Note: Throughout the late summer and early fall of 1962 reports and rumors were swirling in Washington DC that the Soviet Union and Cuba were collaborating on building nuclear missile launch sites in Cuba. On August 10th CIA Director John McCone sent JFK a memo stating that he thought the Soviet Union would deploy medium range nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba and this was followed at the end of the month by an announcement by Senator Kenneth Keating (Republican NY) in the U.S. Senate stating there was evidence the Soviets were actually building the sites and urging the President to do something about it. In early September Kennedy has his brother and chief advisor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy meet with the Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to express JFK’s concerns about the reports and rumors he is getting. He is assured by Dobrynin that any military aid being given to Cuba is for defensive purposes only and does not involve offensive missiles. A week later, on September 11th the Soviet News Agency Tass announces the same thing, but the same day Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in a speech to the UN states that should the U.S. invade Cuba it would mean war with the Soviet Union.  In response to all of this JFK orders a U-2 over flight of Cuba to take place on October 9th but the flight is delayed until the 14th by bad weather. On October 10th Senator Keating makes another announcement that the Soviets are building six nuclear missile launch sites in Cuba. A few days later, on October 14th, the U-2 takes photographs that on analysis reveal the first hard evidence that the Russians and Cubans are, indeed, building the missile launch sites. The President’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy is informed of the photos on October 15th and on Tuesday morning October 16th he informs the President. For the next thirteen days the United States and the Soviet Union engage in a high wire act of nuclear brinksmanship that threatens the whole world with annihilation…the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here is Part II of the whole story…MA 

an Ex Comm meeting

According to Robert Kennedy in his memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis Thirteen Days, just after 9AM on Tuesday, October 16th 1962 he received an urgent phone call from the President asking that he come immediately to the White House. The message was that “we are in great trouble” but beyond that no further data was given. Upon arriving RFK was told by his brother that according to U-2 photos just taken and analyzed the Soviets were constructing nuclear missile launch sites in Cuba. Within two hours a meeting was convened in the Cabinet room at the White House comprised of most of the top officials of the US Government and national security establishment. In attendance besides the President and his brother were Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Director of the CIA John McCone, Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Special Counsel to the President Ted Sorensen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor, Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Special Assistant to the President Ken O’Donnell.  In addition there were a number of assistants to the Secretaries of State and Defense as well as an advisor on Russian affairs. This is the group, more or less, that would become known as “Ex Comm”, short for “Executive Committee of the National Security Council”, which met daily and often long into the night across the next two weeks and was charged by President Kennedy with looking at all options and solutions to resolve the crisis.

Realizing that his presence might prevent some members of the group from honestly speaking their minds JFK only attended the meetings he was asked to attend in order to be briefed or to render decisions. Robert Kennedy briefed him daily on what transpired at the meetings. At this first meeting the Ex Comm group was briefed on and shown the photographs by the CIA. With their charts and pointers the CIA’s photo experts pointed out where the sites were being built and what the various images meant. According to RFK in his memoir, even with the photos, he had to take the fact there were missile launch sites being built on faith because, try as he might, what he was looking at just looked like vacant lots to him. The President, he states, felt the same way. Neither doubted the veracity of what they were being told however.

JFK’s immediate response to what he was now realizing was true was a feeling of betrayal. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet government’s representatives had flat out lied to him. In addition, prior to the U-2 over flight and as late as 19 September, the official intelligence estimates JFK received stated that the Soviet Union had not used any of their other satellite nations as missile bases and concluded, therefore, that they would not make Cuba a base. The risk of U.S. reprisal, the intelligence people thought, was just too great for the Soviets to do such a thing. Now, it appeared, the intelligence estimates were completely wrong and the President and everyone in Ex Comm realized it. Though there were a few who thought otherwise, most of Ex Comm was of the immediate opinion that something had to be done to stop the launch sites from being built; they could not allow Cuba to become a nuclear missile base 90 miles from our shores. To most of them an airstrike to destroy the sites was the best option. JFK also knew that something had to be done and that he could not allow the missiles to remain in Cuba. He wasn’t ready to push the panic button, however. He wanted to be certain that every option was looked at and every possibility for a peaceful resolution was considered and he charged his brother Robert and the Ex Comm group with this responsibility.

Nikita K

Nikita Khrushchev

In the meantime it was also imperative that the situation be handled with the utmost secrecy. JFK did not want the Soviets to be aware that he knew what they were doing in Cuba just yet; at least not until he had a chance to formulate his strategy for handling the crisis. Likewise, he did not want the media or the public in the loop until he was ready, fearing it would cause unnecessary panic. To accomplish this it was worked out that he would keep up the semblance of his normal Presidential routine. The mid-term elections were coming up in November and he had a number of campaign speeches and appearances scheduled. He would need to make good on these commitments, lest his absence indicate that something was up.

For the next two days the Ex Comm group met, arguing over the options and alternatives possible. It was in these early meetings that Robert McNamara proposed the idea of a blockade of Cuba as the strategic response to the missile launch sites. He argued that the blockade option had several advantages; it would put pressure on the Soviets but it would be limited pressure and would give them time to reconsider what they were doing and pull out. It also gave the U.S. the option of taking steps to increase that pressure if needed. In addition, McNamara noted that, based on estimates from the JCS, surgical airstrikes, as the group had initially entertained as an option, were not practical unless they also included hitting other Cuban military installations as well and also unless a follow up invasion took place. McNamara argued that, while it might come to that in the end, we should not start at that point and that taking a less extreme approach would afford more options at avoiding war and still getting the missiles out. Opposing McNamara was the view, held by several in Ex Comm as well as the JCS, that a blockade would do nothing about the missiles already in Cuba or about the ongoing construction of the launch sites and therefore would not resolve the threat. They also argued that a blockade around Cuba would result in the Russians doing the same with Berlin thus expanding the crisis. Because of these things military intervention was the only viable option they asserted.


map showing range of Cuban missiles

On Wednesday, 17 October more U-2 photography was taken which showed more missile installations and revealed that as many as 32 medium range ballistic missiles were in Cuba capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to any location within a thousand mile radius. Within a few minutes of an attack these missiles could potentially kill 80 million Americans. It was against this mounting pressure that on the morning of Friday, 19 October JFK met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the military options for taking out the missiles, should that be the option chosen. Present for the meeting were the President, Defense Secretary McNamara, Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor, Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay, Naval Chief George Anderson, Army Chief of Staff Earle Wheeler and Commandant of the Marine Corp David Shoup. During the meeting the depth of the disparity between JFK’s views and those of his military leaders was on full display as well the antipathy held for the President by some of the Chiefs, particularly Curtis LeMay.

LeMay had fashioned a remarkable, if somewhat controversial career in the Air Force. He had commanded the B-29 firebombing raids over Tokyo during WW II that are estimated to have killed between 250,000 and 500,000 civilians. He once commented that if the Japanese won the war he would be tried for war crimes. He also helped run the Berlin airlift in 1948 and later in 1948 he took over the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Over the next nine years LeMay presided over its emergence as the most massive jet powered, nuclear bomber force in the world with over 2000 jet bombers, many of them B-52s. In 1951 he became the youngest four star general in the U.S. Military since Ulysses Grant in the Civil War. He had become Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 1961. Noted for his right wing, anti-communist views, the cigar smoking LeMay could be both intimidating and belligerent in expressing them. With regard to the Joint Chiefs, JFK felt that he would probably have the most trouble with LeMay; an apprehension that proved to be correct. In a meeting on October 18th with the Chiefs, Kennedy had asked Lemay what the Soviet response would be should the U.S. bomb Cuba, as LeMay had been advocating. “They’ll do nothing” Lemay responded.

Incredulous at what he was hearing, Kennedy retorted: “Are you trying to tell me they’ll let us bomb their missiles and kill a lot of Russians and then do nothing? If they don’t do anything in Cuba they’ll certainly do something in Berlin.”

After the October 18th meeting with LeMay JFK commented to his assistant Ken O’Donnell: “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”


General Curtis LeMay

 During JFK’s Friday meeting with the Chiefs, LeMay again displayed his bellicose attitude stating, “We don’t have any choice except direct military action” and once again asserted that in response the Soviets would do nothing. He was critical of the “blockade” option stating that it would be a weak response and telling Kennedy it would be “…almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich”; a reference to English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Adolph Hitler’s territorial demands at a conference held in that city in 1938. (LeMay’s comment was also a veiled allusion to the role JFK’s father Joseph Kennedy played at the time, the elder Kennedy having been the U.S Ambassador to England in 1938 and a supporter of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy.)  The other Generals at the meeting, including Kennedy’s own Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman appointee Maxwell Taylor, chimed in as well. They all agreed…there was no choice but direct military intervention in Cuba. LeMay summed up his statements at the meeting by saying that if the President responded weakly to the Soviet threat in Cuba then his administration would be viewed as spineless overseas and that many U.S. citizens would feel that way. He concluded his baiting of Kennedy by stating to the President: “In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”

Not one to let a challenge pass, Kennedy responded: “What did you say?”

 “You’re in a pretty bad fix.” LeMay repeated.

You’re in there with me. Personally.” Kennedy retorted.

After an hour Kennedy and McNamara left the meeting without JFK giving a decision to the Chiefs as to how he would proceed in Cuba. He was clearly shaken by the attitude of LeMay and his top military men. Right after the meeting Kennedy encountered Ted Sorensen outside the Cabinet room. In reference to the blockade strategy JFK told him, “You and Bobby have to get a consensus on this thing.” Pointing at the door of the room he just exited and where the Chiefs still were, the President added, “They all want war.”

A little later he expressed his fear that his military would start a war without his approval, stating to an aide, “I don’t want these nuclear weapons firing without our knowing it. I don’t think we ought to accept the Chief’s word on that one.”

The Ex Comm group met all day and night of Friday the 19th and by Saturday morning had reached a consensus for a blockade. Robert Kennedy called the President, who had gone to Chicago to meet Mayor Richard Daley for a campaign visit, and told him that he needed to return to Washington to meet with the group and make the final decision. Telling the press that his campaign stop was being cut short due to a cold, JFK flew back to the White House. While he was in the air U.S. armed forces around the world were put on alert and Defense Secretary McNamara ordered four tactical air squadrons be readied in the event Kennedy opted for the air strikes. By 2:30 PM on Saturday, October 20th Ex Comm was back in session with the President at the White House. In the discussion that followed all of the options and the reasons for them were reviewed and in the end JFK chose the blockade as the best strategy with which to move forward. According to Robert Kennedy in his memoir, the main point that swung the decision toward blockade was the moral aspect of a big and powerful nation like the U.S. launching a surprise attack on its smaller and weaker neighbor. Much time had been spent on this point. McNamara, RFK and others argued that such an act ran counter to what the United States stood for and would damage the country’s reputation in the world’s eyes. In the end this view prevailed with the President but his decision was aided by a more honest Air Force officer he had consulted with, General Walter Sweeney Jr., who told him there was no way anyone could guarantee that an air strike would get all the launch sites or missiles leaving the possibility that any surviving missiles could still be launched against the United States. Any doubt Kennedy had about how to proceed was now gone….blockade it would be.

While plans to implement the blockade moved forward Kennedy scheduled airtime on all three major broadcast networks, NBC, ABC and CBS, to announce the situation to the American people. He had his strategy for handling and had managed the first week of the crisis without the Soviets or the public realizing what was going on. The time for secrecy was now over.

Copyright © 2013

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

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