The Charlotte News

Wednesday, October 20, 1937


Site Ed. Note: Present at the historic 505th meeting of the National Security Council on Saturday, October 20, 1962 were the following: President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, C.I.A. Director John McCone, Dean Rusk, George Ball, Robert McNamara, General Maxwell Taylor, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson, Douglas Dillon, Ambassador-at-Large Llewellyn E. Thompson, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy, Special Counsel to the President (and speech writer) Ted Sorensen, Special Assistant to the President Kenneth O'Donnell, C.I.A. photo-analysts and advisors Ray Cline and Arthur Lundahl, Mr. Chamberlain, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ross Gilpatric, Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs Paul Nitze, Director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness Edward A. McDermott, Deputy Under Secretary for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson, Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs Edwin Martin, and Executive Secretary to the National Security Council Bromley Smith.

This group thus would form the final brain trust by which the President would make his final fateful decision to impose initially a blockade on Cuba rather than initiate an air strike as a first step.

The decision would save the United States and the rest of the world from nuclear nightmare, as later history would demonstrate.

The fact that the decision was made finally one day after the 25th anniversary of the death of Lord Ernest Rutherford, who first conceptualized the atom as a series of negatively charged particles orbiting a central nucleus comprised of neutral and positively charged particles, as the Cash editorial of this date duly noted, is one of those things which finds an explanation, if there is one, in the mystical order of things, probably, the inherent notion of self-preservation present in all living things.

At the meeting this day, it would become plain that the air strike option was now both at once more appealing to the Joint Chiefs, because of the report that 16 of the missiles were operational, and also, for the same reason, excessively problematic, in terms of risk of general war, to the rest of EXCOMM.

The danger of blockade of course remained: would the Soviets view it as an act of war, then providing them their justification for the firing of the operational weapons as a first strike?

The meeting began with the CIA assessment of the new photographic evidence followed by an assessment of the blockade option by Robert McNamara.

McNamara indicated that, if this option were pursued, the United States would need to stand ready to negotiate the removal of its missiles in Turkey and Italy, as well as agreeing to a limitation on the use of Guantanamo, in exchange for removal of the missiles in Cuba. (Toward the end of the meeting, Adlai Stevenson would echo this quid pro quo idea and would counsel that they become the bargaining chips for the removal, and that the United States should initiate this trade offer.)

McNamara believed that it was too risky, now that the missiles were operational, to provide any warning that if the missiles were not removed, we would attack Cuba; any warning would need to be limited to threatened use of a retaliatory response against the Soviet Union if the missiles in Cuba were launched.

He also stressed that the intelligence estimate indicated that the Soviets would not attempt to run a blockade.

McNamara at this point, based on balancing of pros and cons of the blockade, favored the blockade as most compatible with our traditions, avoiding sneak attack, while recognizing still the difficulties of the slothfulness of this method.

The President warned, however, that more missiles would become operational during the blockade, making an air strike and invasion that much more difficult should the blockade fail at some point. General Taylor echoed this concern.

Taylor indicated that the Joint Chiefs recommended an air strike on Tuesday to remove the missiles; he did not believe the missiles would be launched, even if we used nuclear weapons on Cuba.

He believed the risk of use of the missiles against us in retaliation for an air strike was less than if they were permitted to remain. Moreover, in short order, the missiles would be camouflaged, making it difficult to impossible to locate them.

He also stated that a blockade would probably not prevent the shipment of warheads as they could be shipped by air and, as a practical matter in that event, could not easily be interdicted.

The air strike alternative was now supported by the Joint Chiefs, McGeorge Bundy, John McCone, and Douglas Dillon.

McNamara counseled against it on the ground that the air strike could at best knock out two-thirds of the missiles, leaving the other third to be launched in immediate retaliation for an air strike. (And, indeed, three decades later, Mr. Castro would tell Mr. McNamara in a tête-à-tête that he would have had both the authority and the inclination to use the operational missiles had an air strike been launched.)

After discussing the amount of warning to be provided in the event of air strike, with the President indicating that he believed seven hours to be sufficient, the President indicated that he only wanted an air strike to target the missiles, not the airplanes.

Robert Kennedy interjected that, to avoid the specter of Pearl Harbor and negative implications of sneak attack, the blockade followed by a limited air strike on the missile installations should the Soviets run the blockade, with full advance warning to Khrushchev of that contingency, was the most appealing strategy to follow.

Dillon added that 72 hours should intervene the blockade and an air strike, in the event that the Soviets did not agree then to removal of the missiles.

McCone echoed this recommendation and indicated that he now opposed an air strike as a first step, but that a blockade alone was insufficient.

General Taylor stressed that, despite a blockade, military force was inevitable, and in such event, after the blockade, and without the element of surprise, would be much more costly in terms of losses of personnel.

Secretary McNamara again, however, cautioned that air strike would lead to invasion, and, because thousands of Soviet soldiers would be killed, there would be a Soviet response somewhere; quickly the matter would get out of hand and lead to general war.

The President agreed that an air strike would lead to a major response by the Soviets, probably in Berlin, but that a blockade also might provoke a response, such as blockading Berlin. On balance, he leaned toward implementing the blockade the following day, Sunday, as an initial step, and then waiting until Monday or Tuesday to determine the Soviet response before ordering an air strike in the event the Soviets did not respond to the blockade.

He also indicated that if the Soviets raised the issue of a trade, we would need to stand ready to offer our obsolete missiles in Turkey and Italy, and possibly in Greece as well, as suggested by Dean Rusk. He also later added that we should contact both countries to stand down their use of these missiles even if attacked by the Soviets in retaliation, as obviously such use would lead to counter-use. We would not, however, employ as a means of barter, the surrender of any rights to Guantanamo.

Dean Rusk suggested waiting until Monday to implement the blockade to enable time to notify in advance our allies of our intention.

The President indicated that an air strike against only the missile installations would be prepared to be implemented on Tuesday or Wednesday, with or without warning, after the implementation of the blockade, if there were no response to the blockade by the Soviets.

Stevenson again stressed that we should initiate a proposal on the trade of the missiles in Turkey and Italy, but this idea was again rejected. We would wait until some later point, if and only if the Soviets raised the idea, to engage in such a trade.

There was also discussion of the inevitable criticism which would follow for having allowed the build-up of the missiles. Ray Cline of the C.I.A. had stated at the outset of the meeting that C.I.A. had not conducted any U-2 surveillance between August 29 and October 14 because of weather problems and to avoid activating the surface to air missiles in Cuba. (This account, however, flies in the face of an account provided by Special Assistant to the Director of Defense Intelligence and photographic analyst John Hughes, who first spotted the MRBM installations in the October 14 reconnaissance photos the following day on Monday. His account indicates that the President had expressly halted the U-2 surveillance on October 5 over concern of activating the SAM sites which had been detected by the U-2 surveillance, and then turned the U-2 surveillance over to the Navy and SAC, leading then to the October 14 flight by SAC, under the direction of General LeMay. The memorandum of this day’s meeting was prepared contemporaneously and the Hughes account was prepared many years later, and so it is likely that the memorandum contains the accurate account from C.I.A. directly; it is of little consequence as the earlier reconnaissance photographs which Hughes described turned up only SAM sites and increased presence of military personnel, which was known to the Administration in any event, whether from U-2 surveillance or from the ground spies cultivated by C.I.A.) Regardless, the decision was made to explain the build-up with the explanation that there was no knowledge of the introduction of offensive missiles into Cuba until the October 14 reconnaissance mission photos were analyzed on October 15, a completely true statement, and one not begging the question.

Again, however, what begs the question is how Senator Keating came by this information of the presence of MRBM’s in Cuba as early as his announcement of it in the Senate chamber on October 10, before either C.I.A., the Defense Department, or the President learned of it.

In any event, the President would address the nation on the crisis on Monday evening after asking the New York Times, whose James Reston got the story late Saturday, to hold until after the announcement of plans on Monday evening. The Times publisher, Orvil Dryfoos, agreed.

Step one, blockade, would soon be initiated, on Wednesday, October 24, at noon.

The Fayetteville Observer had made the point on October 20, 1862 that it was a far better thing to be a slave than to be half-free in the North, unable, as a poor, helpless, ignorant runaway from the comfortable homes and nice, gentle folk down south on the plantation, even to work among the Chicago slaughter and packing house men.

Well, on the particular point in question, we might all find some manner of agreement.

And for more on the piece, likely also by Cash, on Georges Braque’s ultimately prize winning opening at the Carnegie with "The Yellow Cloth", (sometimes confused with his 1960 painting, "The Yellow Tablecloth"), go here.

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