Ace in the Hole: Why the United States Did Not Use Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War, 1945 to 1965

By Timothy J. Botti | Go to book overview

19
TWO BLUFFS

He chickened out again. How in the hell do you get men to risk their lives when the SAMs are not attacked?

-- Curtis E. LeMay, October 27, 19621

By the morning of October 23, 1962, the extent of the missile threat in Cuba was largely known. The CIA reported that photo reconnaissance results from October 20 through 22 showed nine missile sites, of which six were MRBMs (four near San Cristobal, two near Sagua La Grande) and three IRBMs (two at Guanajay, one at Remedios). Four of the six MRBM sites were now fully operational, and 33 medium-range missiles had actually been spotted. However, none of the IRBMs would be operational even on an emergency basis before mid-November and no intermediate-range missiles had yet been identified. The same ambiguity applied to nuclear warheads. Storage buildings were under construction at several sites, but no actual warheads had been confirmed. Still, nineteen Soviet ships were on the high seas carrying at least 20 more IL-28 bombers to supplement the 30 already in Cuba. One other ship, the Poltava, was hauling crates that might contain more missiles. If a suspected fourth IRBM site was discovered--the Soviets always grouped two missile sites to form a missile regiment--and all the launchers ultimately became operational with two missiles for each launcher, the Soviets would have a force of 48 MRBMs and 32 IRBMs targeted on the United States.2

To make matters worse, McCone reported at the 10:00 a.m. ExCom meeting that three missiles previously spotted had disappeared. The President authorized six low-level reconnaissance flights to supplement high-altitude U-2 pictures and approved contingency plans by the JCS that if a U-2 plane was shot down by SAMs, the military could attack the SAM sites involved, but only after receiving his express order. As for Soviet planes flying into Cuba, McNamara told the President some might be carrying nuclear weapons, but he was not yet ready to recommend air interception. Preparations for an all-out air strike and

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