7:50 A.M. FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26
The time had arrived for some political theater. Four days had gone by since Kennedy's announcement of a naval blockade of Cuba--officially known as a "quarantine"--but the U.S. Navy had yet to board a single ship. Journalists were asking questions about the effectiveness of the blockade. Admirals and generals were grumbling about a Soviet oil tanker, the Bucharest, that had been permitted to sail on to Havana on the basis of an assurance by her master that she was not carrying any "prohibited materials."
No one was more aware of the public relations aspects of the blockade than the president, a practiced and very effective manipulator of the media. He was his own chief spinmeister, inviting publishers to the Oval Office, stroking the right editors, telephoning influential columnists and reporters, reprimanding administration officials who spoke out of turn. He read newspapers assiduously and encouraged his aides to think about ways to "brainwash" the press, a term used by his military assistant at the start of the crisis. For Kennedy, the quarantine was primarily a political tool rather than a military one. Public perceptions were all-important.
The ship selected for the necessary demonstration of American resolve was the 7,268-ton Marucla, a Lebanese freighter under charter to the Soviet Union. She was on her way to Cuba from the Latvian port of Riga, with a declared cargo of paper, sulfur, and spare truck parts. The chances of a Lebanese-registered ship, with a largely Greek crew, being found to carry banned Soviet missile parts were practically nonexistent, but that was not the point. By boarding the Marucla, the Navy would signal its determination to enforce the quarantine. As Kennedy told the ExComm on October 25, "We've got to prove sooner or later that the blockade works."
The destroyer closest to the Marucla was the USS John R. Pierce, which initiated the chase on Thursday evening. But the Navy thought it would be "nice" if the interception was made by the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, a destroyer named after the president's brother. The Kennedy was considerably further away from the Marucla at the time, and had to fire up three of her four boilers, reaching a speed of 30 knots, to close the distance. The boarding party would consist of six officers and men from the Kennedy plus the executive officer of the Pierce.
As the Kennedy steamed toward the Marucla, the captain convened a meeting in the wardroom to discuss boarding formalities. After some discussion about what to wear, the boarding party eventually decided on service dress whites without sidearms. Whites were more formal than khaki and would make a good impression. The captain stressed the need for "friendly gestures" and "courtesy" rather than peremptory shots across the bow. On Thursday, October 25, the Navy had issued instructions for a gentler approach to enforcing the blockade. If necessary, boarding officers were authorized "to distribute magazines, candy, and lighters." A budget of two hundred dollars per ship was authorized for the purchase of appropriate "people-to-people materials."
"Take no menacing actions," the cable instructed. "Do not train ships guns in direction merchantmen."
Shortly after dawn, the Kennedy instructed the Marucla by flag and flashing light to prepare for inspection. The immediate challenge was getting on board. The seas were choppy and the whaleboat from the Kennedy bobbed up and down, tantalizingly out of reach of the rope ladder put out by the crew of the Marucla. The officer in charge of the boarding party, Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Reynolds, was afraid of being dunked in the ocean and looking ridiculous. He eventually made a successful leap for the ladder. By 7:50 a.m., everybody was safely on deck.
The obliging Greek sailors offered their guests coffee, pulled back the covers of the cargo hatches, and invited the Americans to search for missile parts. There were none to be found. A crate labeled "scientific instruments" that had piqued the curiosity of Reynolds turned out to be a collection of "rather shoddy devices that one might find in an old high school physics lab."
There was no time for a proper search. Superiors all the way up the chain of command were constantly demanding information by sideband radio. The Pentagon was getting nervous. The White House wanted some good news to distribute. After two hours of rummaging around, Reynolds decided he had seen enough. He authorized the Marucla to proceed to Havana.
The streets around the Steuart Motor Company building in downtown Washington, D.C., were littered with broken bottles, abandoned vehicles, and piles of trash. Tramps and drunkards lived in the run-down alleyways behind the nondescript seven-story building. Parking and public transportation facilities were so limited that CIA analysts usually took car pools to work. Before parking their cars, the agency men often had to sweep away broken glass.
Located on the corner of Fifth and K streets in northwest Washington, the Steuart building was home to the CIA's photo interpretation effort. (The agency occupied the top four floors, above an automobile showroom and a real estate office.) Every day, military couriers showed up with hundreds of cans of film shot from spy planes or satellites overflying targets such as the Soviet Union, China, and most recently Cuba. During periods of crisis, it was not unusual for black limousines to show up outside the building, discharging cabinet secretaries and generals who had to avoid scrums of car salesmen and hobos to attend top secret intelligence briefings.
As he had every day during the crisis, Arthur Lundahl made his way through the security turnstiles at the entrance to the Steuart building to his office overlooking Fifth Street. The director of the National Photographic Interpretation Center would spend much of the day traveling around Washington, briefing political and military leaders on the latest intelligence. But first he had to immerse himself in the details of the latest batch of photos taken by Navy Crusader jets over central and western Cuba and analyzed overnight by teams of expert photo interpreters.
After weeks of studying high-altitude U-2 imagery, it was a relief finally to examine the low-level photos. Everything was so much clearer and more detailed. Even laymen could make out the telltale features of a Soviet missile camp: the long missile shelter tents, the concrete launch stands, the fuel trucks, the bunkers for nuclear warheads, the network of feeder roads. It was possible to see individual figures strolling among the palm trees or running for cover as the Navy Crusaders flew overhead.
The overnight intelligence haul included information about military units and weapons systems never before seen on Cuba. A low-level photograph of the Remedios area of central Cuba showed row after row of T-54 tanks, electronics vans, armored personnel carriers, an oil storage depot, and at least a hundred tents. From the layout of the site and the precise alignment of the tents and vehicles, it was obvious that this was a Soviet military encampment, not a Cuban one. These were clearly combat troops, not "technicians," as U.S. intelligence had previously described them. And there were many more of them than anyone had suspected.
The photo interpreters drew the director's attention to an oblong object with sharklike fins, some thirty-five feet long, alongside a radar truck. Lundahl recognized the object as a FROG, an acronym for "Free Rocket Over Ground." (FROG was the American designation; the official Soviet name was Luna.) It was impossible to tell whether this particular FROG was conventional or nuclear, but military planners had to assume the worst. There was now a frightening possibility that, in addition to the missiles targeted on the United States, Soviet troops on Cuba were equipped with short-range nuclear-tipped missiles capable of destroying an American invading force.
Low-level photographs of the MRBM sites contained more bad news. Evidence abounded of activity. Fresh ruts in the mud suggested that the Soviets had been exercising the missiles overnight. Most of the sites were now camouflaged, some more effectively than others. Several missile launchers had been covered with plastic sheeting, but analysts were able to use earlier photographs to figure out what lay underneath. The photographs from Calabazar de Sagua were detailed enough to identify poles for camouflage netting. At San Cristobal, two hundred miles to the west, the ropes holding up the missile checkout tents were clearly visible.
Despite the attempts at camouflage, the photo interpreters had spotted cables leading from the missile checkout tents to generators and control panels hidden in the woods. They had found theodolite units, sophisticated optical instruments used for aligning missiles on the launch pad, at most of the sites. Fuel and oxidizer trailers were stationed nearby. Although none of the missiles was in the vertical position, most could be fired within six to eight hours, according to CIA estimates.
By comparing the photographs with data on R-12 readiness times from the technical manual supplied by Oleg Penkovsky, the analysts had concluded that four out of the six medium-range missile sites were "fully operational." The remaining two would probably be operational within a couple of days.
As he examined the photographs, Lundahl wondered how he would relay the latest intelligence information to the president. A frequent deliverer of bad news, he strove to avoid "dramatics." He was wary of anything that would create "a fear or stampede." At the same time, he knew he had to lay out the facts succinctly and conclusively, "so that the decision makers would be convinced, just as the photo interpreters were, that the crisis was entering a new phase."
The art of aerial reconnaissance went back to the Napoleonic wars. French troops used a military observation balloon in 1794 to spy on Dutch and Austrian troops at the battle of Maubeuge. During the American Civil War, a scientist named Thaddeus Lowe devised a method for telegraphing reports on Confederate troop positions in Virginia from a balloon tethered high above the Potomac River. Union gunners were able to use the information to target Confederate troops without being able to see them. By World War I, both the Germans and the British were using two-seater aerial reconnaissance planes to photograph enemy troop positions. Photo reconnaissance expanded greatly in World War II, both to identify targets and to survey the damage caused by the hugely destructive bombing raids over Germany and Japan.
Like most of his top analysts, Lundahl had served as a photo interpreter during the war, analyzing bombing data from Japan. He liked to boast that aerial photography supplied 80 to 90 percent of the usable military intelligence collected during World War II--and could perform a similar function in the Cold War. The flow of useful information shot up after President Eisenhower authorized the construction of the U-2, a revolutionary plane with equally revolutionary cameras, capable of photographing foot-long objects from seventy thousand feet. The demand for photographic expertise soon became overwhelming. In October 1962 alone, Lundahl's men were involved in more than six hundred separate photo interpretation projects, ranging from rocket testing sites in Krasnoyarsk to power plants in Shanghai to aircraft plants in Tashkent.
By the early sixties, overhead reconnaissance had spawned an array of esoteric subdisciplines, such as "tentology," "shelterology," and "cratology." Photo interpreters spent days analyzing the crates on the decks of Soviet ships heading for places like Egypt and Indonesia, measuring their precise dimensions, and guessing what might be hidden inside. In 1961, the CIA published a detailed guide to different kinds of crates, teaching its agents the difference between a MiG-15 and a MiG-21 crate. Cratology scored its greatest triumph in late September when analysts correctly deduced that a Soviet ship bound for Cuba was carrying Il-28 bombers. Since the Il-28 was known to be nuclear-capable, this discovery prompted Kennedy to agree to the crucial October 14 U-2 overflight of Cuba to investigate the Soviet arms buildup.
The analysts could infer a lot just by looking at a picture of a vessel, and studying the way it was sitting in the water. Some of the Soviet cargo ships en route to Cuba had been built in Finland and had unusually long hatches. They were intended for the lumber trade, but the photographs showed them riding suspiciously high in the water. There was an obvious explanation: rockets weighed a good deal less than solid timber.
An experienced photo interpreter could extract valuable intelligence information from seemingly unimportant details. The analysts associated baseball fields with Cuban troops, soccer fields with Soviet troops. A flower bed could provide valuable clues to the Soviet order of battle: some units used different-colored flowers to show off their regimental insignia. Large amounts of concrete frequently signaled some kind of nuclear installation. Without ever setting foot in Cuba, photo interpreters could feel its rhythms, appreciate its moods, and share vicariously in the lives of its inhabitants.
One of Lundahl's top assistants, Dino Brugioni, would later describe the elements that made Cuba so intriguing:
The hot morning sun; the afternoon rain clouds; the strange vegetation of the palm, coniferous, and deciduous trees; the tall marsh grass; the sugarcane fields in the plains; the small towns where people gathered; the large estates overlooking beautiful beaches; the thatched roofs of the peasant huts; the plush resort towns; the rich expanses of fincas, or ranches; the ubiquitous baseball diamonds; the cosmopolitan look of Havana and the sleepy and forgotten appearance of Santiago; the Sierra Maestras rising abruptly behind the coast; the small railroads leading from the sugar-processing centrals to the cane fields; the loneliness of the large prison on the Isle of Pines; the salt flats; the many boats and fishing yards; and the roads that cross and crisscross the island.
And in the center of this tropical paradise, like a strange excrescence upon the land, the Soviet missile sites.
8:19 A.M. FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26
By Friday morning, all four Soviet submarines in the Sargasso Sea had begun to pull back from their forward positions on orders from Moscow. Their mission had become very unclear. There were no longer any Soviet missile-carrying ships for them to protect: those that had not reached Cuba had turned back toward the Soviet Union. After a spirited debate in the Presidium, Khrushchev had decided against sending the Foxtrots through the narrow sea-lanes of the Turks and Caicos Islands, where they could easily be picked up by American submarine hunters. But the Soviet navy did authorize one submarine--B-36--to explore the wider Silver Bank Passage between Grand Turk and Hispaniola. It turned out to be a gross error of judgment.
B-36 was sighted by a U.S. Navy spotter plane at 8:19 a.m. eighty miles east of Grand Turk. The glistening black submarine was some three hundred feet long and twenty-five feet across, about twice the volume of a German U-boat. The number "911" in large white letters was clearly visible on its conning tower. The submarine submerged five minutes later. It was on a southerly course, headed toward Hispaniola, making about 7 knots an hour. The fact that it had been tracked and located marked a breakthrough for a new antisubmarine warfare device known as Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS.
Hunting submarines was a classic example of technological competition and escalation. One side would invent a quieter, faster, or less visible submarine; the other side would develop a new technology to counter it. It was difficult to find a snorkeling submarine by radar, but it could be detected by sound. The sound emitted by the noisy diesel engines was magnified beneath the water, and could travel hundreds of miles, sometimes thousands of miles. Sound waves could be plotted and triangulated in much the same way that radio waves were plotted and triangulated.
By the late fifties, the United States had installed a system of hydrophones, or underwater microphones, along the entire eastern seaboard. Once the general location of an enemy submarine had been determined through SOSUS, U.S. Navy aircraft could use sonobuoys and radar to find the precise position. The problem with SOSUS was that it picked up other objects, such as whales. More than eight hundred contacts had been registered with the system in the space of forty-eight hours. None of these contacts had yet resulted in a confirmed submarine sighting.
The naval facility on the tiny British island of Grand Turk--NAVFAC Grand Turk--was one of the earliest submarine listening posts. Built in 1954, the SOSUS station occupied a lonely peninsula on the northern tip of the six-mile-long island. Underwater cables linked the facility to a chain of hydrophones on the seabed. The hydrophones transformed sound waves into electrical charges that burned marks on outsize thermal paper rolls. A strong, clear line was a good indication of engine noise.
Technicians at NAVFAC Grand Turk had begun noticing the distinctive burn lines on Thursday evening. Submarine trackers reported "a reliable contact" at 10:25 p.m. and called in the patrol planes. They christened the contact "C-20," or "Charlie-20."
"Plane," shouted the watchman on the bridge of submarine B-36. "Dive!"
It took just a few seconds for the lookouts to scramble down the ladder of the conning tower. There was a loud gurgling sound as water flooded into the buoyancy tanks, expelling the air that kept the boat afloat. The submarine went into an emergency dive. Pots and plates flew in all directions in the galley.
Crew members rushed around the ship, turning valves and closing hatches. Most were dressed in shorts. Only the officer of the watch put on a blue navy jacket, for the sake of propriety. Many of the men had smeared a bright green antiseptic ointment over their bodies to alleviate the itching from thick red heat rashes, similar to hives. The stuffy air and the extraordinary heat, up to 134 degrees in parts of the ship, had taken their toll on the most hardy sailors. Everybody felt tired and weak, their brains numb with dizziness. Sweat poured off their bodies.
Lieutenant Anatoly Andreev had been keeping a diary in the form of an extended letter to his wife of twenty-five months. Even putting pen to paper was a monumental effort. Great globs of sweat dropped onto the page, smearing the ink. When he was not on duty, he lay in his bunk, surrounded by photographs of Sofia and their one-year-old daughter, Lili. They were his lifeline to a saner world, a world in which you breathed in fresh air and drank as much water as you liked and no one screamed at you for imaginary mistakes.
Everyone is thirsty. That's all anyone is talking about: thirst. How thirsty I am. It's hard to write, the paper is soaked in sweat. We all look as if we had just come out of a steambath. My fingertips are completely white, as if Lyalechka was one month old again, and I had just washed all her diapers.... The worst thing is that the commander's nerves are shot to hell. He's yelling at everyone and torturing himself. He doesn't understand that he should be saving his strength, and the men's too. Otherwise we are not going to last long. He is becoming paranoid, scared of his own shadow. He's hard to deal with. I feel sorry for him, and at the same time angry with him.
They had been at sea for nearly four weeks. B-36 had been the first of the four submarines to slip out of Gadzhievo in the dead of the night, without any lights. It had led the way across the Atlantic for the other subs. Captain Aleksei Dubivko was under orders from the Soviet navy to reach the Caicos Passage at the entrance to the Caribbean by the fourth week in October. He had to maintain an average speed of 12 knots, an extraordinarily fast pace for a diesel-electric submarine that could only do 7 or 8 knots underwater. For most of the voyage, it had been necessary to travel on the surface, using his diesel engines rather than his batteries and battling waves as high as a four-story building.
Apart from the grim conditions aboard ship, the journey had been fairly uneventful. The diesel engines were still functioning well--in contrast to Shumkov's experience in B-130, which was trailing four hundred miles behind. As far as they knew, they had managed to escape detection by the Americans until they arrived in the Sargasso Sea. The biggest drama was a crew member falling ill with appendicitis. The ship's doctor operated on him on the mess table in the wardroom. Since it was impossible to wield a scalpel accurately with the vessel pitching about on the surface, they conducted the operation fully submerged, cutting their speed to 3 knots and losing a day. The operation was successful.
Andreev kept up a steady commentary on his own state of mind and conditions on board ship in his rambling letter to his beloved Sofia. He was alternately awed by the power and beauty of the ocean and struggling with physical discomfort. "How magnificent the ocean is when it's angry. It's all white. I have seen bigger storms, but never anything more beautiful than this," he told Sofia, as the submarine headed across the Atlantic through gale-force winds. "The waves, what waves! They rise like mountain ridges, seemingly stretching on without end. Our vessel looks like a tiny bug next to them." After dusk fell, the ocean "became terrifying and menacing, and the beauty vanished. All that was left was the dismal blackness and the sensation that anything might happen at any minute."
When they reached the Sargasso, the sea turned "absolutely calm," the color of the water "something between navy blue and purple." But conditions on board ship deteriorated. The temperature in the coolest parts of the sub was at least 100 degrees. "The heat's driving us crazy. The humidity has gone way up. It's getting harder and harder to breathe.... Everyone's agreed that they would rather have frost and snowstorms." Andreev felt as if his head was about to "burst from the stuffy air." Sailors fainted from overheating. Carbon dioxide levels were dangerously high. Men who were not on duty would gather in the coolest section of the boat and "sit immobile, staring at a single spot."
There was not enough fresh water to go around, so the ration was cut to half a pint per crew member per day. Fortunately, there were plentiful supplies of a syrupy fruit compote, which the men drank for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The temperature in the freezer rose to 46 degrees. As the officer in charge of the galley, Andreev ordered an increase in the meat ration, as the meat was all going bad. But hardly anyone felt like eating. Many crew members lost a third of their body weight. The captain accused Andreev of making the food go bad on purpose. "I have become an enemy of the people," Andreev wrote. "There was a big row and I feel very badly about it. The heat's been getting to us."
He thought constantly of his wife and child. "The first thing I do when I wake up is say good morning to you both." While standing watch, he imagined himself on the deck of a luxury passenger liner with Sofochka. "You are in a light summer dress and feel chilly. We stand with our arms around each other, admiring the beauty of the sea by night." He sent greetings to his wife via the constellation Orion, visible simultaneously in Russia and the Atlantic. He remembered Lili "sitting in the sand with her little arm raised.... And here you are, my mermaid, coming out of the water with a wonderful smile.... You are trying to get a ball away from her with a serious face." Memories of the "tiny hands" of his daughter, "her happy smile, her little nodding head across the table from me, her laughter, her caresses," helped him get through the hardest moments of the journey.
B-36 reached the approaches to the Caicos Passage on schedule, just as the crisis was coming to a head. It was then that Captain Dubivko received an urgent message from Moscow, ordering him to hold back. Instead of attempting to negotiate the forty-mile-wide channel, he was instructed to redeploy to the eastern end of the Turks and Caicos Islands, 150 miles away. This was the long way round to Cuba, but the sea channel was twice as wide. The navy chiefs evidently believed that the risks of detection were much reduced if the subs kept away from the narrow sea-lanes.
As B-36 rounded Grand Turk Island, with its secret SOSUS station, U.S. Navy patrol planes appeared overhead. The Soviet sailors could hear the sound of muffled explosions as the patrol planes dropped practice depth charges and sonobuoys in an effort to locate them. The atmosphere inside the submarine became even more tense. "We are in the enemy's lair. We try not to reveal our presence to them, but they sense our closeness and are searching for us," noted Andreev.
By monitoring American radio broadcasts, Dubivko understood that the Soviet Union and the United States were close to war. He was required to come to the surface at least once every twenty-four hours, at midnight Moscow time, for a prescheduled communications session. Nobody at navy headquarters paid attention to the fact that midnight in Moscow was midafternoon in the western Atlantic. The risk of detection rose sharply during the hours of daylight. Even so, Dubivko was terrified of missing a communication session. If war broke out while he was in the depths of the ocean, B-36 would automatically become a prime target for destruction by the American warships lurking overhead. His only chance of survival lay in firing his nuclear torpedo before he himself was destroyed.
Dubivko was expecting the coded signal from Moscow to start combat operations "from one hour to the next."
NOON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26
Jack Kennedy was an avid consumer of intelligence. He enjoyed the voyeuristic sensation of peeking into other people's lives, and the power that came from the possession of secret information. He liked to see the raw data so that he could make his own judgments. When Andrei Gromyko visited the White House on October 18, four days after the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba, the U-2 photographs were sitting in the president's desk drawer just a few feet away. Kennedy had difficulty keeping his temper as the Soviet foreign minister continued to deny the existence of the missile bases. He told aides later that he could barely restrain himself from taking the incriminating photographs out of his desk and shoving them under the nose of the poker-faced Russian. He began referring to Gromyko as "that lying bastard."
Lundahl set up his easels in the Oval Office after the Friday morning ExComm meeting. He had brought along some of the latest low-level photography, and was eager to show the president the evidence of the rapid Soviet buildup. He reported that the ground was so drenched from recent rainstorms that the Soviets had erected catwalks around the missile sites, and were laying power cables on raised posts.
"Now this is interesting," interrupted John McCone, pointing to the photograph of the suspected FROG missile launcher. The CIA director explained that analysts were still "not sure" of the evidence, but it was possible that the Soviets had deployed "tactical nuclear weapons for fighting troops in the field."
But Kennedy's thoughts were elsewhere. He was already several steps ahead of the briefers. The more he learned about the scale and sophistication of the Soviet deployment on Cuba, the more doubtful he became of a diplomatic solution to the crisis. He needed to explore other options. Earlier that morning, he had listened to a CIA proposal to smuggle Cuban exiles onto the island in submarines for a sabotage operation against the missile sites. He wanted to know if it was possible to blow up a fuel trailer with a "single bullet."
"It would be fuming red nitric acid, sir," Lundahl replied. "If they're opened up, they might make some real trouble for those who are trying to contain it."
Kennedy noted that it would be much more difficult to destroy the FROGs, which operated on less combustible solid fuel.
"No, you couldn't shoot them up," agreed McCone, a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.
As the photo interpreter collected his materials, the president and the CIA director were still debating the options for getting rid of the missile sites. Though he had little faith in diplomacy, Kennedy feared that an air strike and invasion would end up in "a very bloody fight" that might provoke the Soviets into firing the missiles. Neither option was very appealing.
"Invading is going to be a much more serious undertaking than most people realize," McCone acknowledged grimly. "It's very evil stuff they've got there.... They'll give an invading force a pretty bad time. It'll be no cinch by any manner of means."
President Kennedy wanted the news about the Marucla to be put out "right now." His advisers believed that the successful boarding operation would help "restore our credibility" with disgruntled Pentagon admirals. His chosen vehicle for getting the Maruclastory out was an increasingly controversial figure in Washington, Arthur Sylvester.
During the first week of the crisis, the Pentagon spokesman had infuriated reporters with his tight-lipped approach to the release of information. He restricted himself to cautiously worded press statements, dictated over the phone by Kennedy or one of his aides. For both JFK and Sylvester, information was a "weapon," to be used deliberately and sparingly to promote the goals of the administration. Since the purpose of the exercise was the removal of the Soviet military threat to the western hemisphere, the ends clearly justified the means.
By Friday, reporters were complaining loudly that they were getting virtually zero information out of Sylvester. The two-a-day, sometimes three-a-day, news briefings were so uninformative that a journalist placed a tin can in the corner of the Pentagon press room labeled "automatic answering device." It was filled with slips of paper with Sylvesterisms such as "Not necessarily," "Cannot confirm or deny," and "No comment."
The frustration of the newsmen--there were no women covering the Pentagon on a regular basis--was understandable. The world appeared to be on the edge of nuclear annihilation, but it was difficult to find out what was really going on. This was a new kind of conflict, a shadowy, antiseptic confrontation with a largely unseen enemy. The stakes were huge, but there was no front line from which the reporters could report, no equivalent of Pearl Harbor or Okinawa or the beaches of Normandy. Reporters had been kept away from the most obvious news locales, such as the naval base at Guantanamo Bay or the ships enforcing the blockade. In reporting the gravest threat to international security since World War II, they were almost completely dependent on the scraps of information thrown their way by the administration.
Now that he finally had some news to divulge, Sylvester was determined to make the most of the opportunity. He updated reporters throughout the day on the status of the Marucla. He relayed minute-by-minute accounts of the boarding process, the names and addresses of military personnel involved, the cargo, tonnage, and precise dimensions of the Lebanese ship, the firepower of the American destroyers. But the reporters wanted more. They always wanted more.
1:00 P.M. FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26 (NOON HAVANA)
As Sylvester was describing the search of the Marucla, another little drama was unfolding in the Straits of Florida, far from the gaze of the news media. An American destroyer stationed fifty miles from the Cuban coast spotted a Swedish freighter that had somehow slipped through the quarantine line.
"Please identify yourself," signaled the destroyer, the Newman K. Perry, by flashing light.
"Coolangatta from Gothenburg."
"What is your destination?"
"Where are you coming from?"
"What is your cargo?"
The captain of the Coolangatta was a Swedish sea salt named Nils Carlson. He had the reputation in his company of being "temperamental and headstrong." The potatoes were beginning to rot, because of poor handling and packaging. He was disgusted with the Russians for their incompetence. But he was also irritated with the Americans for interfering with his right of free navigation. As he later told a Swedish journalist, he did not think that his run-down ship could be of any possible interest to the U.S. Navy.
The Perry had stationed herself about fifty yards off the starboard side of the Coolangatta. Carlson recorded the next signal from the American warship in his log as "Will you stop for inspection?" But his radioman was young and inexperienced in interpreting Morse. For all Carlson knew, the signal might have been an instruction rather than a question.
At any rate, he decided not to respond. After three weeks at sea, he was impatient to get to Havana. He gave the order for "full steam ahead."
Uncertain about his authority, the captain of the Perry cabled his superiors for instructions. The answer came back:
1. STAY WITH SWEDISH SHIP AND TRAIL.
2. DO NOT VIOLATE CUBAN WATERS.
Later that afternoon, McNamara issued an order to "let her go." The U.S. ambassador in Stockholm was instructed to raise the matter with the Swedish government, which seemed "puzzled why there was no conventional shot across bow." The ambassador worried that the "seeming vacillation on our part" would send a bad signal to neutrals. The anti-Kennedy faction at the Pentagon groused in private about the administration's fecklessness in enforcing the blockade.
For the time being, however, the dissidents held their tongues in public. Apart from a few unhappy admirals and generals and some befuddled diplomats, no one in Washington knew about the Coolangatta. It was as if the incident had never happened.
The next day's headlines were all about the Marucla.
Fidel Castro had summoned the Soviet ambassador to Cuba, Aleksandr Alekseev, to his command post in Havana. He wanted to share some alarming news he had just received from the Cuban state news agency in New York. Prensa Latina reporters, who all had close ties with Cuban intelligence, were picking up rumors that Kennedy had given the United Nations a deadline for the "liquidation" of Soviet missiles from Cuba. If the deadline was not met, the assumption was that the United States would attack the missile sites, either by bombing them or by a paratroop assault.
Castro liked and trusted Alekseev. Their relationship went back to the early months after the revolution when the tall, bespectacled Alekseev arrived in Havana as an undercover KGB agent posing as a TASS reporter. At that time, the Soviet Union did not even have an embassy in Cuba. The first Soviet citizen to be granted a visa to Cuba, Alekseev was an unofficial Kremlin envoy to the new regime, bringing Castro gifts of vodka, caviar, and Soviet cigarettes. The two men hit it off immediately. After diplomatic relations were established between Moscow and Havana, Castro made it clear that he much preferred dealing with the informal spy to the stodgy bureaucrat who served as the first Soviet envoy to Cuba. Khrushchev eventually recalled the ambassador and appointed Alekseev in his place.
As a KGB agent, and later as Soviet ambassador in Havana, Alekseev had a privileged view of the growing rift between Cuba and the United States and Castro's own metamorphosis from nationalist to Communist. He was standing on the podium in the Plaza de la Revolucion when Fidel announced on May Day, 1961, shortly after the Bay of Pigs, that the Cuban revolution was "a socialist revolution." "You are going to hear some interesting music today," Castro had told Alekseev mischievously as a Cuban jazz band struck up the Internationale, anthem of the worldwide Communist movement. A few months later, Castro declared that he was a Marxist-Leninist and would "remain one until the last day of my life."
At first, Soviet leaders did not quite know what to make of their new-found Caribbean friend. His boldness and impulsiveness made them nervous. Khrushchev admired Castro's "personal courage," but worried that his fiery Communist rhetoric "didn't make much sense" from a tactical standpoint. It would antagonize middle-class Cubans, and "narrow the circle of those he could count on for support" against the seemingly inevitable U.S. invasion. On the other hand, once Castro had declared himself a convinced Marxist-Leninist, Khrushchev felt duty-bound to support him. In April 1962, Pravda began referring to Castro as tovarishch, or "comrade."
Fidel had "unlimited confidence" in the power of the country that had used its "colossal rockets" to put the first man into space. He believed Khrushchev's boasts about the Soviet Union churning missiles out "like sausages" and being able to hit a "fly in space." He did not know precisely "how many missiles the Soviets had, how many the Americans had," but he was impressed by the image of "confidence, certainty, and strength" projected by Khrushchev.
The initial Soviet reaction to Kennedy's speech on Monday evening had pleased Castro. Khrushchev had sent him a private letter denouncing the "piratical, perfidious, aggressive" actions of the United States and announcing a full combat alert for Soviet troops on Cuba. There seemed no possibility that Moscow would back down. "Well, it looks like war," Fidel told his aides, after reading the letter. "I cannot conceive of any retreat." He had concluded long ago that hesitation and weakness were fatal in dealing with the yanquis--and that uncompromising firmness was the only way of averting an American attack.
Although Castro still trusted Khrushchev, he was beginning to have doubts about his resolve. He disagreed with Khrushchev's decision to turn around Soviet missile-carrying ships in the Atlantic. He felt the Soviets should be much firmer in halting American U-2 overflights of Cuba. And he could not understand why the Soviet delegate to the United Nations, Valerian Zorin, was still denying the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The way Fidel saw it, the denials made it seem as if Moscow had something to hide. It would be far better for the Soviet Union and Cuba to publicly proclaim their military alliance.
Castro shared his concerns with Alekseev, who in turn reported them to Moscow. American low-level overflights of Soviet and Cuban military installations were becoming increasingly brazen. The Americans would probably use the reconnaissance missions as a cover for surprise air attacks. Up until now, Cuban antiaircraft units had refrained from shooting at American planes to avoid undermining the diplomatic negotiations at the United Nations. Castro wanted Soviet leaders to know that his patience was limited.
Most troubling to Castro were signs that the Americans were trying to drive a wedge between him and his Soviet allies. He was amazed by American press reports suggesting that U.S. officials had grossly underestimated the numbers of Soviet troops in Cuba, and accepted Moscow's description of them as "advisers" or "technicians." It was hard to believe that the CIA knew less about these troops than it knew about the missile sites. To Castro's suspicious mind, the Americans must have an ulterior motive for playing down the Soviet military presence. By talking about Cuban troops rather than Soviet troops, they were hoping that the Soviet Union would not defend Cuba against an American attack.
With both his brother Raul and Che Guevara out of Havana, Fidel's closest adviser during this period was Osvaldo Dorticos, the Cuban president. Dorticos participated in Fidel's meeting with Alekseev. The more the two Cuban leaders thought about it, the more they convinced themselves that time was running out.
An American attack is "inevitable," an emotional Dorticos told the Yugoslav ambassador later that afternoon. "It will be a miracle if it does not come this evening, I repeat this evening."
2:30 P.M. FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26
Bobby Kennedy was a chastened man. At the start of the missile crisis, he had demanded a much more aggressive sabotage effort against Cuba. He had persuaded his brother to approve a long list of targets, such as the Chinese Embassy in Havana, oil refineries, and a key railroad bridge. He had even talked about blowing up an American ship in Guantanamo Bay, blaming Castro, and using the incident as a pretext for invading Cuba. But the threat of nuclear apocalypse had caused him to rethink his views.
With the world on the brink of nuclear war, it was necessary to bring some order into the dysfunctional Mongoose operation. It was sometimes difficult to tell who was in charge of the clandestine effort to topple Castro. The nominal "chief of operations" was Edward Lansdale, but he was an impractical visionary, mistrusted and ridiculed by the CIA and some of his Pentagon colleagues. The CIA part of the operation was led by Bill Harvey, who had made his reputation in Berlin in the early fifties overseeing the construction of a tunnel that tapped into communications cables in the Soviet sector of the city. It later turned out that "Harvey's hole" had been blown from the start by a Soviet double agent, but this did nothing to stop his ascent through the cloak-and-dagger world. "So you are our James Bond," JFK had said with an ironic smile, when first introduced to the bald and paunchy Harvey.
By the time of the missile crisis, the Harvey legend had been dented somewhat by an excessive fondness for double martinis. He was barely on speaking terms with Lansdale, and made little secret of his disdain for the Kennedys, dismissing them as "fags" because they lacked the guts to take on Castro directly. He regarded Bobby as an interfering amateur, referring to him behind his back as "that fucker." He was not much more respectful to his face. When RFK talked about taking anti-Castro Cubans out to his Hickory Hill estate in order to "train them," Harvey asked, "What will you teach them, sir? Babysitting?"
RFK, meanwhile, felt no compunction about going behind Harvey's back to establish his own contacts with the Cuban exile community in Miami. He had learned about a CIA plan to send sixty Cuban exiles to the island by submarine from an exiled Cuban leader, Roberto San Roman.
"We don't mind going, but we want to make sure we're going because you think it's worthwhile," San Roman had told him. Bobby discovered from Lansdale that three six-man teams had already been dispatched and seven more would soon be on their way. Another ten teams were being held in reserve. He was furious at Harvey for "going off on a half-assed operation" without his approval.
To sort matters out, RFK convened a meeting of the top Mongoose operatives in the windowless Pentagon war room known as "the Tank." The session soon degenerated into bureaucratic sniping, with Harvey as the pinata. The CIA man was unable to explain who had authorized him to send in the teams. Bobby questioned the strategy of "using such valuable Cuban refugee assets to form teams to infiltrate Cuba at a time when security would be exceedingly tight...operational results questionable, and losses high." Orders were issued to recall the three teams already on their way.
Reversing his earlier decisions, Bobby ruled out "major acts of sabotage" against Cuba as long as tensions were at boiling point. But he was not opposed to smaller-scale incidents that would be difficult to trace back to the United States. He agreed to attacks on Cuban-owned ships. "Sink in Cuban or [Soviet] Bloc ports, or high seas," Lansdale's memo read. "Sabotage cargoes. Make crews inoperative." The attacks would be carried out by "CIA assets" on board Cuban vessels.
Harvey's problems were compounded by General Maxwell Taylor, who asked about the sabotage operation against the copper mine in Matahambre that everybody else had forgotten about. Harvey did not have a satisfactory answer. The CIA had not heard from the two agents since their infiltration into Cuba on the night of October 19. Harvey muttered something about the men being "presumed lost."
Since it was after lunch--and his customary double martinis--Harvey was not at his most articulate. He managed to hide his condition from most members of the Special Group, but he struck an old CIA colleague as "obviously plastered." When Harvey had been drinking too much, he would settle his chin on his chest and mumble into his stomach in a deep voice, oblivious to everyone else in the room. He failed to appreciate the danger signal when Bobby announced that he had exactly two minutes to hear his explanation.
Two minutes later, Harvey was still droning on. Bobby picked up his papers and walked out of the room.
"Harvey has destroyed himself today," CIA director McCone told his aides upon returning to Langley. "His usefulness has ended."
McCone's comment would prove prescient. There was, however, one piece of unfinished business of which he was entirely unaware. It involved Harvey, the Kennedy brothers, Fidel Castro, and the Mafia.
The FBI had been searching for John Roselli, an underworld boss under investigation for racketeering. The so-called "dapper don" was believed to be the Mafia's representative in Las Vegas, making sure that the mob got its cut of the immensely lucrative casino revenues. The bureau had bugged his Los Angeles apartment and recruited informers to track his movements, but Roselli had somehow managed to slip away on October 19. The FBI lost track of him until the morning of Friday, October 26, when he flew into Los Angeles aboard a National Airlines flight from Miami under an assumed name.
What rank-and-file FBI agents did not know at the time was that the fifty-seven-year-old convicted mobster was working for the CIA, which had paid for his airline tickets, put him up in safe houses, and arranged for him to travel around the country incognito. They were also unaware that Roselli was the central figure in a series of futile attempts by the CIA to assassinate Castro, using snipers, bombs, and poisoned capsules. (FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had learned of the Roselli-CIA connection, but squirreled the information away for his own use.)
The CIA had recruited Roselli back in September 1960 at a time when the Eisenhower administration was thinking of moving against Castro. Prior to the Cuban revolution, the Mafia had controlled the casino business in Havana, but its assets were taken over by the Castro regime. Top CIA officials believed that the Mafia had both the motivation and the contacts in Havana to settle the score and promote American foreign policy interests at the same time. Harvey took over as Roselli's case officer and principal contact in April 1962. Several weeks later, he delivered a package of four poison pills to Roselli, assuring him that they "would work anywhere at any time with anything." The Mafia planned to use the pills against Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara. Harvey also dropped off a U-Haul truck filled with arms and explosives in a Miami parking lot, and gave the keys to Roselli. The CIA man and the gangster would meet in Washington, Miami, or the Florida Keys, where they could drink each other under the table and hold conversations no one could overhear.
Harvey had learned that military action against Cuba could be imminent at the Mongoose meeting with Bobby Kennedy on October 18. As often happened, his instructions were vague. He decided it was his responsibility to mobilize "every single team and asset that we could scrape together" in support of a possible invasion. In addition to the agents preparing to land in Cuba by submarine, he organized teams of frogmen to destroy ships in Havana Harbor and parachutists to blaze a trail to the missile sites. His "assets" included John Roselli.
By Roselli's account, Harvey sent for him "immediately" and put him in a safe house in Washington, to await further instructions. After a couple of days, Harvey decided that his protege would be more useful in Miami, "gathering intelligence." Roselli spent his time in Miami exchanging gossip about the possible invasion with anti-Castro exiles. The poison pills, euphemistically known as "the medicine," were in a "safe" place in Havana. The Mafia had not been able to find a way of placing one in Castro's food.
While there is no smoking gun tying the Kennedy brothers to the Castro assassination plot, there is some circumstantial evidence. Jack Kennedy discussed the possibility of Castro's assassination with a journalist, Tad Szulc, in November 1961, only to agree that it would be "immoral" and "impractical." Bobby raised no objection the following month when Lansdale sent him a memo proposing to use "certain of our own criminal elements...who have operated inside Cuba with gambling and other enterprises" to undermine the Castro regime. RFK threw a fit in May 1962 when CIA officials briefed him about the early stage of the assassination plot, but appears to have done little, if anything, to put a stop to it. He had his own connection to the Mafia in the form of a CIA agent named Charles D. Ford, who was given the alias "Rocky Fiscalini" and worked directly for the attorney general. RFK frequently talked about "getting rid" of Castro, without specifying exactly what he had in mind.
Harvey reported to the CIA's head of covert operations, Richard Helms, a cautious, career-minded bureaucrat who would later rise to become director. The two men made sure that their boss, McCone, was kept out of the loop. On the one occasion when the "liquidation of leaders" was raised in the Special Group, in August 1962, McCone expressed horror at the idea. An ardent Catholic, he told his colleagues that he could be "excommunicated" for condoning murder. The conspiratorial Harvey had the minutes altered to delete any written reference to assassination.
It is difficult to explain why Helms and Harvey would ask the Mafia to kill Castro without instructions from higher authority. On the other hand, it is possible that the Kennedy brothers refrained from issuing clear instructions to preserve the principle of "plausible deniability." Helms would deny talking to either Jack or Bobby Kennedy about political assassination. But Harvey understood that there were "no holds barred" and that the plot had the "full authority of the White House."
Harvey would come to see the notion of using the Mafia to kill Castro as a "damn fool idea." He had grave doubts about the Lansdale strategy of "helping Cubans to help themselves" without direct American military intervention. He would regale friends with stories of a dramatic meeting in the White House Situation Room at the height of the missile crisis, at which he supposedly told the president and his brother: "If you fuckers hadn't fucked up the Bay of Pigs, we wouldn't be in this fucking mess."
There are no documents, and no independent testimony, to support the CIA man's version of the climatic confrontation. But even if it never took place, it revealed a lot about his state of mind. Bill Harvey would never forgive the Kennedys for what he termed the "idiocy" of Operation Mongoose.
The headquarters of the CIA's secret war against Fidel Castro was a 1,500-acre campus on the southern fringes of Miami. The estate had served as a base for Navy blimps during World War II, but was sold to the University of Miami after being devastated by a hurricane. The university in turn had leased it to Zenith Technical Enterprises, a wholly owned subsidiary of the CIA. The internal CIA code name for the Miami operation was JM/WAVE.
During the course of 1962, JM/WAVE had grown rapidly, to become the largest CIA station outside of Washington. More than three hundred agency officers and contract employees worked at JM/WAVE, supervising a network of several thousand agents and informants, many of them Cuban veterans from the Bay of Pigs. The station's assets included over a hundred vehicles for the use of case officers, a mininavy for infiltrating agents into Cuba, a warehouse stocked with everything from machine guns to Cuban army uniforms to coffins, a gas station, a couple of small airplanes, hundreds of safe houses in the Miami area, a paramilitary training camp in the Everglades, and various maritime bases and boathouses. The annual budget for the operation exceeded $50 million a year.
To keep up appearances, a CIA officer served as president of Zenith, with an office for greeting visitors. Wall charts recorded phony sales figures and fictitious charitable contributions by employees. Dozens of smaller CIA front companies were scattered around Miami. The huge CIA operation was pretty much an open secret in the city. Many people, including reporters for the Miami Herald, knew that Zenith was a CIA front but felt they had a patriotic duty to keep quiet. When CIA operatives got in trouble with the police or the Coast Guard, a telephone call was usually sufficient to bail them out.
The JM/WAVE station chief was Ted Shackley, a tall, muscular, somewhat distant figure known to his colleagues as the "blond ghost." Just thirty-five years old, Shackley was one of the CIA's rising stars. He had a reputation for cold efficiency and a phenomenal memory. In Berlin in the early fifties, he had served under Bill Harvey, who had personally selected him for the Miami assignment. Shackley did his best to prevent Langley from poking into JM/WAVE affairs, but he had to endure the odd visits from Harvey, which were often memorable. On one occasion, Harvey wanted to get inside the building in the evening, and came across a doorway nailed shut with a two-by-four plank. There was another entrance one hundred feet away, but Harvey could not tolerate obstacles. He simply kicked his way in, growling, "I don't have time for this fucking door."
The officers in Shackley's secret army were mainly American; the foot soldiers were practically all Cuban. They were drawn from the ranks of the quarter of a million Cubans who had fled the island in the four years since Castro came to power. Although they were all passionately opposed to Castro, they had difficulty rallying around an alternative leader. A "counter-revolutionary handbook" drawn up by the CIA listed 415 Cuban exile groups and movements seeking to depose Castro, ranging from former Batista supporters to disillusioned revolutionaries. The handbook noted that some of the counterrevolutionary organizations were "sponsored by the [Cuban] intelligence services" for the purpose of staging provocations and sowing dissent in the ranks of the dissidents. Many of the groups existed only on paper, while others channeled their energy into competing with one another "for membership and U.S. financial support." The handbook bemoaned the lack of effective refugee leaders.
"The trouble with us Cubans," an exile leader told a reporter for The Washington Post, "is that everybody wants to be president of Cuba. We are putting personal ambitions above the national interest."
Many of the Cuban factions operated on their own. But several hundred cooperated with the CIA and accepted its tutelage. Their fighters were on the agency's payroll. The question that confronted Harvey and Shackley when the missile crisis erupted was how to make best use of these assets. They had had little success with sabotage raids. But they believed that the Cubans could gather useful intelligence on the Soviet military presence in Cuba to supplement the photographic reconnaissance. In the event of an American invasion, the intelligence gatherers would transform themselves into pathfinders for the U.S. military.
By Friday, JM/WAVE had twenty infiltration teams "safehoused" in the Miami area. A typical team consisted of five or six Cubans and included a radio operator. After long months of preparation, and numerous disappointments and false alarms, the Cubans were eager to go. Few doubted that this time--in contrast to the Bay of Pigs--the Kennedy administration was serious about getting rid of Castro. Shackley reported to Langley that his men were at the "highest possible pitch of motivation and state of readiness." In the Little Havana district of Miami, Bay of Pigs veterans sang their war anthem:
Que nada ya detenga
Esta guerra nuestra
Si es una guerra santa
Y vamos con la Cruz.
Let nothing stop
This war of ours
A holy war indeed
We march with the Cross.
Typical of the fighters waiting to be infiltrated into Cuba was a twenty-one-year-old student named Carlos Obregon. He belonged to a group calling itself the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil (DRE)--the Student Revolutionary Directory--made up of former Havana University students opposed to Castro for a mixture of ideological and religious reasons. Like most of his comrades, Obregon came from an impeccable upper-middle-class family. His father was a lawyer and he was educated at a Jesuit high school. His parents disliked Batista, but were even more opposed to the Communists, whom they regarded as evil personified. The family left Cuba shortly after the Bay of Pigs.
Together with a dozen other DRE members, Obregon began receiving military training from CIA instructors in October 1961. He was taken to a four-bedroom stucco house on Key Largo, and taught the basics of infiltration and exfiltration, handling of subagents, map reading, and handling of weapons and explosives. A few months later, the agency selected him for more intensive training as a radio operator. He was sent to the Farm in Virginia for a six-week course in guerrilla warfare. After passing a polygraph test, he was put on the CIA payroll at $200 a month and introduced to his case officer, a man known simply as "Jerry."
On Monday, October 22, Jerry told Obregon to wait with the rest of his team in a two-story wooden farmhouse in a rural area south of Miami. That evening, the five Cubans listened on the radio to Kennedy delivering what sounded like an ultimatum to the Soviet Union to withdraw its missiles. They were jubilant. The secret war was no longer secret. The United States was publicly backing their struggle.
Over the next four days, team members were issued with clothing, backpacks, and radio equipment they would need in Cuba. Obregon received a final communications briefing. Jerry introduced the team to a Cuban, recently arrived from the island, who would serve as their guide. Only the weapons remained to be distributed. They would leave for Cuba that weekend.
On Friday afternoon, Jerry arrived at the safe house to announce that the infiltration operation had been unexpectedly put "on hold."