Hunt for the Grozny


The news reaching the White House Situation Room was alarming. Five out of six medium-range missile sites in Cuba were "fully operational," according to the CIA. The sixth would "probably be fully operational" by Sunday. This meant that a large swathe of the southeastern United States was already within range of twenty 1-megaton nuclear warheads. Washington, and possibly New York, could be totally destroyed within ten minutes of the missiles lifting off from Cuba. In the event of a surprise Soviet attack, there would barely be time to evacuate the president from the White House.

Located in the basement of the West Wing, the Situation Room was a Kennedy innovation. JFK had been intensely frustrated by the lack of information available to him during the Bay of Pigs. Ham radio operators along the east coast heard about the disaster unfolding on the beach from intercepted radio transmissions hours before the commander in chief. He had to rely on unclassified telephone lines to find out what was going on at the CIA and the Pentagon. This must never happen again. He needed an information "nerve center" at the White House that would serve as "a war room for the Cold War."

The space used for the Situation Room had previously served as a bowling alley. The president's naval aide brought in Seabees to convert the area into a complex of four rooms that included a conference room, a file room, and a cramped watch center for the officers on duty. Communications circuits were installed in the West Wing, circumventing the need for hand-carried messages. There was a continuous clatter of teletypes outside the windowless conference room. The walls were covered with huge maps of Cuba and its sea approaches. Armed guards stood outside the door.

The maps apart, the conference room resembled a family den in a Washington suburb. It was decorated with functional Scandinavian-type furniture, including a flimsy-looking dining-room table and uncomfortable low-backed chairs, with recessed lighting and a couple of overhead spotlights. Kennedy described the warren of basement offices as "a pigpen." Nevertheless, the Situation Room fulfilled its purpose, providing him with a continuous stream of information that had traditionally been jealously guarded by semiautonomous government bureaucracies. The watch officers, who worked twenty-four-hour shifts followed by forty-eight hours off, all came from the CIA.

A wealth of information was flowing into the Situation Room by the time of the missile crisis. The president could listen to conversations between Navy Plot and the ships patrolling the quarantine line over single sideband radio. The White House received drop copies of the most important State Department and Pentagon telegrams. In addition to the news agency teletypes, there were also tickers for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which provided rush transcripts of Soviet government statements over Moscow Radio. Communications intercepts started arriving direct from the National Security Agency following complaints from Kennedy and McNamara about the delay in reporting the turnaround of Soviet ships.

Contrary to later myth, Kennedy refrained from issuing orders directly to the ships enforcing the blockade. Instead, he used the traditional chain of command, through the secretary of defense and chief of naval operations. Nevertheless, the fact that the White House could monitor military communications on a minute-by-minute basis had major implications for the Pentagon. The military chiefs feared that the very existence of the Situation Room would reduce their freedom of action--and they were correct. The relationship between the civilians and the military had undergone a profound change during the two decades since World War II. In the nuclear age, a political leader could no longer afford to trust his generals to make the right decision on their own, without close supervision.

From the Situation Room, duty officers kept track of the latest news from the blockade line. Plans were in place for a massive air attack against Cuba, followed by an invasion in approximately seven days. A tactical strike force of 576 warplanes, based at five different air bases, awaited the orders of the commander in chief. Five jet fighters were constantly in the air over Florida, ready to intercept Soviet war planes taking off from Cuba, while another 183 were on ground alert. Guantanamo was an armed garrison, guarded by 5,868 Marines. Another Marine division was on its way from the west coast, via the Panama Canal. More than 150,000 American troops had been mobilized for the ground invasion. The Navy had surrounded the island with three aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, and twenty-six destroyers, in addition to logistic support vessels.

But the Americans understood that the other side was ready as well. The CIA had reported that Cuban forces were being mobilized "at a rapid rate." All twenty-four Soviet SAM missile sites were now believed to be operational and therefore capable of shooting down high-flying U-2s. Low-level photography had provided the first concrete evidence of nuclear-capable FROG launchers on the island. Half a dozen Soviet cargo ships were still heading for the island--despite an assurance by Khrushchev to the United Nations that they would avoid the quarantine zone for the time being.

The Soviet ship closest to the barrier was called the Grozny.

After permitting the Vinnitsa and the Bucharest to sail through the quarantine line, the ExComm wanted to show it had the resolve to stop and board a Soviet ship. The best candidate for interception appeared to be the 8,000-ton Grozny. She had a suspicious-looking deck cargo and had hesitated in the mid-Atlantic following the imposition of the blockade before eventually resuming her course. This "peculiar" behavior suggested that the Kremlin was unsure what to do with the ship.

Precisely what the Grozny was transporting in her large cylindrical deck tanks was hotly debated within the Kennedy administration. McNamara had told the president on Thursday that the tanks "probably" contained fuel for Soviet missiles on Cuba. In fact, the consensus at the CIA was that the vessel had nothing to do with the missile business and was instead delivering ammonia for a nickel plant in eastern Cuba. CIA experts had made a careful analysis of the nickel factory at Nicaro, which was one of several installations in Cuba targeted for sabotage under Operation Mongoose. They had kept a close watch on the Grozny, which had made several previous journeys to Cuba, unloading ammonia at Nicaro.

The ExComm was more interested in the public relations advantages of "grabbing" the Grozny than debating the contents of her deck tanks. The turnaround earlier in the week of obvious missile carriers like the Kimovsk had left a shortage of Soviet vessels to board. As Bobby Kennedy complained, only half in jest, "there are damned few trains on the Long Island Railroad." By Saturday, McNamara had changed his mind about the Grozny, telling the ExComm that he no longer believed she was transporting "prohibited material." But he thought the ship should be stopped anyway. To permit the Grozny to sail through to Cuba without an inspection would be a sign of American weakness.

The Air Force had managed to locate the Grozny on Thursday one thousand miles from the blockade line. But the Navy had been unable to keep track of the tanker, and had again asked the Air Force for help. Five RB-47 reconnaissance planes belonging to the Strategic Air Command had methodically combed the ocean on Friday, replacing each other at three-hour intervals. That search produced no results, and another five planes were assigned to mission "Baby Bonnet" on Saturday. They belonged to the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, whose motto was "Videmus Omnia" ("We see everything").

Captain Joseph Carney took off from Kindley Field on Bermuda at dawn, and headed south toward the search area.


Three more reconnaissance planes were preparing to take off from Bermuda to join the search. The first RB-47 on the runway was piloted by Major William Britton, who had participated in the effort to locate the Grozny on Thursday. His crew included a copilot, a navigator, and an observer.

As Britton's plane moved down the short runway, heavy black smoke poured from its engines. The aircraft seemed to have trouble accelerating and did not become airborne until it reached a barrier at the end of the runway. Its left wing dropped sharply. Britton struggled to gain control of the aircraft, and succeeded in bringing his wings level. The plane cleared a low fence and a sparkling turquoise lagoon. On the opposite shore, the right wing dropped and grazed the side of a cliff. There was a loud explosion as the plane crashed to the ground, disintegrating on impact.

A subsequent investigation showed that the maintenancemen at Kindley had serviced the aircraft with the wrong kind of water-alcohol injection fluid. They were unfamiliar with the requirements of the reconnaissance planes, which normally flew out of Forbes Air Force Base in Kansas. The injection fluid was meant to give the engines extra thrust on takeoff, but the servicing actually reduced the thrust. The plane lacked sufficient power to get airborne.

Britton and his three crew members were all killed. The pilots of the other two planes aborted when they saw the fireball on the other side of the lagoon. As it turned out, the mission was unnecessary. Out in the Atlantic, six hundred miles to the south, Joseph Carney had just spotted a ship that looked like the Grozny.


Carney had been assigned a search area measuring fifty by two hundred miles. The procedure was to locate a ship by radar, and then drop down for surveillance and recognition. The RB-47 dived in and out of the clouds as the navigator pointed out possible targets. Among the vessels spotted by Carney was an American destroyer, the USS MacDonough, which was also searching for the Grozny.

After turning away from the MacDonough, Carney climbed back up to fifteen hundred feet. Another ship was visible on the horizon. He descended to five hundred feet. The forward and aft decks were covered with silvery cylindrical tanks. A hammer and sickle was emblazoned on the side of the smokestack. The name of the ship--GROZNY--was clearly visible in Cyrillic lettering. Carney made repeated swoops on the vessel, photographing it from different angles with a handheld camera.

Carney spotted the Soviet ship at 6:45 a.m. and relayed her location to the MacDonough. Two hours later, the captain of the MacDonough sent a message to Navy Plot reporting a successful intercept:



The Grozny was now about 350 miles from the quarantine line. At her current speed, she would reach the barrier around dawn on Sunday.

As dawn rose on Saturday morning, Andrew St. George was feeling "weary and discouraged." The Life reporter had set off six days earlier from Miami on an armed raid into northern Cuba organized by the fiercely anti-Castro group Alpha 66. The adventure had turned into a disaster.

The goal was to blow up a Cuban sugar barge, but rough weather, darkness, and the lack of a depth finder had caused the would-be saboteurs to crash one of their two speedboats into a reef. They wrecked the second boat while attempting to salvage the first. After three days wandering through mangrove swamps and surviving on crackers, St. George and his friends stole a battered sailboat and some food from a Cuban fisherman. They headed back for Florida without a compass, battling fifteen-foot waves and bailing water constantly to keep their leaking craft afloat. One by one, they resigned themselves to their fate. St. George could sense "the rising whistle of death" in the howling wind and sea.

A propagandist more than a reporter, St. George was the modern-day equivalent of the journalistic adventurers who covered the Spanish-American War for William Randolph Hearst. "You furnish the pictures," Hearst had told his star cartoonist in 1897, "and I'll furnish the war." Within a year, each man had fulfilled his side of the bargain. The artist Frederic Remington drew a shocking picture of demure Cuban ladies being strip-searched by brutal Spanish policemen--and Hearst helped persuade a wavering President McKinley to declare war against Spain.

Journalists working for Hearst did not just report on the war in Cuba. They actively promoted it and even fought in it. "A splendid fight," enthused the publisher, after a visit to the battlefield, with a revolver in his belt and a pencil and notebook in his hand.

"A splendid little war," agreed future secretary of state John Hay, in a letter to his friend Theodore Roosevelt.

More than six decades later, the American press had shed much of its jingoistic, "yellow journalism" character. But there were still publishers and reporters in the Hearst tradition who enthusiastically campaigned for a showdown, this time with the Soviet Union. The role once played by Hearst was assumed by the Time-Life empire of Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, which accused the Kennedy administration of "doing nothing" to prevent a Communist takeover of Cuba. Clare Luce received an admiring note from Hearst's son after she wrote an editorial in Life magazine denouncing the president's handling of Cuba in early October, a few days before the crisis broke. "A hell of a fine piece," enthused William R. Hearst, Jr. "Wish I'd written it."

Like the older Hearst, Luce went well beyond writing bellicose editorials attacking government inaction over the Soviet buildup in Cuba. By her own account, she channeled emigre information about Soviet missile sites to Senator Kenneth Keating that the New York Republican used to embarrass Kennedy. She subsidized Cuban exile groups seeking to overthrow Castro and sent reporters along with them on their hit-and-run raids. Life agreed to pay St. George $2,500 for a story about the attack on the Cuban sugar barge, complete with photographs.

A self-described descendant of Hungarian royalty, St. George had a murky past, using his charm and connections to pass from one ideological camp to another. The CIA suspected him of providing information to Soviet intelligence in Austria after the war, but had also used him as an informer. He had a knack for showing up where the action was. During the anti-Batista uprising, he had trekked into the Sierra Maestra to interview Castro and Che Guevara, but had fallen out with the barbudos, and now supported exile groups like Alpha 66, which had elected him an "honorary member."

As he lay facedown on the wet planks of the stolen fishing boat, St. George found himself wondering whether it had been worth it. After a lifetime of excitement, he was reminded of a line in a book by Andre Malraux, quoting a disillusioned revolutionary: "When you have only one life, you should not try too hard to change the world."

The moment of despair did not last long. A few minutes later, the weary rebels caught sight of a rock rising from the water. As their "creaking, water-soaked old lady" tacked toward the shore, they could see the Union Jack fluttering in the breeze from a lonely building. They had reached the tiny British island of Cay Sal.

"Andrew, you're one of us," the leader of the ill-fated expedition told an exhausted, exhilarated St. George. "Help us get some new boats and we'll go back to Cuba."

The two Cuban exiles dispatched by the CIA to sabotage the Matahambre copper mine had been hiking back across the hills for three nights. They slept during the day so as not to attract attention. They were within sight of the mangrove swamps of Malas Aguas where they had hidden their catamaran. But every step was becoming more difficult for Miguel Orozco, the team leader. He was feverish and dizzy. The stabbing pain in his abdomen increased as he walked.

The two saboteurs were expecting to be exfiltrated from Cuba early the following day, Sunday. The plan called for them to radio a CIA ship waiting offshore, retrieve the catamaran from its hiding place, and use the almost noiseless electric engine to reach the rendezvous point. If there was a problem on either side, they would make further attempts to meet up on Monday and Tuesday. They had no idea what had happened in Matahambre. The sound of controlled explosions from the area led them to believe the mission had been successful.

Pedro Vera did everything he could to help his friend, carrying most of the equipment and offering him a hand over rocks and fallen trees. He thought Miguel might be suffering from stomach flu or an intestinal problem, possibly caused by something they had drunk or eaten. But they had brought most of their own water with them, and had used pills to purify the water they collected along the way from running streams. As they trudged on, with his friend in more and more pain, he wondered if it might be appendicitis.

What neither man knew at the time was that the CIA, on instructions from Bobby Kennedy, had ordered a halt to all infiltration and exfiltration operations of Cuban agents.


It was nearly midday on the other side of the Atlantic, in London, where protesters were gathering in Trafalgar Square for a big anti-American demonstration. A few hundred yards away, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was meeting with his defense chiefs at Admiralty House, his temporary residence while 10 Downing Street was being renovated. Chants of "Hands off Cuba" and "Up Fidel, Kennedy to hell" floated down Whitehall as the British officials discussed how to help their American ally.

The events of the past week had seriously rattled Macmillan, who prided himself on his coolness in a crisis. As a schoolboy at Eton, he had learned never to show much emotion. He was the master of the stiff upper lip, the arched eyebrow, the languid upper-class drawl. He had reacted with aristocratic disdain when Khrushchev interrupted a speech he was making to the UN General Assembly in September 1960. Angered by criticism of Soviet foreign policy, Khrushchev pounded his desk with his fists, waved his arms in the air, and started shouting something in Russian. "I'd like that translated, please, if you will," was Macmillan's only comment.

As the Cuban crisis wore on, the prime minister began feeling the strain as never before. He had to tread a careful line between his desire to support Kennedy and the skepticism felt by many British politicians and intelligence experts about the Cuban "threat." Europeans had learned to live with Soviet nuclear weapons in their backyard and it was difficult to understand why Americans should not do the same. From the British point of view, West Berlin was a much more valuable strategic asset than Cuba. Some British analysts even questioned the photographic evidence "proving" the existence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. To counter such skepticism, the U.S. Embassy in London released some of the photos to the British press before they were distributed in Washington. American reporters were outraged at being scooped.

Macmillan continued to display his trademark calm in public, but betrayed his emotion behind the scenes. The U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, David Bruce, reported dryly to Washington that he thought he detected "a slight oscillation in one wing" of the famously unflappable prime minister. He advised Kennedy to ignore the "caterwauling" and not pay too much attention to the qualms expressed by his British allies when America's "most vital interests" were at stake. "Only stupid giants let themselves be tied down by Lilliputians," he cabled.

Kennedy went out of his way to show the British that he took them seriously. He telephoned Macmillan almost every day. The British ambassador to Washington, David Ormsby-Gore, occupied a special position in the court of Camelot. He had been friends with Jack since the days when Joseph Kennedy, Sr., served in London as U.S. ambassador. The president treated Ormsby-Gore as an informal adviser, to the annoyance of other allies, particularly the French. It was rumored in Washington that two beautiful young women seen frequently in the company of the French ambassador were "plants" whose true mission was to "get close to Jack" and neutralize the schemings of perfide Albion.

Macmillan had spoken with Kennedy the previous evening from Admiralty House. He urged Kennedy to compromise with Khrushchev. Laying the groundwork for a possible grand bargain with Moscow, he offered to "immobilize" sixty Thor missiles stationed in Britain. The intermediate-range Thors were under joint British-American control: the British had formal ownership of the missiles while the Americans were responsible for the 1.4-megaton nuclear warheads. The president promised to put Macmillan's idea into the bureaucratic "machinery." He later sent a message saying such a deal was premature. He would keep the British proposal in reserve in case all else failed.

In the meantime, Macmillan quietly authorized an increase in British readiness levels. He ordered his defense chiefs to place the Thor missiles and Britain's own Vulcan nuclear bombers on fifteen-minute alert.

"Berlin is the testicles of the West," Nikita Khrushchev liked to say. "Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin."

Finding a suitable squeeze point was not very difficult. West Berlin was a virtually defenseless capitalist bastion of 2 million people more than one hundred miles inside Communist East Germany. The city was connected to West Germany by thirteen negotiated access routes, any one of which could be severed in minutes by overwhelmingly superior Soviet forces. The access routes included four Autobahns, four railway lines, the Elbe River, a canal, and three air corridors, each of them twenty miles wide. The air corridors had been a lifeline in 1948 after Stalin cut the overland connections. The Western Allies ferried in supplies by air for 462 consecutive days. At the height of the blockade, one Allied transport plane landed in Berlin's Tempelhof airport every minute.

Both Kennedy and Khrushchev considered Berlin "the most dangerous spot in the world." They had been sparring over the city ever since Kennedy's election as president. The status quo was unacceptable to the Soviets: hundreds of East German refugees were crossing the border every day. At the Vienna summit in June 1961, the Soviet leader threatened to sign a peace treaty with East Germany and eliminate Allied rights to West Berlin. Two months later, he chose a different option, erecting a 104-mile-long "anti-Fascist defense barrier," more commonly known in the West as the Berlin Wall. But tensions continued. On October 26, 1961, American and Soviet tanks had faced each other directly at Checkpoint Charlie in a two-day standoff. It was the first direct American-Soviet confrontation of the nuclear age, with "soldiers and weapons eyeball to eyeball."

The fate of Berlin had been on the minds of the president and his advisers from the moment they first learned about the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuba. "I am beginning to wonder whether maybe Mr. Khrushchev is entirely rational about Berlin," Dean Rusk told his colleagues during the first session of the ExComm, on October 16. "They may be thinking that they can either bargain Berlin and Cuba against each other, or that they could provoke us into a kind of action in Cuba which would give an umbrella for them to take action with respect to Berlin."

Fear of Soviet retaliation in Berlin was one of the main reasons why Kennedy decided to blockade Cuba rather than bomb the missile sites, his initial instinct. As he explained to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a U.S. attack on the missile sites would give the Soviets a pretext to "take Berlin," just as they had invaded Hungary in response to the Anglo-French attack on Egypt in 1956. In the minds of the Europeans, "we would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin." A Soviet attack on Berlin would leave the president with "only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons." As Kennedy remarked, that was "a helluva alternative."

During the weeks leading up to the Cuban crisis, Kennedy had been preoccupied by the question of how to deter a Soviet attack on West Berlin. There was no way the West could win a conventional war over Berlin, but at least he could raise the costs of a Soviet attack. He asked his aides how long it would take to get a battalion-sized force up the Autobahn into Berlin in an emergency. The answer was thirty-five hours. At the president's request, the military considered ways to cut the reaction time to seventeen hours by repositioning the force. The CIA reported on October 23 that the city had sufficient stocks of food, fuel, and medicine to survive a six-month blockade.

Contrary to American expectations, the Soviets did not increase the pressure on Berlin in response to the U.S. blockade of Cuba. There were the usual incidents on the border and arguments about movements of allied convoys. Soviet troops in East Germany were ordered to a higher state of alert. Soviet and American officers exchanged accusations about "provocative actions" by the other side. But it was all more or less routine.

East Germans were still fleeing to the West, although in much reduced numbers. In the early hours of Saturday morning, five young men and a woman clawed their way through layers of barbed wire to reach the French sector. East German border guards sent up flares to illuminate the night and sprayed the ground with automatic weapons fire. The twenty-three-year-old woman caught her coat in a barbed-wire barricade. Her male companions helped her untangle herself and dodge the bullets in the pouring rain. Another group of three young men crept through a graveyard on the border and scrambled over a barbed-wire-topped brick wall into West Berlin.

In the afternoon, a U.S. transport plane flying out of the city along the central air corridor was buzzed by Soviet fighter-interceptors. The Soviet jets made three passes at the slower-moving American T-29 prop aircraft, but did not otherwise interfere. American intelligence officers wondered if the incident was an early sign of a new campaign of air corridor harassment.

Khrushchev may well have seen a link between the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba and the endgame over Berlin. In his mind, everything was connected. Had the Cuban gamble succeeded, his overall geopolitical bargaining power would be much greater. He had been dropping heavy hints about a major new initiative on West Berlin, including the signing of a peace treaty with East Germany, after the U.S. congressional elections on November 6. "We will give [Kennedy] a choice. Go to war or sign a peace treaty," the chairman told Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall in September. "Do you need Berlin? Like hell you need it."

Whatever his initial motives for deploying Soviet missiles to Cuba, Khrushchev now had no stomach for a wider confrontation with the United States. He resisted the temptation to raise the stakes in West Berlin at a time when the world was close to nuclear war in Cuba. When a deputy Soviet foreign minister, Vasily Kuznetsov, proposed "increasing pressure" on West Berlin as a way of countering American pressure on Cuba, Khrushchev reacted sharply. "We are just beginning to extricate ourselves from one adventure, and you are suggesting that we jump into another."

Khrushchev had decided to give the West's "testicles" a rest.


At McCoy Air Force Base outside Orlando, Florida, Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., was completing final preparations for his sixth U-2 mission over Cuba. He had received a last briefing from the navigators, gone through his breathing exercises, and wriggled into his partial-pressure flight suit. He would make a one-hour fifteen-minute reconnaissance flight over the eastern half of the island.

Lean and athletic, with dark hair and striking dark brown eyes, the thirty-five-year-old Anderson was a classic Type A personality. Flying was his life and his passion. As a child, he built model airplanes and dreamed of becoming a pilot. His evaluations were uniformly excellent, signposting the way to a brilliant military career. Exuberant in private--he once jumped out of his second-story college dorm window to chase a bird that had escaped from its cage--he was intensely serious when it came to work. His friend Bob Powell considered him the type of pilot "who took every mission you could get. You would volunteer for backup if the primary aborted. You had to go. He was irrepressible."

Anderson was engaged in a friendly competition with another U-2 pilot, Richard Heyser, to rack up the most combat missions over Cuba. Heyser was senior to Anderson in rank, but Anderson was chief of standardization for the squadron, a prestigious position overseeing other pilots. Heyser had flown the U-2 mission over San Cristobal in western Cuba on October 14 that discovered the Soviet missiles. Anderson flew a mission the next day, discovering more missile sites in central Cuba, near Sagua la Grande. By Saturday, October 27, each man had flown five sorties over the island.

Initially, Anderson's name was not on the flight roster for Saturday morning. The original plan consisted of three sorties, to be flown by less experienced pilots. The first mission was a quick twenty-minute hop over the missile sites of central Cuba. The second was a one-hour flight over all the missile sites. The third was a four-hour flight around the periphery of the island, remaining in international airspace. On Friday evening, SAC planners added a fourth mission to the schedule: checking out Soviet and Cuban military deployments in the vicinity of Guantanamo Naval Base and probing the Soviet air defense system. Eager to rack up more combat hours, Anderson lobbied for the assignment.

One by one, the first three missions were canceled in the early hours of Saturday morning. The Navy was conducting low-altitude reconnaissance of the missile sites, so there was not much sense sending U-2s over the same area at a time when the Soviets had activated their air defense system. One pilot, Captain Charles Kern, was already sitting in the cockpit of his plane when the order arrived from Washington to scrub the flight. That left mission 3128--Anderson's mission.

The flight plan called for Anderson to fly within range of eight SAM sites at an altitude of seventy-two thousand feet. He was well aware of the threat posed by Soviet V-75 missiles. His U-2 was equipped with a device for detecting the radar systems associated with the missile system. If a Soviet radar painted his plane, a yellow light would appear in his cockpit. If the SAM site locked on to the plane, the light would turn red. He would then attempt evasive action, feinting inwards and outwards like a matador deflecting a bull. It was hoped that the missiles would zip past him and explode harmlessly in the sky above.

A van drove Anderson to the flight line, where the plane that he had used to make his five previous overflights was waiting. It was a CIA bird, No. 56-6676, repainted with Air Force insignia. Kennedy preferred to have Air Force blue-suiters flying over Cuba rather than CIA pilots: fewer questions would be asked if they were shot down. But the agency U-2s were slightly superior to the Air Force version: they had a more powerful engine and could fly five thousand feet higher. This made them a slightly more difficult target for the Soviet SAMs. The CIA had agreed reluctantly to lend several of its planes to the Air Force on condition that it retained control over the photo interpretation process.

The agency was unhappy about being upstaged by the Air Force. CIA personnel were still responsible for servicing the spy planes at McCoy and taking charge of the intelligence materials. The Air Force pilots regarded them as interlopers, "looking for fault in everything we did." CIA officials complained that the Air Force did not pay enough attention to the threat posed by the SAM sites. There was no system for using electronic warfare techniques to jam the radars used by the Soviet air defense system or to track the U-2s as they flew over Cuba. Intelligence officers estimated the chances of a U-2 pilot being shot down over Cuba as around one in six.

Anderson climbed up the steps to the U-2 followed by his mobile control officer and strapped himself into the cockpit. He carried photographs of his wife and two young children in his wallet. He was still feeling some pain in his right shoulder caused by a fall on the ice while on temporary duty in Alaska, but he was not going to let that stop him from flying. When his commander pulled him off the flight schedule one day to give him some rest, he had complained vociferously. "Aren't I doing a good enough job?" he wanted to know.

The mobile officer, Captain Roger Herman, ran through the final checklist. Herman made sure that Anderson's oxygen supply was connected properly and that the maps and "top secret" target folder were all neatly stacked by the side of the ejector seat. The two pilots tested the emergency systems to make sure they were functioning normally. A surge of oxygen briefly inflated the capstans on Anderson's partial-pressure suit, filling the cockpit. When he was certain that everything was in order, Herman slapped Anderson on the shoulder.

"Okay, Rudy, here we go, have a good trip. See you when you get back."

Anderson gave a thumbs-up sign as Herman closed the canopy. Moments later, his U-2 took off for Cuba. It was 9:09 a.m.

At the time that Anderson took off, an American electronics reconnaissance plane had already been in the air for four hours. The RB-47, a modified version of the B-47 bomber, was ferreting out Soviet radar signals. Captain Stan Willson had taken off at five o'clock that morning from Forbes Air Force Base in Kansas, topped up his fuel tank over the Gulf of Mexico, and was now circling Cuba, taking care to remain over international waters. Although he was interested in any type of radar signal, his primary goal was to find out whether Soviet air defenses had been activated.

In addition to two pilots and a navigator, the crew of the RB-47 included three electronic warfare officers. In official Air Force lingo, they were known as "ravens," but they preferred a more humorous, self-deprecating term, "crows." Shortly after the plane got in the air, but before it reached altitude, the ravens had crawled back to the converted bomb bay, now stuffed with electronic eavesdropping equipment. Protruding like a pregnant womb from the underbelly of the plane, the "crows' nest" was sealed off from the pilot's compartment and pressurized separately. The ravens would spend the next ten hours listening to a series of beeps and twitters over the airwaves.

For the most part, it was boring work, punctuated by moments of intense activity. Many of the men on Willson's plane had flown peripheral missions around the Soviet Union, probing for weaknesses in the air defense system in advance of a possible bomber attack. They would aim directly for the Soviet frontier, as if they were on a bombing raid, and then veer away at the last moment. The idea was to provoke the Russians to switch on their radars. The intercept data could be used later to map the Soviet air defense system. There was always a risk that they would stray over Soviet territory and be shot down. Several members of Willson's outfit--the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing--had ended up in Soviet prisons, while others had been killed by the very weapons systems they had been sent to detect.

The flights around Cuba were known as "Common Cause." Some thrill-seeking ravens had begun to refer to the missions as "Lost Cause." Entire days could go by without anything happening. For one RB-47 pilot, the defining sound of the Cuban missile crisis was the "noise of silence." Both sides remained off the airwaves for as long as they could in order to give away as little information as possible to the enemy. Normally there was "a lot of chatter," but now everybody seemed to be "holding their breath."

On Saturday morning, the airwaves came alive again, as the Soviets turned on their air defense tracking system. When the ravens picked up a radar signal, they immediately turned on their tape recorders and scanners. Analyzing radar signals was a cross between monitoring a cardiogram and studying birdsong. Just as experienced birders can make out hundreds of different varieties of birds, ravens learned to distinguish between different types of radar system, and even imitate them. Early warning radars produced a low-pitched sound, with considerable distance between the pulses. Fire-control radars emitted a shriller, almost continuous squeal, like the chirping of a bird. When a raven heard one of those, he knew that his own plane was in danger of being targeted. The pilot was authorized to "fire to destroy" if he thought he was coming under attack.

As Willson's RB-47 flew around the coast of Cuba, the ravens began picking up radar signals associated with different Soviet missiles. They identified the telltale brrr-brrr of a Spoon Rest, the target acquisition radar for the Soviet SAM system. The spy ship Oxford had picked up similar signals overnight from the middle of the Florida Straits, an early indication that the Soviets had finally decided to activate their air defense system.

Hunched over their monitors, the ravens suddenly heard the high-pitched zip-zip-zip of a fire-control radar. Using their direction-finding equipment, a spinning antenna in the underbelly of the plane, they were able to trace the source of the signal. It was coming from a previously identified SAM site a few miles outside the town of Banes in eastern Cuba. The implications were ominous: American planes overflying Cuba were not just being tracked by Soviet air defenses. They were being targeted.

The senior raven flicked the switch on the intercom connecting the crows' nest to the cockpit above. "Hey boss, we have a Big Cigar."

"Big Cigar" was the official code word for a Fruit Set fire-control radar. The copilot relayed the information to the Strategic Air Command, but there was no way he could get in touch with Anderson directly to warn him of the danger. The U-2 pilot was observing strict radio silence.

After eleven years in the Air Force, Chuck Maultsby had a reputation as an outstanding pilot. He had served two years with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force acrobatic team, maneuvering his F-100 Super Sabre through a series of spectacular loops, rolls, and corkscrews. He flew Right Wing in the four-plane formation. Prior to that, he had survived six hundred days as a Chinese prisoner of war after being shot down in combat over North Korea. With his trim mustache, darkly handsome face, and amused eyes, he looked like a shorter version of the British actor David Niven. He exuded confidence and competence. Like most Air Force top guns, Maultsby firmly believed that he could "whip anybody else in an air fight."

Right now, however, he was feeling anything but confident. According to his flight plan, he should have been on his way back to Alaska. But stars kept popping up in unexpected places. He wondered if something had gone "terribly wrong."

Maultsby was relying on the age-old techniques of celestial navigation--methods used by Magellan and Christopher Columbus--to keep himself oriented. Navigators had prepared a stack of celestial charts for various points along his route. The pilot kept the charts stacked by his seat. When he was halfway to the pole from Barter Island, he pulled out the stiff green card that showed his assumed position and the precise alignment of the stars for this particular time of night. If he was on track, the soft orange light of Arcturus, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere, should have been visible to the right of the plane's nose. Another bright star, Vega, would be located slightly higher up in the sky, toward the northwest. The northern star, Polaris, would be almost directly overhead, indicating that he was getting close to the North Pole. The constellation Orion, the Hunter, would be behind him, toward the south.

He had tried to shoot several of the brighter stars with his sextant, but "streaks of light dancing through the sky" made it difficult to distinguish one from the other. The further north he got, "the more intense" the lights became. He had run into the phenomenon known as the aurora borealis, the northern lights.

In different circumstances, he might have enjoyed the spectacle, which was unlike anything he had ever seen before. The dark night sky outside his cockpit was alive with brilliant, throbbing lights. Flashes of orange and violet and crimson streaked across the heavens, twirling and twisting like streamers in the wind. At times, the sky resembled a celestial battlefield, ablaze with gleaming sabers and darting javelins. At others, it was a stage for a ballet, with luminous shapes dancing delicate patterns against the darkened sky.

Dazzled by the whirling lights, Maultsby found it difficult to distinguish one star from another. His compass was no help. In the vicinity of the North Pole, the needle was jerked automatically downward, toward the earth's magnetic field, and North and South became impossibly confused. Unable to obtain a proper fix on the stars, he had only a vague idea where he was or the direction he was headed. The last few fixes before reaching what he thought was the North Pole seemed "highly suspect," but he stubbornly held his course, hoping that "the star I thought I saw was the right one."

Flying a temperamental plane like the U-2 was difficult enough at the best of times. There were so many variables to consider and calculations to make. Maultsby was flying at an altitude known to U-2 pilots as "coffin corner," where the air was so thin that it could barely support the weight of the plane, and the difference between maximum and minimum permissible speeds was a scant 6 knots. Designed to soar to extraordinary heights, the U-2 was one of the flimsiest planes ever built. If he flew too fast, the fragile gray bird would fall apart, beginning with the tail. If he flew too slow, the engine would stall, and he would nose-dive. Maultsby could not allow his eyes to stray too long from the circular airspeed indicator in front of him.

Piloting a U-2, Maultsby had discovered, was a little like returning to the early days of aviation, when flying was reduced to essentials. With no hydraulics to assist him, he had to use his arm strength to move the wing flaps, pulling or pushing the E-shaped yoke in front of him in the cockpit. Above the yoke was a round viewfinder that could be used either in the down position, to observe the earth, or in the up position as a sextant.

As he flew north, Maultsby activated a giant filter paper mechanism to scoop up radioactive dust. The filter paper was located in the belly of the U-2, in the compartment normally reserved for cameras. He also collected air samples in bottles that would be sent away to a laboratory after his return to Alaska. By carefully analyzing air and dust samples, American scientists could learn a lot about the nuclear tests being conducted by the Soviets one thousand miles away on Novaya Zemlya. They particularly valued samples collected at high altitude, since they were likely to be less polluted than dust that had fallen further through the atmosphere.

Reaching what he thought was the North Pole, Maultsby decided to go ahead and do a 90-270-degree turn, the standard procedure for reversing course--"Turn left for 90 degrees, and then immediately reverse the turn for 270 degrees until you are heading back along your same track, only in the opposite direction."

A sea of packed ice and snow stretched out below him in the darkness. It felt strange and disorienting to be flying over a landmass that was pitch-dark from horizon to horizon while the sky was ablaze with dancing lights.


The president arrived in the Oval Office at 9:25, after his morning exercise routine. As was often the case, his first visitors were his appointments secretary, Kenny O'Donnell, and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. He had some routine business to conduct, including receiving the credentials of the ambassador of Trinidad and Tobago. He made a few telephone calls, including one to an old prep-school classmate, Lem Billings. A few minutes after ten, he walked down the hall to the Cabinet Room, where the twelve members of the ExComm were gathered.

Except when he was particularly tired, Kennedy spent at least an hour a day swimming and doing stretching routines prescribed for him by Hans Kraus, the Austrian orthopedic surgeon whom he had barely recognized on Monday after his speech. A little gymnasium had been set up for him in the basement of the West Wing, next to the swimming pool. The Situation Room was just around the corner, permitting him to check on the movements of Soviet submarines in between working on his weak abdominal muscles. Kraus warned that it was "especially important" to keep up the exercise program "in times of stress and tension."

JFK had been struggling with illness for as long as he could remember. Much of his adolescence was spent in and out of hospitals with a succession of mysterious ailments. Doctors were never able to pinpoint the cause of his problems, and were constantly arguing over how to treat him. By the time he became president, Kennedy had undergone half a dozen major operations. He was injected daily with more than a dozen different medicines, including procaine to relieve his back pain, testosterone to boost his weight, steroids to control the colitis, and antibiotics to prevent a flare-up of an old venereal infection.

Kraus was convinced that many of the president's health problems were the result of too much medication. Rival doctors had been shooting him up with novocaine and other painkillers to help him get through the day. Even though Kennedy had succeeded in cutting down on his daily intake of drugs over the last few months, he was still a walking pill cabinet. He was taking at least ten different types of medication, some of them twice a day. As concern grew that the president might have to be evacuated from the White House, his Navy doctor issued instructions for a case full of drugs to be kept permanently on station outside the Oval Office. The brown leather case was to be marked "personal effects of the president" and should be "available to move with the president's party at any time."

The extent of Kennedy's medical problems was a closely kept secret, but they had a profound impact on who he was and how he lived his life. His poor health contributed to his introspective, skeptical nature. He joked about death from an early age. At the same time, he learned early on how "to live every day like it's your last day on earth." Like his nemesis, Fidel Castro, JFK was "addicted to excitement," in the words of one of his biographers. His life was a "race against boredom."

Where Kennedy differed from Castro, and also from Khrushchev, was in his sense of detached irony, which also had a lot to do with his long illness. He was forever questioning conventional wisdom. Castro was narcissistic and self-absorbed: all that mattered were his own actions and his own will. Khrushchev reduced world affairs to crude calculations of political power. Kennedy had a knack for looking at problems through the eyes of his adversaries. His "capacity for projecting himself into other people's shoes" was at once his curse and his strength.

A lifetime of physical suffering was one of two formative influences that distinguished Kennedy from the typical scion of wealth and privilege. The other was World War II. As a lieutenant junior grade commanding a PT-boat in the Pacific, he got a front-line perspective on modern warfare that was quite different from the view from the White House or the Pentagon.

"This war here is a dirty business," he wrote his Swedish girlfriend, Inga Arvad, in 1943. It was difficult to persuade his men that they were dying for a great cause when they were fighting on "some islands belonging to the Lever Company, a British concern making soap.... I suppose if we were stockholders we would perhaps be doing better." Unlike the Japanese, who were willing to sacrifice themselves for their emperor, the typical American soldier felt a divided loyalty--"He wants to kill but he is also trying to prevent himself from being killed." The lesson that Jack drew was that politicians had better think very carefully before they sent their children off to war. He was scornful of abstract phrases like "global war" and "all-out effort."

It's very easy to talk about the war and beating the Japs if it takes years and a million men, but anyone who talks like that should consider well his words. We get so used to talking about billions of dollars, and millions of soldiers, that thousands of casualties sound like drops in the bucket. But if those thousands want to live as much as the ten that I saw [in his PT-boat, which was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer], the people deciding the whys and wherefores had better make mighty sure that all this effort is headed for some definite goal, and that when we reach that goal we may say it was worth it, for if it isn't, the whole thing will turn to ashes, and we will face great trouble in the years to come after the war.

Kennedy grew even more concerned with the unintended consequences of war after becoming commander in chief. In early 1962, the historian Barbara Tuchman published a book about the start of World War I called The Guns of August, which remained on The New York Times best-seller list for forty-two consecutive weeks. Her main point was that mistakes, misunderstandings, and miscommunication can unleash an unpredictable chain of events, causing governments to go to war with little understanding of the consequences. The president was so impressed by the book that he often quoted from it, and insisted his aides read it. He wanted "every officer in the Army" to read it as well. The secretary of the Army sent copies to every U.S. military base in the world.

One of Kennedy's favorite passages was a scene in which two German statesmen are analyzing the reasons for the most destructive military confrontation up until that time.

"How did it all happen?" the younger man wanted to know.

"Ah, if only one knew."

As Kennedy tried to imagine a war with the Soviet Union over the missiles in Cuba, one thought kept returning to trouble him. He imagined a planet ravaged by "fire, poison, chaos, and catastrophe." Whatever else he did as president of the United States, he was determined to avoid an outcome in which one survivor of a nuclear war asked another, "How did it all happen?" and received the incredible reply, "Ah, if only one knew."

The nuclear strike codes were kept inside a black vinyl briefcase known as "the Football." The Football enabled the president to order the obliteration of thousands of targets in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe. Within seconds of the authentication of a presidential order, missiles would lift off from silos on the plains of Montana and North Dakota; B-52 bombers heading toward Russia would fly past their fail-safe points to their targets; Polaris submarines in the Arctic Ocean would unleash their nuclear warheads.

At first, Kennedy viewed the Football as just one more piece of presidential paraphernalia. But after a year in the White House, he started asking more pointed questions about its use. Some of his questions were prompted by a novel published recently, Seven Days in May, by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, which described an attempted military coup against a fictional American president. He quizzed his military aide, General Chester "Ted" Clifton, about some of the details. He was interested, in particular, about the military officer who looked after the nuclear codes.

"The book says one of those men sits outside my bedroom door all night. Is that true?"

Clifton replied that the duty officer responsible for the Football remained downstairs in the office area, not upstairs in the residence. "He'll be upstairs--we've timed it many times; he can make it even if he has to run up the stairs and not use the elevator--in a minute and a half. If he knocks at your door some night and comes in and opens the valise, pay attention."

On another occasion, Kennedy wanted to clarify precisely how he would go about ordering "an immediate nuclear strike against the Communist Bloc," should that become necessary. He drew up a list of written questions for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asking what would happen if he pushed "the red button on my desk phone" and to be connected to the Joint War Room at the Pentagon:

* If I called the Joint War Room without giving them advance notice, to whom would I be speaking?

* What would I say to the Joint War Room to launch an immediate nuclear strike?

* How would the person who received my instructions verify them?

These were hardly abstract questions. The president and his aides had explored the pros and cons of a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union, often in the context of a Soviet attack on Berlin. Some military leaders, such as LeMay and Power, were enthusiastic proponents of the first-strike option. The idea repelled and frightened Kennedy--he agreed with McNamara that it was impossible to guarantee the destruction of all Soviet nuclear weapons--but the plans were drawn up anyway. The nuclear debate was shifting from an abstract faith in deterrence through "mutual assured destruction" to practical considerations on how to fight and win a limited nuclear war.

The American nuclear war plan was known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan, SIOP for short. Kennedy had been horrified by the first such plan, SIOP-62, which called for the dispatch of 2,258 missiles and bombers carrying 3,423 nuclear weapons against 1,077 "military and urban-industrial targets" scattered throughout the "Sino-Soviet bloc." One adviser characterized the plan as "orgiastic, Wagnerian." Another described it as "a massive, total, comprehensive, obliterating strategic attack...on everything Red." Among other points, it envisaged the virtual annihilation of the tiny Balkan country of Albania. Even though China (and Albania) had rejected Moscow's tutelage, no distinction was made between different Communist states. All were targeted for destruction.

"And we call ourselves the human race," was Kennedy's sardonic comment, when briefed about the plan.

Appalled by the all-or-nothing choices in SIOP-62, the Kennedy administration drew up a new plan, known as SIOP-63. Despite its title, this one came into effect in the summer of 1962. It allowed the president several "withhold" options, including China and Eastern Europe, and made some attempt to distinguish between cities and military targets. Nevertheless, the plan was still built around the notion of a single devastating strike that would totally destroy the Soviet Union's ability to make war.

None of these options appealed to Kennedy at the moment of actual decision. He had asked the Pentagon how many people would die if a single Soviet missile got through and landed somewhere near an American city. The answer was six hundred thousand. "That's the total number of casualties in the Civil War," JFK exploded. "And we haven't gotten over that in a hundred years." As he later acknowledged, the twenty-four intermediate-range Soviet missiles in Cuba constituted "a substantial deterrent to me."

He had privately concluded that nuclear weapons were "only good for deterring." He thought it "insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization."

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