TUESDAY, OCTOBER 16, 1962, 11:50 A.M.
The Central Intelligence Agency's chief photo interpreter hovered over the president's shoulder. Arthur Lundahl held a pointer in his hand, ready to reveal a secret that would bring the world to the edge of nuclear war.
The secret was buried in three black-and-white photographs pasted to briefing boards hidden in a large black case. The photographs had been shot from directly overhead, evidently from a considerable distance, with the aid of a very powerful zoom lens. On superficial inspection, the grainy images of fields, forests, and winding country roads seemed innocuous, almost bucolic. One of the fields contained tubelike objects, others oval-shaped white dots neatly lined up next to one another. John F. Kennedy would later remark that the site could be mistaken for "a football field." After examining the photographs earlier that morning, his brother Bobby had been unable to make out anything more than "the clearing of a field for a farm or the basement of a house."
To help the president understand the significance of the photos, Lundahl had labeled them with arrows pointing to the dots and blotches, along with captions reading "ERECTOR LAUNCHER EQUIPMENT," "MISSILE TRAILERS," and "TENT AREAS." He was about to display the briefing boards when there was a commotion outside the door. A four-year-old girl burst into one of the most heavily guarded rooms in the White House.
The heads of the fourteen most powerful men in the United States swiveled to the doorway as Caroline Kennedy ran toward her father, babbling excitedly: "Daddy, daddy, they won't let my friend in."
The somber-looking men in dark suits were used to such intrusions. Their frowns dissolved into smiles as the president got up from his leather-upholstered seat and led his daughter back toward the door of the Cabinet Room.
"Caroline, have you been eating candy?"
No reply. The president smiled.
"Answer me. Yes, no, or maybe."
Father and daughter disappeared for a few seconds, his arm draped around her shoulders. When Kennedy returned, his expression had again become grave. He took his place at the center of the long table beneath the presidential seal, his back to the Rose Garden. He was flanked on either side by his secretary of state and secretary of defense. Facing him across the table were his brother, his vice president, and his national security adviser. Behind them stood a small bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln, flanked by some model sailing ships. Above the fireplace to the right was the celebrated Gilbert Stuart portrait of a powdered and bewigged George Washington.
The thirty-fifth president of the United States called the meeting to order.
Kennedy seemed preternaturally calm to the other men in the room as he listened to the evidence of Kremlin duplicity. In secrecy, while insisting they would never contemplate such a thing, the Soviet leaders had installed surface-to-surface nuclear missiles on Cuba, less than a hundred miles from American shores. According to the CIA, the missiles had a range of 1,174 miles and were capable of hitting much of the eastern seaboard. Once armed and ready to fire, they could explode over Washington in thirteen minutes, turning the capital into a scorched wasteland.
Lundahl took the briefing boards out of his bag and laid them on the table. He used his pointer to direct the president's attention to a canvas-covered missile trailer next to a launcher erector. Seven more missile trailers were parked in a nearby field.
"How do you know this is a medium-range ballistic missile?" asked the president. His voice was clipped and tense, betraying a boiling anger beneath the calm.
"The length, sir."
"The what? The length?"
"The length of it, yes."
CIA experts had spent the last thirty-six hours poring over thousands of reconnaissance photographs of the hills and valleys of western Cuba. They had discovered telltale cables connecting one of the tubelike objects to the nearby oval-shaped splotch, and had used a revolutionary new computer device that filled up half a room--the Mann Model 621 comparator--to measure its length. The tubes turned out to be sixty-seven feet long. Missiles of identical length had been photographed at military parades in Red Square in Moscow.
The president asked the obvious question: when would the missiles be ready to fire?
The experts were unsure. That would depend on how soon the missiles could be mated with their nuclear warheads. Once mated, they could be fired in a couple of hours. So far, there was no evidence to suggest that the Soviets had moved the warheads to the missile sites. If the warheads were present, one would expect to see some kind of secure storage facility at the missile sites, but nothing was visible.
"There is some reason to believe the warheads aren't present and hence they are not ready to fire," said Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. The computerlike brain of the former head of the Ford Motor Company clicked away furiously, calculating the chances of a surprise attack. He believed the president still had some time.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff disagreed. General Maxwell Taylor had parachuted into Normandy during World War II, and had commanded Allied forces in Berlin and Korea. It fell to him to point out the risks of delay. The Soviets could be in a position to fire their missiles "very quickly." Most of the infrastructure was already in place. "It's not a question of waiting for extensive concrete pads and that sort of thing."
The president's advisers were already dividing into doves and hawks.
Kennedy had received an initial intelligence briefing earlier that morning. His national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, had knocked on the door of his bedroom, on the second floor of the White House, shortly after 8:00 a.m. The president was propped up in bed, in pajamas and dressing gown, reading the morning newspapers. As often happened, he was annoyed by a page-one headline in The New York Times. On this particular morning, his exasperation was directed at his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had broken the unwritten convention of former presidents refraining from publicly criticizing the current occupant of the Oval Office.
EISENHOWER CALLS PRESIDENT
WEAK ON FOREIGN POLICY
Denounces "Dreary Record," Challenging
Statements by Kennedy on Achievements
HE SEES SETBACK TO U.S.
As Bundy described the latest U-2 mission over Cuba, Kennedy's irritation with Ike was replaced by a burning anger toward his Cold War nemesis. Over the past two years, he and Nikita Khrushchev had been engaged in a very public game of nuclear oneupmanship. But Kennedy thought he had an understanding with the mercurial Soviet premier. Khrushchev had sent word through intermediaries that he would do nothing to embarrass the U.S. president politically before the midterm congressional elections, which were exactly three weeks away.
News that the Soviets were constructing missile bases on Cuba could hardly have come at a worse time. During the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy had used Cuba as a stick to beat the Republicans, accusing the Eisenhower government of doing nothing to prevent Fidel Castro from transforming the island into "a hostile and militant Communist satellite." Now that the Democrats were in power, the political roles were reversed. Republican politicians were seizing on reports of a Soviet military buildup on Cuba to denounce Kennedy for weakness and fecklessness. Just two days earlier, Kennedy had sent Bundy out on nationwide television to knock down a claim by the Republican senator from New York, Kenneth B. Keating, that the Soviets would soon be able "to hurl rockets into the American heartland" from their Caribbean outpost.
Kennedy's immediate reaction on learning from Bundy that Khrushchev had double-crossed him was to sputter, "He can't do this to me." An hour later, he walked into the office of his appointments secretary, Kenny O'Donnell, and announced glumly, "Ken Keating will probably be the next president of the United States."
Determined to keep the information secret as long as possible, Kennedy decided to stick to his regular schedule, acting as if nothing was amiss. He showed off Caroline's pony Macaroni to the family of a returning astronaut, chatted amiably for half an hour with a Democratic congressman, and presided over a conference on mental retardation. It was not until nearly noon that he managed to break away from his ceremonial duties and meet with his top foreign policy advisers.
Kennedy conceded that he was mystified by Khrushchev. Alternately ingratiating and boorish, friendly and intimidating, the metalworker turned superpower leader was unlike any other politician he had ever encountered. Their single summit meeting--in Vienna, in June 1961--had been a brutal experience for Kennedy. Khrushchev had treated him like a little boy, lecturing him on American misdeeds, threatening to take over West Berlin, and boasting about the inevitable triumph of communism. Most shocking of all, Khrushchev did not seem to share his alarm about the risks of nuclear war, and how it could be triggered by miscalculations on either side. He spoke about nuclear weapons in a casual, offhand kind of way, as simply one more element in the superpower competition. If the United States wants war, he blustered, "let it begin now."
"Roughest thing in my life," Kennedy had told James Reston of The New York Times, after it was all over. "He just beat the hell out of me." Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was contemptuous of his boss's performance. "Khrushchev scared the poor little fellow dead," he told his cronies. British prime minister Harold Macmillan, who met with Kennedy shortly after he left Vienna, was only slightly more sympathetic. He thought that the president had been "completely overwhelmed by the ruthlessness and barbarity of the Russian Chairman." For the first time in his life Kennedy had met a man "who was impervious to his charm," Macmillan noted later. "It reminded me in a way of Lord Halifax or Neville Chamberlain trying to hold a conversation with Herr Hitler."
Part of the problem lay in Kennedy's own miscalculations as president. The biggest mistake of all was the Bay of Pigs. In April 1961, four months after taking office, he had authorized an invasion of Cuba by fifteen hundred CIA-trained Cuban exiles. But the operation was disastrously planned and executed. Castro mounted a vigorous counterattack, trapping the exiles in an isolated beachhead. Anxious to conceal official American involvement as much as possible, Kennedy refused to order U.S. ships and planes stationed just offshore to come to the rescue of the outnumbered invaders, most of whom ended up in Castro's jails. As Kennedy later confessed to Reston, his superpower rival had no doubt concluded that "I'm inexperienced. Probably thinks I'm stupid. Maybe most important, he thinks that I had no guts." The perception of an inexperienced leader with no guts was one that he had been struggling to reverse ever since.
The news from Cuba reinforced Kennedy's impression of Khrushchev as a "fucking liar." He complained to his brother that the Soviet leader had behaved like "an immoral gangster...not as a statesman, not as a person with a sense of responsibility."
The question was how to respond. They would definitely step up U-2 reconnaissance of the island. Military options ranged from an air strike targeted on the missile sites alone to an all-out invasion. General Taylor warned that it would probably be impossible to destroy all the missiles in a single strike. "It'll never be a hundred per cent, Mr. President." Any military action was likely to escalate quickly to an invasion. The invasion plan called for as many as a hundred and fifty thousand men to land in Cuba a week after the initial air strikes. In the meantime, the Soviets might be able to launch one or two nuclear missiles against the United States.
"We're certainly going to do [option] number one," Kennedy told his aides grimly, referring to the air strike. "We're going to take out those missiles."
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2:30 P.M.
Robert Kennedy still had an angry glint in his eye later that afternoon when he met the men in charge of America's secret war against Fidel Castro in his cavernous Justice Department office. He was determined to make clear the president's "dissatisfaction" with Operation Mongoose, which had been under way for a year, achieving virtually nothing. Countless acts of sabotage had been planned, but none had been carried out successfully. Fidel and his bearded revolutionaries were still in power, inflicting daily humiliations on the United States.
Officials from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department were arrayed in a semicircle in front of the attorney general. A fresh assortment of his children's watercolors decorated the walls, along with standard-issue government art. One of the documents on the untidy, paper-littered desk was a two-page memorandum captioned "SECRET MONGOOSE" with the latest ideas for fomenting an insurrection inside Cuba. It had been put together by the CIA in response to prodding from the Kennedy brothers to be much more "aggressive." RFK nodded approvingly as he glanced through the list:
* Demolition of a railroad bridge in Pinar del Rio province;
* Grenade attack on the Chinese Communist embassy in Havana;
* Mine the approaches to major Cuban harbors;
* Set an oil tanker afire outside Havana or Matanzas;
* Incendiary attacks against oil refineries in Havana and Santiago.
The attorney general title masked Bobby's true role in government, which was closer to that of deputy president. His extracurricular responsibilities included heading a secret committee known as the Special Group (Augmented), whose goal was to "get rid of" Castro and "liberate" Cuba from Communist domination. The addition of the president's brother to the group--signified by the cryptic word "Augmented"--was a way of emphasizing its importance to the rest of the bureaucracy. Soon after taking personal control of Operation Mongoose in November 1961, Bobby had decreed that "the Cuban problem carries top priority in the U.S. government. No time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared." By coincidence, he had arranged a long-scheduled review of covert action plans against Cuba the very day that Soviet missiles were discovered on the island.
Bobby chose his words carefully as he addressed the Special Group. Half the officials in the room were unaware of the latest developments, and the president had stressed the need for total secrecy. But it was difficult for him to conceal his anger as he talked about "the change in atmosphere in the United States government during the last twenty-four hours." Frustrated by the lack of "push" in getting on with acts of sabotage, he announced that he planned to devote "more personal attention" to Mongoose. To accomplish this, he would meet with the Mongoose operational team every morning at 9:30 until further notice.
For Bobby, the appearance of Soviet missiles in the western hemisphere was not simply a political affront; it was a personal affront. He was the emotional member of the family, as rough and intense as his brother was smooth and calm. JFK had been humiliated once again by Castro and Khrushchev, and RFK was determined to redress the insult. He was extraordinarily competitive--even by the intensely competitive standards of the Kennedy clan--and the longest to nurse a grudge. "Everybody in my family forgives," the family patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., had once remarked. "Except Bobby."
He had found out about the missiles in an early morning phone call from Jack. "We have some big trouble," the president told him. Soon afterward, Bobby was in Bundy's office at the White House, poring over reconnaissance photographs. "Oh shit, shit, shit," he moaned, smacking the palm of his hand with his fist. "Those sons a bitches Russians." While Jack reacted to bad news by becoming cold and withdrawn, Bobby would pace the room angrily, uttering curses and raising his fists to his chest, as if ready to punch someone.
Bobby was furious at Khrushchev. But he was also furious with the sluggish U.S. bureaucracy that was forever talking about restoring freedom to Cuba but never actually did anything. And he was furious at himself for believing Soviet denials of a missile buildup in Cuba, despite numerous reports from anti-Castro Cubans and undercover CIA agents of missile-related activity on the island. As he later wrote, "the dominant feeling was one of shocked incredulity. We had been deceived by Khrushchev, but we had also fooled ourselves."
Over the last year, the Kennedys had tried every means in their power to get even with Castro, short of ordering an outright invasion of Cuba. "My idea is to stir things up on island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder, run & operated by the Cubans themselves," Bobby noted in a November 1961 memo. "Do not know if we will be successful in overthrowing Castro but we have nothing to lose in my estimate." No method was considered too dirty or too outlandish to achieve the desired goal. The State Department drafted plans for the sabotage of the Cuban economy; the Pentagon came up with a scheme for a wave of bombings in Miami and Washington that could be blamed on Castro; the CIA infiltrated anti-Castro exiles back into Cuba to cache arms and foment an insurrection. There were numerous CIA-backed assassination plots against Castro, including an ongoing effort to use the Mafia to smuggle weapons and poison pills into Cuba to eliminate "el lider maximo." A fallback option was to use chemical agents to destroy Castro's beard, so that he would become a laughingstock among the Cuban people.
Bobby took a personal interest in every facet of the anti-Castro campaign. He invited anti-Castro activists to his sprawling home at Hickory Hill in Virginia, and discussed ways of unseating the dictator while the children played with trains under the bed. He phoned his contacts in the Cuban exile community directly, avoiding the normal bureaucratic channels. He even had his own full-time liaison officer at the CIA, who operated independently of the rest of the agency and undertook secret missions for the attorney general without informing his superiors.
The official chronicler of the Kennedy years, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., would describe Operation Mongoose as "Robert Kennedy's most conspicuous folly." But it was not just Bobby's folly. While RFK was certainly the most energetic advocate of overthrowing Castro in the Kennedy administration, he had the full support of the president. No one who attended the meetings of the Special Group had any illusions about that. Bobby would "sit there, chewing gum, his tie loose, feet up on his desk, daring anyone to contradict him," recalled Thomas Parrott, the official White House notetaker at the meetings. "He was a little bastard, but he was the president's brother, the anointed guy, and you had to listen to him. Everybody felt that he would tell Big Brother if you didn't go along with what he was proposing."
There was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality to the Jack-Bobby relationship. The tortured, agitated Bobby was a darker, rougher version of his calmer, more easygoing older brother. After observing the two brothers interact extensively, another White House official, Richard Goodwin, came to believe that Bobby's harsh polemics "reflected the president's own concealed emotions, privately communicated in some earlier intimate conversation.... [There] was an inner hardness, often volatile anger, beneath the outwardly amiable, thoughtful, carefully controlled demeanor of John Kennedy."
Jack was forty-five when plunged into the gravest crisis of the Cold War, two years after becoming the youngest elected president in American history. Bobby was just thirty-six.
The Kennedy brothers' instrument for implementing their will in Cuba was a dashing Air Force brigadier general named Edward Lansdale, now seated in front of the attorney general, diligently taking notes. With his trim mustache, matinee-idol smile, and eager beaver expression, Lansdale looked like a sixties version of Clark Gable. He exuded a can-do confidence that appealed to Bobby and Jack. His formal title was "chief of operations" of "the Cuba project."
A former advertising executive and specialist in black propaganda, Lansdale had made his reputation in Southeast Asia, helping the Philippine government suppress a Communist insurgency. He had also served as an American military adviser in South Vietnam. Some thought he was the model for the earnest yet naive hero of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, who leaves havoc all around him in his single-minded determination to export American-style democracy to the Asian jungle.
Beginning in January 1962, Lansdale had issued a stream of directives and plans for Castro's overthrow, neatly organized under different tabs such as "Psychological Support," "Military Support," and "Sabotage Support." The target date for the "Touchdown Play" was mid-October, a date calculated to appeal to the political instincts of the Kennedy brothers, a couple of weeks before the U.S. midterm elections. A top secret Lansdale memorandum dated February 20 laid out the timetable:
* Phase I. Action, March 1962. Start moving in.
* Phase II. Build-up, April-July 1962. Activating the necessary operations inside Cuba for revolution and concurrently applying the vital political, economic, and military-type support from outside Cuba.
* Phase III. Readiness, 1 August 1962. Check for final policy decision.
* Phase IV. Resistance, August-September 1962. Move into guerrilla operations.
* Phase V. Revolt, first two weeks of October 1962. Open revolt and overthrow of the Communist regime.
* Phase VI. Final, during month of October 1962. Establishment of new government.
Lansdale was a general without an army, however. He had very few assets inside Cuba itself. He did not even control the sprawling American bureaucracy, which was divided into autonomous fiefdoms. Mongoose operatives at the CIA, supposedly subordinate to him, were contemptuous of his "unrealistic, half-baked" schemes. They nicknamed him the "field marshal" or the "all-American guerrilla fighter," dismissing him as a "kook," "a wild man," and "just plain crazy." They found it difficult to understand the almost "mystic" hold he seemed to exercise over the Kennedys. For George McManus, an aide to CIA director John McCone, "Lansdale's projects simply gave the impression of movement," a whirlwind of activity without any substance.
As the target dates for causing havoc inside Cuba came and went, with nothing much happening, Lansdale came up with increasingly bizarre ideas for overthrowing the Cuban dictator. His latest plan, dated October 15, was for a U.S. submarine to surface off Havana in the middle of the night and fire star shells toward the shore. The shells would light up the nighttime sky. In the meantime, CIA agents would have spread the word around Cuba that Castro was the anti-Christ, and that the illumination was a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ. Lansdale suggested that the operation be timed to coincide with All Soul's Day "to gain extra impact from Cuban superstitions." CIA skeptics dubbed the scheme "Elimination by Illumination."
Another pet Lansdale project was branding the Cuban resistance with the symbol "gusano libre." Official Cuban propaganda constantly denounced anti-Castro Cubans as "worms" ("gusanos"). Lansdale wanted to turn this rhetoric against Castro, and encourage dissidents to see themselves as "free worms," subverting the Cuban economy and political system from within through minor acts of sabotage. But the public relations campaign was a flop. Imbued with pride and machismo, Cubans refused to identify with worms, free or not.
Lansdale's ideas for fomenting an anti-Castro rebellion through small-scale guerrilla operations backed by skillful propaganda were inspired by Castro's own success in overthrowing his U.S.-backed predecessor, Fulgencio Batista. A student rebel leader jailed for two years and then exiled to Mexico, Castro had returned to Cuba by boat in December 1956, accompanied by eighty-one lightly armed followers. From their hideouts in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of eastern Cuba, the barbudos (bearded ones) had launched a peasant uprising against Batista's fifty-thousand-strong army. By the end of December 1958, the dictator had fled and Fidel was the unchallenged ruler of Cuba.
Unfortunately for the Kennedy administration, there were many differences between Castro's revolution and the one that Lansdale was attempting to engineer. Fidel's victory was swift and spectacular, but it was preceded by a long period of preparation. Even before his exile, Castro had painstakingly laid the groundwork for an uprising, exploiting popular unhappiness with Batista, attacking an army barracks in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's second city, and using his own trial as a platform for anti-Batista propaganda. The energy and impetus for the Fidelista revolution came from within Cuba, not from outside. Furthermore, as a successful revolutionary, Fidel knew how to defend his regime against people like himself. Since coming to power, he had turned Cuba into a police state, full of informers and revolutionary watchdog committees.
And then there were the constraints imposed by the Kennedys themselves. They wanted a plausibly deniable revolution that could not be traced back to the White House. It was a fatal contradiction. Time and again at Mongoose meetings, Bobby would demand more "boom and bang" in Cuba, and then complain about the "noise level" of previous operations. What the Kennedys got in the end was a revolution on paper, complete with stages, carefully tabbed binders, dates for achieving different objectives, and an unending stream of top secret memos. By October, it was apparent that Lansdale and his fellow Mongoose operatives had no idea how to make a revolution. Unlike Castro, who had fought in the jungle and gone without food for months on end, they were bureaucrats, not revolutionaries.
The spirit of the enterprise was captured by a September 11 memo to government agencies from the "chief of operations" requesting updated information about their needs for "secure communications" and "filing space" in the Pentagon war room "in the case of a contingency" in Cuba. With military efficiency, Lansdale gave the agencies one week in which to respond. The State Department reply was typical: one classified telephone and one secure filing cabinet "will meet our requirements."
Had Operation Mongoose merely been an exercise in self-delusion--"a psychological salve for inaction," as Bundy later described it--it would have been relatively harmless. In fact, it was the worst possible foreign policy combination: aggressive, noisy, and ineffective. It was clear to anybody who paid attention to leaks in the American press and rumors in the Cuban exile community that the Kennedys were out to get Castro. There was enough substance to Mongoose to alarm Castro and his Soviet patrons into taking countermeasures--but not enough to threaten his grip on power.
It looked as if Kennedy was already forgetting a promise he had made to his predecessor after the disaster of the Bay of Pigs. "There is only one thing to do when you get into this kind of thing," Eisenhower had lectured him, back in April 1961. "It must be a success." To which Kennedy had replied, "Well, I assure you that, hereafter, if we get into anything like this, it is going to be a success."
At the end of its first year, Operation Mongoose was shaping up as an almost perfect failure.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 16, 4:35 P.M.
Jack Kennedy had been bracing for a showdown with the Soviet Union ever since he took his oath of office and publicly pledged that "a new generation of Americans" would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty." He liked to carry around a slip of paper with a quote from Abraham Lincoln:
I know there is a God--and I see a storm coming;
If he has a place for me, I believe I am ready.
The storm clouds had long seemed most ominous in the divided city of Berlin, deep inside Communist East Germany. The previous year, the Soviets had erected a wall to stem the flow of refugees to the West, and American and Russian tanks had confronted each other directly across the narrow divide of "Checkpoint Charlie." The Soviets enjoyed almost complete military superiority in Berlin, and there was little the United States could do to prevent the takeover of the city, other than threaten to use nuclear weapons. Instead, the storm had broken in Cuba.
Never had Kennedy felt quite so alone as he did now. Even before the missile crisis, he would obsessively calculate the chances of nuclear destruction, like a bookie calling a horse race. At a dinner party that evening, he would startle other guests by announcing that the "odds are even on an H-bomb war within ten years." Only a handful of his closest aides knew how much closer the nightmare had come in the last twenty-four hours. He had earlier thought there was a "one-in-five chance" of a nuclear exchange.
He had one public appearance that afternoon, a foreign policy conference for newspaper and TV editors at the State Department. The tone of his speech was unusually bleak. The major challenge facing his presidency, he told reporters, was how to ensure "the survival of our country...without the beginning of the third and perhaps the last war." He then pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket and recited a verse that reflected his determined, solitary mood:
Bullfight critics row on row
Crowd the enormous plaza full,
But only one is there who knows
And he is the one who fights the bull.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 16, 6:30 P.M.
Back in the White House for an evening meeting with his advisers, the president activated his secret recording system from his place at the center of the Cabinet Room table. Microphones hidden in the wall behind his chair relayed the voices of everyone in the room to reel-to-reel tape machines installed in the basement. Apart from Kennedy, Bobby, and the Secret Servicemen who operated the sophisticated equipment, nobody knew about the devices.
Khrushchev's motives in provoking a superpower confrontation were "a goddamn mystery" to Kennedy. "Why does he put these in there?" he asked his aides. "What is the advantage of that? It's just as if we began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that'd be goddamn dangerous, I would think."
"Well, we did it, Mr. President," Bundy pointed out.
Kennedy brushed Bundy's observation aside. In his mind, there were clear differences between Cuba and Turkey. The United States had agreed to provide Turkey with medium-range ballistic missiles similar to the Soviet R-12s now being deployed in Cuba back in 1957. They had become fully operational earlier in 1962. The lengthy public debate among NATO countries over the dispatch of missiles to Turkey contrasted with the secrecy surrounding the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Even so, the Turkey analogy was an uncomfortable one for Kennedy and his aides. It was possible that Khrushchev was acting out of deep-seated psychological pique. He wanted to give Americans a taste of their own medicine.
It was an open question whether Soviet missiles in Cuba substantially changed the balance of power. The Joint Chiefs had emphasized the heightened risk to the United States of a sneak attack. But the president was inclined to agree with McNamara, who insisted that Khrushchev was still a very long way from achieving first-strike capability.
"Geography doesn't make much difference," Kennedy mused. What did it matter if you got blown up by a missile based on Cuba or an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union?
The real problem, he thought, was "psychological" and "political" rather than "military." To do nothing would be to surrender to blackmail. In the Cold War game of nuclear brinkmanship, perception shaped reality. If Khrushchev got away with his gamble over Cuba, he would be encouraged to use similar tactics in Berlin, Southeast Asia, or any other Cold War trouble spot. Under attack by the Republicans for his passivity over Cuba, the president had issued a public statement on September 4 warning the Soviets that "the gravest issues would arise" if they developed a "significant offensive capability" in Cuba. He had planted a marker in the sand, and was now committed to defending it.
"Last month, I should have said we don't care," Kennedy said wistfully, as if to himself. "But when we said we're not going to, and then they go ahead and do it, and then we do nothing..." His voice trailed off. Doing nothing was no longer an option.
From across the table, Bobby argued the case for an aggressive response to Moscow. The attorney general was more belligerent than he was articulate. If Khrushchev wanted war, it might be better to "get it over with...take our losses." It would not be too difficult to find an excuse for invading Cuba. Bobby thought back to the Spanish-American War of 1898. The pretext for that war had been the destruction of an American battleship, the USS Maine, in Havana Harbor by a mysterious explosion. The United States had blamed the disaster on Spain as the colonial power, but true responsibility was never established.
Perhaps "there is some other way we can get involved in this," Bobby ruminated. "You know, sink the Maine again or something...."
The discussion turned to the sabotage proposals against Cuba that had been considered by the Special Group earlier in the day. "I take it you are in favor of sabotage," Bundy told the president briskly as he handed him the list.
The only item that raised a problem for Kennedy was the mining of Cuban harbors, an indiscriminate act of war that could result in the destruction of foreign flagships, in addition to Cuban and Soviet vessels. The following day, the White House sent a memo to the Mongoose team, formally recording the approval by "higher authority"--code word for the president--of the eight other sabotage targets, including the grenade attack on the Chinese Embassy.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 17, AROUND NOON
Hurricane season was under way in the Caribbean. More than forty U.S. warships were headed toward the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for a practice invasion of Cuba. As the winds from Hurricane Ella topped 80 knots an hour, the approaching naval task force switched course to avoid the worst of the storm. Plans for an amphibious landing by four thousand Marines were put on hold.
Pentagon planners had dubbed the maneuvers "Operation ORTSAC," Castro spelled backward. Once the task force got to Vieques, the Marines would storm ashore, depose an imaginary dictator, and secure the island for democracy. If all went well, the entire operation would last no more than two weeks.
The five Joint Chiefs had been pushing for an invasion of Cuba for many months. They were very skeptical of Operation Mongoose and saw "no prospect of early success" in fomenting an anti-Castro uprising inside Cuba. Back in April, they had warned the president that the "United States cannot tolerate permanent existence of a communist government in the Western Hemisphere." If Castro was permitted to remain in power, other countries in Latin America might soon fall under Communist domination. Moscow might be tempted to "establish military bases in Cuba similar to U.S. installations" around the Soviet Union. The only sure method of overthrowing Castro was through direct "military intervention by the United States."
Prior to the discovery of Soviet missiles on Cuba, the main problem confronting the Joint Chiefs was how to justify an attack against a much weaker nation. A memorandum dated August 8 outlined various ideas for a staged provocation that could be blamed on Castro, along the lines of the "Remember the Maine!" scenario that intrigued Bobby Kennedy:
* We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba;
* We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities, and even in Washington;
* A "Cuban-based, Castro-supported" filibuster could be simulated against a neighboring Caribbean nation.
* It is possible to arrange an incident that will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civilian airliner.
The Joint Chiefs were confident that they could organize an invasion of Cuba without running the risk of a "general war" with the Soviet Union. U.S. forces were strong enough to secure "rapid control" over the island, although "continued police action would be required." A single infantry division, around fifteen thousand men, would be sufficient to occupy the island following the initial invasion.
The only dissent came from the Marine Corps, which challenged the assumption that Cuban resistance would be rapidly crushed. "Considering the size (44,206 sq. mi.) and population (6,743,000) of Cuba, its long history of political unrest, and its tradition of sustained and extensive guerrilla and terrorist resistance to constituted authority, the estimate that only a division-size force will be required subsequent to the assault phase appears modest," a Marine Corps memo noted. It predicted that at least three infantry divisions would be required to subdue the island and that it would take "several years" to install a stable successor regime to Fidel Castro.
The Marine Corps had reason to be wary of Cuban entanglements. History had shown that it was a lot easier to send troops to Cuba than to pull them out. It had taken four years for the Marines to disentangle themselves from Cuba after the Spanish-American War. The Marines were back again four years later, much to the disgust of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose political career had received a huge boost in Cuba, when he led his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. "I am so angry with that infernal little Cuban republic that I would like to wipe its people off the face of the earth," the hero of 1898 grumbled to a friend. "All that we wanted of them was that they would behave themselves and be prosperous and happy so that we would not have to interfere."
The Marines had remained in Cuba, off and on, until 1923, just three years before the birth of Fidel Castro. And even after that date, they still kept a foothold on the island, at Guantanamo.
From the American perspective, Cuba was a natural extension of the United States. The crocodile-shaped island was like a sluice gate bottling up the Gulf of Mexico, controlling the sea routes between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1823, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams attributed to Cuba "an importance in the sum of our national interests with which that of no other foreign Territory can be compared." As Adams saw it, the annexation of Cuba by the United States was virtually inevitable, a function of the "laws of political gravitation."
Just ninety miles from Key West, Cuba exercised a powerful pull over the American imagination, long after the withdrawal of the Marines. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, the island became a playground for rich Americans who flew in to lie in the sun, gamble, and visit whorehouses. American money poured into casinos and hotels in Havana, sugar plantations in Oriente, and copper mines in Pinar del Rio. By the 1950s, much of the Cuban economy, including 90 percent of the mining industry and 80 percent of utilities, was under the control of American corporations.
The attraction was not just geographic and economic; it was very personal. By the eve of the revolution, Ernest Hemingway, America's most celebrated writer, had taken up residence at the Finca Vigia, on a hilltop overlooking Havana. The Mafia boss, Meyer Lansky, had built a twenty-one-story hotel called the Riviera on the Malecon and was advising Batista on gambling reform. Nat King Cole was singing at the Tropicana nightclub. And a young American senator named John F. Kennedy was making frequent visits to Havana as the guest of the pro-Batista U.S. ambassador.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 18, 9:30 A.M.
Bobby Kennedy was already having trouble keeping his promise--made Tuesday afternoon--to hold daily Mongoose briefings in his office. He had been unable to attend the scheduled Wednesday session because of an urgent White House meeting. But on Thursday he managed to squeeze in half an hour with Mongoose operatives, including Lansdale and Bill Harvey, the head of the CIA's anti-Castro task force.
Gruff and uncouth, Harvey had the job of making sense of the blizzard of paperwork generated by Ed Lansdale. The two men were like fire and water. The visionary Lansdale would come up with dozens of new ideas for hitting Castro, only to have them squelched by the methodical Harvey. In Harvey's view, such operations required months of meticulous planning before they could be launched.
By the third day of the crisis, Bobby was rethinking his views on how to respond to Khrushchev. His initial fury at Soviet duplicity had given way to more sober analysis. One of his biographers would later detect a pattern: "an initial burst of belligerence and intransigence, followed by a willingness to listen and change." He now opposed a surprise air attack on the missile sites as incompatible with American traditions, a kind of Pearl Harbor in reverse. "My brother is not going to be the Tojo of the 1960s," he had told a White House meeting on Wednesday. Bobby was beginning to favor a naval blockade of Cuba combined with some kind of ultimatum to Moscow, an idea first proposed by McNamara.
Bobby's sudden streak of moralism did not, however, extend to calling a halt to Operation Mongoose. According to Harvey's record of the Thursday, October 18, meeting, the attorney general continued to place "great stress on sabotage operations and asked to be furnished with a list of the sabotage operations CIA planned to conduct."
The most feasible target, in Harvey's view, was a copper mine in Pinar del Rio Province in western Cuba. The CIA had been trying for months to halt production at the Matahambre mine and had made careful studies of the terrain, but had been hampered by a string of bad luck. The first operation, back in August, failed after the would-be saboteurs got lost in a mangrove swamp. The second attempt was aborted when the radio operator fell and broke his ribs. The third time around, the sabotage team had got within a thousand yards of the target when it was challenged by a militia patrol and forced to withdraw after a firefight. Despite these setbacks, Matahambre was still at the top of Harvey's "to do" list.
He informed RFK and Lansdale that he would "re-run" the operation as soon as circumstances allowed.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19, 9:45 A.M.
The president was leafing through the latest batch of intelligence reports as the generals filed into the Cabinet Room. The news from Cuba was becoming more ominous by the day. In addition to the original missile sites in Pinar del Rio, U-2 spy planes had discovered a second cluster of sites in the center of the island. The new sites included facilities for so-called intermediate-range ballistic missiles, or IRBMs, which were capable of hitting targets nearly 2,800 miles away, more than double the distance of the medium-range rockets, or MRBMs, discovered on October 14.
There was still no evidence that the bigger missiles had arrived in Cuba, so they were a less immediate threat. But work on the original missile sites was proceeding rapidly. The CIA had identified three different medium-range ballistic missile regiments on the island. Each regiment controlled eight missile launchers, making twenty-four in all.
"Let's see," said Kennedy, reading aloud passages from the intelligence report. "Two of these missiles are operational now...missiles could be launched within eighteen hours after the decision to fire...yields in the low megaton range."
He had been dreading this meeting, but knew he must at least go through the motions of consulting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He felt that the generals had misled him over the Bay of Pigs, pushing him to support an ill-prepared invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro exiles. He was particularly mistrustful of the Air Force chief of staff, General Curtis LeMay, a cigar-chomping World War II hero with three thousand nuclear bombs under his command. "I don't want that man near me again," Kennedy had said, after listening to one of LeMay's blood-curdling briefings about bombing America's enemies back to the "Stone Age." Profane, tough, and brutally efficient, LeMay was the kind of man you wanted by your side when the fighting started, but not the type who should be making decisions about war and peace.
LeMay could barely contain himself as the president voiced his fears of a nuclear conflagration. Attempting to put himself in Khrushchev's shoes, Kennedy predicted that a U.S. attack on Cuba would inevitably be followed by a Soviet attack on Berlin. "Which leaves me with only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons--which is a hell of an alternative."
Nonsense, retorted LeMay, speaking slowly as if addressing a somewhat dim pupil. It was the other way round. Not taking firm action in Cuba would only encourage the Soviets to try their luck in Berlin. A naval blockade of Cuba, as proposed by some of Kennedy's advisers, could send a fatal message of weakness.
"It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich."
There was a shocked silence around the table. LeMay's remark was an audaciously insulting reference to the president's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., who had advocated a policy of negotiating with Hitler while serving as U.S. ambassador to London. LeMay was implying that JFK, who had launched his political career as the author of an anti-appeasement book called While England Slept, was about to follow in his father's footsteps.
LeMay's strategy for dealing with the rival superpower was based on a simple logic. The United States enjoyed overwhelming nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. However much Khrushchev might threaten and bluster, he had absolutely no interest in provoking a nuclear war that he was bound to lose. Thanks to the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the most powerful military force in the history of the world, America had "the Russian bear" by the balls. "Now that we have gotten him in a trap, let's take his leg off right up to his testicles," he told his associates. "On second thoughts, let's take off his testicles, too."
Kennedy's logic was very different. The United States might have many more nuclear bombs than its adversary, but "winning a nuclear war" was a pretty meaningless concept. As many as 70 million Americans could die in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. "You're talking about the destruction of a country," he told the Joint Chiefs. He wanted to avoid provoking Khrushchev into what McNamara called "a spasm response," an involuntary knee-jerk reaction that would end up in a nuclear exchange.
The commander in chief was shocked by the impertinence of the Air Force general. When LeMay told him that "you're in a pretty bad fix at the present time," Kennedy thought he hadn't heard right.
"What did you say?"
"You're in a pretty bad fix," LeMay repeated calmly, in his flat midwestern voice.
"Well, you're in there with me. Personally."
The reply provoked some strained laughter around the table. A few minutes later, LeMay assured the president that the Air Force could be "ready for attack at dawn" on Sunday, although the "optimum date" would be the following Tuesday. Kennedy left the room shortly afterward.
With the president gone, the generals felt free to dissect the debate. The hidden tape recorders were still running.
"You, you pulled the rug right out from under him," the commandant of the Marine Corps, General David M. Shoup, told LeMay.
"Jesus Christ, what the hell do you mean?" replied the Air Force chief, eager for praise.
The problem with politicians, said Shoup, was that they always tried to do everything "piecemeal." As a military man, he preferred settling matters with "that little pipsqueak of a place" once and for all.
"You go in there and friggin' around with the missiles. You're screwed. You go in and friggin' around with little else. You're screwed."
"You're screwed, screwed, screwed."
Later, in the privacy of his office, the president conducted his own postmortem on the performance of his generals. He was amazed by LeMay's blithe assurance that Khrushchev would fail to react to the bombing of the missile sites and the deaths of hundreds of Russians.
"These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor," he told his personal assistant and friend Dave Powers. "If we listen to them and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong."
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19, NIGHT
Jack Kennedy had a keen appreciation for the vagaries of history. His experiences commanding a patrol boat in the Pacific during World War II, reinforced by the lessons from the Bay of Pigs, had taught him to mistrust the assurances of military leaders. He knew that there can be a huge gulf between the orders and wishes of the man in the Oval Office and how that policy is actually implemented on the ground. One of his lasting impressions from the war was that "the military always screws up everything."
The events of the next few days would confirm JFK's view of history as a chaotic process that can occasionally be given a shove in a desired direction, but can never be completely controlled. A president can propose, but ordinary human beings often dispose. In the end, history is shaped by the actions of thousands of individuals: some famous, others obscure; some in positions of great authority, others who want to tear down the established order; some who strive mightily to put themselves in a position to alter events, others who stumble onto the political stage almost by chance. The story of what would later become known as the Cuban missile crisis is replete with accidental figures whose role in history is often overlooked: pilots and submariners, spies and missileers, bureaucrats and propagandists, radar operators and saboteurs.
As the president agonized over what to do about the missile sites, two such humble Cold War warriors were steering a rubber dinghy through the mangrove swamps of western Cuba. Miguel Orozco and Pedro Vera had blackened their faces and were wearing military-style ponchos. Their backpacks contained explosives, fuses, a two-way radio set, an M-3 rifle, a couple of pistols, and enough food and water to survive for a week. The electric engine on the RB-12 dinghy was equipped with silencers. The little boat made practically no noise as it drifted through the winding canal.
They had known each other for years, having waged war together against the barbudos in the Sierra Maestra. Taller and wirier than his companion, Orozco had served as lieutenant in Batista's army. Vera was a former sergeant. Following the success of the Fidelista uprising, both men had fled Cuba and joined the CIA-trained, anti-Castro guerrilla force known as Brigade 2506. Orozco had helped transport Brigade members to the Bay of Pigs for the doomed invasion. Vera had taken part in a parachute attack on a road leading to the isolated Zapata peninsula before retreating in disarray when Castro's troops counterattacked. He had been lucky to escape alive, and spent more than a week at sea on a small raft before being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.
They were headed south, up the Malas Aguas River, into the foothills of the low mountains that rise up along the northern Pinar del Rio coastline. Their target--an aerial tramway connecting the Matahambre copper mine with the port of Santa Lucia--was less than a dozen miles away as the crow flies. But the countryside ahead was terribly inhospitable: a mixture of swamp, poisonous undergrowth, and thick forest. It could take them another three or four days to reach their destination.
Every aspect of the operation had been painstakingly planned. The CIA had obtained detailed blueprints of the copper mine from the company's former American owners, whose property had been confiscated as a result of the revolution. It had used these plans to build a full-scale mock-up of the facility at "the Farm," a heavily forested training camp on the York River, across from Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia. Back in August, Orozco had been flown to the Farm to practice blowing up the tramway and a nearby power line. His case officers believed this was safer than attacking the mine itself, which was almost certainly better protected. If the saboteurs succeeded in destroying the tramway, they could severely disrupt the extraction of copper. A CIA study rated the chances of success as "excellent."
"You do it," growled Rip Robertson, the Matahambre case officer, as he gave the saboteurs their final briefing in a safe house on Summerland Key, near Key West. "Or don't bother to come back alive."
A 150-foot "mother ship"--part of a secret CIA navy operating out of South Florida--ferried the saboteurs halfway across the ninety-mile strait of water. For this part of the trip, they were joined by another team of four Cubans who had been ordered to smuggle a thousand pounds of arms and explosives into the island for use by anti-Castro guerrillas. As they headed into Cuban territorial waters, the two teams went their separate ways. Smaller, much faster speedboats would take them the remaining part of the journey under cover of darkness.
Orozco and Vera boarded the Ree Fee, a sleek thirty-six-foot cabin cruiser capable of detecting and outrunning any Cuban coastguard vessel in the vicinity. A couple of miles from the shoreline, they transferred to the rubber dinghy.
When the channel finally became impassable, they scrambled to shore, deflating the boat and camouflaging it beneath a pile of branches. As team leader, Orozco checked the maps and compasses he had brought with him from Florida, and charted a course toward the mountains. Photographs taken from U-2 spy planes showed a 400-foot ridgeline rising above the swamp some three miles inland, on the other side of a rough dirt road. Their CIA case officers had assured them that the region through which they were passing was sparsely populated, and they were unlikely to run into anyone. But just in case, they had been issued with false Cuban identity cards and clothes manufactured in Cuba. Everything they wore, from shoes to ponchos, had been brought to the United States by refugees.
It was cloudy and humid as they put on thick rubber boots, strapped on their backpacks, and started wading through the mangrove swamp. The dark shapes ahead were silhouetted against a half-moon.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 20, MORNING
"If the Americans see us, they will certainly be afraid," joked Aleksandr Malakhov, head of the Communist Youth section for the 79th missile regiment, stationed near Sagua la Grande, a small provincial town in central Cuba.
He was standing on a makeshift podium--a large mound of dirt, more than three feet high. Not just any dirt, but dirt that had been transported in sacks halfway around the globe from Russia as a reminder of the rodina--the "motherland." For extra effect, the Komsomol secretary had found a long wooden pole, painted it red and white to resemble a frontier post, and placed it in front of the presidium. A sign hanging from the pole read: TERRITORY OF THE USSR.
WE WILL DEFEND CUBA AS OUR MOTHERLAND, proclaimed a nearby banner.
Several hundred officers and men had gathered in a field in front of the podium. Although they were standing in orderly ranks, their appearance could scarcely have been less military. They were wearing a strange assortment of clothes: checkered shirts, military trousers cut above the knees, heavy Russian boots with the tops sliced off and holes for ventilation in the tropical heat. Some soldiers were bare to the waist, others looked "like scarecrows," in Malakhov's opinion.
He had called the meeting to mark a special occasion: the 79th regiment had just become the first Soviet missile unit in Cuba to declare itself "combat-ready." Its eight missile launchers were in place, next to heavy concrete launching pads, all oriented northward, toward the imperialist enemy. Parked nearby, on canvas-covered trailers, were the R-12 rockets, thin and long like giant pencils. Fuel trucks and oxidizer vehicles were in position. The warheads themselves had still not arrived on site but they could be brought here in less than a day.
"We have completed the assignments of the first stage," said Malakhov, launching into his pep talk. "The Soviet soldier always remains true to his military oath. We may die a heroic death, but we won't abandon the people of Cuba to tortures and suffering at the hands of the imperialists."
Applause, whistles, and a volley of celebratory machine-gun fire greeted the Komsomol leader.
"Rodina ili smert. Patria o muerte." ("Motherland or death.")
The officers and soldiers of the 79th missile regiment might look like scarecrows, but they had accomplished an extraordinary logistical feat. Never before had a Russian army ventured this far from the rodina, let alone an army equipped with weapons capable of wiping out tens of millions of people. What is more, they had done it largely in secret. The first Soviet missiles had arrived in Cuba in early September, but were not discovered by U.S. spy planes until more than a month later. And even now, there was much that Washington did not know about the enemy force that had arrived, unannounced, in its own backyard.
It had taken them nearly three months to become combat-ready. The regimental commander, Colonel Ivan Sidorov, had been given a special "government assignment" at the end of July. Much of August was spent packing the paraphernalia of a mobile missile unit: rockets, trucks, bulldozers, cranes, prefabricated huts, some 11,000 tons of equipment in all. The regiment needed nineteen special trains to reach the Crimean port city of Sevastopol from its base in western Russia. In Sevastopol, the regiment transferred to five cargo ships and a passenger liner.
All this was part of a much larger armada. To transport fifty thousand men and 230,000 tons of supplies across the ocean, Soviet military planners had organized a fleet of eighty-five ships, many of which made two or even three trips to Cuba. There were five missile regiments in all, three equipped with medium-range R-12s and two with intermediate-range R-14s. Other forces deployed to Cuba included four motor rifle regiments to guard the missiles, three cruise missile regiments, a regiment of MiG-21 fighter jets, forty-eight light attack Ilyushin-28 bombers, a helicopter regiment, a missile patrol boat brigade, a submarine squadron, and two antiaircraft divisions.
Like everybody else, Sidorov's men had no idea where or why they were being deployed. To confuse the enemy, the mission had been code-named Operation Anadyr after a city on the eastern tip of Siberia. Skis and heavy felt boots known as valenki were loaded onto the transport ships to fool any American spy loitering dockside into thinking the fleet was headed toward the freezing North. Communication with families was forbidden. "The motherland will not forget you," a representative of the Soviet General Staff told the troops as they set sail.
The first ship to depart was the 10,825-ton Omsk, on August 25. The Japanese-built freighter normally carried timber and had hatches large enough to accommodate missiles. The sixty-seven-foot-long R-12 rockets had to be stored in a diagonal position, propped up against a wall. Space was so limited that only Sidorov and his senior officers slept in cabins. Ordinary soldiers were crammed into the 'tween deck space beneath the bridge, normally used for storage. In all, 264 men had to share four thousand square feet of living space, just sixteen square feet per person, barely enough to lie down.
Instructions on the route to follow were contained in a series of sealed envelopes, to be opened jointly by the commander of the regiment, the ship captain, and the senior KGB representative. The first set of instructions ordered them to "proceed to the Bosphorus" the second "to proceed to Gibraltar." It was only after the Omsk had passed through the Mediterranean and entered the Atlantic that they opened the third set of instructions, which ordered them to "proceed to Cuba."
The atmosphere below decks was stifling. The sun beat down on the heavy metal hatches, pushing the temperature to over 120 degrees at times. Humidity reached 95 percent. The hatches were kept closed whenever foreign ships were around or they were close to land, as in the Bosphorus or the Straits of Gibraltar. Small groups of soldiers were permitted on deck at night to breathe the fresh air, an eagerly awaited privilege. Entertainment consisted of endless reruns of Quiet Flows the Don, the latest Soviet blockbuster.
Seasickness was a terrible problem. The ship rode high in the water due to the relatively light weight of the missiles and was tossed about on the waves when she ran into a severe storm in the middle of the Atlantic. Military statisticians later estimated that three out of every four passengers got seriously seasick. The average soldier lost twenty-two pounds in weight during the voyage. Thirty percent of the personnel were unable to do physical labor for a day or two after their arrival, and four percent were incapacitated for more than a week.
As the Omsk approached Cuba, U.S. Air Force planes began circling overhead, photographing the deck cargo. One night, Sidorov was woken by a powerful searchlight shining into his cabin. He hurried to the bridge, where he saw an American warship close on the starboard side. At dawn on September 9, as the freighter passed by the Guantanamo Naval Base, patrol boats came out to inspect her. A pair of jet fighters screamed overhead. It would take Washington many weeks to figure out what the Omsk was carrying. Relying on intercepted Soviet messages, the National Security Agency had concluded on August 31 that the cargo consisted of "barreled gas oil."
The rest of Sidorov's regiment followed three weeks later on a passenger liner, the Admiral Nakhimov. More than two thousand soldiers--described by the Soviet press as "agricultural workers and students"--crammed into a vessel built to carry nine hundred tourists. When the ship docked in Havana, the first thing the sick and exhausted soldiers noticed was smoke rising from a bonfire on land. A Soviet motorized rifle regiment was burning its unneeded ski equipment.
The scale of the Soviet deployment went far beyond the CIA's worst fears. Briefing the president on the afternoon of Saturday, October 20, McNamara estimated Soviet troop strength on Cuba at "six thousand to eight thousand." CIA analysts arrived at the figure by observing the number of Soviet ships crossing the Atlantic, and figuring out the available deck space. There was one missing element in these calculations: the ability of the Russian soldier to put up with conditions American soldiers would never tolerate.
By October 20, more than forty thousand Soviet troops had arrived on Cuba.
Once the missiles arrived on the island, they still had to be transported to the launching positions along winding, mountainous roads. Reconnaissance teams had spent weeks marking out the routes, building new roads and bridges, and removing obstacles. Mailboxes, telegraph poles, even entire houses were torn down overnight to permit the passage of eighty-foot trailers. "For the sake of the revolution" was the standard explanation provided to displaced residents by Cuban liaison officers accompanying the Soviet convoys.
It took two nights to unload the Omsk, which had docked in Casilda, a small fishing port on the southern Cuban coast that could accommodate no more than one medium-sized ship. The facilities were so primitive that the 500-foot-long Omsk had to be moved around several times, to access all the hatches. The missiles were removed from the ship in total darkness under the protection of a seventy-man detachment of Castro's personal bodyguard from the Sierra Maestra. Patrol boats prevented fishing boats from approaching the port and frogmen inspected the hull of the ship every two hours in case of a sabotage attempt.
To limit the number of eyewitnesses, movement of missiles was restricted to the hours of midnight through 5:00 a.m. Shortly before the convoy departed, police sealed off the route ahead, citing a "traffic accident." Police motorcyclists preceded the convoy followed by an assortment of Soviet jeeps and American Cadillacs and the lumbering missile transporters. Cranes and backup trucks brought up the rear, followed by more motorcyclists. Decoy convoys were dispatched in other directions.
Speaking Russian in public, and particularly over the radio, was forbidden. Soviet soldiers accompanying the convoy were required to wear Cuban army uniforms and communicate with one another with the Spanish words one through ten. Cuatro, cuatro might mean "halt the convoy" dos, tres "all clear" and so on. The system seemed simple enough, but it created endless misunderstandings. In tense situations, the soldiers would revert to Russian swearwords. Soviet officers joked that "we may not have confused American intelligence, but we certainly confused ourselves."
Three miles north of Casilda, the convoy reached Trinidad, an architectural jewel built by eighteenth-century sugar barons and slaveowners. Since the missiles could not possibly fit through the old colonial streets, Soviet and Cuban troops had constructed a detour around the town. The convoy then skirted the southern edge of the Escambray mountain range, a stronghold of anti-Castro guerrillas, and headed north into the plains of central Cuba.
As dawn broke, the drivers stopped for a rest in a forest outside the town of Palmira. The following night, when the convoy moved off again, news arrived that a bridge had been swept away by a tropical rainstorm. There was a delay of twenty-four hours as the entire male population of the region was mobilized to rebuild the bridge. The 140-mile journey took a total of three nights.
The site chosen for Sidorov's headquarters was tucked behind a range of low hills, between a sugar plantation and a stone quarry. Palm trees dotted the landscape. Soon construction troops were clearing the scrub for a battery of four missile launchers. Four more missile launchers were stationed twelve miles to the northwest, closer to the town of Sagua la Grande.
A tall, imposing man, Sidorov wasted no time making clear who was in charge. "Just remember one thing," the colonel would tell new arrivals in his welcome speech, his hands sweating profusely in the intense Cuban heat. "I am the commander of the regiment. That means I am the representative of Soviet power--the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the judge, all in one person. So get to work."
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2:30 P.M.
JFK was on the second day of a long-scheduled campaign trip through the Midwest. Seeking to deflect attention from the international crisis brewing behind the scenes, he had been making a brave show of keeping his public engagements when he received a call from Bobby: he was needed in Washington. His brother urged him to return to the White House to settle a deadlock among his advisers. The time for decision had arrived.
The reporters were climbing aboard buses outside the Hotel Sheraton-Blackstone in Chicago to take them to the next political meeting when they heard that the event had been canceled. "The president has a cold and is returning to Washington," White House press secretary Pierre Salinger announced without further explanation.
Once they were aboard Air Force One, Salinger asked the president what was really going on. Kennedy did not want to tell him. Not just yet anyway. Instead, he teased him. "The minute you get back in Washington, you are going to find out what it is. And when you do, grab your balls."
After four days of agonized debate, the options had boiled down to two: air strike or blockade. Each course of action had its advantages and disadvantages. A surprise air strike would greatly reduce the immediate threat from Cuba. On the other hand, it might not be 100 percent effective and could provoke Khrushchev into firing the remaining missiles or taking action elsewhere. The eight hundred individual sorties planned by the Pentagon might result in such chaos in Cuba that an invasion would become inevitable. A blockade would open the way for negotiations, but might give the Soviets an opportunity to prevaricate while they hurriedly completed work on the missile sites.
The air strike option was known as the "Bundy plan" after its principal author, who was supported by the uniformed military. CIA director McCone and Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon also favored air strikes, but wanted to give the Soviets a seventy-two-hour ultimatum to remove the missiles before beginning the bombing. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, and presidential speechwriter Theodore Sorensen all supported a blockade. Bobby had belatedly come round to the blockade option, but feared this might be "the last chance we will have to destroy Castro and the Soviet missiles on Cuba."
"Gentlemen, today we're going to earn our pay," said Kennedy, as he joined his advisers in his private Oval Sitting Room on the second floor of the executive mansion. "You should all hope that your plan isn't the one that will be accepted."
For the last couple of days, two rival drafts had been circulating within the White House of a presidential address to the nation announcing the discovery of Soviet missiles. One of the two drafts--the "air attack" speech presented to the president by Bundy--would remain locked away in the files for four decades:
My fellow Americans:
With a heavy heart, and in necessary fulfillment of my oath of office, I have ordered--and the United States Air Force has now carried out--military operations, with conventional weapons only, to remove a major nuclear weapons build-up from the soil of Cuba.... Every other course of action involved risk of delay and of obfuscation which were wholly unacceptable--and with no prospect of real progress in removing this intolerable communist nuclear intrusion into the Americas.... Prolonged delay would have meant enormously increased danger, and immediate warning would have greatly enlarged the loss of life on all sides. It became my duty to act.
Like Bobby, the president was now leaning toward a blockade after initially favoring an air strike. His mind was still not completely made up, however. Blockade seemed the safer course, but it too carried huge risks, including a confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet navies. After the meeting was over, he took Bobby and Ted Sorensen out to the Truman Balcony of the White House, looking over the Washington Monument.
"We are very, very close to war," he told them gravely, before deflating the moment with his mordant Irish wit. "And there is not room in the White House shelter for all of us."