Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis: Day One

On this day in 1962, the White House reviewed U-2 flyover reconnaissance images from October 14th and was faced with the startling reality that the Soviet Union was installing missiles on the island of Cuba. These images, laid before President John F. Kennedy and his closest advisors, began a 13-day standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it came to be known, remains one of the most dangerous moments in human history.

Image courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Tuesday morning, October 16th, President Kennedy called his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to the White House as well as a handful of top government officials. These officials began arriving just after 9 a.m. and by 11:45 that morning they had gathered in the Cabinet Room of the White House for a briefing by the Central Intelligence Agency on the newly-discovered missile site being constructed outside San Cristobal, Cuba.

Just weeks before, Robert Kennedy met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin about a variety of issues including the United States' concern with the excess of military equipment they'd observed the Soviets sending to Cuba. RFK wrote about this exchange with Dobrynin in his memoir Thirteen Days:
"I told Ambassador Dobyrnin of President Kennedy's deep concern about what was happening. He told me I should not be concerned, for he was instructed by Soviet Chairman Nikita S. Khrushchev to assure President Kennedy that there would be no ground-to-ground missiles or offensive weapons placed in Cuba. Further, he said, I could assure the President that this military buildup was not of any significance and that Khrushchev would do nothing to disrupt the relationship of our two countries during the period prior to the election. Chairman Khrushchev, he said, liked President Kennedy and did not wish to embarrass him."
What a difference a few weeks made. As late as September 11th, the Soviets had publicly stated they had no intention of placing nuclear missiles outside of their country, including in Cuba. Robert Kennedy wrote that on October 16th, as they had before them the U-2 images of missile installations on the island, "we realized that it had all been lies, a gigantic fabric of lies."

The question quickly became one of how the United States would respond to this information. First, among many steps, was the formation of what became known as Ex-Comm. The Executive Committee of the National Security Council consisted of, most notably, the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, Dean Rusk, Douglas Dillon and Robert McNamara, respectively; John McCone, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy; Under Secretary of State George Ball; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Maxwell Taylor; General Curtis LeMay of the Air Force; and, Kennedy's Special Counsel, Theodore Sorensen. This team, with the additions of Vice President Johnson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, would prove crucial in Kennedy's decision making regarding the missiles in Cuba.

The following video is an excellent primer from the National Archives on the Cuban Missile Crisis:

Over the course of the next thirteen days, fifty years removed from those dangerous days in October of 1962, we will discuss the daily events that together came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Quote taken from Robert F. Kennedy's 1969 book Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (page 21).

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