Initially, film makers never made any claim that what they were creating was nothing other than fiction. Lately, however, there is a growing trend to pass Hollywood’s fiction as history. As a card-carrying compassionate Liberal, Kevin Costner feels a strong attraction for starring in politically correct movies. When applied to history, however, political correctness is equivalent to the distortion of the past to justify the politics of the present; that is, lying. Thirteen Days, Costner’s film about the Cuban missile crisis, is a politically correct movie as full of lies as Robert Kennedy’s homonymous book in which the film is mostly based. The rest of the lies come from some recent studies about the crisis made by “serious” historians. Among the most flagrant lies depicted in the film are:
1. In some scenes, soldiers jump from trucks to ready intermediate range missiles.
Unless the Soviets had implemented affirmative action at the time and had enlisted some Africans as privates, one must assume that the soldiers manning the missiles in the film are Cuban. It is true that some Cuban troops had been authorized to work on the installation of the SAM bases. But, with the exception of Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, and Ché Guevara (none of which are black), the Cubans were strictly forbidden to access the strategic missile bases, or even come close to their perimeter guarded by seasoned Soviet special troops.
2. Kennedy and his close associates were surprised and shocked with the unexpected discovery of strategic Soviet missiles in Cuban soil.
It seems that their surprise was faked, because as early as August, 1962, the word was out in Washington that the Soviets were building missile launchers for weapons already in Cuba. Between August 31 and October 12, 1962, Senator Kenneth Keating made ten Senate speeches and fourteen public statements about the developments in Cuba. He was merely saying publicly what the American intelligence community, apparently his source of information, was muttering as loudly as they could.
Cuban refugees, leaving the island in drones, had been reporting sightings of Soviet army trucks carrying extremely long cigar-shaped objects covered by tarpaulins. Some of the refugees strongly suspected that the cigar-shaped objects they had seen riding on Soviet trucks on Cuban highways were not Siberian Cohibas for Castro. But, instead of paying attention to the growing concern, White House press secretary Pierre Salinger criticized the television networks for giving Keating the air time to express his concerns.
3. We were more close to the brink than ever before.
During the crisis President Kennedy ordered to defuse the nuclear warheads of the American missiles in Turkey, allegedly to avoid an accident. It was also reported that, even during the most dangerous moments of the crisis, Kennedy didn’t alert the civil defense or show any curiosity about learning how to use the secret codes to unleash a nuclear attack. Strange behavior indeed for the commander-in-chief of a country at the brink of a nuclear attack.
But one of the most striking things of the Cuban missile crisis is that the Soviets never placed their troops, nor the civilian defense, under alert. This astonishing fact is mentioned in most of the early accounts of the crisis. Recently declassified top secret CIA documents confirmed the fact. At 10:00 in the morning of Tuesday the 23rd of October, CIA Director John McCone reported a strange thing to the ExComm: no signs of a general alert of Soviet forces in Cuba or around the globe had been reported
A top secret CIA memo of October 25 clearly states that “We still see no signs of any crash procedure in measures to increase the readiness of Soviet armed forces.” A top secret memo of October 26 gives the first indications of a state of alert, but in some european satellite countries, not in the Soviet Union. As late as Friday, October 26, American intelligence reported from Cuba, from Moscow, and from the United Nations, that the Russians were not ready for war. It is only on October 27 that a top secret CIA memo clearly acknowledges that “No significant redeployment of Soviet ground, air or naval forces have been noted. However, there are continuing indications of increased readiness among some units.”
Surprisingly, even at that late date, the Soviets had made no attempt to mobilize their civil defense nor to prepare the population for the eventual use of fallout shelters. This was quite significant, because the Soviets had devoted considerable effort to instructing their civilian population in civil defense and had invested considerably in fallout shelters.
4. Now it can be told: we were even more close to the brink than most people may think.
During a three-day meeting that took place in Havana with the presence of Cuban, Soviet, and American scholars and officials, among them Robert S. McNamara, new declassified documents of the crisis from the different parties involved were made available to the scholars. It was during this meeting that a Soviet official, Army General Anatoly Gribkov, who allegedly was responsible for planning the operation in 1962, dropped a bombshell when he confirmed the presence of both strategic and tactical nuclear warheads on Cuban soil. Gribkov provided no evidence to support his claims.
However, notwithstanding Gribkov’s unsubstantiated claims, one has to be very naive to believe that the Soviet Union could commit nuclear suicide in defense of a small island lost in the Caribbean whose leader was an unstable, self proclaimed “Marxist.” That would have been a totally foolish decision. But Nikita Sergueyevich Khrushchev – a.k.a. the “Butcher of Budapest,” and the “Hangman of the Ukraine” – was anything but a fool.
5. The Soviets had deployed 32 nuclear warheads in Cuba in 1962.
The American intelligence never confirmed the presence of nuclear warheads on Cuban soil. They never found evidence of nuclear warheads in Cuba and Kennedy gave specific orders about not verifying the extraction of nuclear warheads by boarding and inspecting the Soviet ships leaving Cuba after the crisis.
Lately, perhaps enticed by juicy grants from American foundations, some of the ex-Soviets have engaged in a fierce competition to tell some Americans what they love to hear. In 1989 Gen. Volkogonov revealed that 20 nuclear warheads were in Cuba. In 1992, Gen, Gribkov raised the number of nuclear warheads in Cuba to 48. In 1996 Lt. Col. Anatoly Dukuchaev raised the ante to 162 nuclear warheads in Cuban soil in 1962. Like rabbits, the nuclear warheads in Cuba keep multiplying. If this fierce competition keeps heating up fueled by American money, one of these funny Russians may end up by claiming that there were more nuclear warheads in Cuba than the number the Soviets actually had at the time.
The main force behind this concerted effort in proving that nuclear warheads were in Cuba is Robert McNamara, whose main goal has been to find justifications for his absurd policies as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy administration. Recently McNamara found support for his theories from none other than his former executive action target, Fidel Castro, and from a group of Russians, among them, Sergei Mikoyan, an old KGB hand. But McNamara, Castro, and the ex-KGB operatives are very questionable sources of intelligence.
6. The Soviet officers in the field in Cuba had an open hand to use nuclear weapons without further authorization from Moscow.
According to Gribkov, General Pliyev, the Soviet military commander in Cuba, had been given authorization to fire nuclear devices against an American invasion force if he considered it necessary, without further authorization from the Kremlin.
However, it is very difficult to believe, as some American researchers and retired senior Soviet officers now claim, that Russian field officers in Cuba had been authorized to use tactical nuclear warheads without further authorization from Moscow. Such an action would have been tantamount to mass suicide, since a single nuclear warhead fired by Russian troops in Cuba would had been equivalent to a declaration of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. One has to be very naive, or have had as many vodka bottles as Gribkov, to believe that the Kremlin, whose zeal over the control of nuclear devices bordered paranoia, would have committed that act of sheer madness.
7. The plan was Khrushchev’s idea to protect Castro from an American invasion.
In his memoirs Khrushchev claims that the main reason for sending strategic missiles to Cuba was because Castro feared an American invasion. But it is very difficult to believe that Khrushchev planned to install missiles in Cuba to protect Castro just a few days after Khrushchev had tried to overthrow the Cuban leader by force. Actually, in April of 1962, after Castro discovered and neutralized the plot, he expelled from Cuba Soviet Ambassador Kudryatvsev (who also moonlighted as a senior GRU officer) and a group of his embassy thugs.
Moreover, simple logic dictates that no great power is going to give missiles to any newcomer who just asks for them. The USSR installed missiles where it wanted, and nowhere else. When Mao asked for missiles the Soviets turned him down flat. Neither before 1962, nor after, did the Soviets deploy nuclear warheads beyond their borders. It was not until many years later, only after they had developed reliable devices to control its arming, that the Soviets allowed a limited number of nuclear warheads to cross their borders, and always under strict control of KGB’s special troops. If the Soviets didn’t trust their own army, why, then, would they risk placing nuclear missiles so close to the unstable, trigger-happy Castro? If anything, what Khrushchev would have loved was having the Americans doing the dirty job he failed to accomplish, by invading Cuba and helping him getting rid of the unreliable Fidel Castro.
The Soviet commitment in Cuba had proved to be a calamitous failure. As seen from the Kremlin, Castro was unpredictable, volatile, undisciplined, and often nonsensical. His wholesale executions, mass arrests, and terrorist adventures against his Latin American neighbors, together with the sight of hundreds of thousands of Cubans attempting to flee his rule, raised the very Stalinist specter Khrushchev was trying to dispel. Moreover, Castro was making a shambles of the Cuban economy and neglected to pay attention to “suggestions” coming from Moscow
In such circumstances the sensible course for Khrushchev was to cut his losses and get out of the game, particularly considering that the Soviet lines of supply to Cuba were long and extremely vulnerable. But to leave Cuba voluntarily would have been tantamount to an admission of failure and would had involved substantial loss of face. If, however, Castro could be eliminated as a result of American “aggression,” then Khrushchev and the USSR could retreat from Cuba, their honor relatively untarnished. After an American invasion of the island the failure of Communism in Cuba could be blamed not on deficiencies in Soviet-style communist management of Cuban affairs, but on “Yankee Imperialism.”
8. The Soviet had deployed the missiles with cunning and stealth.
In shipping the missiles to Cuba, the USSR was accused of stealth and deception. This accusation of deceit runs throughout all official US statements. The evidence indicates, however, that Soviet stealth and deception were faked. The available record suggests that, in fact, the Russians went to great pains to let the Americans discover the missiles. There is evidence that the Soviets sped up their pace of work and camouflaged the missiles only after they were sure the Americans had discovered them.
The plan to set up the missiles was carried out in such a way that they would inevitably be discovered by the Americans. If one assumes that the anti-aircraft SAM’s were intended to protect the installations of the strategic missiles, then they should have been installed and ready to shoot the US planes before the strategic missiles arrived. Actually the SAM’s and other associated anti-aircraft nets only became operational when the construction of the strategic missile sites was well along, and the Soviets employed almost no camouflage at all to hide either set of weapons. In any case, since the SAM’s could not shoot down planes flying below 10,000 feet, these anti-aircraft missiles would not have been useful in the event of an American invasion.
Both the MRBM’s and the IRBM’s were above ground and located in soft terrain, very vulnerable to any type of enemy attack. Although a single installation of MRBM could be built in a matter of days, the Russians were progressing very slowly in their installation. They seemed to be in no great hurry, and worked only during daylight hours.
The Cubans were concerned about the role of the American intelligence surveillance, but the Russians dismissed their concern and gave the matter no importance. The Cuban intelligence services were also aware that the CIA was interrogating Cuban refugees at the Opa Locka military base in Florida. The large number of refugees arriving in Miami was providing the CIA with a great deal of information. Castro proposed to stop the emigration flood by eliminating all available means of escape from the island, but the Soviets proposed to leave things unchanged. In that way, reasoned the Russians, the CIA would obtain a lot of contradictory information and soon stop relying on the credibility of the refugees. Many of the departing refugees had seen missiles, but, in most cases, these were just antiaircraft SAMs. To the Cubans’ dismay, the Soviets even suggested that, instead of trying to hide evidence of the missiles, it was better to let it be obvious. For the first time the Cuban personnel working at the antiaircraft missile sites were granted leaves.
The Cubans knew the quality of the American air surveillance technology. On several occasions Castro asked the Soviets to give him SAMs, and let his people operate them, but the Russians were reluctant. Although most of the Cubans assigned to the missile bases were engineering students from Havana University, the Soviets only allowed them to operate the radars.
By the beginning of August the Russians complained to the Cuban government about the lack of discipline and seditious demonstrations of the university students at the missile bases. Apparently the Cubans were frustrated by the Russians’ inaction in the face of overflying American U-2 planes. Fidel himself had to make an inspection visit to the bases in order to calm down the Cubans there. Apparently Fidel convinced everybody, with one important exception: Ché Guevara. Major Guevara said that he would only change his opinion if somebody convinced him that the American spy planes flying over Cuba were not jeopardizing the operation. But he finally opted to accept Fidel’s orders.
Contrary to the opinion of most American analysts, almost all SAM antiaircraft sites in western Cuba had reached operational status by the beginning of August, 1962. From that early date the Soviets could have fired on the American spy planes if they had wanted to.
On the morning of October 14, 1962, a U-2 entered Cuban air space and flew over the province of Pinar del Río. The Cubans watched the plane on the radar screens, appalled as the Russians did nothing. Later Castro complained bitterly about the Russian inaction. Why were the Soviets permitting the American planes to discover the missiles? It was at the Excomm meeting the morning of the 23rd of October that CIA Director John McCone reported that the Russians were beginning to camouflage the missile sites. Nobody could explain why they had waited so long to do so.
9. Finally, the CIA smelled a rat, Kennedy approved the U-2 flights, and Major Anderson photographed the missiles.
According to most American analysts, what initiated the crisis were the U-2 photographs of Soviet missile sites in Cuba on October 14, 1962. US leaders might have received information three weeks earlier if a U-2 had flown over the western part of Cuba in the last week of September. But, quite unexplainably, the U-2s were prevented from flying over that part of Cuba, precisely where intelligence reports indicated that the missiles were most likely to be.
On August, 1962, a U-2 returned with photographs of Russian SA-2 antiaircraft missiles being unloaded at Cuban docks. More U-2s came back with fresh pictures of more SA-2s. But President Kennedy insisted there was no evidence that the Russians were moving in offensive missiles that could threaten the United States.
Though all evidence pointed to the province of Pinar del Río in the western part of Cuba as the most likely location for missile sites, a very strange thing happened: after September 5 no U-2 flights were directed over that part of the island. It was not until October 14, that a U-2 plane, reportedly by chance, took the now famous photographs of the sites under construction. Yet, the word that there were Russian missile sites in Cuba was so widespread that even Time magazine ran an article on September 21 showing a map of Cuba clustered with Soviet ground-to-air missiles, mainly in the western part of the island, west and south of Havana.
In retrospect it is clear that both the Americans and the Russians were playing a subtle cat-and-mouse game, the Russians trying, by every means, to get the Americans to discover the missiles, and the Americans trying not to discover them.
10. An American invasion of Cuba would have brought nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The day after the Bay of Pigs invasion began, Khrushchev sent President Kennedy a message appealing to him to stop the aggression. The tone of the message, however, was not in accordance to the man who some months earlier had boasted with apocalyptic visions. “As for the USSR, there must be no mistake about our position. We will extend to the Cuban people and its government all the necessary aid for the repulse of the armed attack on Cuba. . . We are sincerely interested in the relaxation of international tensions, but if others go in for its aggravation, then we will answer then in full measure.” The fact is that when the invasion began Castro wired Russia for help or at least for open solidarity, but Khrushchev ignored him until the Cuban militia had definitely beaten the invaders.
Khrushchev’s “missile rattling” about Cuba was not the first case of such bluffings. He had before threatened with rockets over Suez, over the landings in Lebanon and Jordan, and over Berlin. Khrushchev also threatened Britain and France with long-range missiles at the time of the Suez crisis, but not before he was certain that the crisis was effectively over. When the Matsu-Quemoy crisis of the fall of 1958 erupted, Soviet support came in the form of two threatening letters from Khrushchev to Eisenhower. But Khrushchev’s guarantees and promises of help to Communist China were extended only after it had become clear that the United States was not going to intervene in the affair and the threat of war was gone. Therefore, it is safe to assume that, at most, an American invasion of Cuba would have brought a strong condemnation from the USSR delegate at the UN, and a barrage of threats in the Soviet press for internal consumption only, and nothing more.
11. After the crisis was over, Khrushchev and Kennedy signed a secret pact guaranteeing the non-invasion of Cuba.
In 1970 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, disturbed over the submarine base the Soviets were building in Cienfuegos, a port on the Southern coast of Cuba, hunted through the State Department’s files looking for the written agreement he was sure President Kennedy had signed with Khrushchev. He found, to his utter amazement, that there was none.
Moreover, if the agreement ever existed, it has the dubious honor of having being applied retroactively, because the American harassment of the anti-Castro Cubans in the US began just after the Bay of Pigs invasion, a year and a half before the Cuban missile crisis. If American presidents from Kennedy on have proved unwilling to get rid of Fidel Castro, it is not because a non-existent pact forbids them to do so, but because of some other secret reasons unknown to us.
12. General LeMay was a mad warmonger out of control.
General Curtiss LeMay, Air Force Chief, argued forcefully with the President that a military attack was essential. When the President questioned him about what the Soviet response might be, General LeMay assured him that there would be no reaction at all. Later the Kennedys and their buddies, as usual, made derogatory comments of General LeMay’s statements behind his back.
But LeMay was not a mad warmonger as he is depicted in the film, nor was he alone. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson made his arguments that an air attack and invasion represented the only American alternative to the US He added that the President of the United States had the responsibility for the security of the American people and of the whole world, that it was his duty to take the only action which could protect that security, and that this meant destroying the missiles in Cuba.
Shortly before his tv address to inform the nation of his decision to impose a blockade on the Soviet ships bound for Cuba, President Kennedy met with the members of the Cabinet and informed them of the crisis for the first time. Then, he met with leaders of Congress. According to Robert Kennedy, this was the President’s most difficult meeting. Many congressional leaders were sharp in their criticism. They complained that the President should take a more forceful action –a military attack or an invasion of Cuba–, and that the blockade was far too weak a response.
When Senators Richard Russell and William Fulbright were informed of the situation in Cuba and the presidential decision to blockade the island, they argued that a blockade could not be effective in the short time remaining before the missile sites became operational. In fact, if one assumed that the nuclear warheads were already in Cuba, as it was logical to suppose at the time, a blockade of the island seemed to be a foolhardy decision.
Dean Acheson, one of the most notable critics of President Kennedy’s decisions during the crisis, wrote later that, though the American strategy during the crisis was wrong, it succeeded in obtaining the withdrawal of the missiles simply by “dumb luck”. Acheson’s recommendation for decisive military action, namely an air strike over Cuba, was flatly rejected by Kennedy. And Acheson was not the only one with little praise for Kennedy’s decision-making abilities. General Douglas McArthur, though crediting Kennedy with political cunning, called the President “just dumb when it comes to decision making.”
13. On October 28, 1962, a missile battery under Soviet command shot down Maj. Rudolf Anderson’s U-2.
Not so fast Louie! According to Seymour Hersh, there is strong evidence that, on October 26, 1962, a Cuban army unit attacked and overran a Soviet-manned SAM base at Los Angeles, near Banes, in the Oriente province, killing many Soviets and seizing control of the site. This was the very base that later fired the SAMs which destroyed Anderson’s U-2. Hersh based his article on information partly drawn from an interview with former Department of Defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who was himself citing classified material from a post-crisis study of the event. The speculation is based on an intercepted transmission from the Soviet base at Los Angeles indicating heavy fighting and casualties. Adrián Montoro, former director of Radio Havana Cuba, and Juan Antonio Rodríguez Menier, a senior Cuban intelligence officer who defected in 1987 and is now living in the US, seem to confirm Ellsberg’s thesis.
Though both Castro and the Russians have categorically denied that the attack took place, Raymond L. Garthoff, Special Assistant for Soviet bloc Political/Military Affairs in the State Department during the Kennedy administration, claims that, in fact, from October 28, the Cuban army did surround the Soviet missile bases for three days. It is evident that, whatever really happened, Castro was itching for a nuclear shoot-out between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Messages exchanged between Castro and Khrushchev on October 28, 1962, indicate that something very fishy happened that day. In his message the Soviet premier accused the Cuban leader of shooting down the American plane. Then, Khrushchev warned Castro that such steps “will be used by aggressors to their advantage, to further their aims.” In his answer to Khrushchev Castro explained that he had mobilized his antiaircraft batteries “to support the position of the Soviet forces.” Then, Castro added this cryptic remark: “The Soviet Forces Command can give you further detail on what happened with the plane that was shot down.”
The Single Truth
The missiles we see in the movie are Hollywoodian contraptions made out of plywood covered by thin aluminum sheet. Well, perhaps not everything in the movie is wrong. There is the possibility that, like the missiles in Costner’s film, the Soviet strategic missiles in Cuba had been dummies.
The official story, advanced by the Kennedy administration, accepted at face value by most scholars of the Crisis and later popularized by the American mainstream media, is that, though rumors about the presence of strategic missiles in Cuba were widespread among Cuban exiles in Florida since mid-1962, the American intelligence community was never fooled by them. To American intelligence analysts, “only direct evidence, such as aerial photographs, could be convincing.” It was not until 14 October, however, that a U-2, authorized at last to fly over the Western part of Cuba, brought the first high-altitude photographs of what seemed to be Soviet strategic missile sites, in different stages of completion, deployed on Cuban soil.
Once the photographs were evaluated by experts at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), they were brought to President Kennedy who, after a little prompting by a photo-interpreter who attended the meeting (even with help and good will it is not easy to see the missiles in the photographs), accepted as a fact the NPIC’s conclusion that Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev had taken a fateful, aggressive step against the U.S. This meeting is considered by most scholars the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis.
Save for a few skeptics at the United Nations (a little more than a year before, Adlai Stevenson had shown the very same delegates “hard” photographic evidence of Cuban planes, allegedly piloted by Castro’s defectors, which had attacked positions on the island previous to the Bay of Pigs landing), most people, including the members of the American press, unquestionably accepted the U-2 photographs as evidence of Khrushchev’s treachery. The photographic “evidence,” however, was received abroad with mixed feelings.
Sherman Kent recorded in detail the story about how the U-2 photographs were brought to some American allies, and what their reactions were. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, for example, just spent a few seconds examining the photographs, and accepted the proof on belief. The Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, however, “expressed serious concern about the reception any strong Government statement in support of the U.S. decision would have in the absence of incontrovertible proof of the missile buildup.”
German Chancellor Adenauer accepted the photographic evidence, and apparently was impressed with it. General de Gaulle accepted President Kennedy’s word initially on faith, though later he inspected the photographs in great detail, and was impressed with the quality of them. However, when the photographs were shown to French journalists, one of them, André Fontaine, an important senior writer of Le Monde, strongly expressed his doubts. Only circumstantial evidence he received later, not the photographs themselves, made him change his opinion. Canada’s Prime Minister Diefenbaker questioned the credibility of the evidence of Soviet strategic missiles in Cuba.
According to Kent, notwithstanding some of the viewers’ past experience in looking at similar photographs, “All viewers, however, took on faith or on the say-so of the purveyors that the pictures were what they claimed to be: scenes from Cuba taken a few days past.” Nevertheless, beginning with Robert Kennedy’s classic analysis of the crisis, the acceptance of the U-2’s photographs as hard evidence of the presence of Soviet strategic missiles deployed on Cuban soil has rarely been contested.
In the case of the U-2 photographs, the NPIC photointerpreters correctly decoded the objects appearing in them as images of strategic missiles. But accepting the images of missiles as the ultimate proof of the presence of strategic missiles in Cuba was a big jump of their imagination, as well as a semantic mistake. A more truthful interpretation of the things whose images appeared in the U-2’s photographs would have been to call them “objects whose photographic image highly resemble Soviet strategic missiles.” But, like the man who mistook his wife for a hat, the photointerpreters at the NPIC confused the photographs of missiles with the actual missiles. Afterwards, like mesmerized children, the media and the scholarly community blindly followed the Pied Piper of photographic evidence. But, as in Magritte’s famous painting The Treachery of Images, a picture of a pipe is not a pipe, and a picture of a missile in not a missile.
With the advent of the new surveillance technologies pioneered with the U-2 plane and now extensively used by satellites, there has been a growing trend in the US intelligence community to rely more and more on imaging intelligence (imint) and less and less on agents in the field (humint). But, as any intelligence specialist can testify, photography alone, though a very useful surveillance component, should never be considered hard evidence. Photographs, at best, are just indicators pointing to a possibility which has to be physically confirmed by other means, preferably by trained, qualified agents working in the field.
Moreover, even disregarding the fact that photographs can be faked and doctored, nothing is so misleading as a photograph. According to the information available up to this moment, the photographic evidence of Soviet strategic missiles on Cuban soil was never confirmed by American agents working in the field. The missiles were never touched, smelled, weighed. Their metal, electronic components, and fuel were never tested; the radiation from their nuclear warheads was never recorded; their heat signature was never verified.
One of the golden rules of intelligence work is to treat with caution all information not independently corroborated or supported by reliable documentary or physical evidence. Yet, recently declassified Soviet documents, and questionable oral reports from Soviet officials who allegedly participated directly in the event, have lately been accepted as sufficient evidence of the presence of strategic missiles and their nuclear warheads in Cuba in 1962. But one can hardly accept as hard evidence non-corroborated, non-evaluated information coming from a former adversary who has yet to prove he has turned into a friend.
Despite all recent claims on the contrary, CIA reports at the time consistently denied the presence of nuclear warheads in Cuba. Also, American planes, flying low over the missile sites and the Soviets ships, never detected any of the radiation that would be expected from nuclear warheads. The technology to detect radiation existed at the time. In the 1960s the NEDS 900 series of radiation detectors had been developed and deployed in the Dardanelles as a way to monitor the presence of nuclear weapons aboard Soviet warships transiting the strait from the Black Sea.
Gen. William Y. Smith, who was a Major and an assistant to Gen. Maxwell Taylor in the White House at the time of the crisis, reported a very interesting detail. While reviewing message traffic from US intelligence sources on Soviet military activity, Gen. Smith found out a report that a US Navy ship had picked up suspicious levels of radioactivity emitted by a Soviet freighter, the Poltava. He suggested to Gen. Taylor that he ask Admiral Anderson if the emanations meant the ship was carrying nuclear warheads. At the next Joint Chief’s meeting, Taylor posed the question to Anderson, who replied, somewhat embarrased, that he had not seen the message. Later that morning, Anderson’s office informed Smith that the report had little significance, that Smith had misread it.
It makes sense to believe, therefore, that the Americans had the means to detect radiation from nuclear warheads leaving Cuba, without having to board the Soviet ships. But, again, no mention is made of this important fact in any of the declassified documents on the Cuban missile crisis. Also, Admiral Anderson’s behavior, as described by Gen. Smith, is strange, to say the least, because that report was extremely important.
Therefore, either the Americans detected no radiation from the Soviet ships, and they kept the fact secret, or they simply forgot that they had the means to check indirectly the presence of nuclear warheads. But there is a third possibility: that they never tried to detect the radiation from nuclear warheads in Cuba because they were pretty sure there were no nuclear devices in the island. As a matter of fact, this third possibility is the only one that fully explains President Kennedy’s strange behavior of not enforcing on the defeated Soviets the physical inspection of their outbound ships who allegedly were bringing the missiles and their nuclear warheads back to the Soviet Union.
The Soviets were masters of deception and disinformation, and maskivovka was an important part of the Soviet military tactic and strategic doctrine. Some western intelligence analysts suspected that, as late as 1960, not only most of the missiles parading in Red Square were dummies, but even some units of the newly created Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces were not getting real missiles. The Russians have a long tradition in the deception business. One must bear in mind that it was count Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkim who created the first Hollywood-style film sets.
February 21, 2001
Servando Gonzalez is a Cuban-born American writer. He was an officer in the Cuban army during the missile crisis. His upcoming book The Secret Fidel Castro: Deconstructing the Symbol will appear this Spring.
The CIA, functioning as a secret instrument of the U.S. government and the presidency, has long misused and abused history and continues to do so. I first became concerned about this historical distortion in 1957, when I was a young officer in the Clandestine Services of the CIA.
One night, after work, I was walking down Constitution Avenue with a fellow officer, who previously had been a reporter for United Press.
“How are they ever going to know,” he asked.
“Who? How is ‘who’ ever going to know what?” I asked.
“How are the American people ever going to know what the truth is? How are they going to know what the truth is about what we are doing and have done over the years?” he said. “We operate in secrecy, we deal in deception and disinformation, and then we burn our files. How will the historians ever be able to learn the complete truth about what we’ve done in these various operations, these operations that have had such a major impact on so many important events in history?”
I couldn’t answer him, then. And I can’t answer him now. I don’t know how the American people will ever really know the truth about the many things that the CIA has been involved in. Or how they will ever know the truth about the great historical events of our times. The government is continually writing and rewriting history — often with the CIA’s help — to suit its own purposes. Here is a current example.
Just last month in Moscow, there was a meeting, a very strange meeting. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara met with former Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko and a member of the Cuban Politburo. These three men, along with lesser former officials of their governments, has all been involved in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and they had gathered intheSoviet capital to discuss what has really occurred in that monumental crisis, which almost led to World War III.
Since I, too, had been personally involved in that crisis, I took some interest in the news reports coming out of Moscow concerning the doings of this rather odd gathering of former officials. Much to my surprise, I learned that Robert McNamara was saying that neither he nor the U.S. intelligence community realized there actually had been some 40,000 Soviet troops in Cuba in the autumn of 1962. The former defense chief of the Kennedy administration was also saying that he and the U.S. government did not realize that the few dozen medium and intermediate range missiles the Soviets had tried to sneak into Cuba were actually armed with nuclear warheads and ready to be fired at targets in the U.S.
Furthermore, he was claiming that the U.S. did not understand that this huge military build-up by the Soviets had been carried out to protect Cuba and to prevent the U.S. from attacking the island’s Communist regime. He added, for good measure, that he was surprised to learn from the talks in Moscow that the Soviets and Cubans thought the U.S. had plans to bring down the government of Fidel Castro through the use of force. According to McNamara, the entire Cuban missile crisis was a dangerous misunderstanding that came about because of the lack of communication among the governments involved in the near catastrophe.
Well, when I heard what McNamara and the band were playing in Moscow, I said to myself, “Either McNamara is getting a little dotty in his old age and doesn’t remember what really happened during the Cuban missile crisis — or there’s some other reason for this.” Well, it soon became apparent that McNamara was not senile. What, then, is the reason for these curious -and false — “admissions” in Moscow? The reason is that the United States and the Soviet Union have decided to become friends again, and Washington wants to set the stage for rapprochement with Castro’s Cuba.
It has evidently been decided by the powers that be in the U.S. to have a little meeting in Moscow and tell the world that we were all mixed up about Cuba and we didn’t know what was going on there in 1962, because we weren’t communicating well with the Soviets at the time. Thus, the American people would see how close to war we had come, how we should communicate more with the Soviets, and how they weren’t really very bad guys after all. For that matter neither were Fidel and his gang. Therefore, it would follow that we should in a few months from now get on with disarmament and whatever else is necessary to bring about the new internationalism that is forming between east and west. At the same time, we should begin rebuilding the bridge to Cuba, too.
But to create the proper atmosphere for the coming rapproachement with Moscow and, later, Cuba, it was necessary to scare the American public and the world into thinking that the crisis of October 1962 was worse than it really was. To do that, McNamara, Gromyko, et al. were playing a little game — their own distorted brand of historical revisionism. They were rewriting history to suit the present purposes of their governments.
Now, I thought, what if I were a reporter. Would I be able to see through this little charade that was going on in Moscow? Probably not. I began studying the “knowlegeable” syndicated colunmists. They were writing things like, “… My God, we never did understand what the Soviets were up to in Cuba. Yes, we better do something about this.” What McNamara and friends were saying in Moscow was now becoming fact. It’s becoming fact that we, the U.S. government, did not really know what was going on during the missile crisis. That is a lie.
If there was ever a time when the CIA in the United States intelligence community and the United States Armed Forces really cooperated and coordinated their efforts with each other, it was during the Cuban missile crisis. The Cuban missile crisis is probably one of the few examples — perhaps the only one — of when intelligence really worked the way it was supposed to work in a crisis situation.
I was there at the time, and I was deeply involved in this historical event. A colleague and friend of mine, Tack, my assistant at the time, and I were the original “crate-ologists”-which was an arcane little intelligence art that we had developed. We had learned through a variety of tricks of the trade, and some of our own making, to be able to distinguish what was in certain crates on Soviet merchant ships as they went into Cuba, into Indonesia into Egypt, Syria,and other places.We could tell if a crate contained a MIG-21,or an IL-28, or a SAM-2 missile.
We did this in such an amateurish way that we dared not tell anyone our methods. While the National Photographic and Interpretation Center employed 1,200 people in its office in downtown Washington, using state-of-the-art equipment to analyze aerial and satellite photography, Tack and I would sit in our office, feet up on the desk, using a beat-up old ruler to measure photos taken from U.S. submarines. I’d measure a crate on the deck of the Soviet freighter, say about three quarters of an inch in the photograph.
“Tack, do you think they could fit a Mig-21 in there?” He’d thumb through an old Air Force manual and say, “Mig-21, fuselage length 25 feet.” “Well?” “Take the tail off, and we can fit it in.” “Okay, let’s call it a Mig-21.”
We were pretty good at this. We had other aids to identification of course. We were able to learn when the Soviets were preparing shipments and from which ports they were sailing. We knew which personnel were involved, and the ships’ destinations. Thus we could alert the navy, which sometimes conducted overflights, sometimes tracked them with a submarine.
We had an attaché in Istanbul row out in the middle of the night with a Turk whom he’d hired, looking for three things in a Soviet freighter: its deck cargo, how high it was riding in the water, and its name.
By these and other sensitive we were able to learn, in the summer of 1962, that the Soviets were carrying out an unprecendented arms build-up in Cuba. While some of the other agencies, namely the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, did’nt agree with us, CIA director John McCone was able to get president John Kennedy to authorize more intelligence overflights. The overflights revealed that the Soviets were building
SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) launching sites to protect the build-up. Further overflights revealed the construction of launching sites for Soviet MRBMs (Medium Range Ballistic Missiles) capable of carrying nuclear warheads to most cities in the United States.
We know exactly how many there were. where they were, and that they had not yet been armed, because the warheads hadn’t arrived yet.
Thus McNamara is lying when he claims that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were armed and ready for launch against the United States. On the contrary, we were watching the ships which caried the warheads; American ships enforcing the blockade which President Kennedy had ordered boarded a Romanian ship (which we knew carried no arms), and the Russian ships bringing the nuclear warheads turned around in mid-ocean and went home.
It is also quite untrue that there were forty thousand Soviet troops in Cuba. We knew that there were only ten thousand of them, because we had developed a simple but effective way of counting them.
The Soviets had sent their troops over on passenger liners to disguise the military buildup. Some genius back in Moscow must have then said: “But these guys need to wear civilian clothes; let’s put sport shirts on them.” But someone at the department store said: We’ve only got two kinds.” So half the troops wore one kind, half of them the other. They weren’t very hard to spot.
Then, too, Soviet soldiers are a lot like our own. As soon as the first group got established, the colonel sent them out to paint some rocks white and then paint the name of the unit, 44th Field Artillery Battalion or whatever, on the rocks. All we had to do was take a picture of it from one of our U-2s. So it was easy to establish a Soviet troop strength of far below 40,000. Thus, McNamara is agreeing to a second lie.
The big lie, however, is that the Soviet Union came into Cuba to protect the Cubans. That was a secondary, or bonus, consideration. The primary reason for the build-up was that the Soviets at the time were so far behind us in nuclear strike capability that Khruschev figured he could make a quantum leap by suddenly putting in 48 missiles that could strike every city in America except Seattle, Washington.
Nor did we come as close to war as many think, because Khruschev knew he was caught. His missiles weren’t armed, and he hadn’t the troops to protect them. Kennedy knew this, so he was able to say: “take them out.” And Khruschev had to say yes.
I must admit that at the time I was a little concerned, and so was my buddy Tack. We were manning the war room around the clock, catching four hours of sleep and then going back on duty. My wife had the station wagon loaded with blankets and provisions, and Tack’s wife was standing by on alert. If either of them got a phone call with a certain word in it, they were to take our children and drive to my home town in the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania. We figured they’d be safe there: if you’ve ever seen the coal region with its strip mines you would think it had already been bombed and we were hoping the Soviets would look at it that way too.
Last month’s conference in Moscow is an example of how history is being rewritten. Any historian who relies on what he reads in the newspapers, on the statements from McNamara and the Russians and the Cubans will not be learning the truth. The CIA has manufactured history in a number of ways over the years not only through its propaganda and disinformation but through the cover stories it uses for their operations, and the cover-ups when an operation falls through Then there is “plausible deniability,” which protects the president.
All these techniques have one thing in common, and depend on one thing: secrecy. Secrecy is maintained not to keep the opposition – the CIA’s euphemistic term for the enemy — from knowing what’s going on, because the enemy usually does know. Secrecy exists to keep you, the American public, from knowing what is going on, because in many ways you are the real enemy.