Sunday morning 14 October 1962, under the cover of darkness, 35-year-old Major Richard Heyser--an 18-year veteran of the United States Air Force who had flown combat in the Korean War 10 years before--left Edwards Air Force Base in California in a state-of-the-art U-2 spy plane. At an altitude of 72,000 feet and no contrails visible behind him, he flew south over the Gulf of Mexico, banked over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, then headed on a straight line towards Cuba. An hour after sunrise, he raced over the island and in seven minutes snapped 928 pictures using his camera pod. There was no opposition from Cuban air defenses. Major Heyser then landed at McCoy AFB, Florida, 10 miles south of Orlando at exactly 0920 EST, following seven hours in the air.
Inside of 48 hours, all hell broke loose in Washington when US President John F Kennedy saw Heyser’s aerial photos depicting medium and intermediate-range nuclear missiles being built in Cuba. It was just the beginning of what would forever be known as “The Cuban Missile Crisis.”
How did it ever come to this?
One year before, the United States had placed nuclear missiles--Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) built by Chrysler Corporation--in Turkey and Italy, aimed at the USSR. This was the same year as the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, a US-backed operation intended to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime. In response to the American IRBMs, Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev met secretly with the Cuban dictator in early 1962 for the sole purpose of installing Soviet-made nuclear missiles as a deterrent on Cuban soil, less than a hundred miles off the coast of Florida. The construction began in September, all in secret. Or so Castro and Khrushchev thought, not realizing that the US military had been keeping close tabs for the past year of what they thought was a Soviet arms buildup on the island, including suspected missile sites as early as August. (Unknown to the Americans at the time, 43,000 Russian troops were stationed on the island, an ominous fact revealed decades later.)
After viewing Heyser’s photos, President Kennedy met with his nine-member National Security Council (NSC) to discuss the options. The military Joint Chiefs of Staff were all for a full-scale air and sea attack followed by a land invasion. In particular, Chief of Staff of the USAF General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay wanted to take the sites out with bomb strikes, then invade and go as far as ousting Castro by the scruff of his neck. LeMay was confidant the Russians would not retaliate. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara both considered that should the US strike and invade, then the Soviet Union would strike back either in Cuba or in West Berlin, the democratic island surrounded by communism in East Germany.
McNamara and Kennedy made it plain that the Russians wouldn’t just do nothing. And if they did retaliate, they could respond with nuclear weapons. Kennedy had concerns that a US military strike would appear to be “a mad act by the United States.” Besides, what if all the sites in Cuba weren’t taken out? What if one or two were missed? McNamara then mentioned the idea of a naval blockade, which did not go over well with the military staff who thought it was too soft of a response. The next day, 17 October, more photos were taken over Cuba and more missile sites were discovered.
At the White House on 18 October, Kennedy met with Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, an appointment that had been scheduled several days before the existence of the U-2 photo-recon pictures. At the meeting inside the Oval Office, Gromyko claimed that any weapons on Cuban soil now and in the future would be used for defensive purposes only, and that no surface-to-surface ballistic missiles would be installed in Cuba. He went on to say that the only thing Cuba wanted was peaceful co-existence with Latin America and that Castro was not out to spread Communism in the region. Russia was not interested in furnishing offensive weapons to Cuba, so he said. Only bread in order to prevent hunger. Kennedy, of course, didn’t believe him, and did not reveal what he knew of the missile sites.
Next, Kennedy consulted his staff and military advisors for the second time, where McNamara again mentioned the idea of a naval blockade of Cuba which they could call a “quarantine.” To announce it as a blockade would not only be illegal under international law but an act of war. All ships approaching Cuba would be searched and any carrying nuclear weapons would be forced to turn back. They would only let the ships through carrying the necessities of life. All this time, only a precious few Americans outside this Washington circle knew anything of the U-2 photos and what had occurred since. Word had leaked out, however, to the New York Times, who were ready to run a story on the Cuban missile sites. But for the sake of National Security, the Kennedy administration placed a gag order on all North American newspapers until the public was alerted.
On 22 October, US ambassadors around the world gave advance notice to many unsuspecting Free World leaders that President Kennedy would go live with the announcement of the missile sites and the “quarantine.” Our Tory Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker received his personal notice about two hours before airtime. A calm, confidant Kennedy took to live television that evening 7 PM EST to inform the American people and the world that US intelligence had discovered Russian nuclear missile sites in Cuba. He outlined that the missiles had the capability of striking the Western Hemisphere. Several of the sites included medium-range ballistic missiles carrying a nuclear warhead and a range of 1,000 nautical miles, capable of striking Washington DC, the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, plus the southern US, Central America, and the Caribbean area.
There were also intermediate-range ballistic missiles with ranges of 2,000 nautical miles. He informed the public about Gromyko’s “defensive weapons” quotes four days earlier which he said proved to be false and that the Soviet Union was upsetting the balance of peace on this side of the world. Then he announced the naval quarantine and how it would be followed so that no additional missiles would arrive in Cuba. He warned the viewers the quarantine was the initial step, implying a more harsher step could be forthcoming. He added that the missiles already there had to be withdrawn. Nearing the end of his three-minute speech, Kennedy said, “The greatest danger of all would be to do nothing…one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.” Then he signed off a few seconds later with, “Thank you and good night.”
Kennedy and his newly-named staff called EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), now a group of nine members with five advisors, waited it out to see what the Russians would do. For one thing, the quarantine would give both sides time to cool off.
I can’t remember for sure if I caught the live broadcast at 7 PM or if I saw it replayed that week. But I did watch it. I was just a kid in Grade 5, living in Regina, Saskatchewan. Nuclear missiles! I was scared. Were we all going to be destroyed? Would I never be able to watch another World Series, like the one my New York Yankees had just won earlier that month by defeating the San Francisco Giants in seven games? Would Regina be attacked? I was a kid, OK! I didn’t know.
The quarantine went into full effect two days later, with the American Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines on DEFCON 3 alert. How close did we come to nuclear war? We were very close. Over the course of the next few days, several Russian ships carrying the necessities of life were allowed through, while the ships carrying military weapons stopped and turned around on their own once they saw the US naval presence. In one day alone, 15 October, 14 ships carrying nuclear weapons turned back.
For the next few days, Kennedy and Khrushchev communicated through telegrams, some heated, calling each other’s bluff, waiting to see who would blink first. By 26 October, Kennedy was considering an invasion, what the military brass were all for from the beginning. During this period, things could have easily gotten out of hand after 27 October when Major Rudolf Anderson Jr, flying on a U-2 mission over Cuba, was shot down and killed by a SAM (surface-to-air missile). That same day several US Navy Crusader aircraft were fired at while making low-level missions over the island.
Still, the negotiations continued on.
Part Two--Next Week