Warren Kozak: The Missiles of October





[Mr. Kozak is the author of "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay" (Regnery, 2009).]

"All war is based on deception." —Sun Tzu

In the summer of 1962, the leader of the great Soviet empire, Nikita Khrushchev, faced a serious problem. His huge intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) didn't work. Their launchers were unreliable, their aim was off and the fuel used to rocket them skyward was so volatile that they had to be stored empty. In case of an attack, they would first have to be tanked up before being fired. The Soviet premier understood that since his ICBMs were a crucial part of his nuclear balance with the U.S., this put him at a major disadvantage.

However, Khrushchev did have a smaller, intermediate-range missile that was dependable, accurate and quite deadly. But it was too small to hit the U.S. all the way from Russia. So Khrushchev, the chess enthusiast, thought up a bold countermove. He decided to secretly place his smaller but more reliable missiles within range of the United States and, thus, in one stroke, completely level the playing field.

Under a false manifest, he sent an armada of ships carrying 60 missiles and 40 launchers along with a small army of 40,000 Soviet technicians on a clandestine journey to his new client state, Cuba. The trip took three weeks and the technicians were not allowed topside during the day in case they were seen by U.S. planes. In spite of numerous warning signs, the secret operation went undetected by Washington.

That's because the wily Soviet premier suckered the young American President, John F. Kennedy, by an exchange of messages that year. In an outright lie, Khrushchev promised Kennedy that he would not place any menacing weapons outside of the Soviet Union and Kennedy believed him. At the same time, Khrushchev stepped up the heat in Berlin—the other hot spot in the Cold War—focusing Kennedy's attention away from Cuba.

The ruse worked even though there were hundreds of reports concerning Soviet missiles coming from a variety of sources. But with each clue, the U.S. intelligence community failed the president by talking itself out of the possibility that the Russians would actually do what they were doing. However, there was one man in the federal government who felt uncomfortable with the status quo and believed it was his job to worry about exactly this kind of problem.

John McCone was a conservative Republican industrialist who had made a fortune building ships during World War II. He entered government service late, in the Eisenhower administration, and was clearly an odd duck in the group of Democratic New Frontiersmen. But on Robert Kennedy's insistence, President Kennedy placed him in charge of the CIA after the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961. McCone was smart. He constantly put himself in Khrushchev's head and he realized that summer that if he were the leader of the USSR, Cuba was exactly where he would place his short-range missiles...


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