Inside Story


Sherman Kent

It was 0737 in the morning of Sunday 14 October 1962 when Major Richard Heyser began the crossing of Cuba in his U-2. He flew almost due north-on a course some 60 miles to the west of Havana and passed over the northerly beaches six minutes later. In that brief timespan be took 928 pictures, which covered a swath 75 miles wide. The resolution of his best shots was a matter of three feet.

Once past the target, he headed for McCoy Air Force Base near Orlando, Florida. There the exposed film was transferred to special shipping containers, loaded into a courier aircraft, and flown with all deliberate speed to the Naval Photographic Interpretation Center at Suitland, Maryland. It was late in the day when the film arrived; from then on and through the night the Center developed the original negatives and began making duplicate positives-not the usual kind of photoprints on opaque paper, as we amateurs might think, but a special kind of print on clear acetate that the pro's could study over a light table.

The first of -these duplicates reached the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) just before 1000 on the morning of 15 October. By 1600 that afternoon the photointerpreters (PI's) were almost certain that they had identified large surface-to-surface missiles; in another hour or so they were sure enough for Arthur Lundahl, the Director of NPIC, to pass the word to CIA Headquarters. Headquarters, in turn, reached McGeorge Bundy about 2100 that evening. It was his decision to give the President a night's rest and the PI's a night's more labor before putting the earth-shaking evidence before his chief.

The President and his principal advisors were informed the next morning. This left the question of what to do-a matter which was resolved after five days of debate and deliberation in favor of a "strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba." Once the President reached this basic decision, he had a myriad of second-line but still important decisions to make. Just to touch on one-and incidentally the one that triggered the subject of this essay-consider that word "quarantine." The President used it to avoid the more provocative word "blockade," but no matter what he called it, the other man was free to take grave offense. Neither would go down easily with the USSR. In fact it was possible that the quarantine and its enforcement would lead to that well-known series of actions and reactions so often cited in intelligence papers as the unintentioned stairway to general conflict. Though the odds favoring this progress of events were small, they were by no means negligible. Even if events stopped a long way short of the cataclysm, there was still room for a thundering crisis, the outcome of which would depend in significant measure upon the way in which our allies, would respond-whether they would support us or back away.

During the seven days between the President's learning of the Soviet's emplacement of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba and his speech announcing it, a few score principal officers of the Executive Branch worked endlessly and in unpenetrated secrecy. Except for the President, the members of the so-called Ex Comm (the ad hoc executive committee of the NSC), and the top echelon of the intelligence community, few indeed of our fellow countrymen knew what was going on and why, and practically no one in the governments of our allies. Until the President was ready to act, the Russians must not know that we knew their secret, and, when we were ready to act, our allies should know our chosen course before our adversaries. It was to this end that-the Ex Comm drafted for the President's approval a time-table of consecutive actions which included the briefings of the chiefs of government of our principal allies.

At A hour of D day (a time which became 1900 EDST Monday 22 October) the President was to tell publicly what was wrong in Cuba and what the US government proposed to do about it. At about A minus 12, the British were to receive formal advance notice, about four hours later the French and the Germans, and later still the Canadians. Our ambassadors were to call upon the chiefs of government, deliver personal letters from the President and a copy of the speech to be delivered that night, and make whatever oral comment was appropriate. Each of them was also to have copies of the air photos and (for the presentations to the British, French, Germans, and Canadians) an intelligence officer from CIA headquarters to brief and answer questions as necessary.

Of our ambassadors to the UK, France, the Federal Republic, and Canada, only Mr. Bruce was at his post in London. Mr. Dowling was not in Bonn; he was in Georgia on compassionate leave. Mr. Bohlen, our ambassador-designate to Paris, was on his way on a boat in mid-Atlantic, and Mr. Butterworth, the ambassador-designate to Ottawa, was not to assume his functions until after the New Year.

In Mr. Dowling's case there was a remedy, a speedy termination of his leave; as for Mr. Bohlen and Mr. Butterworth, there was no remedy but that of finding worthy substitutes. For the group heading for Europe there was to be a presidential aircraft (Air Force One) which would transport Mr. Dowling, Mr. Acheson (the substitute for Mr. Bohlen), the documents, the pictures and ONE LINE DELETED the three CIA men to do the intelligence briefing. Chester Cooper, who had had a tour of duty in London, was to be with Mr. Bruce; R. Jack Smith (who was AD/CI at the time) was to go on to Bonn with Mr. Dowling; and I had the honor to be with Mr. Acheson. In place of the absent Mr. Butterworth, the President called from private life Mr. Livingston Merchant (who a few months earlier had resigned as our ambassador to Canada and left the Foreign Service). He and William -Tidwell, hi& CIA intelligence brief-er, made their separate ways to Ottawa.

There is some evidence that first planning in the Ex Comm did not envisage that the intelligence briefing of the chiefs of government would take place simultaneously with the ambassadors' presentations of the case. Rather the technical intelligence colloquy was to take place on a service-to-service basis soon after the principals had met. I mention this to indicate that the Ex Comm did consider the intelligence aspects of the multi-national maneuver and came to attach a high importance to it.

Whether the Ex Comm worried about the credibility of photographic evidence (it was the only solid evidence there was) I do not know, but I do know that a few very important officers of the Agency did. Accordingly, Cooper, Smith, Tidwell, and I were urged to pay particular attention to the way in which our audiences responded to the photographs and to record these reactions in our memos for the record. We were also urged to make these memos as full and detailed as other demands on our time would permit.


The Credibility of Photographic Evidence

As a source of information, overhead photography has always won high marks. From the nineteenth century, when daring men took cameras aloft in balloons, to our day with its more sophisticated approach, all who have worked at the intelligence calling or used its findings have recognized the extraordinary virtues of photographs taken from the air. The reception of the U-2's pictures of Cuba in 1962 was proof of more of the same.

Any viewer of an air photo is likely to bring with him some associative apparatus. For example, he has seen airfields from above and he can tell the difference between a picture of an airfield and one of a freight yard; he may even be able to tell a parked transport airplane from a puddle jumper. Some of the non-PI viewers of the Cuban pictures had had a fairly rich experience with, say, air photos of Soviet installations in East Germany and when they saw small aircraft known to be Soviet models on Santa Clara airfield in Cuba, they could tell the difference between the MIG-17's and the deltawing MIG-21's. When they saw a bit of the Cuban landscape marked off in the design of a perfect six-pointed star, they instantly recognized the unmistakable signature of the Soviet SAM-the second-generation surface-to-air missile. 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.

When it came to photos of less obvious things thin the aircraft and the SAM's all viewers but those indispensable middlemen, the photointerpreters, had to take virtually everything on faith. In the big glossy prints of the surface-to-surface missile sites, the privileged but nonetheless amateur viewer could discern a number of man-made objects-some looked like long cylindrical tanks, some like oil trucks. He could also see bits of equipment parked in or about what "appeared to be no more than the clearing of a field for a farm or the basement of a house." More than this even the witness who could tell one MIG from another could not possibly tell.

Of course, the PI could and did ABOUT TWENTY LINES DELETED as they became more confident that what they thought they might be seeing was indeed an all-but dead certainty, they were ready to take their judgment to their chief, Arthur Lundahl. When they convinced him and he convinced himself, and when he could answer President Kennedy's question "Are you sure that these are offensive missile sites?" with "Mr. President, I am as sure of this as a photointerpreter can be sure of anything . and when the President, reminded of the accuracy of past interpretations, accepted this one, that was it.

By their actions Mr. Macmillan and General de Gaulle underscored this fact. As Cooper noted, Macmillan "did not spend more than a few seconds on the photographs;" and except as Mr. Acheson urged him to have a look, General de Gaulle would)d not have given the photographs even the "few seconds." Their credibility was not at issue: what was was that of Ambassador Bruce and Mr. Acheson and especially that of the. man who had sent them, President Kennedy himself. Obviously this elite audience did not think that the President was playing games with them.

From what we know of the reaction of civil officials a notch or two below the chiefs of government, they were much the same as those of their masters. For much the same reasons Ormsby Gore (the British Ambassador in Washington), Lord Home, and Sir Burke Trend, Gaitskell, and Brown, and others in London, and Messrs. Green and Harkness in Ottawa accepted the photographs at face. We know nothing of the reactions of the officials in Paris and Bonn to whom de Gaulle and Adenauer confided.


How different the response of those who spoke for others. Mr. Zuluetta, the private secretary of Mr. Macmillan, according to Cooper's testimony, was worried about how a statement of the British government in support of the American decision would go down "without incontrovertible proof of the missile build-up." Next morning , the skeptical tone of the British press showed him to base been on the right track.


The Public Affairs officer in our embassy in Paris was worried about the French press and had very much in mind those snide sentences that Andre Fontaine- had written in Le Monde. Mr. Diefenbaker seemed to have been concerned about how proof of the missiles would be demonstrated to the "world."

How much beseeching the press did in its own behalf and how much n behalf of the "world," is another story. The press usually beseeches most eloquently when it senses good front-page copy, and there could be no doubt about the news appeal of this story.

The difference between what public relations men, asked in behalf of the press and what the press asked in behalf of its readership -- the difference between this and what it got, let alone what it gave, is of course well-nigh incalculable. In the first place, the very best prints of the most important installations in Cuba (those which chronicled the presence of the long-range surface-to-surface missiles) conveyed next to nothing in themselves. If you were to use a powerful reading glass you might be sure that you perceived some things common to your range of normal experience (the context might offer some passing difficulty, but only if you thought about it), but you would have no valid appreciation of their size, let alone their ominous function. Who, for example among the uninitiated, could have identified a thing resembling a big tent as the air-conditioned structure necessary for the complicated check-out of the missiles?

Such being the case, what do you think of the chances of the British subject who first got his information from his television set, a reporductive process which had robbed the original glossy prints of at least half their definition? Where do you rate the chances of the still less fortunate Frenchman? He was introduced to the Soviet secrets in Cuba via some half-tones in his morning paper. If you had made a half-tone from the original negative, the loss of definition would probably be as severe as that via TV. Still the Frenchman had no such luck. His was the opportunity to look at half-tones made from enlargements of 35 mm shots of the glossy prints. The amateur photographer who took the shots probably used a good camera with proper lens and film, but be took them in the natural light that filtered through an embassy window, and he did not use a tripod. In these circumstances the man who saw the pictures in next morning's Figaro, even if he were the country's leading photointerpreter, might have had trouble telling whether the camera had-been pointed down at Cuba from a high-flying aircraft or pointed up a soundly-positioned proctoscope.

No one can ever know how many of the people whose acquaintance with the Cuban pictures was limited to television and press reproductions felt that they were being had. The one thing we do know is that if there wereany such people, there were not enough of them to cause the slightest political ripple. All over the world the great majority of people who knew and cared about such things must have looked at the appallingly deficient copies of the original pictures and concluded that their chiefs of government had acted on the basis of incontrovert ible evidence. Those who disagreed with the course of action which the US had adopted, did so because of the risks which it involved, not because they did not believe the story that the pictures told.

Of the millions of people of many nations who saw the pictures that fourth week of October, only a handful, and these were PI's, knew exactly what it was that they were looking at. It was their testimony which convinced the high officers of their government, and from there on out the credibility of the photo evidence was established. What happened in October of 1962 had happened many times before and has happened many times since. To paraphrase once again a famous remark-never have so many taken so much on the say-so of so few.