm decides that independent working groups should be established. The papers developed by the separate working groups are exchanged and critiqued. In the course of this process, airstrike proponents begin to shift their support to the blockade option. The airstrike speech is abandoned, and Theodore Sorensen agrees to try to put together a speech for the President on the blockade. Sorensen completes the speech at 0300 the following day.
At 2040, U. Alexis Johnson and Nitze meet to develop a specific timetable for carrying out all of the diplomatic and military actions required by the airstrike or the blockade plan. The schedule includes raising military alert levels, reinforcing Guantanamo naval base and briefing NATO allies. All timing revolves around the “P Hour” – the time when the President would address the nation to inform Americans of the crisis.
That evening, responding to questions about an article by Paul Scott and Robert Allen dealing with Soviet missiles in Cuba, a Defense Department spokesperson replies that the Pentagon has no information indicating that there are missiles in Cuba. Reports that emergency military measures are being implemented are also denied.
SNIE 11-18-62, entitled “Soviet Reactions to Certain US Courses of Action on Cuba,” reports that a direct approach to Khrushchev or Castro is unlikely to halt the ongoing deployment of missiles to Cuba. On the other hand, a total blockade of Cuba, the SNIE projects, would “almost certainly” lead to “strong and direct pressures” elsewhere by the Soviet government. Any form of direct military action against Cuba would result in an even greater chance of Soviet military retaliation in such a situation, the report notes, there exists “the possibility that the Soviets, under great pressure to respond, would again miscalculate and respond in a way which, through a series of actions and reactions, could escalate to general war…”
Meeting at 0900, the ExComm continues the final planning for the implementation of a naval blockade is completed, and Sorensen’s draft speech amended and approved. As McNamara leaves the conference room, he reportedly phones the Pentagon and orders four tactical squadrons to be readied for a possible airstrike on Cuba. McNamara explains to an official who overhears the conversation, “If the president doesn’t accept our recommendation, there won’t be time to do it later.”
At 1430, The President meets with the full group of planning principals. He notes that the airstrike plan as presented is not a “surgical” strike but a massive military commitment that could involve heavy casualties on all sides. As if to underscore the scale of the proposed US military attack on Cuba, one member of the JCS reportedly suggests the use of nuclear weapons, saying that the Soviet Union would use its nuclear weapons in an attack. Kennedy directs that attention be focused on implementing the blockade option, calling it the only course of action compatible with American principles. The scenario for the full quarantine operation, covering diplomatic initiatives, public statements and military actions, is reviewed and approved. Kennedy’s address to the nation is set for 22 October at 1900 Eastern Time. Stevenson, who has flown in from New York, enters the discussion late. He proposes that the quarantine be accompanied by a US proposal for a settlement involving the withdrawal of US missiles from Turkey and the evacuation of Guantanamo. The proposal is promptly attacked by several of the participants who believe it concedes too much. Kennedy is among those critical of Stevenson’s proposal. According to minutes of the meeting, Kennedy “agreed that at an appropriate time we would have to acknowledge that we were willing to take strategic missiles out of Turkey and Italy if this issue was raised by the Russians....but he was firm in saying we should only make such a proposal in the future.” After the meeting adjourns at 1710, the President tells Sorenson that he is canceling the remainder of his midterm election campaign trip. Kennedy instructs Sorenson to redraft the quarantine speech, although he notes that he would not make a final decision on whether to opt for the quarantine or an airstrike until he has consulted one last time with Air Force officials the next morning.
James Reston, Washington Bureau Chief for the New York Times, phones Ball and Bundy to ask why there is such a flurry of activity in Washington. Reston is given a partial briefing on the Cuban situation but is requested to hold the story in the interests of national security.
The intelligence community prepares another SNIE reviewing the possible consequences of certain courses of action that the US could follow with regard to Cuba. The study, numbered SNIE 11-18-62, describes the status of armaments deployed in Cuba. It is estimated that 16 launchers for SS-4 MRBMs are operational and that these operational missiles could be fired within 8 hours of a decision to launch. The inventory of other major Soviet weapons identified in Cuba by the SNIE includes 22 IL-28 jet light bombers, 39 MiG-21 jet fighters, 62 less advanced jet fighters, 24 SA-2 missile sites, 3 cruise missile sites for coastal defense and 12 Komar-class cruise missile patrol boats. A nuclear warhead storage bunker is identified at one of the Cuban MRBM sites for the first time. US intelligence proves unable to establish definitively whether warheads are actually in Cuba at any time, however, and the ExComm believes it prudent simply to assume that they are. Soviet sources have recently suggested that 20 of a planned deployment of 40 nuclear warheads reached the islands but that none of the warheads were ever actually “mated” to the missiles.
President Kennedy meets at 1000 with secretaries Rusk and McNamara. After a brief discussion, Kennedy gives final approval to the quarantine plan. Around this time, White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger is informed of the crisis for the first time by Bundy.
At 1130, the commander of the Tactical Air Command (TAC), General Walter C. Sweeney, meets with Kennedy and other top officials to discuss the airstrike concept. Sweeney tells the group that to eliminate the missiles in Cuba, additional strikes are required on Soviet SAM sites and MIG airfields, and that several hundred bombing sorties would be required. Sweeney states, he can only guarantee that 90 percent of the Soviet missiles would be destroyed. Although Kennedy has apparently finalized plans for the quarantine before Sweeney’s briefing, he nonetheless directs that the military be prepared to carry out an airstrike anytime after the morning of 22 October.
The president convenes a formal meeting of the NSC at 1430. Admiral George Anderson briefs the gathering on the quarantine plans and procedures, explaining that each ship approaching the quarantine line will be signaled to stop for boarding and inspection. If the ship does not respond, a shot will be fired across the bow. If there is still no response, a shot will be fired into the rudder to cripple the vessel. Kennedy expresses concern that such an action might unintentionally destroy the boat; but Anderson reassures the president that it is possible to cripple a ship without sinking it. Kennedy concludes the meeting by observing that the US might be subjected to threats in the following days but that “the biggest danger is in taking no action.”
Despite White House precautions, several newspapers have by this time pieced together most of the details of the crisis. Salinger notifies Kennedy in four separate calls during the day that security is crumbling. To keep the story from breaking, Kennedy phones Max Frankel at the New York Times and Philip Graham at the Washington Post and asks McNamara to call John Hay Whitney, the publisher of the New York Herald Tribune. All three agree to hold their stories.
At 1055, the State Department transmits a special “go” message to most US diplomatic posts abroad instructing envoys to brief foreign heads of government or foreign ministers about the Cuban missile crisis. At 1100, Acheson briefs Charles de Gaulle and delivers Kennedys letter on the Cuban situation. After Acheson concludes his summary of the letter, de Gaulle declares, “it is exactly what l would have done....you may tell your President that France will support him.” At about the same time, US Ambassador to Great Britain David Bruce briefs Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Lord Home, the British foreign minister. MacMillan’s initial reaction upon seeing the photos of the missile sites reportedly is to remark, “Now the Americans will realize what we here in England have lived through for the past many years.” He hastens to assure Bruce that he will assist and support the US in any way possible. The President directs that personal messages be sent to commanders of Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey, instructing them to destroy or render inoperable the Jupiters if any attempt is made to fire them without Kennedy’s authorization. A State Department Legal Advisor successfully suggests changing the legal justification for the blockade presented in Kennedy’s speech. Instead of basing the action on the UN charter which assures a country’s right of self defense in case of armed attack, he suggests citing the right of the OAS to take collective measures to protect hemispheric security. Kennedy accepts a suggestion that the limited nature of the “blockade” be stressed, by calling it a “quarantine.”
At 1200, SAC initiates a massive alert of its B-52 nuclear bomber force, guaranteeing that one-eighth of the force is airborne at any given time. B-52 flights begin around the clock, with a new bomber taking off each time another bomber lands. The alert is directed to take place quietly and gradually and to be in full effect by 23 October. SAC also begins dispersing 183 B-47 nuclear bombers to 33 civilian and military airfields. The Air Defense Command (ADC) also dispersed 162 aircraft to sixteen bases in 9 hours. For the first time in ADC history, all aircraft are armed with nuclear weapons.
At 1414, the JCS notifies the State Department that US military forces worldwide would go to DEFCON 3, an increased alert posture, effective at 1900. They also state that Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) Lauris Norstad has been ordered to try to persuade NATO forces to assume a comparable alert posture, but that he is authorized to “exercise his discretion in complying with this directive.” During the day, Norstad confers with MacMillan, who strongly argues against “mobilizing” European forces. Aware that an alert might weaken European support for the US – and having received a persona1 message from Kennedy stressing the need to keep the alliance together - Norstad decides not to put European forces on higher alert status.
At 1500, the President reviews the crisis in a formal meeting of the NSC. During the meeting, Kennedy formally establishes the ExComm.
The President, Rusk and an intelligence officer brief 17 congressional leaders at 1700. Most express support for Kennedy’s blockade plan. Others, led by Senators Russell and Fullbright, argue that the quarantine will not compel the Soviet Union to remove the missiles from Cuba and that an airstrike or invasion should be employed.
At 1800, Rusk meets with Dobrynin. Calling the Soviet missile deployment “a gross error,” Rusk hands the Soviet ambassador an advance copy of the President’s speech. Rusk later recalls that Dobrynin, who had never been told by Soviet leaders of the missile deployment, aged “ten years right in front of my eyes.” US Ambassador Kohler calls the Kremlin to deliver a letter from Kennedy and the text of the speech. “I must tell you that the US is determined that this threat to the security of the hemisphere be removed,” read the president’s letter.
At 1826, the State Department receives a letter addressed to Kennedy from Macmillan. MacMillan warns that Khrushchev, in reaction to the blockade, “may try to escort his ships into the Caribbean and force you to attack them. This fire-first dilemma has always worried us and we have always hoped to impale the Russians on this horn. We must be ready for retaliatory action against Berlin [as well as for] pressure on the weaker parts of the Free World defense system.” Kennedy phones MacMillan late that evening. During the crisis, the two leaders remain in close contact, speaking with each other over the telephone as often as three times a day.
The President addresses the nation in a televised 17 minute speech at 1900. Announcing that “unmistakable evidence” has established the presence of Soviet MRBM and IRBM sites and nuclear capable bombers in Cuba, he states that as one of his “initial steps,” a “strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment” is being put into effect. Kennedy further warns the Soviet government that the US will “regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the US, requiring a full retaliatory response against the Soviet Union.” According to dissident Soviet historian Roy Medvedev, Khrushchev responds to the speech by “issuing orders to the captains of Soviet ships... approaching the blockade zone to ignore it and to hold course for the Cuban ports.” Khrushchev’s order was reportedly reversed at the prompting of Anastas Mikoyan as the Soviet ships approach the quarantine line on the morning of 24 October. US military forces worldwide, with the exception of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), are placed on DEFCON 3. ICBM missile crews are alerted and Polaris nuclear submarines in port are dispatched to preassigned stations at sea. During the President’s speech, 22 interceptor aircraft go airborne in the event the Cuban government reacted militarily.
At 1900, Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Martin conducts a further closed-door briefing for Latin American ambassadors at the State Department. At around 2000, Rusk speaks to a meeting of all other ambassadors in Washington. Rusk reportedly tells the group, “I would not be candid and I would not be fair with you if l did not say that we are in as grave a crisis as mankind has been in.”
The first US Jupiter site is formally turned over to the Turkish Air Force for maintenance and operation. The move is publicized in Turkey and probably detected by Moscow.
0800, TASS begins transmitting a Soviet government statement. US Ambassador Kohler is called to the Soviet Foreign Office and given a copy of the statement with a letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy, “I must say frankly that the measures indicated in your statement constitute a serious threat to peace and to the security of nations...We reaffirm that the armaments which are in Cuba, regardless of the classification to which they may belong, are intended solely for defensive purposes in order to secure [the] Republic of Cuba against the attack of an aggressor. I hope that the US Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace.” In his transmittal of the letter, Kohler notes that both the statement and the letter “avoid specific threats and are relatively restrained in tone.”
At a 1000 meeting of the ExComm, Kennedy approves an official quarantine proclamation. In anticipation of a possible reaction to the blockade from the Soviet government, Kennedy directs McCone to prepare an analysis of the effects of a comparable blockade on Berlin. The ExComm then examines the question of how the US will respond if a U-2 aircraft is shot down. If such an event occurs and “evidence of hostile Cuban action” has been established, the ExComm decides that the SAM site responsible for the downing will be attacked and destroyed. Continued harassment of U-2 flights, it is agreed, would probably result in attacks on all SAM sites in Cuba. Following the ExComm meeting, Kennedy establishes three subcommittees: another on crisis communications, one on advance planning, and the third on Berlin contingencies.
At a special meeting of the UN Security Council at 1600, Stevenson issues a sharply worded statement in which he characterizes Cuba as “an accomplice in the Communist enterprise of world domination.” The Cuban representative responds by denouncing the quarantine as an “act of war;” and Soviet representative Zorin calls US charges of missiles in Cuba “completely false.” Zorin submits a draft resolution demanding an end to US naval activity near Cuba and calling for negotiations to end the crisis.
The ExComm holds a meeting at 1600 prior to the President’s signing of the quarantine proclamation, making slight revisions and approving a new message to Khrushchev. The ExComm members are informed that an “extraordinary number” of coded messages have been sent to Soviet ships on the way to Cuba, although the contents of these messages are not known.
At 1740, Castro announces a combat alarm, placing the Cuban armed forces on their highest alert. Cuban armed forces subsequently reach a size of 270,000 men, following a massive mobilization effort.
At 1851, a new message is transmitted to Khrushchev via the US embassy in Moscow. Kennedy, stressing that it is important that both sides “show prudence and do nothing to allow events to make the situation more difficult to control than it already is,” asks the Soviet Premier to direct Soviet ships to observe the quarantine zone.
The president signs Proclamation 3504, formally establishing the quarantine at 1906, directing CINCLANT to enforce tine blockade at 1000 the following morning.
Castro tells the Cuban public that Cuba will never disarm while the US persists in its policy of aggression and hostility. Castro denies the presence of offensive missiles on Cuban soil but declares, “We will acquire the arms we feel like acquiring and we don’t have to give an account to the imperialists.” Castro also categorically refuses to allow inspection of Cuban territory, warning that potential inspectors “must come in battle array.”
At a Soviet embassy reception in Washington, DC, Lieutenant General Dubovik appears to suggest that the captains of the Soviet ships heading for Cuba are under orders to defy the blockade. Dobnynin, arriving late at the reception, declines to refute Dubovik’s comments, saying, “he is a military man, I am not. He is the one who knows what the Navy is going to do, not I.” US intelligence also notes a statement by the president of TASS during the day warning that US ships would be sunk if any Soviet ships are attacked.
At 2130, Robert Kennedy meets with Dobrynin in his office at the Soviet embassy. According to his memorandum on the meeting, the attorney general calls the Soviet missile deployment “hypocritical, misleading and false.” Dobrynin tells Kennedy that, as far as he knows, there are still no missiles in Cuba, and said that he is not aware of any change in instructions to captains of Soviet ships steaming toward Cuba.
Low-level reconnaissance flights over Cuba, supplementing theU-2s begin. Navy and Air Force aircraft fly some 158 low-level missions between 23 October and 15 November. The Soviet Union responds to the low-altitude flights by employing camouflage where possible. Moscow places the armed forces of Warsaw Pact countries on alert. The Soviet Government also defers the scheduled release of troops in the Strategic Rocket Forces, air defense units, and the submarine fleet, and it announces that “the battle readiness and vigilance of all troops” has been raised.
A CIA report at 0600 states that communist reaction to the US quarantine against Cuba has “not gone beyond the highly critical but noncommittal statement” issued by the Soviet government on 23 October. Official world reaction is reported to be generally favorable, particularly in Latin America. Surveillance of Cuba indicates continued rapid progress in completion of IRBM and MRBM missile sites. No new offensive missile sites have been discovered, but nuclear storage buildings are being assembled with great speed.
Early morning, Soviet ships en route to Cuba capable of carrying military cargoes appear to have slowed down, altered, or reversed their courses. 16 of the 19 Soviet ships en route to Cuba at the time the naval quarantine is announced, including 5 large-hatch vessels, reverse course and are returning to the Soviet Union. Only the tanker Bucharest continues toward the quarantine line.
That morning, William Knox, a US businessman, has a 3 and a 1/4 hour interview with Khrushchev at Khrushchev’s request. Khrushchev states that it is now too late for the US to take over Cuba, and that he will eventually give orders to sink a US vessel enforcing the blockade if Soviet ships are stopped.
At 0935, the President has a brief conversation with his brother, Robert, during which the president reportedly expresses deep concern that Soviet ships appear ready to challenge the quarantine. “It looks really mean, doesn’t it? But then, really, there was no other choice. If they get this mean in our part of the world, what will they do next?” “I just don’t think there was any choice,” [Robert Kennedy] said, “and not only, if you hadn’t acted, you would have been impeached.” The President thought for a moment and said, “That’s what I think - I would have been impeached.”
At 1000, the quarantine of Cuba goes into effect. The ExComm meets, and according to Robert Kennedy’s memo, the meeting “seemed the most trying, the most difficult, and the most filled with tension.” McNamara tells the group that Soviet ships approaching the quarantine line show no indication of stopping and that two Soviet ships, the Gagarin and the Komiles, are within a few miles of the line. Naval intelligence then reports that a Soviet submarine has moved between the two ships. McNamara states that the aircraft carrier USS Essex has been directed to make the first interception, and that antisubmarine tactics, including the use of small explosives, has been ordered to prevent the Soviet submarine from interfering with the blockade. According to Robert Kennedy the president asks, “Isn’t there some way we can avoid our first exchange with a Russian submarine - almost anything but that?” McNamara replies, “No, there’s too much danger to our ships...Our commanders have been instructed to avoid hostilities if at all possible, but this is what we must be prepared for; and this is what we must expect?’
At 1025, a new intelligence message arrives and McCone announces, “We have a preliminary report which seems to indicate that some of the Russian ships have stopped dead in the water.” Rusk leans over to Bundy and says, “We’re eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.” President Kennedy directs that no ship be intercepted for at least another hour while clarifying information is sought.
1124, a cable drafted by Ball is transmitted to US Ambassador to Turkey Raymond Hare and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Thomas Finletter, notifying them that the US is considering a Turkey-for-Cuba missile trade. The cable states that while the comparison of missiles in Turkey with those in Cuba was “refutable,” it is nonetheless possible that a negotiated solution to the crisis might “involve dismantling and removal” of the Jupiters. Each diplomat is requested to assess the political consequences of the removal of the Jupiters in a variety of different circumstances.
At 1400, in his first communication with the President and Khrushchev during the crisis, UN Acting Secretary General U Thant sends identical private appeals to the two leaders, urging that their governments “refrain from any action which may aggravate the situation and bring with it the risk of war.” U Thant’s plea calls for the voluntary suspension of arms shipments to Cuba together with the voluntary suspension of the naval quarantine for between two and three weeks.
At 1715, a Defense Department spokesperson announces publicly that some of the Soviet Bloc vessels proceeding toward Cuba appear to have altered their course. TASS releases an exchange of telegrams between British philosopher and passivist Bertrand Russell and Khruschev. In his first public statement since the onset of the crisis, Khrushchev warns in his telegram that if the US carries out its program of “pirate action,” the Soviet Union will have no alternative but to “make use of the means of defense against the aggressor.” Khrushchev also proposes a summit with Kennedy to discuss how tp end the conflict and “remove the threat of the unleashing of a thermonuclear war.
At 2124, the State Department receives a letter for the President from Khrushchev. Khrushchev writes, “if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the US.” Khrushchev warns that the Soviet Union views the blockade as an “act of aggression” and that, as a consequence, he will not instruct Soviet ships bound for Cuba to observe the quarantine.
At the direction of the JCS, SAC increases its alert posture to DEFCON 2 for the first time in history: Gen Thomas Power, the Commander-in-Chief of SAC, believed, as he later wrote that while discreet preparations had been approved before, it was now “important for [the Soviets] to know of SACs readiness.” Consequently, Powers decides on his own authority to transmit uncoded messages to SAC commanders noting that SAC plans are well prepared and that the alert process was going smoothly.
A message from the President Kennedy for Khrushchev is transmitted to the US embassy in Moscow. Acknowledging Khrushchev’s letter of 24 October, Kennedy writes, “I regret very much that you still do not appear to understand what it is that has moved us in this matter....” Kennedy notes that he had received “solemn assurances” that no missile bases would be established in Cuba. When these assurances proved false, the deployment of missiles in Cuba “required the responses I have announced....I hope that your government will take the necessary action to permit a restoration of the earlier situation.”
A syndicated column by the influential journalist Walter Lippman proposes a “face-saving” agreement whereby the US would agree to remove Jupiter from Turkey in return for a Soviet withdrawal of missiles from Cuba. Many in the US and the Soviet Union mistakenly interpret the proposal as a trial balloon floated by the Kennedy administration.
In his reply to U Thant’s letter of 23 October, Kennedy avoids responding directly to U Thant’s proposal that Soviet arms shipments to Cuba and the US quarantine be suspended for several weeks. Concerned that acceptance of the proposal would allow Soviet military personnel to continue to work on the missiles already in Cuba, Kennedy writes only that he appreciated the “spirit” of U Thant’s message, adding that Stevenson is prepared to begin preliminary negotiations regarding the crisis. Also, during the day, Khrushchev writes to U Thant to say that he welcomes and agrees with his proposal. Khrushchev notes that, like U Thant, he considered the Cuban crisis “highly dangerous and requiring...immediate interference by the United Nations.”
At the prompting of the US, U Thant sends a second message to Khrushchev and Kennedy asking them to avoid direct confrontations between Soviet and US ships while the quarantine remains in effect. U Thant asks that Soviet ships keep out of the quarantine zone for a limited time and that the US instruct its vessels “to do everything possible to avoid a direct confrontation with Soviet ships in the next few days.”
At the close of a 1700 ExComm meeting, CIA Director McCone indicates that some of the missiles deployed in Cuba are now operational.
The State Department receives a cable from US Ambassador Finletter relaying Ankara’s position on the possible withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Finletter reports that the Turkish representative to NATO has made it clear that his government sets “great store” by the Jupiter, and that Turkey regards the missiles “as a symbol of the alliance’s determination to use atomic weapons” against either a Soviet conventional or nuclear attack on Turkey. Finletter states his belief that any arrangement that fails to substitute some other form of nuclear capability in Turkey would be rejected by the Turkish government. He adds, “in my opinion we must be most careful in working out any horse trade of this type to be sure it does not set a pattern for handling of Russian incursions in other parts of the world (perhaps in other Western Hemisphere countries).”
The President issues National Security Action Memorandum 199 authorizing the loading of multistage nuclear weapons on aircraft under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR).
An 0600 CIA memorandum reporting information notes that construction of IRBM and MRBM bases in Cuba is proceeding without interruption.
The President tells the ExComm at 1000 that he believes the quarantine by itself will not cause the Soviet government to remove the missiles from Cuba, and that only an invasion or a trade of some sort will succeed. After discussing the airstrike option again at some length, Kennedy agrees to apply further pressure by increasing the frequency of low-level flights over Cuba from twice per day to once every two hours. The ExComm also decides not to undertake any emergency civil defense programs at this time, although preliminary measures have been initiated.
Kennedy orders the State Department to proceed with preparations for a crash program aimed at establishing a civil government in Cuba after an invasion and occupation of the country. During the meeting, McNamara reports to the President that the military believes that heavy casualties should be expected in an invasion; several days later; ClNCLANT estimates that up to 18,484 US casualties might occur during the first ten days of fighting.
At 1300, John Scali, State Department correspondent for ABC News, lunches with Aleksandr Fomin at the Occident Restaurant in Washington at Fomin’s urgent request. The two have met together on several previous occasions. Fomin, officially the Soviet embassy public affairs counselor, is known to be the KGB’s Washington station chief. Noting that “war seems about to break out,” he asks Scali to contact his “high level friends” in the State Department to ascertain whether the United States would be interested in a possible solution to the crisis. According to Scali’s notes, Fomin’s proposal runs along the following lines: “[Soviet] bases would be dismantled under [U]nited [N]ations supervision and [C]astro would pledge not to accept offensive weapons of any kind, ever, in return for [a US] pledge not to invade Cuba? Following the lunch, Scali goes directly to the State Department to report on the meeting to Roger Hilsmann.
In December, we will continue the review of events that led to the resolution of the crisis. As we close part I, we are in DEFCON 2 and those of us in missiles are sitting on an alert posture that is as close to nuclear war that we can get without loading propellants on our liquid fueled missiles. The first Minuteman I missile at Malmstrom AFB, A-06, will come on alert in a few hours. We will remain on the brink of war for several more days, with our lives as missileers only returning to “normal” at the end of November.