Ringside at the Missile Crisis

Bay of Pigs Fallout

Kennedy, feeling that he had not been served well by the CIA in the Bay of Pigs, replaced CIA Director Allen Dulles with John McCone. The President also felt the advice he had received from the Joint Chiefs of Staff was not up to par, so he brought General Maxwell Taylor back to active duty in the newly created post of military representative to the President. On 1 October, Taylor was formally named Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Within the White House, Kennedy sought to bring the reins for foreign policy and national-security management more fully into his hands. He named McGeorge Bundy the first national security adviser to the President, with his office in the West Wing. He also created his own national-security information staff—the Situation Room—in the West Wing.

Special counsel to the President, Theodore Sorensen, describes Kennedy’s relationship with his military insiders thusly:

Contrary to complaints that he was bypassing his military advisors in these drastic alterations, Kennedy met regularly if not frequently with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the President centralized military decision-making in the office of his civilian Secretary. [Robert] McNamara relied not only on the Joint Chiefs but also . . . on a brilliant array of civilian aides. . . . These “Whiz Kids,” as they were nicknamed, supplemented the military experience of the generals and admirals with economic, political, and other analyses. 1

Kennedy inherited forceful leaders and powerful personalities on his Joint Chiefs of Staff. Army General Lyman Lemnitzer was chairman. General David M. Shoup was Marine Corps Commandant. As newly appointed Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Curtis E. LeMay joined the chiefs in 1961. And that same year, Anderson succeeded Admiral Arleigh Burke after Burke completed his third term as CNO.

When he returned to Washington to become CNO, Anderson recalled the tension in the administration:

[I]t was quite apparent that the United States as a whole and the Navy in particular was very disappointed with the outcome of the Bay of Pigs. It had been a matter of continuing concern, and I personally sensed that there was a very high manifestation of the competitiveness of President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy to make up for what had gone on. As a matter of fact, as soon as I became a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it was clear that there was a weekly meeting at the higher political State Department level as to what could be done to redress the situation. 2

No Love Lost on the Whiz Kids

Anderson was very open in addressing his disapproval of McNamara’s style of management and his dislike for the meddling of the Whiz Kids staff. “I suggested to the Chiefs,” he recalled, “that we ask for a meeting with the Secretary of Defense in what we could call executive session and that we talk frankly and tell him what could be done to improve relationships between the military and the civilian side of the house.” The Chiefs agreed; Lemnitzer arranged the meeting, and McNamara came down accompanied by Deputy Secretary Roswell Gilpatrick.

Lemnitzer invited Anderson to speak first. The CNO said he had three issues susceptible of correction. “The first,” he said, “is that we are being inundated with demands from your office on matters that are basically the responsibility of the Chief of Naval Operations, requests that go down to various levels of the CNO’s staff, which take up a great deal of time to prepare answers, and further questions come down, further demands for detailed information. These requests are being imposed by one of your staff officers who cannot even pass a U.S. naval security clearance.”

Anderson went on to sum up the balance of the meeting: “. . . they went around the table and LeMay talked a little bit about strategic forces, the Army didn’t have much to say, and David Shoup saw the handwriting on the wall and kept pretty quiet. The net result was that I had put the Secretary of Defense’s staff on report. . . .” 3 It was a tense atmosphere, indeed.

The Crisis Takes Shape

Against this backdrop during the summer and early autumn of 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis was taking form. As of 1 July, intelligence monitoring of Soviet military deliveries to Cuba indicated that 160 tanks, 770 field artillery and antitank guns, 560 antiaircraft guns, 35 jet fighters, 24 helicopters and 3,800 military vehicles of various types had entered the island nation. On 27 July, Castro announced that Cuba would soon have new defenses against the United States. On 29 August, as weaponry continued to roll off Soviet ships into Cuban ports, a CIA U-2 photographed the first SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). 4

By October the number of Soviet tanks, field artillery, and antitank weapons had doubled; jet fighters had tripled. The construction of 24 SAM sites with 500 missiles was under way. The sites were being constructed in the outlines of trapezoids, which indicated to U.S. photo interpreters and analysts that they were not there to guard against air attack. They were point defenses, similar to SAM sites protecting ballistic-missile launch sites in the Soviet Union.

The President authorized additional U-2 flights over western Cuba. On 15 October, U-2 film revealed ballistic-missile carriers, associated equipment, and support trucks. The camera had caught a medium-range ballistic-missile (MRBM) convoy pulling into the cover of a wooded area. The President, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were shown the photographic evidence.

Missiles, Launchers, and Bombers

The President then convened the first of many Executive Committee meetings in the White House. Reconnaissance flights continued. U-2 photographs taken on 17 October revealed construction of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) site just west of Havana. The SS-5 IRBM had a range of over 2,200 miles and could hit almost any U.S. target. Intelligence analysis showed that the Soviets and Cubans were working nonstop to set up 24 MRBM launchers plus 18 reserves for a total of 42 SS-4 MRBM nuclear missiles, as well as three fixed IRBM launch sites, each with four launchers. If these sites were completed, their missiles would significantly alter the strategic balance. Intelligence had additionally photographed the shipboard arrival of the first of 42 disassembled, nuclear-weapons-capable Ilyushin Il-28 (NATO code-named Beagle) bomber aircraft.

At the White House, the Executive Committee weighed the new evidence. On 18 October, the President proceeded with an office call by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, an appointment that had been made many weeks before. Without tipping his hand about the U.S. discovery of the Soviet MRBMs, IRBMs, and bombers in Cuba, the President underscored to Gromyko the unacceptability of Soviet offensive nuclear weapons on the island. Gromyko responded with assurances that the weapons being introduced were strictly defensive.

Two options for responding to the Soviets were the subject of intense debate as the Executive Committee sessions continued: one, a maritime blockade of Cuba, and two, a military strike on Cuba. Those favoring the blockade—or a quarantine, which would not be an act of war—included McNamara. They argued that it applied pressure on the Soviets at the same time that it did not risk pushing Khrushchev beyond the brink. It would demonstrate U.S. resolve, while giving the President time and leverage in demanding that the Soviet Union withdraw its missiles and bombers from Cuba. McNamara reinforced his argument with the point that a surprise U.S. air strike against the missile bases alone—a surgical strike—was impractical, even in the eyes of the military, and that all military installations would have to be attacked.

On 19 October, with the U.S. response still undecided, the President invited the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the White House. General Earl Wheeler was then Army Chief of Staff. The chiefs were unanimous in arguing for a military strike.

Quarantine Over Attack

In his oral-history record of these meetings, Anderson remembered, “And so, finally, we met with the President and the Chiefs of Staff, and the President said that he understood that there were differences of views on the Joint Chiefs of Staff about what he had decided to do, but that he had decided to take this initial step of quarantine, but this did not preclude other actions that might be necessary if that did not work.”

In an Executive Committee meeting on 21 October, at the request of the President, Anderson described in detail how the Navy would carry out the quarantine, from the first signaling to approaching ships, to boarding procedures, to warning shots, and then actual disabling shots into the rudder if a ship refused to stop. He recalled the following exchange: “As we left the White House after the meeting, the President said to me: ‘Admiral, this is up to the Navy.’ And I said: ‘Mr. President, the Navy will not let you down.’”

As he recalled that phase of the crisis, Anderson continued:

So we had gotten into the position of moving our forces around to the best military posture the Navy could adopt, and we had a pretty formidable position at that time. For example, we had all our available Polaris submarines at sea; we had a line of defensive submarine barriers across the Atlantic; we had our patrol squadrons scouring the Atlantic from the best possible bases for reconnaissance and, particularly, Russian submarines. We had our Marine battalions in a high degree of readiness. 5

Seven Steps

With the Navy already moving into position, on 22 October at 1900, the President gave his radio and television report to the American people on the Soviet arms buildup in Cuba. He reported on U.S. surveillance there, the hard evidence of Soviet introduction of offensive nuclear ballistic missiles, and the seven initial steps he directed be taken in defense of U.S. security and the entire Western Hemisphere:

First : To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine of all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.

The President then reported on the additional steps he had ordered:

• Increased surveillance of Cuba, and should offensive Soviet actions continue, preparation of U.S. armed forces for any eventualities

• A determination that it would be the policy of the United States that if any missile were launched from Cuba it would be treated as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response

• Reinforcement of the U.S. base at Guantanamo, with evacuation of dependents

• Convening of the Organization of American States to invoke articles providing for the collective defense

• Convening of the U.N. Security Council

• Calling on “Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations.” 6

As the President delivered his address, U.S. armed forces around the world were placed on DEFCON ( Defense Condition) 3. Navy units operating under the flagship heavy cruiser USS Newport News (CA-148) steamed into place implementing the quarantine around Cuba. Army troops boarded trains and convoys for a potential invasion jumping-off point in southern Florida. On 25 October, the United States raised the readiness of Strategic Air Command (SAC) forces to DEFCON 2. One-eighth of SAC bombers were on airborne alert, and some 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles were on alert as well.

Fireworks in Flag Plot

Anderson and his Navy staff managed control of the naval operation in the Pentagon’s Flag Plot. With the quarantine in place, as the Navy tracked surface shipping and Soviet submarines, he recalled

One incident occurred. We knew where one of these particular submarines was located. We had that information from the most highly classified intelligence that the Navy had at the time. . . . We had a destroyer sitting on top of this submarine. One evening, McNamara, Gilpatric, and an entourage of his press people came down to Flag Plot and, in the course of their interrogations, they asked why that destroyer was out of line. I sort of tried to pass it off because there were some of McNamara’s people there who were not cleared for this information, but some of my own watch officers were not cleared for it in the general area of Flag Plot. After some discussion, I said to McNamara—he kept pressing me—“Come inside,” and I took him into a little inner sanctuary where only the people who had clearance for that particular type of classified information were permitted, and I explained the whole thing to him and to his satisfaction, as well. He left, and we walked down the corridor, and I said, “Well, Mr. Secretary, you go back to your office and I will go back to mine and we’ll take care of things. . . .” I heard nothing of that until after the TFX [an Air Force tactical fighter program that McNamara, much to Anderson’s disagreement, tried to merge with the Navy], then the story was leaked through his own public information people that I had insulted him by making this remark over the incident in Flag Plot. And, it’s still there; they’re still correcting it in most of the stories that come out about the Cuban Missile Crisis. 7

The Navy’s blockade proved effective, with attention being given not only to all surface shipping but also to Soviet submarines either en route or already in area beyond the quarantine line. The Soviets’ measured response to the quarantine was of critical importance to the President’s measured approach to the crisis. No ships with prohibited or even questionable cargoes tried to run the blockade. This said, time was running short. The MRBMs would become operational on 28 October.

On the 26th, Khrushchev sent Kennedy first one message, then another. The first couched the Soviet Union’s conditions for the withdrawal of its missiles and bombers from Cuba in terms of a requirement for an end to the U.S. blockade and a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba. The second message added an additional, more difficult demand, that the United States also remove its missiles from Turkey.

In a 27 October meeting of the Executive Committee, Robert Kennedy proposed that the United States reply to Khrushchev’s first message. That was approved. The President’s reply opened on a positive tone, welcoming Khrushchev’s “desire to seek a prompt solution to the problem.” He stressed that work had to stop on the missile bases and that all offensive weapons had to be removed. The United States, in turn, would lift the quarantine and would assure the Soviets that it would not invade Cuba.

On 28 October 1962, Khrushchev agreed to Kennedy’s terms. Work on the missile bases stopped. The first phase of removal of offensive weapons began. U.S. surveillance units and the U.S. Navy monitored the withdrawal. The Cuban crisis was now fading and would soon be over.

1. Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 606.

2. The Reminiscences of Admiral George W. Anderson Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired) , vol. II (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1983), 540.

3. Ibid, 496–97.

4. A. Denis Clift and John T. Hughes, “The San Cristobal Trapezoid,” Studies in Intelligence , vol. 36, no. 5, (1992), 58.

5. Anderson, Reminiscences , 545–46.

6. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, John F. Kennedy, 1962, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963), 806–08.

7. Anderson, Reminiscences , 558–59.

Mr. Clift is the U.S. Naval Institute’s vice president for planning and operations and president emeritus of the National Intelligence University. A naval officer from 1958–62, he served in the administrations of 11 successive Presidents. From 1963–66, he was editor-in-chief of Proceedings .

A Second Missile Crisis Avoided? 

By Rear Admiral Edward D. Sheafer Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired) 

Dateline: 9–11 May 1973, North Vietnam, Operation Pocket Money. President Richard Nixon tries to force the North Vietnamese back to the peace talks in Paris.

Over a period of three days, numerous aircraft from multiple carrier battle groups planted sea mines in Haiphong Harbor and many other harbors in the north, wherever seaborne supplies could be delivered. The principal means by which the North Vietnamese received weapons, ammunition, and food were from foreign merchant ships, which had been “no-no” targets for the whole war.

About a month before the mining, the Naval Intelligence Reaction Team (NAVIRT) had been set up by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. The team had three co-directors, a naval aviator, a Marine, and me, plus about 100 analysts. The NAVIRT’s mission was to come up with initiatives that could be quickly implemented and that might help stem North Vietnam’s push into South Vietnam. It was also meant to keep an eye on the Soviet navy. Why three co-directors? The CNO created a procedure whereby, if we three could agree on an action, we could act immediately without any staffing or coordination in the Pentagon or elsewhere in the U.S. government. I was a former surface warfare officer, with command at sea and two years as a Soviet submarine analyst. 

One night shortly after the mining, I got a call at home sometime after midnight. Our watch team leader said, very ominously, “The sh__ has hit the fan. Get to the Pentagon, ASAP.” I didn’t need coffee to stay awake.

In addition to intelligence reporting, we had access to all significant U.S. naval communications in the Far East. That night, after the mining, an extremely urgent “Flash” precedence message arrived from a U.S. submarine patrolling in the Sea of Japan off Vladivostok, the main Soviet naval base in the Far East. Four Soviet nuclear-powered, long-range, cruise-missile-equipped submarines had just deployed at staggered intervals and at high speed toward the South China Sea. Some of the missiles were nuclear-armed. Those new submarines had been specifically designed to kill aircraft carriers. Together, they carried 32 cruise missiles. 

As we prepared to forward the message to the White House, I said, “Why don’t we give the President a recommendation on how to deal with this crisis, rather than just pass him the problem? Time is critical if you like my idea.” I added, “Since our submarine can’t leave its patrol station, we really have no idea where all the Soviet subs are just hours after deployment and no real ability to find them. Why don’t we bluff the Soviets? They don’t know that we don’t know where the subs are now, but they will learn, for sure, that we detected them deploying. So we tell them the truth, immediately followed by a big fat lie, which they will believe, especially if we do it very quickly, which they never would anticipate.”

The directors all agreed and we sent the following recommendation directly to the White House, in the middle of the night, with no Pentagon or State Department coordination: “Tell the Soviets we know they deployed four nuclear powered Echo II-class cruise-missile-equipped submarines toward Vietnam about six hours ago. We know exactly where they are. If they continue on course toward Vietnam, the U.S Navy will sink them.” The President approved the recommendation—using the same terse language I was later told—and sent it to Moscow as a “demarche,” which in this case was a diplomatic threat that would normally take days to weeks to coordinate. It was an ultimatum from which there was no retreat. Almost immediately, the Soviet subs reversed course. What might have become a major Cold War confrontation was averted, all transpiring while America slept, peacefully. 

Rear Admiral Sheafer served as a surface warfare officer for ten years and as a naval intelligence officer for 25 years. He was chief of Intelligence (J2) for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and director of Naval Intelligence. He is a 1962 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.


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