The Cuban Missile Crisis
How Well Did the Joint Chiefs of Staff Work?
Walter S. Poole
Historical Office, Joint Chiefs of Staff
My paper is based largely upon a source that no longer exists. Until the early 1970s, verbatim transcripts were made of all meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the aftermath of Watergate, that practice stopped and all such records were burned-but not before I was given a chance to read the transcripts concerning the missile crisis and to take fairly extensive notes. So I am now the sole authority on this subject.
I want to start by discussing a question that recently has spurred a fair amount of debate: Before U-2s discovered the missile sites in mid-October, was the Kennedy administration considering military action against Cuba? I will begin with a paper sent to the JCS on 19 September 1962 by the Joint Strategic Survey Council, a body that consisted of three two-star officers. The Council recommended that Cuba be blockaded. At that time, U-2 photos had revealed only surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and torpedo boats with surface-to-surface missiles (SSM). If any offensive weapons were detected, the Council advocated carrying out an immediate invasion before the weapons could become operational. On 26 September, the JCS simply "noted" the Council's study. They decided, instead, that they would recommend at the appropriate time a basic decision "to supplant Castro-communism in Cuba as soon as possible." The Council promptly submitted a revised report stating that only an invasion could accomplish that end.
On 1 October, the day General Maxwell Taylor became Chairman and General Earle Wheeler became Army Chief of Staff, Secretary Robert McNamara and the JCS launched a review of contingency plans for Cuba. These were: OPLAN 312, which covered air attacks alone; OPLAN 314, which dealt with a large-scale invasion after 18 days of preparation; and OPLAN 316, a quick-reaction version of OPLAN 314, featuring an air assault after only five days of preparation and an amphibious landing three days later. During the afternoon of 15 October, just as photo analysts were finding the crucial evidence of medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) sites, McNamara and the Chiefs held another planning review. McNamara began the meeting by saying that President Kennedy wanted to avoid military action within the next three months. He and the Chiefs discussed but did not resolve whether landings should take place near Havana, where defenses were strongest, or near the eastern end of Cuba, which would mean a three-week delay in capturing Havana. Only hours later, they learned what the U-2s had found.
Next day, 16 October, the first crisis meetings took place. The JCS met at 1000. Admiral George W. Anderson was the Chief of Naval Operations and General David M. Shoup was Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Seth McKee represented General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, who did not return from a European trip until 18 October. They quickly agreed upon a preliminary recommendation: First, acquire more intelligence about the number and location of MRBMs. Then launch a surprise air attack against missile sites, airfields, SAMs, torpedo boats, and tank parks. Reinforce the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, and make preparations for invasion. Two hours later, General Taylor presented this recommendation at a White House meeting. As to carrying out an invasion, though, Taylor said that he wanted to look "very closely before we get our feet in that deep mud in Cuba." President Kennedy asked how much time would have to be spent preparing for an invasion. Would it be one or two months? Taylor replied that if air strikes began on 21 October, five days hence, troops could start landing on 28 October-a total of only 12 days. The President's ignorance on such a basic point strongly suggests that he had not been considering military action until he saw photos of the MRBM sites.
During 16 and 17 October, the choice seemed to lie between an attack on all significant military targets in Cuba and a surgical strike against MRBMs alone. McNamara, at the outset, favored an immediate surgical strike against whatever MRBM sites had been located. The JCS countered that no action at all would be better than a surgical strike that would leave enemy air power unharmed. On the morning of 18 October, the Chiefs were shown photos indicating permanent facilities for intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM). General Taylor reacted by saying that invasion and occupation of these sites was the only answer. By this time, the Chiefs had settled upon the quick-reaction plan, OPLAN 316, although they lengthened from five days to seven the interval between beginning air attacks and launching an invasion. But McNamara, later that day, concluded that a blockade plus diplomatic initiatives should be the first step.
At a JCS meeting on the morning of 19 October, Taylor asked the Chiefs whether they were willing to advocate what he called an American Pearl Harbor-an air strike without warning to friends or foes. LeMay was, but Taylor and Anderson feared it would severely strain the Atlantic alliance. Reluctantly, LeMay agreed. The Chiefs all endorsed a surprise attack, after informing British and West German leaders two hours beforehand. The service Chiefs favored invasion; Taylor endorsed preparations alone at his point. Later that day, the Chiefs as a body held their only missile crisis meeting with the President. It lasted 45 minutes. Taylor said little, allowing the service Chiefs to show their personalities and inclinations. Not surprisingly, LeMay was the most outspoken in advocating prompt forceful action.
When President Kennedy convened the National Security Council (NSC) on 20 October to render a decision, General Taylor presented the JCS recommendation for attacking all offensive weapons and supporting defenses on 23 October. That, he said, would be the last day before some missile sites became operational. (Actually, photos would show that four MRBM sites became fully operational on the 22nd). Kennedy, of course, chose to begin with a quarantine of offensive weapons. Afterwards, back at the Pentagon, Taylor began his debrief by telling the service Chiefs, "This was not one of our better days." Taylor said he believed the decisive votes for quarantine had been cast by McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. (I wonder why Taylor named Stevenson, who clearly was the odd man out, and not Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Also, McNamara had suggested that a blockade and withdrawal negotiations might last two or three months; the President did not appear willing to let matters drag on nearly that long. There is testimony that Rusk cut a somewhat weak, reticent figure during the deliberations. So Taylor's appraisal might raise questions about his acuity in judging individuals) Taylor then went on to tell the Chiefs, "The President said to me, 'I know that you and your colleagues are unhappy with the decision, but I trust that you will support me. I assured him that, while we were against the decision, we would back him completely." I suspect Taylor was looking at LeMay when he said this.
I will cover only highlights of what happened during the next week. At a White House meeting on 21 October, General Walter Sweeney, Commanding General Tactical Air Command, supported by Taylor and McNamara, persuaded the President to drop the idea of a surgical strike on missile sites alone. But this seems to have been an administration where decisions were always open to reconsideration. On 26 October, McNamara asked the Chiefs to calculate requirements for several variations of a surgical strike, such as hitting only six missile sites plus the 11-28 bombers. The Chiefs, replying next day, repeated their unalterable opposition to anything except an attack upon all offensive weapons. This issue, it would appear, was never really settled.
Moving to the Anderson-McNamara confrontation on 24 October, there are two totally irreconcilable versions of what took place. According to Anderson, when McNamara, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, and two public affairs officials came to the Navy's Flag Plot command center, McNamara persisted in asking why a destroyer had left the quarantine line. Anderson took him to a secure area, explained that the destroyer was shadowing a submarine through use of intelligence for which the public affairs men were not cleared, and then said in what he thought was a jocular manner, "Why don't you go back to your quarters and let us handle this?" According to Gilpatric, McNamara asked what would happen if a Soviet ship refused to stop or resisted boarding. Anderson answered angrily, "This is none of your goddamn business. We've been doing this since the days of John Paul Jones, and if you'll go back to your quarters, Mr. Secretary, we'll handle this." Anyone who has interviewed Admiral Anderson knows how vehemently he rejected this account, particularly the part about John Paul Jones. It may even be that John Paul Jones was invoked during another set-to with McNamara three days later.
The grimmest day of the crisis was Saturday, 27 October. In the "tank" early that afternoon, the JCS and McNamara began drafting a recommendation about when to strike. McNamara asked, "Would you agree upon an attack at first light?" General Shoup would not. General Taylor suggested recommending an attack after a reasonable period of time; McNamara concurred. At 1403, conferees learned that a U-2 was 30-40 minutes overdue. Taylor and McNamara then left for a White House meeting. The service Chiefs, who remained at the Pentagon, quickly approved a memorandum recommending that, unless there was irrefutable evidence that offensive weapons were being dismantled, air strikes should be carried out no later than Monday morning, 29 October; an invasion should follow seven days later. That paper was sent immediately to the White House, where General Taylor read it to members of the NSC Executive Committee.
At 1800, the JCS received definite word that the U-2 had been downed and its pilot killed. General Taylor, back from the White House, asked the service Chiefs whether they favored taking out a SAM site. Four days earlier, the President had approved a contingency plan stating that the probable response would be retaliation against the SAM site involved. Now, however, LeMay and Wheeler opposed doing so. Gentlemen, said General Taylor, if retaliation was wise on the 23rd it should be just as wise on the 27th. His colleagues disagreed, on grounds that (1) SAMs were in clusters, making an attack against a single site impracticable, and (2) the dangers of nuclear retaliation made a single strike seem like a poor risk. The outcome was cancellation of U-2 flights next day: only low-level missions were to be flown.
There is a story that LeMay had a retaliatory strike ready to go, but it was cancelled at the last minute. Nothing in the JCS transcript supports this. LeMay's first reaction was to recommend running low-level reconnaissance flights, instructing the pilots to abort if they encountered opposition. When I read the transcript, in fact, I was surprised at how quickly the Chiefs seemed to opt for caution and delay. In good part, I presume, this flowed from their opposition to piecemeal attacks.
Finally, the possibility of trading missiles in Cuba for Jupiter IRBMs in Turkey was becoming quite real. Back at the NSC meeting on 20 October, Kennedy had said that he was willing to withdraw the Jupiters at a later time. On Saturday morning, 27 October, Khrushchev formally proposed a Cuba-Turkey trade. Early that afternoon, McNamara asked the Joint Staff to prepare plans for (1) putting a Polaris ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) off Turkey's coast prior to an attack on Cuba and (2) dealing with a Soviet retaliatory attack that knocked out the Jupiters. That evening, McNamara's office of International Security Affairs prepared and he approved a draft letter from Kennedy to the president of Turkey proposing that warheads be removed from the Jupiters prior to an attack on Cuba; Polaris submarines could be deployed in the eastern Mediterranean to cover targets currently assigned to the Jupiters. This draft letter is in the Chairman's file but, in 1975, Taylor told me that he knew nothing about it. Interestingly, when Taylor debriefed the service Chiefs at 1830 hours, 27 October, about the latest White House meeting, he said that the President had been seized with the idea of a Cuba-Turkey trade but added that the President seemed to be the only one in favor of it. A few hours later, though, Robert Kennedy gave Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin a 24-hour ultimatum about agreeing to remove missiles from Cuba. Kennedy told Dobrynin he was sure the Jupiters then could be removed in four or five months-which they were. So I believe, but cannot be certain, that the Chiefs were bypassed on this issue.
At 0930 on Sunday, while the JCS were discussing the day's reconnaissance plan, Moscow Radio broadcast Khrushchev's decision to remove the missiles in return for a no-invasion pledge. Anderson and LeMay were distinctly disappointed. They wanted to remove Castro, not just the missiles. During a JCS meeting about two weeks later, LeMay said he was convinced that air attacks alone would cause Castro's popular support to collapse and make the invasion a "walk-in." This leads to my final thought. Benjamin Bradlee in his book, Conversations With Kennedy, tells of hearing from the President, shortly after the crisis ended, "an explosion . . . about his forceful, positive lack of admiration for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, except for Maxwell Taylor, whom he calls 'absolutely first class'." Yet Kennedy had rejected Taylor's argument for an air strike rather than a blockade, and apparently left Taylor out of the loop in the critical part of the Cuba-Turkey dealing. Perhaps what Kennedy really appreciated was the fact that Taylor had kept the chafing service Chiefs in line. In 1963, during the Senate debate over ratification of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, Taylor would perform the same function. This Chairman seems to have been more a politician than he was a soldier.