The Missiles of October
By: Garland Davis
During a thirteen-day period fifty-eight years ago, the U.S. and the Soviet Union came within hours of going to war. The pilot of an American U-2 spy plane making a high-altitude pass over Cuba on October 14, 1962, photographed a Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile being assembled for installation.
The critical photographs snapped by U-2 reconnaissance planes over Cuba were shipped for analysis to a top-secret CIA facility in a most unlikely location: a building above the Steuart Ford car dealership in a rundown section of Washington, D.C. While used car salesmen were wheeling and dealing downstairs on October 15, 1962, upstairs CIA analysts in the state-of-the-art National Photographic Interpretation Center were working around the clock to scour hundreds of grainy photographs for evidence of a Soviet ballistic missile site under construction.
Two days after the U-2 flight, on the morning of October 16, 1962, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy informed President John F. Kennedy that U.S. surveillance aircraft had discovered the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from American soil. It was the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Just before noon, Kennedy convened the first meeting of fourteen administration officials and advisers. The group became as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council.
Time was of the essence. Executive Committee members received estimates that the Soviet missiles could be at full operation within fourteen days. Individual missiles could probably be readied within eighteen hours under a crash program. Most of the missiles were determined to be SS-4’s with a range of approximately 1,100 nautical miles. This placed major American cities, including Dallas and Washington, DC, within strike range. Later photos showed that SS-5’s with a range of 2,200 nautical miles were also included in the arms shipments from the USSR.
For seven days, the Executive Committee debated the merits of three approaches to the developing crisis, while keeping a tight public lid on the Cuban discovery. The first was a surgical air strike targeting as many of the missiles as possible. The second was an air strike followed by a U.S. military invasion of the island. The third was a blockade of Soviet ships thought to be carrying materials in support of the offensive missile systems.
The president opted for the blockade, calling it a termed quarantine so as to avoid warlike connotations. This was to allow diplomatic approaches to work whereas direct military action wouldn’t.
On October 22, in anticipation of a military reaction to the quarantine, the Joint Chiefs of Staff placed military forces worldwide on a DEFCON 3 alert. At five that afternoon Kennedy met with the bipartisan leaders of Congress. At six, the Secretary of state met with the Soviet ambassador and presented him with an advance copy of the President’s upcoming address to the American Public.
In a TV address at seven PM on October 22, 1962, President John Kennedy (1917-63) notified Americans about the presence of the missiles, explained his decision to enact a naval quarantine around Cuba and made it clear the U.S. was prepared to use military force if necessary to neutralize this perceived threat to national security.
By the evening of October 23, Kennedy and the Executive Committee had new worries. Earlier in the day, the Central Intelligence Agency began tracking several Soviet submarines unexpectedly moving toward Cuba. The submarines complicated the Navy’s task of conducting the quarantine, as it now had to track the submarines to ensure the safety of the naval units conducting the quarantine. Also, they were tracking nineteen Soviet cargo ships identified as on course for Cuba.
The quarantine, with the unanimous backing of the Organization of American States, went into effect at 10 AM on October 24.
Early intelligence on that day indicated that sixteen of the nineteen Soviet cargo ships bound for Cuba had reversed course. The remaining three were nearing the quarantine line, including the ships Gagarin and Komiles. Naval intelligence reported that a Soviet submarine had taken a position between the two ships. The president though wanting to avoid conflict authorized the USS Essex to take whatever defensive measures against the submarine. This was probably the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, as both nations were within mere moments of turning the war hot.
Khrushchev blinked! Just before armed hostilities, both Soviet ships stopped dead in the water and eventually reversed course.
During the next four days, the diplomats crafted an agreement that would remove Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for the United States removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey and a pledge to not invade Cuba. The situation deteriorated somewhat when a U2 was shot down over Cuba. Sensing that he was losing control of the crisis, Kennedy decided not to retaliate against the anti-aircraft site, much to the consternation of military leaders.
On the morning of October 28, Radio Moscow broadcast a speech by Khrushchev wherein he stated that all Soviet missiles in Cuba would be dismantled and crated. The Cuban Missile crisis was over.
I arrived in North Carolina on October 14 on thirty days leave between NAS Lemoore California and USS Vesuvius. I think I spent a good part of that leave listening to the news waiting for a recall. There was a fear of nuclear war and the idea that it might happen. There was also the thought that I was going to miss the action while on leave. If the Navy had told me to report to Norfolk or Charleston, I would have been on the road immediately.
It was a good time to wear the uniform. The girls were more than willing to comfort a sailor who might have to go to war soon. Of course, I tried to refrain from taking any unfair advantage of the girls, but I just couldn’t bring myself to deny them the opportunity to serve their country in some small way during this time of peril.