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Cuban Missile Crisis: A Front Row Seat for the End of the World

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A Front Row Seat for the End of the World

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, I had a front row seat. I was Under Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and, as a consequence, a member of President John Kennedy's Executive Committee (ExComm) which dealt with our response. I believe I was the only one permitted to keep notes of the meetings, and have from time to time referred to them over the years. However, my recollections of our debates have been stimulated with the recent release of edited transcripts of the discussions.

When in midÐ'-October reconnaissance photos revealed that the Soviets were building missiles and bomber bases in Cuba, I was not surprised. Since July, there had been an increase in shipping from Soviet ports to Mariel in Cuba. On October 11, the French reported that their diplomats had seen trucks loaded with what appeared to be tarpaulinÐ'- covered missiles lumbering through Havana at night. I thought it probable that these were indeed offensive missiles, despite Soviet pledges that they would never put bases in Cuba and only defensive weapons. My thought at the time was that whatever Moscow was up to in Cuba was somehow connected with the lingering crisis over Berlin which had begun the previous August when the East Germans began to construct a wall sealing off the eastern sector. I believed that Khrushchev, recognizing that the importance of the city to the West made the risk of war high, was lying low on that crisis while creating a new one in Cuba with the intent of trading one off against the other, perhaps gaining leverage for concessions. But there were other reasons that the possibility of missiles in Cuba was not farÐ'-fetched.

During the Berlin crisis, most of our contingency planning for military options had been based on estimates of impressive Soviet conventional and nuclear capabilities. For that reason, we had thought the possibility of escalation into a nuclear war was likely, and the Soviets could hit us very hard. However since then, the double agent Penkovskiy had confirmed what our own intelligence had been suggesting: that Soviet nuclear capabilities had been overestimated, and that we held the advantageÐ'--evidently one of the reasons why Moscow was putting intermediate and medium range missiles in Cuba. I viewed the existence of the missiles as a serious threat. They could reach any number of targets in the United States in a short time and, since we had set up no southern early warning system, a surprise attack would put us in a difficult position.

As a result of the new intelligence on Soviet nuclear forces, and the fact that what was happening was in our backyard where we enjoyed a substantial advantage in conventional forces (unlike in Europe during the Berlin crisis), I was hawkish about what our response should be. I did not think the risk of war, while extremely serious, was as great as I had believed the year before. Like General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I thought we couldÐ'--and shouldÐ'--strike quickly and knock out the bases before they were operational, destroying the missiles and bombers while they were



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