In September 1962, CIA Director John
McCone was honeymooning in Europe but couldn't take his eyes off Cuba. Convinced
the Soviets were secretly deploying nuclear missiles 90 miles
from Florida, McCone repeatedly cabled Washington with his concerns. Nobody
believed him. McCone was operating on a hunch, without solid evidence. When the
CIA issued a Special National Intelligence
Estimate about the Soviet arms buildup in
Cuba on September 19, it disregarded the director's views entirely. That
estimate, like the previous three, concluded the Soviets would not dare put
nuclear missiles in Cuba. A month later, U2 spy planes snapped photographs that confirmed McCone's worst fears and ushered in the most dangerous 13
days in history.
As the Cuban missile crisis turns 50 this month, it stands alone as the most studied event of the nuclear age. Academics have written so much about that eyeball-to-eyeball moment that there are articles about why we should stop writing articles about it. But there is at least one key lesson that still has not been learned. Generations of scholars and practitioners have insisted on calling the crisis an intelligence success when there is much more to be learned by calling it a failure.
The success narrative says the CIA discovered Soviet missiles before they became operational, enabling President Kennedy to seize the initiative and save the day. But that's the end of the story. The beginning is just as important and more often forgotten: The CIA failed to anticipate the presence of Soviet missiles despite widespread knowledge that Soviet arms shipments were escalating dramatically that summer. All four intelligence estimates on Cuba published in 1962 had a reassuring quality, highlighting evidence that the Soviets sought to defend the island with conventional arms, not deploy nuclear missiles there. Instead of inoculating the Kennedy administration against the horrors of a possible Soviet missile surprise, the intelligence estimates made the surprise even more sudden and shocking.
It is comforting to think that we avoided nuclear Armageddon through artful diplomacy, steely nerves, and timely intelligence. But the truth is we got lucky. During the height of the crisis, a previously scheduled test simulating a missile attack from Cuba was mistakenly identified as a real incoming strike, giving the North American Air Defense Command just minutes to determine what to do. In a 2002 missile crisis anniversary conference (yes, there are these things), scholars learned for the first time that one Soviet submarine captain actually did order preparations to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo off the U.S. coast on October 27. Were it not for a man named Vasili Arkhipov, who convinced the captain to wait for further instructions from Moscow even as they were being bombarded by U.S. Navy depth charges and running out of air, events could easily have taken a tragic turn. Other terrifying examples abound, showing just how close the edge of disaster really was.
Calling something a success or failure is not just an exercise in tweedy semantics. It shifts the focus from "what went right" to "what went so wrong." And what went wrong 50 years ago is still going wrong today; two lingering questions from 1962 suggest the silent but deadly effects of organizational pathologies in intelligence.
1. Why did analysts miss the signals of Khrushchev's true intentions?
Sherman Kent, who led the CIA's estimating shop during the crisis, argued that intelligence estimates missed the mark mostly because Khrushchev was nutty. "There is no blinking the fact that we came down on the wrong side," he admitted in 1964. But Kent added, "no estimating process can be expected to divine exactly when the enemy is about to make a dramatically wrong decision." In other words, let's blame Khrushchev and hope for more predictable adversaries in the future.