Seventy-ninth 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 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 Five: Saturday, October 20th, 1962
Ripple Effect of Day Five’s Events
Think of the President John F. Kennedy's arrival back in Washington that Saturday as a stone cast into a still pool. From the moment he returns— even before — events began to ripple outward from Washington until all of the Western Hemisphere and Europe are affected. The big question: would these ripples turn radioactive?
The President Returns to Washington
Saturday morning the President returns to Washington from Chicago. Official reason: he has a “cold” which can be attended to only in Washington. Real reason: Bobby called him. Kennedy needs to take charge of the strategy being roughed out by EXCOM
Pursuing the Diplomatic Strategy
- 9 AM onward: EXCOM continues meeting at State. Final planning for a blockade is completed. Sorensen’s draft speech for the President is approved.
Walter S. Poole writes that at this meeting General Maxwell Taylor “presented the Joint Chiefs’ recommendation to attack all offensive weapons and supporting defenses in Cuba on 23 October [the following Tuesday]. That, he said, would be the last day before some missiles became operational. (Actually, photos would show that four MRBM sites became fully operational on the 22nd.) President Kennedy, of course, chose to begin with a blockade.”
- About 1:45: back at the White House, Kennedy looks over the draft of the speech Sorensen has prepared.
- 2:30 PM: JFK meets with the National Security Council and special invitees in “the Oval Room” a total of more than 30 participants. Kennedy again rejects the air strikes proposal, noting the heavy casulaties both sides would suffer. He calls the blockade “the only course of action compatible with American principles.” (Kennedy means the United States cannot stoop to a “Pearl Harbor” surprise attack on Cuba.)
The President also rejects Adlai Stevenson’s proposal that the US offer to trade the NATO Jupiters in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba. That deal might be worked out later, but the US will not make such an offer now. (Such a backdoor deal would betray the democratic principles on which NATO was founded and thus threaten its viability.)
- The State Department continues preparing instructions to its embassies for briefing the heads of the governments to which they are accredited about the crisis.
- Special envoys will brief President Charles de Gaulle of France (former Secretary of State Dean Acheson); Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany (U.S. Ambassador Walter Dowling); and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain (U.S. Abassador David Bruce).
- Morning. Secretary of Defense McNamara orders Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Anderson to prepare to implement a limited blockade. The Air Force Chief of Staff is ordered to prepare for air strikes against Cuban targets—just in case.
- Three U-2 missions flown on the 20th covering all of Cuba reveal that 23 of 24 SAM sites are now operational. This means that any aircraft flying above 3,000 feet within range of any one of those sites can be shot down. This information will not reach EXCOM until late on the 21st at the earliest. As of the EXCOM meeting on the 20th, the CIA’s analysts believe that only 16 of 24 SAM sites are operational.
Still, 16 out of 24 means two-thirds of the deadly SA-2s in Cuba are ready to fire. When EXCOM learns, very shortly, that 23 of 24 sites are operational, the policy makers must face what that fact means: by October 22nd, the day of President Kennedy’s revelation of Soviet perfidy, the Soviets can shoot down a U-2 anywhere over Cuba. That fact will have deadly consequences on October 27th.
- Later, back at the Pentagon, Taylor briefs the Joint Chiefs on the President’s decisions—quarantine as the primary strategy, the military track as backup. When he has finished his briefing, Tayor delivers a message from the President:
“The President said to me, ‘I know that you and your colleagues are unhappy with the decision, but I trust that you will support me.’ I assured him that, while we were against the decision, we would back him completely.” Walter S. Poole comments that “General Taylor was probably looking at General LeMay when he said this.”
- During the day: USS Oxford picks up signals from a FRUIT SET antiaircraft fire control radar. The FRUIT SET signal may indicate that the SA-2 missiles are operational. This information is so important that Oxford is ordered to dock briefly at Key West and transfer the FRUIT SET tapes to Navy headquarters there.
- CNO warns Sea Frontier and Navy District commanders to be prepared for a wide array of military action. CNO warns the CIC of US Navy Forces in Europe (CICUSNAVEUR) that he expects the Polaris submarines based at Holy Loch, Scotland, to be ready to get underway at very short notice.
And in Cuba …
According to Chang and Kornbluh, during the day on October 20, “a nuclear warhead storage bunker is identified at one of the Cuban MRBM sites for the first time.” This information would have come from U-2 photographs taken during the October 18th mission. While intelligence never did prove that nuclear warheads were actually present on the island, EXCOM has decided that the missiles would make no sense if they weren’t. “Soviet sources have recently [@1998] suggested that 20 of a planned deployment of 40 nuclear warheads reached the islands but that none of the warheads were ever actually ‘mated’ to the missiles.”
The Press Smells a Story
Late night. James Reston, the New York Times Washington bureau chief calls George Ball at the State House and McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Advisor, to ask why the commotion in Washington on a Saturday night in October. After a partial explanation, Reston is asked to hold any story because national security is at stake.
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Sources and Notes
Kennedy’s unscheduled return to Washington on October 20th is described on p. 387 of Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993 as well as on p. 461 of Beschloss, Crisis Years.
Military preparations throughout these three days are reported 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 unless another citation is provided.
CNO’s orders concerning the Polaris submarines are sobering. These nuclear subs carry intermediate range Polaris missiles capable of reaching anywhere inside the Soviet Union from their submerged patrol stations. They, not SAC’s bombers and ICBMs, are the ultimate deterrent of the nuclear era.
McNamara’s orders readying strike aircraft appear on p. 375 of Lawrence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Document Reader. New York: The New Press, 1998.
The Oct. 20th U-2 missions are summarized of 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. The fact that the Soviet SAM sites in Cuba were known to be operational as early as the 20th becomes crucial a week later.
The afternoon meeting of EXCOM on the 20th is covered by document 34, “Minutes of the 505th Meeting of the National Security Council,” in Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XI, Missile Crisis and Aftermath (http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusXI/26_50.html). The meeting is also summarized on p. 375 of Chang and Kornbluh. Adlai E. Stevenson was the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
Walter S. Poole’s description of General Taylor’s participation in the EXCOM meeting and back at the Pentagon afterward appears in his “How Well did the JCS Work?” Naval History, winter 1992, pp. 19-21.
Poole’s reference to General LeMay, chief of staff of the Air Force, stemmed from the well-known facts a) that LeMay had been agitating for war with the Soviet Union since 1950 and b) that LeMay held both Kennedy and McNamara, his constitutional superiors, and the entire Kennedy administration in open contempt. Any general officer less revered by Congress and the American public would have been fired for insubordination long before 1962. Remember, insurbordination was precisely why Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.
The USS Oxford anecdote comes from p. 187 of Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Oxford was a WW II Liberty ship converted to a state-of-the-art ELINT collections vessel. Her ELINT intercepts played a significant role in the Missile Crisis.
Details of the nuclear warheads in Cuba appear on p. 376 of Chang and Kornbluh. Dobbs discusses them at length in One Minute to Midnight.
Reston’s phone calls to the State Department and the White House are described on p. 375 of Chang and Kornbluh. James Blight et al place these calls on the 21st. See p. 494 of their Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.