Seventy-eighth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Author’s note: From October 16th through the 28th, the cascade of events we call the Cuban Missile Crisis will far outstrip this blog’s power to follow them in detail. From now on we’ll focus on highlights of the most dangerous thirteen days in modern history.
And because the crisis ran 24/7, including weekends (when this blog does not publish), we must work slightly ahead of events in order not to fall hopelessly behind them.
Day Three: Thursday, October 18th
The Joint Chiefs Want War
At a 9:30 Pentagon meeting the Joint Chiefs decide that the United States should impose a complete blockade on Cuba and strike all targets except invasion sites. The Joint Chiefs’ only nod to diplomacy: America’s most important allies should be informed of this step just before it is taken.
The Pentagon begins to move invasion troops to their East Coast embarkation sites. Operational command of a reinforced Marine infantry battalion is transferred from the Pacific Command to CINCLANT (Commander in Chief Atlantic, Admiral Dennison).
Operational Status of Strategic Missiles in Cuba
U-2 photographs indicate that some of the Soviet MRBMs are ready to fire. The analysts also identify storage bunkers for nuclear warheads being built at the missile sites. The warheads themselves are not present.
Diplomacy Tiptoes onto the Stage
During the morning, EXCOM discusses NATO’s Jupiter missiles in Turkey as possible bargaining chips. At one point the President himself says that the U.S. might tell Khrushchev, “…if you begin to pull [your missiles] out [of Cuba], we’ll take ours out of Turkey.”
Note what has happened since EXCOM’s first meeting Tuesday morning. At the end of Thursday morning’s meeting, EXCOM has pulled back from its initial instinct to destroy the Soviet missiles by air strike and is actively considering a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The final balance between diplomacy and military action is still uncertain, however.
American Surprise Air Strike on Cuba = Japanese Surprise Air Strike on Pearl Harbor
Another crucial shift takes place during the morning. By the end of EXCOM’s meeting, Bobby Kennedy has forced members to admit that a surprise air strike against Cuba would be the equivalent of a Pearl Harbor perpetrated by the United States. EXCOM’s members were of the Word War II generation; that reminder would have resonated powerfully.
Gromyko Lies to President Kennedy’s Face
During a 5-7 PM meeting in the Oval Office, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko repeats Khrushchev’s assurances that the USSR will make no move to eject the Allies from Berlin until after the U.S. elections. He repeats the Soviets’ half-lie that all the weapons they have supplied to Cuba are defensive.
After Gromyko leaves, the President, who has resisted pulling photographs of the Soviet missiles out of his desk drawer, tells one of his aides, “It was incredible to sit there and watch the lies coming out of his mouth.” See photo at the head of this chapter.
EXCOM’s Evening Meeting
That evening, EXCOM meets at the State Department. According to Michael R. Beschloss, “a consensus is developing for a naval blockade and graduated response …” To avoid the “act of war” implications of “blockade,” this action will be called a “quarantine.” The reported straw vote shows 11 members for the blockade, six still for an air strike.
The next day, the President leaves on his scheduled campaign swing into the Midwest.
Day Four: Friday, October 19
EXCOM Meets as the Nuclear Clock Ticks
From 11 to 1 PM EXCOM’s Hawks and Doves struggle over whether to mount an all-out air strike or pursue the blockade strategy.
Members on both sides are acutely aware of the nuclear clock ticking on the wall. The Soviet missiles are close to operational status. As General Taylor, chair of the Joint Chiefs, puts it, “It is now or never for an air strike.”
Taylor’s point is rephrased later in the day: “…once the Cuban missile installations were…operational, a new strategic situation would exist…A striking Soviet military push into the Western Hemisphere would have succeeded…The clock could not be turned back…”
In short: EXCOM has very little time to devise and implement a strategy to get those missiles out of the Western Hemisphere before they are ready to fire.
A Significant Moment: Diplomacy Trumps Air Strikes
At 1 PM Secretary of State Rush breaks EXCOM into two groups, one to work on each strategy.
When the groups reconvene, some two hours are spent discussing the blockade option, about half an hour discussing the air strike.
Toward the end of the afternoon, Secretary Rusk advocates that any initial U.S. action be followed by a pause to allow the “great powers [to] step back from the brink and have time to consider and work out a solution…”
At about the same time in the meeting, Defense Secretary McNamara and General Taylor make a game-changing concession: if a quarantine did not succeed in removing the Soviet missiles, air strikes could then be ordered. Upon hearing this concession, Bobby Kennedy immediately says he favors a quarantine as the first step, with military measures to follow if needed.
This is a significant moment. At the end of Friday, October 19, the executive branch’s civilians have decided on a quarantine of Cuba as the first step in getting the Soviets to remove their missiles.
To put it another way: the diplomatic track has moved from Tuesday’s afterthought to Friday’s primary strategy. The Joint Chiefs’ air strike/invasion strategy, everyone’s instinctive first solution to removing the missiles on Tuesday, has by Friday become a backup tactic in case the quarantine strategy does not work.
The transformation has taken 72 hours.
That afternoon White House aide Ted Sorensen begins work on a speech in which the President will announce the “quarantine.”
State Department officials begin working out the timetable for accomplishing an enormous number of crucial steps: briefing key allied leaders, alerting military units, reinforcing Guantanamo, and evacuating Guantanamo’s dependents by sea and air—all before the president speaks at a time that has not yet been determined.
Preparations for military action continue—in case the quarantine fails and the troops have to go in.
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Sources and Notes
Events of October 18th
The record of the October 18th JCS meeting appears in a declassified SECRET document headed, “Notes Taken from Transcripts of Meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, October-November 1962, Dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Under the title appears this note: “Handwritten Notes were made in 1976 and typed in 1993”. These notes were made by historian Walter S. Poole before all existing transcripts of JCS meetings were destroyed before the feared passage of the Freedom of Information Act after Watergate. The practice of making verbatim transcripts of JCS meetings has reportedly ended. See Walter S. Poole’s “How Well did the JCS Work?” Naval History. Annapolis: Winter, 1992, p. 19ff.
Details of military preparations come from Chief of Naval Operations, “Advance Preparatory Action, 2-21 October.” The Naval Quarantine of Cuba. http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq90-5.htm#anchor445839.
Details of the October 18th reconnaissance mission appear on p. 308 of Norman Polmar and John D. Gresham, DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2006.
My primary source for the morning EXCOM meeting in the Cabinet room is Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1997, 118-167.
In 1962 the Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was only 21 years in the past. The “day that shall live in infamy” was still fresh in Americans’ memories. Bobby’s warning about pulling such an infamous trick on the Cubans would have resonated with everyone present, including General Maxwell Taylor. Whether the Joint Chiefs themselves would have been similarly touched is a very good question.
Michael R. Beschloss describes Gromyko’s October 18th visit with President Kennedy on pp. 455-458 of The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991. According to Beschloss, Dean Rusk noticed that when Kennedy read “a key passage aloud” from one of his September warnings, Gromyko was able to keep a straight face but his interpreter turned feather-white.
Michael R. Beschloss’s description of the evening events of October 18th appears on pp. 458-9 of The Crisis Years. Ironically, EXCOM’s evening meeting occurred as Secretary Rusk was hosting a formal State Department dinner for the visiting Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko one floor above EXCOM’s meeting room. At 10 PM, Beschloss writes, the “exhausted” members of EXCOM left the State Department for the White House—nine of them in one limo in order to avoid a swarm of cars all arriving at the same time. Director of Central Intelligence John McCone, one of the nine, remembered, “We were pushed into the car like clowns at the circus.” At the White House, Beschloss writes, the President’s questions seemed to “unravel” what consensus there was for a blockade. The final course of action was still not decided upon.
Events of October 19th
According to author Chalmers M. Roberts, “In December, the words ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ entered the American vocabulary via an article in the Saturday Evening Post, co-authored by Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett.” Apparently the terms originated with Ray Cline, the CIA’s deputy director of intelligence, during EXCOM discussions. Cline’s original labels, shortened by Alsop and Bartlett, were “warhawks” and “Picasso doves.” Chalmers M. Roberts, Rough Draft: a Journalist’s Journal of our Times. New York: Praeger. 1973, 207.
The minutes of the October 19th EXCOM meeting at the State Department, taken by State Department legal adviser Leonard Meeker, are printed as document 22 in Lawrence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Document Reader. New York: The New Press, 1998, pp. 133-137. The quotations above come from those minutes, including the “now or never” quote attributed to General Taylor and the anonymous “striking military push” quote.