Defense Media Network

Cuban Missile Crisis 50th Anniversary: Consensus, Announcement and DEFCON-2

Part 6 of a series on the anniversary of the October 1962 confrontation

The two weeks following the discovery of a Soviet R-12/SS-4 Sandal Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) regiment in Western Cuba of rapid, albeit discreet actions, negotiations and decisions, not all of which were helpful and/or productive in solving the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Cuba itself, the Soviets were working hard to complete the Anadyr deployment, with particular emphasis on finishing the assembly and setup of the three MRBM regiments by the target date of Oct. 25. The two R-14/SS-5 Skean Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) regiments were still at sea, as they were among the last of the Anadyr units scheduled to arrive and required a great deal of site preparation to be ready to fire. But in Moscow and Cuba, the U-2 flights and obvious monitoring of the merchant ships arriving from the USSR left the Soviet and Cuban leadership wondering, “what did the Americans know?”

But in Moscow and Cuba, the U-2 flights and obvious monitoring of the merchant ships arriving from the USSR left the Soviet and Cuban leadership wondering, “what did the Americans know?”

As it turned out, the Americans knew a great deal more than the Soviets and Cubans suspected.

President John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy Addresses the Nation on the Crisis in Cuba, Oct. 22, 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum photo

The morning of October 16, and almost every other morning during the following weeks, began with a meeting at the White House to review the previous day’s take of photographic and other intelligence that had been processed overnight. Called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOM), the meetings were attended by President John F. Kennedy, his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, various cabinet secretaries, agency heads, senior staff and the vice president, along with members of the military and intelligence community. The briefings were normally delivered by either Art Lundahl and/or Dino Brugioni of NPIC. with their ubiquitous briefing boards and bound daily intelligence documents. These briefings would then be followed by a general roundtable and free discussion, a favorite technique of Kennedy’s. He preferred cabinet-level meetings be more like the Harvard debates of his youth, instead of the “chairman of the board” style that had been favored by Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The first order of business for the EXCOM, along with the ordering of more U-2 flights over Cuba to cover the whole island, was a discussion of the meaning of the Soviet missile deployment and possible response scenarios. Suggested responses varied widely, from U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who wanted to pursue an all-diplomatic course of action, to the military and intelligence leadership, who wanted to initiate an immediate air campaign followed up by an invasion per the existing Cuban operation plans, OPLANs 314/316. The problem was that diplomacy alone was unlikely to dislodge the Soviet strategic ballistic missiles from Cuba given Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bombast and bluster. Airstrikes and an invasion of Cuba however, would place Americans in direct combat with Soviet and Cuban forces.

“It shall be the policy of this nation 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.”

- President John F. Kennedy, Speech to the Nation, Evening of Oct. 22, 1962

What Kennedy immediately realized was that his goal in the crisis would be to find a way to force the Soviets to withdraw the missiles, while not getting into a shooting war with the USSR and its allies that might spawn a wider global nuclear conflict. However, a number of factors began to push the senior leaders in Moscow, Havana, and Washington, D.C. toward that very horrifying outcome. The photos from daily U-2 Cuban overflights (24 between Oct. 15-22, 1962), along with those from low-level U.S. Navy RF-8U Crusaders from Light Photographic Squadron 62 (VFP-62 – 158 missions between Oct. 23 and Nov. 15), wound up driving and steering the EXCOM discussions throughout the crisis, often escalating fears and emotions among the participants. Within days, sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, and personal emotions would become serious factors on both sides, making mistakes and misinterpretations a genuine danger.

For most of the first week of the crisis, Kennedy left the discussions of response scenarios to the rest of the EXCOM membership led by his brother Robert F. Kennedy. This was done to deny the Soviets and Cubans knowledge of exactly what the U.S. knew was going on in Cuba, and to give the EXCOM participants freedom to speak their minds with Kennedy, “out of the room.” By the weekend of Oct. 19-20, EXCOM had come to an unsteady consensus to respond to the Anadyr deployment with a maritime blockade (called a “quarantine”), along with diplomacy, but preparing to execute an invasion if those measures failed. Kennedy announced this policy on the evening of Oct. 22, after Congress, NATO, and other allies were briefed and an ultimatum served to the Soviets and Cubans. Following his speech, Kennedy signed the alert order for the U.S. military ordering the establishment of the quarantine line around Cuba, and setting Defense Condition Three (DEFCON-3 – Activating all National Guard and Reserve Units).

Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 62

President John F. Kennedy personally presents the Navy Unit Commendation to VFP-62, the four aviators of VMCJ-2 who participated in the missions over Cuba are visible alongside their Navy counterparts. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, pilots of Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 62 and Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron (VMCJ) 2, flying RF-8A Crusaders, carried out missions documenting the location of Soviet missile sites in that nation. The aviators flew their first missions on Oct. 15, 1962, and on Oct. 23 began carrying out low-level reconnaissance flights. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

The following morning, the machine that was the U.S. military began to move into position to fulfill Kennedy’s orders. At sea, the quarantine line was quickly established, and elements of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets began gathering to prepare for the invasion of Cuba if required. Every unit of the U.S. military shook out the cobwebs and moved into place across the globe for the potential war that was causing a near panic worldwide with the sudden onset of the news about Cuba. Thing got even more tense when the commanders of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Air Defense Command (ADC) unilaterally declared DEFCON-2 (as was their right under standing orders) for their forces. Kennedy and his staff were outraged at this unasked-for escalation in the SAC and ADC alert levels, and began to worry about how to de-escalate the crisis. Nikita Khrushchev and his leadership in the Kremlin had the same fears, along with the knowledge that their attempt to bring some stability to the strategic balance and Cuba had blown up into the worst crisis of the Cold War. Everyone wanted a way out that did not involve open war across the globe.

Thing got even more tense when the commanders of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Air Defense Command (ADC) unilaterally declared DEFCON-2 (as was their right under standing orders) for their forces. Kennedy and his staff were outraged at this unasked-for escalation in the SAC and ADC alert levels, and began to worry about how to de-escalate the crisis.

The naval quarantine of Cuba, which went into effect on October 24 had succeeded, to the degree that no further weapons reached Cuba. And despite the worldwide military alert by America and its allies, along with public diplomatic coups at the Organization of American States and United Nations (UN), by Thursday Oct. 25, both sides were realizing they needed trustworthy, rapid communications, but the technology limitations of 1962 made that impossible. Diplomatic notes, which made use of the Western Union telegram system, meant that one-way, secure text notes took 12 hours to send each way. Thankfully, the Soviets decided to reach out to the Kennedy Administration with one of their best and oldest diplomatic ploys, the “back channel” contact. In addition, Khrushchev began to reestablish his dialog with Kennedy, sending more philosophical notes than his earlier denials and threats after the Oct. 22speech.

Interdiction of the Delivery of Offensive Weapons to Cuba

The Interdiction of the Delivery of Offensive Weapons to Cuba proclamation with President John F. Kennedy’s signature after its signing on Oct. 23, 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum photo

The diplomatic breakthrough came on Friday, Oct. 26, with word that several Soviet back-channel contacts had come forth, all with nearly identical offers for the solution of the crisis. The most significant of these was the KGB Resident (Chief of Station) at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., Alexander Feklisov. Feklisov (his cover name was “Alexander Fomin”) contacted ABC News correspondent John Scali (who lived next door to White House Chief of Staff Kenny O’Donnell). They met and discussed a proposal where the Soviets would withdraw their ballistic missiles from Cuba if the U.S. would pledge to never invade the island. Within hours, the Kennedy Administration had not only the offers from the back-channel contact, but also a note from Khrushchev directly indicating the same basic proposal. It was the first sign in two weeks of a path away from the brink, and Kennedy was concerned that exhaustion was beginning to show in his advisors. Believing that a genuine settlement deal was on the table, Kennedy sent his people home for a night of desperately needed sleep, so they would be fresh in the morning. But everyone who went to sleep that night across the globe had no idea that Saturday, Oct. 27, would be the high-water mark of the Cold War.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...