Sunday, October 14, 2012

Following the Cuban Missile Crisis - Day-By-Day

I am just finishing work on a my book on the Cuban Missile Crisis (The Fires of October) and I thought now would be a good time to start posting a reflection back on the crisis – day-by-day.  This is the 50th anniversary of the crisis, thirteen days that the world held its breath during. 

The missile crisis has an almost cult-like following by historians (if such a thing exists).  The reason is that there are so many different aspects to the crisis to explore.  There’s the crisis management and decision making processes that unfolded.  There’s the military build-up and the concept of an escalation to a global nuclear war.  The angle I’m writing about is the planned invasion of Cuba – OP Plan 316-62 which has been largely overlooked over the years.  Stepping into writing the Cold War is something that makes me cringe a little.  I’m not part of the ‘club’ yet with the historians who cover this subject.  I’m hoping they see some merit in the last three years of research I did on the topic. 

My reason for starting today, October 14, is that is the day that the crisis began to unfold.  A U2 surveillance flight by Major Richard Heyser over Cuba took photographs that would lead to the ignition of the crisis.  There had been previous flights, but his was the first that brought back tangible evidence of the strategic Soviet build-up on the island. 
Each day or so I will post up some other nice little tid-bits on the crisis.  Bookmark me and stay tuned.  


  1. On October 15 the photo analysis of the U2 flight was being done at NPIC (The National Photographic Interpretation Center). In 1962 no computer enhancements were feasible - this is painstaking work on miles worth of film looking for details.

    At the same time Operation Three Pairs was initiated. This is an amphibious exercise on an island off of Puerto Rico to topple a fictitious dictator called Ortsac (Castro spelled backwards). The forces assigned to Three Pairs would serve as the core of an invasion force sent to Cuba (if needed.) Unlike the portrayal in the movie Thirteen Days, this was a highly publicized operation that was well known by the Kennedy Administration.

  2. On October 16, President Kennedy had his advisors are shown the photos of the SAM (surface to air missiles) and MRM's (Medium Range Missiles) being installed in Cuba. At this stage no one is sure of the Soviet intent in putting strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba, nor do we fully know how many missiles or other installations may be being built (only a small portion of the island was photographed). The president forms Excomm, the executive committee of the National Security Committee to come up with courses of action and response to this new threat.

  3. October 17, 1962 was a day to begin formulating US options in regards to the missile threat in Cuba. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson suggests potentially trading the obsolete Jupiter Missiles in Turkey.
    Meanwhile the Joint Chiefs of Staff begin to dust off the contingency plans for airstrikes on Cuba (OP Plan 312) and a follow-on invasion of Cuba (at this stage two plans are considered - OP Plan 314-61 and OP Plan 316)

  4. On October 18, 1962 Excomm learns that the Soviets have not just MRM's in Cuba, but are constructing a launch site for Intermediate Range Missiles (IRM's). These can hit all of the continental United States sans Seattle.

    At the Excomm meetings the Joint Chiefs of Staff press for airstrikes and an invasion as the best means to ensure that the missiles are all destroyed. By the end of the day the focus shifts from strikes to a blockade of Cuba.

    Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko meets with President Kennedy. Kennedy does not tip his hand that he knows about the missiles but presses the Soviet minister to see if they are honoring their commitment to only provide defensive weapons in Cuba. Assurances from Gromyko are given in return, meaning that either he had no idea the missiles were in Cuba, or he was lying.

  5. On October 19, Excomm splits into two working groups – one for the blockade, one for the airstrike options. Slowly the members of Excomm seem to shift to seeing the blockade as being the most practical place to start. While it doesn’t directly remove the missiles, it provides time for a diplomatic solution.

  6. On October 20 the plan for a blockade, now renamed as quarantine, are refined and adopted. A blockade is technically an act of war. A quarantine sounds less aggressive.

    An intelligence report now estimates that sixteen of the MRM’s may be operational and able to launch in eight hour notice.

  7. On October 21 the President meets with General Sweeney of the Air Force who tells him that they can, at best, take out 60% of the missiles that might be on the island with air strikes. They can guarantee hitting 90% of the known missiles.

  8. The evening of October 22 the President addresses the nation on the crisis. US forces go to DEFCON 3, with the strategic forces going eventually to DEFCON 2 - one step away from a war footing. Orders for the quarantine (blockade) of Cuba are ordered. For the first time the public and the world are now aware of what is happening in Cuba.

  9. On 23 October the President sends his brother Robert F. Kennedy to meet with the Soviet Ambassador to express the need for the USSR to end the growing crisis.

    The US task force moves into position to seal off the naval access to Cuba.