A Whole New Way to View the Cuban Missile Crisis
Intelligence briefings open a window on Armaggedon
Earlier this month, the CIA declassified its daily presidential briefings from 1961 to 1969. According to the CIA’s website, these short reports “summarized the day-to-day intelligence and analysis on current and future national security issues.”
There are more than 2,500 briefs in total — typically running between five and 15 pages — covering both the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. The reports are a fascinating window into the day-to-day intelligence the CIA provides to the leader of the free world.
The collection is an info dump and the CIA hasn’t organized it very well. But it’s a treasure for historians, journalists and enthusiasts who will spend years poring through all the data. The agency said it plans to release briefs from the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford years in the near future.
Let’s begin with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The 13 days between Oct. 16 and Oct. 28, 1962 defined Kennedy’s presidency, weakened Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s power at home and abroad and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Thanks to the the CIA’s briefings, we can now watch the drama unfold as Kennedy did.
Though the public largely remembers the two weeks in October when tensions were at their most unbearable, the agency’s briefings explain how relations between Washington and the Kremlin had deteriorated before the public was fully aware of the situation. America’s intelligence apparatus had watched for months as the USSR shipped weapons and troops to Cuba.
Reading the documents, it’s incredible to see just how close the world came to nuclear war. You can access the documents below in .pdf format by clicking on the dates. The first one begins a little more than a month before the crisis went public.
“In its strongest display of verbal support for Cuba to date,” this brief began. “The Soviet government declared in Moscow this morning that a U.S. attack on Cuba would lead to a global nuclear war.”
“The declaration said that the Defense Ministry has been ordered to ‘take all measures to ensure that our armed forces are brought to the highest state of military preparedness,’ adding the caveat that ‘however, these are exclusively precautionary measures.’”
A few days later, the CIA noted that a lot of ships had traveled between the USSR and Cuba.
“There has been no abatement in the Soviet buildup,” the agency reported. “Our tally of the number of voyages by Russian dry cargo vessels to Cuba since the end of July has reached the 80 mark and is rising steadily.”
Long before it discovered the nukes, America was concerned about the Soviets’ military buildup on the island. “The number of confirmed [surface-to-air missiles] sites …. under construction grows,” the next day’s brief stated.
Through the months of September and October, Cuba received shipments of planes, SAM equipment and other military assets from the Kremlin.
“Khrushchev, in his talk with Pittermann [then vice chancellor of Austria] took a tough line on Cuba,” the brief explained. “He contended that a U.S. blockade of the island would be an act of war and that the USSR would use submarines and rockets to enforce its right of passage.”
The United States would blockade the island in less than a month. Khrushchev did not back up his threats with action … despite later reports of Soviet subs patrolling the area.
“Yesterday afternoon, a U.S. tug reported sighting a Cuba-bound Russian convoy, escorted by two submarines, at a point about 700 miles east of Havana,” the brief stated. “A check by one of the our Navy aircraft verified the presence of five Soviet merchantmen in the area, but saw no submarines.”
Soviet subs swam the Caribbean. For Kennedy and his staff, it’s easy to see how these actions might look like the ramp-up to war. Worse, the Kremlin was asking for recruits back home.
“ … Moscow’s canvass of its military forces for volunteers to serve in Cuba. This activity is puzzling; we have never seen anything like it before,” the brief explained. “The move may be purely administrative: to replace personnel who had been suddenly ordered there with others prepared to stay for some time.”
“On the other hand, it could mean another sizeable increment of Soviet personnel in Cuba or a belief in Moscow that its people are like to be engaged in combat.”
The previous day, the U.S. Senate has passed a resolution authorizing the use of force in Cuba. It passed with overwhelming support.
The news wasn’t received well in the East. “Red Star [a Russian newspaper] this morning carries an article attacking the Senate resolution on Cuba. Soviet missiles submarines, it said, are ready to put to sea if tension in the Caribbean continues to rise.”
As the arms build-up in Cuba intensified, the CIA began to include maps of its latest intelligence on weapons placements.
“Latest photographic reconnaissance confirms two more surface-to-air missiles sites in Cuba and possibly a third still in the early stages of construction. This makes a total of 13 confirmed sites. The new sites are in Oriente Province, but none are within range of normal aircraft lanes serving Guantanamo.”
That would change, as would the maps, as the CIA gathered more and more information.
“… more SAM sites … along the north coast,” the Oct. 9 brief explained. “They will close one of the few remaining gaps in missile coverage of the island.”
The CIA gathered more intelligence. By now it knew that Cuba had more than just SAM sites and Soviet weapons … it also had Russian bombers.
“We believe Cuba is probably getting IL-28 twin jet light bombers,” the brief stated.
The agency identified 10 crates carrying the planes and estimated it would take the Cubans several weeks to assemble the bombers. “We have one shaky piece of evidence suggesting that Spanish-speaking pilots are receiving training in the IL-28 in the USSR.”
The missile sites also seemed to multiply. “Two more [SAM] missile sites, making a total of twenty. At least some, possibly many of these sites could now be operational, but we are not sure of this yet.”
It was a big day. The CIA redacted all information concerning the USSR and Cuba in this brief. Which kind of makes sense. On Oct. 14, an American U-2 spy plane had flown over Cuba and snapped photographs proving that the Soviets were not only setting up SAM sites, but intermediate-range-ballistic missiles as well.
The Soviet Union had shipped six R-12 missiles and three R-14 missiles to Cuba. Each of the nine weapons contained a nuclear warhead and each could land well within the borders of the United States. The CIA briefed Kennedy on the photos on the morning of Oct. 15. The Cuban Missile Crisis had officially begun.
“Seven of the twelve sites observed on this occasion now have missiles on launcher; some of these are probably operational.”
This was the day that Kennedy addressed the nation. He promised to blockade the island and retaliate against the USSR should the United States come under attack. All U.S. forces went to DEFCON 3. The world stood on the brink of nuclear war.
“Cuban ground, air and naval units have moved into alert status decreed yesterday even before the president’s broadcast,” the brief explained.
“The most recent analysis of photography … does not alter our count on the missile sites, but does raise the total of identified missiles and launchers. We can now account for 33 missiles and 23 launchers.”
In the briefs, the CIA began calling the crisis “The Cuban Problem.”
“Fidel Castro had little new to say last night. As expected, he rejected any proposal for international inspection of Cuban territory.”
The missile crisis continued to boil. The memo briefly mentioned that neutral members of the United Nations were trying to find a way to cool down the tensions between Washington and Moscow.
“The Navy this morning forced a Soviet submarine to the surface at a point about 350 miles south of Bermuda,” the brief stated.
According to the CIA, all was not well in Cuba. Many of the briefs played up the actions of dissident militant groups. At this point, the agency seemed eager to point out how bad the crisis was for Cuba.
“Havana remains quiet,” the brief stated. “But the prevailing atmosphere is one of slowly rising tension. We are beginning to see evidence that the Cubans are having their headaches over mobilization and logistic problems. They are also getting worried about the possibility of civil disturbances.”
This was an international problem, too. Nuclear war between two superpowers would affect the globe. “There seems to be something of a ground swell of uneasiness developing, notably in Europe, over the possibility that the Soviets will take retaliatory action.”
“Photographs taken yesterday indicate there has been no slackening in the pace of construction work at the missile sites. They also show what looks like missile check-out operations in progress at two San Cristobal MRBM sites.”
“Photography has also turned up a launcher for the ‘Frog’ missile. This is a short-range (50,000 yards) tactical unguided rocket similar to our Honest John. It can carry either a nuclear or conventional warhead.”
“The Soviet propaganda line continues to be that the USSR is taking a calm and reasonable approach to the problem while the U.S. is in a state of ‘war hysteria.’”
In the middle of the night, Moscow and Washington settled the crisis. The U.S. would withdraw its missile batteries from southern Italy and Turkey and the USSR would remove all its missiles from Cuba.
The daily brief from the day shows just how close the two countries came to war.
“On the basis of aerial photographs … we estimate that all 24 MRBM missiles launchers are now fully operational,” the agency wrote. “Camouflage against aerial photography is becoming more effective. Automatic anti-aircraft weapons have also been deployed around many of the missile sites in the past few days.”
“Bloc propaganda this morning began changing gears from praising Khrushchev’s proposals for a settlement to sharp attacks on our turning them down.”
According to the agency’s spies, citizens of Warsaw Pact nations were growing frightened. “In Eastern Europe, scattered instances of scare buying, hoarding and black marketeering are symptomatic of an underlying apprehensiveness over the way things are going.”
No one wanted a nuclear war.
It would take time for the missiles to leave Cuba and for tensions to recede, but the day after the 28th looked pretty good to the agency.
“We see Khrushchev’s Cuban missile adventure as a major setback for him personally,” the CIA explained. “The decision to put the missiles in Cuba, as well as the decision to pull them out, was almost certainly his alone. We did not, however, see any signs of high-level opposition to the missile deployment, as we have in the case of some of Khrushchev’s other pet schemes.”
“There are no scapegoats for this one and he will be blamed by just about everyone. Many whom he has bullied are secretly pleased. The top leadership put in a mass appearance at a theater performance last night, we suspect, to show their ranks undivided.”
The CIA wasn’t wrong. Just two years later, the Soviet leadership would suggest, strongly, that Khrushchev step down. He did so without a fight.
“We do not believe the Soviets will attempt to delay implementation of their promise to dismantle the missiles sites … In initial responses Bloc media are claiming that Khrushchev’s latest ‘blow for freedom’ proves the USSR’s peaceful intentions. The attempt is to salvage some prestige from the shambles by showing that the move averted unilateral U.S. action.”