In August of 1962, CIA Director John McCone received reports that ships from the Soviet Union were at Cuban ports unloading large numbers of Soviet soldiers and technicians, as well as camouflaged cargo shaped like missiles. Those missile shapes were soon identified as SA-2 surface-to-air defensive missiles, and it was assumed the Soviets were installing them as part of a defensive build-up against a possible U.S. invasion.

Certainly, the Soviets had reason to worry about an invasion of their number-one client state in the Caribbean, because there actually were multiple U.S. plans to invade Cuba and overthrow its Communist dictator, Fidel Castro. Earlier in the summer an amphibious invasion exercise, code named “Ortsac” (“Castro” spelled backwards), was conducted involving 7,500 U.S. Marines.

McCone disagreed that the SA-2s were being installed to repel a U.S. invasion. He believed they were there for reasons far more dangerous.

McCone knew the Soviets were concerned that the United States had a large and growing lead over the Soviets in terms of nuclear weapons capability, so McCone was convinced that the Soviets were also shipping to Cuba SA-4 and SA-5 medium-range offensive missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads as a way to close the gap between the two nation’s nuclear capabilities. Since SA-4s and SA-5s had a range of 630 miles and 1,100 miles respectively, and since Cuba was just 90 miles from America’s southern coast, several U.S. cities were in the missiles’ range, including Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, and the seat of the U.S. government, Washington, D.C.

Meaning, McCone believed, the SA-2s were actually being installed to prevent the Americans from discovering the SA-4 and SA-5 nuclear-armed missiles. Since America’s high-flying U-2 surveillance planes regularly flew over Cuba photographing ground activity, there was a risk that the installation of the offensive-missile sites would be discovered, so the SA-2s were installed to discourage such flights, or even shoot the U-2s down.

McCone was virtually alone in this assessment. Both Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that the historically cautious Soviets would never do something that provocative. Besides, Rusk argued, never in its history had the Soviets put nuclear weapons on foreign soil, not even in Eastern Europe, which in 1962 was far more of a Cold War trouble spot than Cuba.

And then last week (Oct. 14) in 1962, after weeks of cloud cover, the skies cleared over Cuba and a U-2 plane managed to photograph what would be conclusive proof that McCone was right. Medium-range SA-4 and SA-5 missiles, armed with nuclear warheads, were stationed in Cuba.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has ever come to nuclear destruction, was about to begin.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is @BruceKauffmann

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