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Ringside at the Missile Crisis

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Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George W. Anderson Jr. was part of the inner circle of military officers advising President John F. Kennedy on how to deal with the Soviet Union’s shipping missiles to Cuba.

In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union perched precariously on the brink of nuclear war. At this time of extreme challenge for U.S. leadership, there were serious disagreements within that echelon. In the event, the United States prevailed.

In 1983, the U.S. Naval Institute published The Reminiscences of Admiral George W. Anderson , an oral history in which the former Chief of Naval Operations reflected on his role in the crisis and on the controversial nature of his one-term tour as CNO. Excerpts from those recollections presented here are of enduring value.

President John F. Kennedy and a new generation took office in January 1961. If there were hopes for improved relations at the outset, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev soon found themselves on a road turning rocky. In April, the U.S. move to oust Fidel Castro from Cuba in the Bay of Pigs invasion failed miserably. In June, during their summit talks in Vienna, Austria, Khrushchev measured Kennedy as weak and pushed ahead on three fronts: strengthening the Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal; cutting off East and West Berlin with the Berlin Wall; establishing a stronger presence in the Western Hemisphere; and introducing a growing array of arms to Cuba.

On 1 October, the President appointed Army General Maxwell Taylor, center, to take over for General Lyman Lemnitzer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Taylor had been serving in the White House as military representative to the President. Flanking Taylor, left to right, are Army Chief of Staff General Earle Wheeler, Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson, and Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Shoup. Navy History and Hertigae Command

On 1 October, the President appointed Army General Maxwell Taylor, center, to take over for General Lyman Lemnitzer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Taylor had been serving in the White House as military representative to the President. Flanking Taylor, left to right, are Army Chief of Staff General Earle Wheeler, Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson, and Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Shoup. Navy History and Hertigae Command

Kennedy, feeling that he had not been served well by the CIA in the Bay of Pigs, replaced CIA Director Allen Dulles with John McCone. The President also felt the advice he had received from the Joint Chiefs of Staff was not up to par, so he brought General Maxwell Taylor back to active duty in the newly created post of military representative to the President. On 1 October, Taylor was formally named Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Within the White House, Kennedy sought to bring the reins for foreign policy and national-security management more fully into his hands. He named McGeorge Bundy the first national security adviser to the President, with his office in the West Wing. He also created his own national-security information staff—the Situation Room—in the West Wing.

Special counsel to the President, Theodore Sorensen, describes Kennedy’s relationship with his military insiders thusly:

Contrary to complaints that he was bypassing his military advisors in these drastic alterations, Kennedy met regularly if not frequently with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the President centralized military decision-making in the office of his civilian Secretary. [Robert] McNamara relied not only on the Joint Chiefs but also . . . on a brilliant array of civilian aides. . . . These “Whiz Kids,” as they were nicknamed, supplemented the military experience of the generals and admirals with economic, political, and other analyses. 1

Kennedy inherited forceful leaders and powerful personalities on his Joint Chiefs of Staff. Army General Lyman Lemnitzer was chairman. General David M. Shoup was Marine Corps Commandant. As newly appointed Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Curtis E. LeMay joined the chiefs in 1961. And that same year, Anderson succeeded Admiral Arleigh Burke after Burke completed his third term as CNO.

When he returned to Washington to become CNO, Anderson recalled the tension in the administration:

[I]t was quite apparent that the United States as a whole and the Navy in particular was very disappointed with the outcome of the Bay of Pigs. It had been a matter of continuing concern, and I personally sensed that there was a very high manifestation of the competitiveness of President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy to make up for what had gone on. As a matter of fact, as soon as I became a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it was clear that there was a weekly meeting at the higher political State Department level as to what could be done to redress the situation. 2

Anderson was very open in addressing his disapproval of McNamara’s style of management and his dislike for the meddling of the Whiz Kids staff. “I suggested to the Chiefs,” he recalled, “that we ask for a meeting with the Secretary of Defense in what we could call executive session and that we talk frankly and tell him what could be done to improve relationships between the military and the civilian side of the house.” The Chiefs agreed; Lemnitzer arranged the meeting, and McNamara came down accompanied by Deputy Secretary Roswell Gilpatrick.

Lemnitzer invited Anderson to speak first. The CNO said he had three issues susceptible of correction. “The first,” he said, “is that we are being inundated with demands from your office on matters that are basically the responsibility of the Chief of Naval Operations, requests that go down to various levels of the CNO’s staff, which take up a great deal of time to prepare answers, and further questions come down, further demands for detailed information. These requests are being imposed by one of your staff officers who cannot even pass a U.S. naval security clearance.”

Anderson went on to sum up the balance of the meeting: “. . . they went around the table and LeMay talked a little bit about strategic forces, the Army didn’t have much to say, and David Shoup saw the handwriting on the wall and kept pretty quiet. The net result was that I had put the Secretary of Defense’s staff on report. . . .” It was a tense atmosphere, indeed.

Against this backdrop during the summer and early autumn of 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis was taking form. As of 1 July, intelligence monitoring of Soviet military deliveries to Cuba indicated that 160 tanks, 770 field artillery and antitank guns, 560 antiaircraft guns, 35 jet fighters, 24 helicopters and 3,800 military vehicles of various types had entered the island nation. On 27 July, Castro announced that Cuba would soon have new defenses against the United States. On 29 August, as weaponry continued to roll off Soviet ships into Cuban ports, a CIA U-2 photographed the first SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). 4

By October the number of Soviet tanks, field artillery, and antitank weapons had doubled; jet fighters had tripled. The construction of 24 SAM sites with 500 missiles was under way. The sites were being constructed in the outlines of trapezoids, which indicated to U.S. photo interpreters and analysts that they were not there to guard against air attack. They were point defenses, similar to SAM sites protecting ballistic-missile launch sites in the Soviet Union.

The President authorized additional U-2 flights over western Cuba. On 15 October, U-2 film revealed ballistic-missile carriers, associated equipment, and support trucks. The camera had caught a medium-range ballistic-missile (MRBM) convoy pulling into the cover of a wooded area. The President, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were shown the photographic evidence.

The President then convened the first of many Executive Committee meetings in the White House. Reconnaissance flights continued. U-2 photographs taken on 17 October revealed construction of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) site just west of Havana. The SS-5 IRBM had a range of over 2,200 miles and could hit almost any U.S. target. Intelligence analysis showed that the Soviets and Cubans were working nonstop to set up 24 MRBM launchers plus 18 reserves for a total of 42 SS-4 MRBM nuclear missiles, as well as three fixed IRBM launch sites, each with four launchers. If these sites were completed, their missiles would significantly alter the strategic balance. Intelligence had additionally photographed the shipboard arrival of the first of 42 disassembled, nuclear-weapons-capable Ilyushin Il-28 (NATO code-named Beagle) bomber aircraft.

At the White House, the Executive Committee weighed the new evidence. On 18 October, the President proceeded with an office call by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, an appointment that had been made many weeks before. Without tipping his hand about the U.S. discovery of the Soviet MRBMs, IRBMs, and bombers in Cuba, the President underscored to Gromyko the unacceptability of Soviet offensive nuclear weapons on the island. Gromyko responded with assurances that the weapons being introduced were strictly defensive.

Two options for responding to the Soviets were the subject of intense debate as the Executive Committee sessions continued: one, a maritime blockade of Cuba, and two, a military strike on Cuba. Those favoring the blockade—or a quarantine, which would not be an act of war—included McNamara. They argued that it applied pressure on the Soviets at the same time that it did not risk pushing Khrushchev beyond the brink. It would demonstrate U.S. resolve, while giving the President time and leverage in demanding that the Soviet Union withdraw its missiles and bombers from Cuba. McNamara reinforced his argument with the point that a surprise U.S. air strike against the missile bases alone—a surgical strike—was impractical, even in the eyes of the military, and that all military installations would have to be attacked.

On 19 October, with the U.S. response still undecided, the President invited the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the White House. General Earl Wheeler was then Army Chief of Staff. The chiefs were unanimous in arguing for a military strike.

In his oral-history record of these meetings, Anderson remembered, “And so, finally, we met with the President and the Chiefs of Staff, and the President said that he understood that there were differences of views on the Joint Chiefs of Staff about what he had decided to do, but that he had decided to take this initial step of quarantine, but this did not preclude other actions that might be necessary if that did not work.”

In an Executive Committee meeting on 21 October, at the request of the President, Anderson described in detail how the Navy would carry out the quarantine, from the first signaling to approaching ships, to boarding procedures, to warning shots, and then actual disabling shots into the rudder if a ship refused to stop. He recalled the following exchange: “As we left the White House after the meeting, the President said to me: ‘Admiral, this is up to the Navy.’ And I said: ‘Mr. President, the Navy will not let you down.’”

As he recalled that phase of the crisis, Anderson continued:

So we had gotten into the position of moving our forces around to the best military posture the Navy could adopt, and we had a pretty formidable position at that time. For example, we had all our available Polaris submarines at sea; we had a line of defensive submarine barriers across the Atlantic; we had our patrol squadrons scouring the Atlantic from the best possible bases for reconnaissance and, particularly, Russian submarines. We had our Marine battalions in a high degree of readiness.5

With the Navy already moving into position, on 22 October at 1900, the President gave his radio and television report to the American people on the Soviet arms buildup in Cuba. He reported on U.S. surveillance there, the hard evidence of Soviet introduction of offensive nuclear ballistic missiles, and the seven initial steps he directed be taken in defense of U.S. security and the entire Western Hemisphere:

First : To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine of all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.

The President then reported on the additional steps he had ordered:

  • Increased surveillance of Cuba, and should offensive Soviet actions continue, preparation of U.S. armed forces for any eventualities
  • A determination that it would be the policy of the United States that if any missile were launched from Cuba it would be treated as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response
  • Reinforcement of the U.S. base at Guantanamo, with evacuation of dependents
  • Convening of the Organization of American States to invoke articles providing for the collective defense
  • Convening of the U.N. Security Council
  • Calling on “Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations.” 6

As the President delivered his address, U.S. armed forces around the world were placed on DEFCON ( Defense Condition) 3. Navy units operating under the flagship heavy cruiser USS Newport News (CA-148) steamed into place implementing the quarantine around Cuba. Army troops boarded trains and convoys for a potential invasion jumping-off point in southern Florida. On 25 October, the United States raised the readiness of Strategic Air Command (SAC) forces to DEFCON 2. One-eighth of SAC bombers were on airborne alert, and some 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles were on alert as well.

Anderson and his Navy staff managed control of the naval operation in the Pentagon’s Flag Plot. With the quarantine in place, as the Navy tracked surface shipping and Soviet submarines, he recalled

One incident occurred. We knew where one of these particular submarines was located. We had that information from the most highly classified intelligence that the Navy had at the time. . . . We had a destroyer sitting on top of this submarine. One evening, McNamara, Gilpatric, and an entourage of his press people came down to Flag Plot and, in the course of their interrogations, they asked why that destroyer was out of line. I sort of tried to pass it off because there were some of McNamara’s people there who were not cleared for this information, but some of my own watch officers were not cleared for it in the general area of Flag Plot. After some discussion, I said to McNamara—he kept pressing me—“Come inside,” and I took him into a little inner sanctuary where only the people who had clearance for that particular type of classified information were permitted, and I explained the whole thing to him and to his satisfaction, as well. He left, and we walked down the corridor, and I said, “Well, Mr. Secretary, you go back to your office and I will go back to mine and we’ll take care of things. . . .” I heard nothing of that until after the TFX [an Air Force tactical fighter program that McNamara, much to Anderson’s disagreement, tried to merge with the Navy], then the story was leaked through his own public information people that I had insulted him by making this remark over the incident in Flag Plot. And, it’s still there; they’re still correcting it in most of the stories that come out about the Cuban Missile Crisis. 7

The Navy’s blockade proved effective, with attention being given not only to all surface shipping but also to Soviet submarines either en route or already in area beyond the quarantine line. The Soviets’ measured response to the quarantine was of critical importance to the President’s measured approach to the crisis. No ships with prohibited or even questionable cargoes tried to run the blockade. This said, time was running short. The MRBMs would become operational on 28 October.

On the 26th, Khrushchev sent Kennedy first one message, then another. The first couched the Soviet Union’s conditions for the withdrawal of its missiles and bombers from Cuba in terms of a requirement for an end to the U.S. blockade and a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba. The second message added an additional, more difficult demand, that the United States also remove its missiles from Turkey.

In a 27 October meeting of the Executive Committee, Robert Kennedy proposed that the United States reply to Khrushchev’s first message. That was approved. The President’s reply opened on a positive tone, welcoming Khrushchev’s “desire to seek a prompt solution to the problem.” He stressed that work had to stop on the missile bases and that all offensive weapons had to be removed. The United States, in turn, would lift the quarantine and would assure the Soviets that it would not invade Cuba.

On 28 October 1962, Khrushchev agreed to Kennedy’s terms. Work on the missile bases stopped. The first phase of removal of offensive weapons began. U.S. surveillance units and the U.S. Navy monitored the withdrawal. The Cuban crisis was now fading and would soon be over.


1. Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 606.

2. The Reminiscences of Admiral George W. Anderson Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired) , vol. II (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1983), 540.

3. Ibid, 496–97.

4. A. Denis Clift and John T. Hughes, “The San Cristobal Trapezoid,” Studies in Intelligence , vol. 36, no. 5, (1992), 58.

5. Anderson, Reminiscences , 545–46.

6. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, John F. Kennedy, 1962, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963), 806–08.

7. Anderson, Reminiscences , 558–59.