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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cuban Missile Crisis: October 24, 1962

The Hollywood version:

From the Nuclear Files:
10:00A.M.: The ExComm meets to consider the situation in Cuba. According to Robert Kennedy 's memoirs on the crisis, the meeting "seemed the most trying, the most difficult, and the most filled with tension." Robert McNamara tells the group that Soviet ships approaching the quarantine line show no indications of stopping and that two Soviet ships, the Gagarin and the Komiles, are within a few miles of the line. Naval intelligence then reports that a Soviet submarine has moved into position between the two ships. McNamara states that the aircraft carrier USS Essex has been directed to make the first interception, and that antisubmarine tactics, including the use of small explosives, has been ordered to prevent the Soviet submarine from interfering with the blockade.
According to Robert Kennedy , the president asks, "Isn't there some way we can avoid our first exchange with a Russian submarine--almost anything but that?" McNamara replies, "No, there's too much danger to our ships...Our commanders have been instructed to avoid hostilities if at all possible, but this is what we must be prepared for, and this is what we must expect." At 10:25A.M., a new intelligence message arrives and John McCone announces: "We have a preliminary report which seems to indicate that some of the Russian ships have stopped dead in the water." Dean Rusk leans over to McGeorge Bundy and says, "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked." President Kennedy directs that no ship be intercepted for at least another hour while clarifying information is sought.
At the Council on Foreign Relations, James M. Lindsay offers an important qualification:
Rusk’s comment became the iconic line of the Cuban missile crisis. But it was misleading in a critical way. It implied that U.S. and Soviet ships were in close proximity if not actually steaming straight for each other. The men gathered around JFK on the morning of October 24 certainly thought that was the case; McCone even recorded a note later in the day that a U.S. Navy vessel had confronted a Soviet ship at virtually the same time he received the intelligence bulletin in the White House. The incident didn’t take place. In fact, the two closest Soviet ships were more than five hundred nautical miles from the quarantine line and headed back to the Soviet Union.
The crisis was far from over. Back to the Nuclear Files timeline:
9:24P.M.: The State Department receives a letter for President Kennedy from Premier Khrushchev . At 10:52P.M., the message is read to Kennedy. Khrushchev writes, "if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States." Khrushchev warns that the Soviet Union views the blockade as "an act of aggression" and that, as a consequence, he will not instruct Soviet ships bound for Cuba to observe the quarantine. 
At the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, SAC increases its alert posture to DEFCON 2 for the first time in history. Thomas Powers, the commander-in-chief of SAC, believed, as he later wrote, that while discreet preparations had been appropriate before, it was now "important for [the Soviets] to know of SAC's readiness." Consequently, Powers decides on his own authority to transmit uncoded messages to SAC commanders noting that SAC plans are well prepared and that the alert process was going smoothly. 
At the request of President Kennedy , the Defense Department drafts two separate plans to increase civil defense preparations during a possible military engagement with Cuba. The first outlines civil defense measures which could be taken in the vicinity of targets close to Cuba under attack with conventional weapons, while the second suggests measures which could be taken in response to possible nuclear attack within MRBM range.