Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis

Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis

Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis

Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis


In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, questions persisted about how the potential cataclysm had been allowed to develop. A subsequent congressional investigation focused on what came to be known as the "photo gap": five weeks during which intelligence-gathering flights over Cuba had been attenuated.

In Blind over Cuba, David M. Barrett and Max Holland challenge the popular perception of the Kennedy administration's handling of the Soviet Union's surreptitious deployment of missiles in the Western Hemisphere. Rather than epitomizing it as a masterpiece of crisis management by policy makers and the administration, Barrett and Holland make the case that the affair was, in fact, a close call stemming directly from decisions made in a climate of deep distrust between key administration officials and the intelligence community.

Because of White House and State Department fears of "another U-2 incident" (the infamous 1960 Soviet downing of an American U-2 spy plane), the CIA was not permitted to send surveillance aircraft on prolonged flights over Cuban airspace for many weeks, from late August through early October. Events proved that this was precisely the time when the Soviets were secretly deploying missiles in Cuba. When Director of Central Intelligence John McCone forcefully pointed out that this decision had led to a dangerous void in intelligence collection, the president authorized one U-2 flight directly over western Cuba--thereby averting disaster, as the surveillance detected the Soviet missiles shortly before they became operational.

The Kennedy administration recognized that their failure to gather intelligence was politically explosive, and their subsequent efforts to influence the perception of events form the focus for this study. Using recently declassified documents, secondary materials, and interviews with several key participants, Barrett and Holland weave a story of intra-agency conflict, suspicion, and discord that undermined intelligence-gathering, adversely affected internal postmortems conducted after the crisis peaked, and resulted in keeping Congress and the public in the dark about what really happened.

Fifty years after the crisis that brought the superpowers to the brink, Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis offers a new chapter in our understanding of that pivotal event, the tensions inside the US government during the cold war, and the obstacles Congress faces when conducting an investigation of the executive branch.


Another book on the Cuban Missile Crisis? Yes and no. Other than outright wars, probably no US foreign policy crisis of the twentieth century has been the subject of more books than this crisis. So, as researchers and writers, our interest has not been in writing another general history of the event. Instead, we tell a heretofore mostly unknown story of intelligence and politics during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, both before and after the crisis. We believe there are at least five reasons that justify this endeavor.

Surprising as it might seem, some papers of the people and agencies that were crucially involved in the crisis are still being declassified. The slowness of this effort is regrettable and perhaps indefensible, seeing as how it occurred a half century ago, but such are the ways of the US government and the vagaries governing access to private papers. And a good rule of thumb is that until the paper trail is exhausted, the history of any event is subject to revision.

Second, scholars have mostly neglected the papers of members of the US Congress, some of whom predicted, weeks or months before the crisis, that the Soviet Union would deploy missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba. As formerly secret tape recordings made at the White House indicate, President Kennedy worried that Congress might investigate not only the performance of intelligence agencies during the lead-up to the crisis but also his own performance. His concerns were more than warranted. This book, drawing on papers of senators and representatives, documents the questions that were asked in the wake of the crisis, and the one investigation that was conducted, by a Senate subcommittee. It is not a gratifying story. The Kennedy administration repeatedly misled legislators who were groping to ask the right—and hard—questions.

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