'13 Days' of Cuban Missile Crisis Begin

President Kennedy and his advisors face a giant new problem: what to do about the Soviet missiles they now know are in Cuba?

Seventy-seventh Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

Author’s note: From October 16th to the 28th, the cascade of events we call the Cuban Missile Crisis will far outstrip this blog’s power to follow everything in detail. From now on we’ll look at highlights of the most dangerous thirteen days in modern history. We shift now to the present tense.

Day One: Tuesday, October 16th

The CIA’s Prophet Gets the Bad News

Sherman Kent, the CIA’s director of intelligence estimates, had predicted three times in 1962 that the Soviets would not dare put strategic missiles in Cuba. Today he sees the pictures proving they have. He is thunderstruck.

President on the Spot

At about 9 AM, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy tells President Kennedy that the Soviets have done what no one thought they would ever do: they have deployed strategic missiles in Cuba.  

The President is acutely aware that on September 4th and 13th he promised that the United States would take any action necessary to remove Soviet offensive missiles discovered in Cuba. Now he has to make good on his promise.

Kennedy has one thing going for him. The Soviets don’t know the Americans are onto them. How long can Kennedy keep them in the dark?

EXCOM is Born

The President names the advisors he wants at an 11:45 meeting to discuss next steps. This group, soon known as the “Executive Committee of the National Security Council,” or “EXCOM,” comprises

  • Key cabinet officers at State and Defense and their deputies;
  • John McCone at CIA, and Maxwell Taylor, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and
  • Dean Acheson, former secretary of defense; U.N. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson; Treasury Secretary C. Douglass Dillon; Kennedy’s special counsel, Theodore Sorensen; and his brother Bobby, the attorney general. Bobby very soon becomes the de facto chair of EXCOM.

EXCOM’s First Instinct: STRIKE!

At its first meeting, EXCOM sees the photographs of the newly discovered MRBM sites.

EXCOM instinctively turns to military action to rid the Hemisphere of this new nuclear threat. They discuss a precise air strike on the missile bases, a wider series of air strikes, an invasion, and a “blockade.”

As of the end of the first meeting, JFK seems determined to take out “these missiles.” But what then? Neither he nor anyone else knows.

But we do know that the President, encouraged that Major Heyer’s Oct. 14th mission was not fired on, authorizes “the maximum, whatever is needed” from further U-2 missions over Cuba. The Pentagon took him at his word. See the map of U-2 over-flights of Cuba from Oct. 15-22 inclusive. 

A Crucial Reminder

Before the meeting ends, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy reminds the President (emphasis added) of something that turns out to be crucial:

“You want to be clear, Mr. President, whether we have definitely decided against a political track [diplomacy and negotiation]. I, myself, think we ought to work out a contingency on that.”

Dean Rusk then chimed in, “We’ll develop both tracks,” i.e. a military track and a diplomatic track.

The Election!

No one in EXCOM can forget that the mid-term elections are just three weeks from today.

Day Two: Wednesday, October 17th

EXCOM Positions Harden

During the second day of meetings, EXCOM positions harden: one group, soon called “Hawks” (primarily the Joint Chiefs of Staff), favors some kind of military action; the “Doves” prefer more peaceful resolutions to the crisis, like a blockade.

Interestingly, the Joint Chiefs have begun to see flaws in their all-military strategy. Secretary of Defense McNamara now tells EXCOM that a single “surgical” air strike against the present missile bases will not take them all out.

The implications of that finding are chilling. A single MRBM site not “taken out” could deliver a one-megaton warhead anywhere inside its 1,100 nautical mile range—which would include Washington, DC.

 The Joint Chiefs also advise that any air attacks against the missile sites will have to be accompanied by air attacks on all military installations in Cuba, followed by an invasion.

The U.S. Military Prepares for Action

  • During the day, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) order the Commander in Chief of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) to augment the air defenses of the southeastern United States.
  • The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) orders fleet commanders to be prepared to send their ships to sea on a 24-hour notice.
  • A low-level photographic reconnaissance operation called BLUE MOON is activated.

The Soviets Stick to their Story

  • On Oct. 13th Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin tells the State Department’s Chester Bowles that U.S. press reports about offensive weapons in Cuba are completely false.
  • On Oct. 16th, Khrushchev himself tells newly-arrived U.S. Ambassador Foy Kohler that all Soviet activity in Cuba is defensive. He repeats that he will “take no action before meeting [JFK in November] which would make situation more difficult.” Khrushchev’s assurances to Kohler are made the same day the President learns that Soviet MRBM sites in Cuba are nearing completion.
  • Oct. 17th: Khrushchev sends a back-channel message to the President: all Soviet arms going into Cuba are defensive. Khrushchev’s envoy apparently delivers the same message to U.S. journalists Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett, both friends of the President—just to be sure the message reaches the presidential ear.

Now there can be no doubt: the Soviets have been lying through their teeth about their activities in Cuba. Those lies become crucial to the strategy EXCOM is struggling to create.

Questions for Readers

If you were a member of EXCOM, would you favor a purely military track to remove the Soviet missiles? Or a purely political track? Or a combination?

And what do you think the President’s decision will be?


 Email your questions to phufstader@sbcglobal.net or post a comment.

Sources and Notes

Events of October 16

The Label “13 Days” meaning “Cuban Missile Crisis” probably comes from the commemorative sterling silver calendar made by Tiffany & Co. which JFK gave the principal members of EXCOM once the Crisis was resolved. The calendar shows the days October 16 through 28, 1962, in raised relief. Bobby Kennedy used the term for the title of his posthumously published memoir. Source: John F. Kennedy Library website (http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/ysSp2VmQFkmyv_ODNhnWAg.aspx).

Bobby Kennedy’s memoir is Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1971. First published posthumously in 1968.

Sherman Kent’s inaccurate predictions were published in National Intelligence Estimates on March 21, August 1, and September 19.  Brugioni describes Sherman Kent’s disbelief that he had been so wrong on p. 219 of Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of The Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. McCort, ed.). New York: Random House, 1991. Brugioni’s account of the birth of EXCOM directly follows this description.

For the transcript of EXCOM’s first meeting, see pp. 45-76 of 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. A transcript also appears in document 18 of Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XI, Missile Crisis and Aftermath (http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusXI/01_25.html).

According to author Chalmers M. Roberts, “In December [1962], 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 of the CIA 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 CIA map at the head of this chapter is document #1 in Mary McAuliffe, ed., CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Washington, D.C.: October 1992.

Events of October 17th

McNamara’s warning to EXCOM about the far-reaching military action necessary appears discussed on p. 372 of Lawrence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Document Reader. New York: The New Press, 1998. See also document 22 in Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XI, Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath, (http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusXI/01_25.html), which is based on John McCone’s notes of the meeting at which McNamara made his statement.

The EXCOM and other policy meetings of October 17th are recorded in, among other sources, document 23 in Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XI, Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath (URL above).

The Navy’s preparations are documented in 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.

The Soviet lies are documented in a variety of sources:

  • The Oct. 13th lie is documented a) on p. 370 of Lawrence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Document Reader. New York: The New Press, 1998; b) on p. 493 of James G. Blight et al, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002; and c) on p. 418 of Chester Bowles, Promises to Keep: My Years in Public Life, 1941-1969. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. In charity to Dobrynin, we should remember that Foreign Minister Gromyko had not told him about the missiles deployed to Cuba. When he denied their presence, he was sincere (we think).
  • The Oct. 16th lie is documented a) on p. 372 of Chang and Kornbluh; b) on p. 223 of Brugioni’s Eyeball; and c) in document 248 of Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume V, Soviet Union (http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/vol_v/240_249.html.
  • The Oct. 17th lie is documented a) on p. 373 of Chang and Kornbluh; and b) on p. 494 of Blight et al.

Khrushchev’s back channel to Kennedy on this occasion: 1) Khrushchev to Georgi Bolshakov, the Soviet military intelligence agent returning Washington; 2) Bolshakov to his “friend” Bobby Kennedy; and 3) Bobby to the President.

In addition to their exchange of private letters, Khrushchev had other ways to reach Kennedy outside the formal Soviet Foreign Office-to-Embassies-to-White House channel. The Premier was particularly fond of summoning American businessmen and journalists visiting the Soviet Union and giving them messages for the Oval Office. As a staunch Communist, Khrushchev believed absolutely a) that American businessmen controlled the U.S. government; and b) that the U.S. government controlled the American press and its journalists.

Khrushchev’s views may be more accurate today than they were 50 years ago.

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