You can practically hear the CIA analyst’s yawn as he jotted the latest news from Havana for President John F. Kennedy’s morning briefing on July 28, 1962. “Evidently the 26 July anniversary affair in Cuba was just about as dull as the May Day affair,” the CIA man declared. “Castro’s speech contained no surprises.”
Neither what was supposedly the best intelligence agency on the planet, nor the young president it served, had a clue that Cuba was about to get a lot more interesting for the Kennedy administration. In the Soviet Union, 85 ships were already loading up with bombers, missiles and atomic warheads that would turn Fidel Castro’s island overnight from an economically blighted Communist annoyance into a nuclear launch pad capable of wiping out any U.S. city between Dallas and Washington, D.C.
Before the Cuban Missile Crisis would end — peacefully, but just barely — three months later, Castro’s sock-puppet president, Osvaldo Dorticós, would predict, almost boastfully, that Cuba could “become the starting point of a new world war.”
That was not just Cuban machismo. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, during the crisis, threatened Kennedy that “we’ll all meet in hell,” while Kennedy brooded that “it is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.”
As we reach the 53rd anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis — the label is generally applied to the 13 days in 1962 from Oct. 16, when Kennedy received the first photographic proof of the missiles, to Oct. 28, when he struck a deal with Khrushchev for their removal — a trove of newly declassified CIA documents has shed new light on just how dangerous it really was.
The agency last month released 19,000 pages of the written intelligence briefings it delivered to the president each morning during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. They cover some of the hottest crises of the Cold War, from the standoff over the Berlin Wall to the Vietnam War, and perhaps a hundred or so deal with the missile crisis.
The CIA briefings, known first as the President’s Intelligence Checklist — abbreviated PICL, or “Pickle,” as the waggish spies who prepared it liked to say — and then later as the President’s Daily Brief, do not alter our fundamental understanding of the missile crisis.
Over the years, waves of Cold War memoirs, oral histories and declassification of official archives — both in Washington and Moscow — have made the missile crisis one of the best-documented chapters of the Cold War.
“Everything newly ‘declassified’ is already available from other sources,” said Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War and several other Cold War histories.
19,000 Pages of the presidents’ daily briefs the CIA declassified last month
But the briefings do provide both a broader context that explains how the missile crisis could creep up on an unaware Kennedy, and some specific details that hammer home how close the world really came to going up in a mushroom cloud.
“The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous time in modern history,” said Bart Bernstein, a Stanford University historian of the Cold War. “Not because Kennedy or Khrushchev, by will, would have used nuclear weapons. But because so many things went wrong. If you go back and look at it, the great shock is that none of them went more wrong and we didn’t wind up in a nuclear war.”
Terse to begin with, in some cases the briefings have been rendered nearly senseless by CIA censorship so drastic that it irritates even former intelligence officers who wanted to study the documents. (Though occasionally they reveal an unexpectedly puckish sense of humor in America’s spooks. One account of a 1967 riot in Beijing observes, deadpan, that “a mob kept the Polish ambassador in his car for 10 hours, causing him to ruin both his clothing and the upholstery.”)
They can also be misleading, especially in their early days, because the brief was a new tool, devised especially in 1961 for Kennedy, who wanted to get his morning intelligence report in a form something like a newspaper.
“The earliest ones you’re looking at, in those the Pickle was still a very experimental document,” said Brian Lattell, the former chief CIA analyst on Latin America and the author of Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, The CIA and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. “Later they become more sure-footed.”
But sifting through the Pickles also corrected some misimpressions of history. We tend to think of Cuba as a near-constant Kennedy obsession that produced not only the missile crisis but the Bay of Pigs, the Mafia assassination plots, the silly CIA dirty tricks like exploding sea shells and powders to make Castro’s beard fall out.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous time in modern history. Not because Kennedy or Khrushchev, by will, would have used nuclear weapons. But because so many things went wrong.
Bart Bernstein, Stanford University historian of the Cold War
That’s not entirely wrong. But as the briefs make clear, Kennedy had many foreign-policy fixations. Every day the briefs brimmed with what now seems like ephemera: A coup in Yemen. An arcane dispute over river-water rights between Chile and Bolivia. Public-relations fallout over a disaster-relief loan to the West German city of Hamburg.
These were not the CIA’s major concerns, but the president’s. “It reflects Kennedy’s interests,” said Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian and co-author, with Russian historian Aleksandr Fursenko, of One Hell of a Gamble: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “If he didn’t care about it, believe me, they would have stopped writing about it. This was a newspaper with one client.”
Before early 1962, Cuba was mentioned only sporadically and almost never as the lead item. Kennedy’s most pressing concerns, if the brief is any indication, were the tense 1961 standoff between Washington and Moscow over the Berlin Wall, and other Cold War brushfires that have since been largely forgotten, from a civil war in the Congo to the revolt of Algerian separatists against French rule. Even Vietnam, the foreign-policy issue that would come to define the 1960s, was a relatively minor consideration; until early 1963, Kennedy was much more concerned with containing a communist insurgency in Laos.
When the CIA did call Kennedy’s attention to Cuba, it almost always got things stupefyingly wrong. For instance, on May 21, 1962, the spy agency breezily told the president that Castro’s purge of old, traditional Communist Party members of his government was driving a wedge between Moscow and Havana: “We are seeing more and more signs that Castro's current moves against veteran Communists may lead to serious problems with the USSR.”
Actually, we now know from declassified Soviet documents that, just five days earlier, Khrushchev and his Politburo had just decided to send nuclear missiles to Cuba, to protect Castro from another American-backed invasion like the Bay of Pigs as well as to project Soviet military power into the Western Hemisphere for the first time.
A few days later, when a Soviet military delegation went to tell the surprised and deliriously happy Castro he’d be getting the missiles, the CIA saw only more signs of an escalating quarrel: “We suspect that Moscow has decided it was time for a searching review of the Soviet program in Cuba... Another sign of the USSR’s displeasure and intent to tighten its political and economic reins.”
For the next six weeks, as Cuba and the Soviet Union were already rolling down the road toward a nuclear confrontation with the United States, the CIA kept reading all the road signs backwards. On July 19, the agency assured Kennedy that the Soviets had just inflicted a lethal snub on Fidel’s brother Raúl, the head of the Cuban military.
“Raúl Castro is back in Havana after two weeks in Moscow, where we believe he was seeking more and better military equipment,” the agency reported. “The red carpet was out for him when he arrived in Moscow, but he left unheralded, a pretty good sign that the visit was unproductive.” Actually, Raúl was just working out the final logistical details of the delivery of the missiles, which would begin the next month.
There’s a very serious lesson tucked away inside all these intelligence pratfalls, said NYU historian Naftali: “It’s hard to get good spies.”
“We have this idea that the CIA is omniscient, all-knowing, all-seeing and ever-present,” he said. “It’s because we all lived through all these investigations in the 1970s and all the revelations of secret assassination weapons and bugged martini glasses and plot and subplots. The reality is, there have always been serious limits.
“It’s hard to get information about what people are thinking and doing. What the CIA is really good at is counting things from airplanes and satellites. It’s a lot harder to get inside people’s heads.”
And that’s exactly how the CIA finally caught up with events during the missile crisis, taking pictures from its U-2 spyplanes and then counting and measuring the objects in them. By mid-August 1962, the daily briefs were full of ominous commentary on how many Soviet cargo ships were docking in Cuba and the number of sites being constructed on the island that matched up with the design of conventional Soviet launch pads. And CIA sources among the island’s population were reporting lots of giant Soviet cargo trailers traveling the country’s narrow, winding roads, leaving a trail of wrecked mailboxes and toppled telephone poles in their wake. By early September, CIA Director John McCone, a lone pariah when he began arguing that the Soviets were installing intercontinental missiles in Cuba, had convinced Kennedy.
What the CIA is really good at is counting things from airplanes and satellites. It’s a lot harder to get inside people’s heads.
Timothy Naftali, New York University historian
But mischance and error plagued the U.S. effort to divert the missile crisis. The most persistent of them was alluded to in that same July 19 brief that dumbheadedly argued that the Soviets had rebuffed Raúl Castro in Moscow. In the very next paragraph, the CIA reported that militant Miami-based Cuban exile groups — many of them funded by the CIA itself — had obtained an old B-26 bomber and were planning to drop high explosives on Havana. “They have selected an oil refinery and an electric power plant as targets,” the brief noted without comment.
On July 19, the CIA still wasn’t aware that Castro was acquiring nuclear warheads or bombers and missiles capable of reaching American cities, so perhaps that’s why there was no suggestion that the exiles be warned to stand down.
But at least five more times over the next two and a half months — all of them after the CIA itself had concluded that Cuba was being armed with missiles — the daily brief would either report attacks by exile groups in gunboats and airplanes, or warn that attacks were planned.
After one such attack on Cuban naval boats, the daily brief even observed that “these incidents have given Havana the jitters. The [Cuban] army, as well as the navy, has been alerted.”
If the CIA spent time pondering the possible downside of lobbing bombs or artillery shells onto an island packed with Russian troops (40,000 had come along with the new weapons), nuclear weapons and itchy trigger fingers, there’s no sign of it in the briefs.
To be fair, a CIA warning might very well have fallen on deaf ears. As the missile crisis drew near, Kennedy continued to approve attacks staged as part of a CIA campaign of harassment against Castro codenamed Mongoose, including tossing a grenade at the Chinese embassy in Havana, an underwater bombing of Soviet-bloc ships and an ambush of three Russian anti-aircraft sites. “Any of those things could have ended with Soviet or Chinese personnel getting killed by an American operation while the missiles were pointed at the United States,” Naftali said.
In the end, there was only one military death: U.S. Air Force Maj. Rudolf Anderson, whose U-2 plane was shot down by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile at the height of the crisis on Oct. 27, five days after Kennedy had gone on television and demanded the Russians remove all its nuclear hardware and ordered a naval blockade to make sure no more arrived.
More quietly, the president offered a deal: He would remove U.S. missiles from Turkey and pledge never to invade Cuba again. On Oct. 28, Khrushchev agreed, and the crisis started to fade away. The side deals would not be revealed for years, and instead a myth arose: that Kennedy’s steely nerve had won a nuclear game of chicken, that Khrushchev and Castro had slunk away from confrontation with their communist tails between their legs.
The CIA’s daily brief on Oct. 29 predicted that both communist leaders would pay a heavy price for losing the battle of perceptions. “There are no scapegoats for this one and [Khrushchev] will be blamed by just about everyone,” the agency analysts wrote. “Many whom he has bullied are probably secretly pleased.” And, they added, “Castro faces a serious setback to his prestige. [He was] obviously not consulted beforehand on Khrushchev's exchanges with the President.”
That was one bit of CIA forecasting that was dead accurate. Two years later Khrushchev would be toppled in a bloodless coup by Soviet ministers who believed he had been a reckless fool to put missiles in the Western hemisphere. Castro, meanwhile, was so humiliated by the Soviets’ failure to give him a voice in the settlement that according to his doctor he nearly suffered a mental breakdown in the weeks afterward, the KGB said in a report that was declassified in the 1990s.
But once again, the CIA missed part of the picture. In Texas, a young American Marxist who once had hopes that Kennedy would end the Cold War was enraged by the way the president treated Castro during the missile crisis.
In November 1963, that man, Lee Harvey Oswald, would have a fateful encounter with Kennedy in Dallas. And perhaps the missile crisis claimed one last victim.