Fifty years ago this month, an armada of Soviet ships crossed the Atlantic, headed toward Cuba. As this August 21 New York Times report shows, the Kennedy administration dismissed claims by Cuban exiles in Miami that the ships were carrying combat troops and sophisticated military equipment. U.S. officials were initially inclined to accept the Soviet explanation that most of the personnel arriving in Cuba were "civilian technicians," with a sprinkling of "military advisers."
As I describe in my book One Minute to Midnight, U.S. intelligence estimated Soviet troop strength in Cuba at between 4,000-4,500 as late as early October 1962, when by that time around 35,000 Soviet soldiers had arrived on the island. It was not until October 15 that the CIA figured out that these soldiers were equipped with nuclear weapons capable of destroying major American cities.
One reason for the bungled CIA intelligence was that the Russians are very good at what they called maskirovka, the art of concealment. They dressed their soldiers up to look like "agricultural technicians," in conformity with the cover story. The CIA did not latch on to the fact that the "agricultural technicians" were all wearing almost identical checkered shirts-see photograph above-leading Soviet wags to call the Cuban adventure "Operation Checkered Shirt."
But another reason for the miscalculation was the CIA's tendency to "mirror image." The intelligence analysts used American standards, rather than Russians standards, as the basis for measuring Soviet troop strength. They observed the number of Soviet ships crossing the Atlantic, figured out the likely deck space, and calculated the number of likely passengers. What they failed to understand was that the Russian soldiers were crammed below decks in almost slave transport conditions, with just sixteen square feet of living space per person, barely enough to lie down.
There was one person in the CIA who correctly guessed the reason for the massive Soviet armada crossing the Atlantic-and that was the director, John McCone. Informed that the Soviets were developing a sophisticated air defense system in Cuba, McCone reasoned that they must have something very important to hide-and guessed that it was nuclear missiles. But this was an inspired deduction, not an intelligence estimate, and it did not represent the official position of the CIA.
It should also be noted that McCone was the most senior Republican to serve in the Kennedy administration. His conclusions were politically embarrassing to the president, who was acutely aware of the approach of mid-term elections. In my next post, I will address a politically sensitive question that was raised again, four decades later, during the run-up to the Iraq War.
Did the intelligence people tell the president what they thought he wanted to hear?
I have posted a Q and A describing how I came to write my new book, Six Months in 1945. Key quote: "I am interested in hinge moments in history." You can read it here.
I am not the kind of writer who derives pleasure from the physical act of writing. When I sit down in front of my computer screen (I rarely write in any other way) I waste a lot of time procrastinating. I stare out the window, surf the Internet, fetch myself another glass of orange juice, anything to postpone the dreaded task of actually writing.
So why do I write? The obvious answer is that it is the way I earn a living. The more elevated explanation is that writing helps me to think—and is the way I best communicate, not only with other people, but also with myself.
Writing is the way I organize and refine my ideas about a subject I have researched as a historian or witnessed as a journalist. It is not until I hammer out the words on the keyboard that I see everything in context and test the theories that have been spinning around in my head. It is at this moment that I pull the results of my research together and form them into a coherent narrative.
A good example is my forthcoming book, Six Months in 1945, on the period between the Yalta conference and the bombing of Hiroshima. The physical act of writing forced me to make sense of the bewildering rush of events that accompanied the fall of Nazi Germany and the fateful encounter of America and Russia, in the heart of Europe. It was then that I understood that the Cold War actually began during this six-month period, despite the best intentions of the principals (FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman.)
Above all, writing is a miraculous form of communication. One of my journalistic role models when I started out was the British reporter Nicholas Tomalin, who was killed by a Syrian rocket during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Tomalin defined the reporter’s “required talent” as the “creation of interest,” explaining that a journalist “takes a dull, or specialist, or esoteric situation, and makes newspaper readers want to know about it.” Unlike university professors, journalists do not have a captive audience. We know we have to work hard to capture, and retain, an audience.
The trick, of course, is to do this without distorting the facts, and educate rather than titillate. It is tempting to try to create interest by hyping the story, filling your writing with superlatives such as “first,” “greatest,” “unprecedented,” ignoring the nuances that complicate the story. But it is much more satisfying to share the subtleties and complications with your readers. It is precisely the evidence that does not fit into the pre-cooked formulas that makes the research and writing process so interesting and rewarding.
In some ways, I find writing history books easier than daily journalism. This may be because I feel less constrained by the conventions of the trade, and am not looking over my shoulder so much. I like to tell stories with vivid characters, exotic locales, and an exciting, well-defined plot. They must also have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Academics can be condescending about narrative history, but I find that telling the story in chronological fashion is the best way to explain what actually happened—and to keep your readers turning the page which is, after all, the point of the entire exercise.
(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly, August 17 2012.)
I am learning new things every day tweeting the Cuban missile crisis -- even though I spent more than two years researching the subject for my book, One Minute to Midnight. In my book, I focus on the famous "13 days" when the world came closer to nuclear destruction than ever before, but this project has helped me gain a better understanding of the buildup to the crisis and the frenzied nuclear arms race that seized the world in the summer of 1962.
The months leading up to the crisis were dominated by a superpower confrontation over Berlin and an orgy of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. The photograph above shows one of the nuclear tests carried out as part of the Operation Dominic series near Johnston Island in the Pacific. The Soviet Union was carrying out similar tests in the Arctic at Novaya Zemlya, with yields of up to 50 Megatons, the largest devices ever exploded.
It came as news to me at least that Nikita Khrushchev attempted to persuade John Kennedy to install a direct Moscow-Washington hotline in July 1962 -- but was rebuffed by his American counterpart, as we reported in a tweet on July 23. JFK said huffily that superpower communications were not the problem, and there was no need to improve them. This was at a time when it took ten to 12 hours to transmit a message from the White House to the Kremlin and vice versa, a communications delay that proved extremely dangerous during the missile crisis.
It was not until after the missile crisis that the Americans finally agreed to install a hotline with Moscow.
I was also intrigued to find out that the United States tested its first anti-ballistic weapon in July 1962, extending the arms race into space. The whole idea of "Star Wars" -- made famous by President Reagan -- goes back to the nuclear arms competition between Kennedy and Khrushchev.
Michael Dobbs is the author of seven books, including the best-selling One Minute to Midnight. His latest book, King Richard, is about Nixon and Watergate.