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Role of American Intelligence in Cuban Missile Crisis


In the 1960s, a unique international event happened between the United States and the Soviet Union. The US had developed and deployed strategic missiles in Turkey, which seemed to be one of the reasons for a counteraction from the Soviet Union chairman Khrushchev. Previously however, the United States had invaded Cuba with the aim of overthrowing Fidel Castro using the local rebels of Cuba whom they trained.

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These two reasons made Khrushchev deploy missiles in Cuba without the knowledge of US intelligence. The secret deployment however was revealed by the use of the spy aircraft (U-2 aircraft) that the CIA had used in several other operations, which revealed photographs of missiles in Cuba. The aim of Khrushchev before this revelation is not known but is believed to be the reason he gave for deploying missiles just 90 miles from Florida.

The fight between these two countries was the deployment of missiles in Turkey by the US and Cuba by the Soviet Union and this had to be resolved. US as indicated above had missiles already in Turkey and the Soviet Union seemed to aim at challenging this superiority. The US was still a democratic country with a democratic intelligence organization while the Soviet Union was an autocratic country with an autocratic intelligence organization. This is also one of the causes of rivalry between these countries. Additionally, the United States had attacked an autocratic country (Cuba), a country that voluntarily decided to be a communist without being forced by the Red Army (Allison, 1998; Noung, 2006).

The Cuban missile crisis actually began in 1962. This paper aims to describe the role played by the United States intelligence (CIA) in the Cuban missile crisis. According to the information revealed about their actions, this organization helped resolve the crisis. Their actions before the crisis however may have contributed to the beginning of the crisis. In order to explain the role of CIA in this missile crisis, previous events “the Bay of Pigs” will be described as well as events before the crisis and the crisis itself. There were successes in the CIA that in the end led to a post-crisis with a peaceful resolution as will be explained. Without a resolution, this crisis may have led to a nuclear war.

Pre- Cuban Missile Crisis

Before this crisis, America had been planning to overthrow Fidel Castro the leader of Cubans. Cuban had revolutionized to become a communist country a move that could not be tolerated by President John F. Kennedy. Before this revolution the predecessor of John F. Kennedy; Dwight D. Eisenhower had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba after learning that Cuba’s revolution was a social revolution (The Crisis Center, 1997). This was in 1961, and before, this the CIA already had plans to assassinate Fidel Castro and were recruiting anti-revolutionary Cuban exiles.

The Bay of Pigs

The plan was to invade the island and make it look like the Cubans invaded their own country to overthrow Castro and not to appear as if Americans were involved. Objectives of the CIA in accomplishing this mission of overthrowing Castro were; to develop a mass communication means to the Cubans which would be a propaganda offensive, to create a Cuban opposition to Fidel Castro’s regime, to create a covert intelligence and action organization in Cuba that would assist the anti-revolutionary Cubans and to develop a paramilitary force for future guerrilla actions (Ameringer, 1990 p. 31; Sierra, 1961).

The Cuban government was aware there would be an invasion and so prepared but they never knew the exact date of the invasion. The US CIA plan never went as expected and the operation failed with about 200 Cuban exile men dying and the rest about (1,197) being captured and held as prisoners (Ameringer, 1990; Sierra, 1961). The Cuban exiles were to invade the island and the US was to provide air cover and supplies for the operation which never happened as planned due to interference from political and administrative decisions (Ameringer, 1990 p. 32; Sierra, 1961).

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This failed attempt to overthrow Castro was a big embarrassment to the CIA and President John F. Kennedy. The then CIA Allen, W. Dulles got fired by the president along with deputy director Charles Cabell and Richard Bissell (Ameringer, 1990). This failed attempt was not only a major victory for the Cuban revolution but also an opening for major confrontation between the Soviet Union and US. The Cuban missile crisis was to begin. Kennedy never gave up on eliminating Castro and a plan code: “Operation Mongoose” was initiated meant to eliminate Castro through any means possible (Ameringer, 1990 p. 32; Sierra, 1961).

Deployment of Missiles

The real story now begins with the Soviet Union sending MRBMs to Cuba in 1962. Khrushchev, did not rely on intelligence advice to send missiles to Cuba, he had his own reasons and accepted information if only it supported his motives. “Intelligence on the Soviet Union’s side was only acknowledged when it supported the leadership” (Noung, 2006). Already Khrushchev knew that the US had a hostile attitude towards Cuba due to the failed invasion and Soviet Union sources also by this time had predicted a nuclear attack on USSR by the hawks in the pentagon and even giving a specific date of attack as September 1961. According to the KGB and GRU intelligence information, the United States had not attacked due to fear of the nuclear tests in Russia. Global superpower politics and Bay of Pigs invasion are the two main reasons that led to this crisis.

The Soviet Union triumphed in the pre-crisis succeeding to infiltrate 100 tactical nuclear weapons, 50,000 soviet troops and 60 nuclear warheads through covert action which remained a secret even to the Soviets themselves (Noung, 2006).

Americans suspected that something was going on in Cuba but the information and analysis picked up by the CIA only revealed a training mission. Large Soviet combat force was not exposed and the Soviet forces moved at night and prevented any detection possible through radio silence by the American signal intelligence ships.

Very little effort was taken by the military intelligence of the Soviet Union to hide missiles and the missile bases and to analyze what reaction the Americans would have towards missiles in Cuba (Noung, 2006). The missiles and the missile bases were revealed by the U-2 spy plane used by the CIA.

This plane had been used for around five years and had given useful information about US rivals. Previous information (photographs) taken by the plane before October 14th 1962 however had revealed no signs of missiles or missile bases and the CIA had viewed that Soviet Union would never deploy missiles in Cuba (Allison, 1998).

Major Richard Heyser was the pilot of the U-2 spy plane on 14th October that flew across Cuba due north to the west of Havana covering 75 miles wide and taking a total of 928 pictures. The film was taken to Naval Photographic Interpretation Center where interpretations revealed missiles and missile bases in Cuban land (Kent, 1972). This marked the most intelligence success for the United States CIA as it revealed that there was a crisis developing.

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Before this proof however, the CIA had suspected a crisis in progress but was only in the DCI’s (McCone’s) office and in congresses. McCone had suspected the deployment of nuclear missiles based on SAM sites in Cuba which he believed protected something very important (Noung, 2006). The fact that Cuba was unique geographically (that is, missiles deployed in that area could attack US but not Russia) and circumstantially, (had been invaded by US), McCone suspected a plan was underway but never had the evidence to prove this. It was not until October 14th that these suspicions proved to be right (Noung, 2006).

There are several reasons why the US could not find out the missiles and the missile bases at first. The CIA did not know where to look since it had so many suspicious reports from which to analyze and set regions for survey. According to Noung and Welch, the CIA had a lot of reports most of which were planted by the Cuban intelligence and KGB (2006; 1993). Only one report led to the identification of the appropriate site to target for surveillance. An SS-4 missile detection report received by the CIA on October 3rd in Miami CIA processing facility changed everything. It led to the surveillance of San Christóbal (Welch, 1993 p. 427; Noung, 2006).

The Cuban Missile Crisis

According to the life history of Nikita Khrushchev, the placing of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba was a counteraction to the US lead in deployment of missiles. US had already deployed strategic missiles in Turkey and so Khrushchev felt that if America had missiles in Turkey, there was nothing wrong with the Soviet Union having missiles in Cuba. He also convinced the policymakers that this scheme was a way to prevent any further attacks on Cuba by the US (Welch, 1993; Kennedy et al, 1971).

Nikita obtained an approval from Fidel Castro and secretly installed missiles in Cuba. This was however discovered as has been explained earlier and the president of United States of America-John F. Kennedy was informed about the installation on 16th of October 1962. The United States administration took seven days to debate the issue and to decide on the next move. The Soviet Union however still denied that offensive missiles were being installed in Cuba (Welch, 1993; Kennedy et al, 1971).

On 22nd OCTOBER, John F. Kennedy announced that the US had discovered the missile installations and that any attack from Cuba would be considered an attack by the Soviet Union of which US would respond to. A naval quarantine was also placed on Cuba to prevent any further transportation of military weapons into the country (Welch, 1993 p. 425).

During this crisis, President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev exchanged letters both formal and informal and other communications. Kennedy received letters on 23rd and 24th indicating the peaceful intentions of the Soviet Union and the prevention nature of the missiles. Another letter from Khrushchev was received on 26th indicating that the missiles would be taken apart if America and its proxies promised not to invade Cuba (Welch, 1993 p. 425; Kennedy et al, 1971).

Another proposal came in 27thOtober which indicated that the missiles in Cuba would be done away with if America promised to remove her missiles in Turkey. The crisis ended with America accepting the first offer of not invading Cuba. Khrushchev then announced on 28th October that the missiles would be dismantled and taken back to the Soviet Union. From here further negotiations were to implement the agreement, to specify the exact forms of unwanted invasions in Cuba and to implement US demand for Soviet bombers to be out of Cuba as well (Kennedy et al, 1971; Allison, 1998).

The Role of US Intelligence

Based on the plan of the CIA intelligence that failed, the Soviet Union made moves which were to consult Castro to develop and deploy missiles in his country for protection. This failure led to the decisions made by the Soviet leader, which in turn brought the missile crisis.

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The important role played however is in resolving the crisis which was in the pre-crisis stage where the US intelligence was able to find out missile bases and missiles before the complete mission of the Soviet Union; missions which were unknown until the discovery. Discovering the missile sites some weeks before they became operational means the CIA intelligence gave the policymakers a chance and time to think before acting. Without this kind of information, President John F. Kennedy would not have had a strong stand in the crisis (Welch, 1993 p. 427; Noung, 2006).

McCone the CIA director suspected that something was going on in Cuba that would involve the United States but never forced his suspicions in CIA reports (Welch, 1993). This played a vital role in the intelligence community’s success for if he would have insisted on his suspicion being included on the report, it would have changed the CIA’S estimates based on his suspicion hence damaging his relationship with the community and the community’s credibility (Noung, 2006).

The CIA’s analysis of the report that revealed missiles in Cuban soil also contributed to the success of resolving this crisis. Without acceptance of such a report of the existence of MRBM, surveillance would not have been sent to San Christóbal (Welch, 1993). Before the proof of missiles in Cuba, the CIA had views that missiles could never be installed in Cuba by the Soviet Union; this never affected their analysis on the report to find out the truth. Their action during the pre-crisis should also be given credit. The CIA never jumped to conclusions; instead, they took time to find evidence irrespective of previous allegations that the Soviet Union had started installing missiles in Cuba (Noung, 2006).

The CIA also had failures of which can be termed to have led to the success in resolving the crisis. The CIA never discovered the full extent of the Soviet Union’s force in Cuba. Soviet Union’s reason for installation of missiles was for Cuba’s protection and counteraction on US having deployed missiles in Turkey (Welch, 1993 p.428). The installation was kept secret until discovered by the US intelligence without the knowledge of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union might have had other reasons but were detected before action. The fact is that 60 nuclear warheads, 50,000 troops and 100 tactical nuclear weapons were in Cuba yet these were not discovered by the CIA. If these could have been detected and information communicated to ExComm, a more realistic appraisal would have been taken on the situation (Welch, 1993 p. 429; Noung, 2006).


The CIA performed remarkably well in providing intelligent information and services that led to resolving the Cuban crisis. Because of their action, the burden of avoiding nuclear war rested. The Soviet Union might have done better since they had months to plan before US knew of their operation but had a poor intelligence team. Their intelligence failed to analyze what the US’s reaction would be upon finding out their operations in Cuba. The CIA failed operations may also have contributed to the crisis as indicated by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who explained the reason for installation of missiles in Cuba as protection from further US invasion. Their services afterward however, led to new decisions hence saved the world from nuclear war.


Allison, G. (1998). Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. California, US: Benjamin-Cummings Publishing Company.

Ameringer, C. (1990). Cuba. Toronto: Lexington Books.

Kennedy, R. F., Neustadt, R. E. and Allison, G. T. (1971). Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York, US: Norton.

Kent, Sherman. (1972). The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962: Presenting the Photographic Evidence Abroad, Central Intelligence Agency, Studies in Intelligence, EXCERPTS 1972. 

Noung. (2006). Intelligence in the Cuban Missile Crisis

Sierra, J.A., (1961). Invasion at Bay of Pigs. 1961, History of 

The Crisis Center. (1997). The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Bay of Pigs, Think Quest Team.

Welch, D. A. (1993). Intelligence Assessment in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Queen’s Quarterly , 2 (100), 421-437.

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