Finally, Khrushchev got caught. A mounting controversy in Washington over precisely what the Soviets were doing in Cuba had reached the point where the administration had to authorize a resumption of flights by the U-2s, which had just been transferred from CIA control to that of SAC. On Sunday, October 14, a U-2 piloted by Air Force major Richard Heyser made a twelve-minute camera run over western Cuba and the game was up. The 4,000 feet of film his cameras took was delivered the next morning in eight cans to the CIA’s National Photographic Intelligence Center in the top four floors of a nondescript office building in downtown Washington. Every missile, by its measurements and other characteristics and the equipment needed to fire it, makes its own distinct fingerprint on the earth. From previous aerial photos of R-12 sites in Russia, the CIA photo interpreters knew exactly what they were looking at. Kennedy, who had been out of town, got the news on the morning of the 16th, when he was shown the photographs at the White House and they were interpreted for him. “He can’t do that to me!” he exclaimed in his rage at Khrushchev. According to Max Frankel in his first-rate account of the drama, High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy’s reaction was more earthy. “Oh shit! shit! shit! Those sons of bitches Russians.”
The president quickly got his anger against Khrushchev under control. He was also able to put himself in Khrushchev’s place and see the situation from the Soviet leader’s perspective. In the opening sessions of the ad hoc Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExCom as it came to be known, which he convened in secret session, he said it was clear that the sixteen Jupiters in Turkey would have to be one of the bargaining chips in any deal they made with the Soviet dictator to lever his missiles out of Cuba. He refused a unanimous recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including his favorite general, Maxwell Taylor of the Army (Kennedy had brought him back on active duty as chairman of the JCS), and initially Robert McNamara as well, for immediate air strikes to take out the missile sites before the IRBMs could be erected on their launchers and nuclear warheads mounted. (McNamara conceded that the planes would miss at least 10 percent of the installations.)
Kennedy reasoned that as a great power, the Soviet Union could not accept having Russian missile crews killed without retaliating. That retaliation, he feared, would come in a move against isolated and vulnerable West Berlin, which Khrushchev had been repeatedly menacing. Even after the perceived danger of the Soviet missiles grew at midweek as CIA interpreters, going over now constant U-2 photography, detected evidence of sites under construction for the 2,500-mile R-14s, which could reach Canada and virtually the entire continental United States, Kennedy maintained his sangfroid. (As it turned out, the R-14s never got to Cuba. They were still aboard ship hundreds of miles away when the crisis broke.) He decided on a naval blockade to turn around any ship carrying missiles or other military equipment to Cuba. It was to be carefully controlled and selective, referred to as a “quarantine” in public to avoid having to invoke formal blockade rules, and only gradually tightened into a full blockade of the island should Khrushchev not respond. He intended to announce the quarantine in a nationally televised speech the forthcoming Monday, October 22. He would sound as menacing as possible to spook the Russians, threatening ultimate military action if the missiles were not removed, but set no timetable. What he would be setting was a table for a bargain.
When he met with his military chieftains on Friday to tell them of his decision, the meeting turned into a confrontation. They now wanted to hit the island with 1,000 air strikes by Air Force and Navy jets and to follow up the air assaults with a full-scale invasion by the Army and the Marine Corps. They scoffed at Kennedy’s blockade and negotiations strategy as just “political action” and “talk.” LeMay, who had succeeded to chief of staff after White’s retirement in June 1961, was particularly belligerent. He took a directly opposing position to Kennedy’s reasoning on Berlin. “If we don’t do anything to Cuba,” he said, “then they’re going to push on Berlin and push real hard because they’ve got us on the run.” He accused Kennedy of being another Neville Chamberlain, in short, a moral coward who, by his weakness, would bring on the war he was seeking to avoid. “This blockade and political action, I see leading into war.… It will lead right into war,” LeMay argued. “This is almost as bad as the appeasement [of Hitler] at Munich.” Kennedy responded that if the United States acted precipitately, “we’d be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin.” LeMay was undeterred. “You’re in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President,” he said as the argument continued. Kennedy asked him to repeat what he had said and seemed amused at LeMay’s description of his predicament.
The president held fast. Generals and admirals, even those as bullying as LeMay could be, did not intimidate John Kennedy. He had proven his courage in battle as the skipper of a fast torpedo boat in the South Pacific. He was worried about Berlin and he was also worried about inadvertently triggering a chain reaction that would end in nuclear war. He had been reading The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s cautionary tale on how the statesmen and generals of Europe had bumbled their way into the First World War, and did not intend to become a central character in The Missiles of October. He had anticipated the reaction of his military leaders. Shortly before the meeting he remarked to his longtime retainer and political aide Kenneth O’Donnell that “these brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. 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.”