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The Cuban Missile Crisis
Aerial Photo of Missiles, 1962

Mar 17, 2006, 3:22pm

Aerial Photograph of Missiles in Cuba (1962)

Aerial Photograph of Missiles in Cuba (1962)
MRBM Launch Site 2 San Cristobal 1 November 1962; United States Department of Defense: Cuban Missile Crisis, 10/1962-11/1962, PX 66-20-91; ARC #193933; John F. Kennedy Library; NARA

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was one of the turning points of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. At that time the two superpowers came close to war, possibly with nuclear weapons; after it, both countries began to seek ways to adjust to each other, in particular, to prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated the maturity of the U.S. intelligence community, especially in its ability to collect and analyze information. The crucial roles of human intelligence (HUMINT) and photographic intelligence (PHOTINT) in the Cuban Missile Crisis have been known from the beginning. Documents declassified and released in 1998 now reveal that signals intelligence (SIGINT) also played an exceedingly important part in managing the crisis.

When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba by overthrowing the previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista, he was hailed as a liberator by the Cuban people themselves and became a hero to the American people as well. However, Castro soon took actions inimical to American interests and aligned his country publicly with the Soviet Union. The U.S. public and government were gravely concerned about the creation of a communist state and member of the Soviet Bloc only seventy miles from its southern shores; this problem became a major focus of the new Kennedy administration when it took office in January 1961.

On October 22, President Kennedy appeared on television and announced the U-2 findings to an anxious public. Despite assurances from the Soviet government that the buildup was defensive in nature, he said, medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles had been introduced into Cuba. He called for their withdrawal or elimination. As one measure to solve the crisis, he proclaimed a naval "quarantine" of Cuban ports to prevent the introduction of additional Soviet armaments. Kennedy also warned that further actions might be needed if the buildup of offensive weapons continued.

The answer came the next day, from signals intelligence. A Navy SIGINT direction finding net in the Atlantic located the Soviet ships by intercepting and triangulating messages that they were sending back to the Soviet Union. The ships were stopped dead in the water, outside the ring of American naval vessels waiting for them. A confrontation had been averted, one that might have precipitated war. The president, his cabinet, and the American people could breathe a little easier.

Later, once the Soviets agreed to remove the ballistic missiles from Cuba, NSA reports also provided evidence to the American government that the Communist Bloc also considered the crisis over.

Source: National Security Agency (Exerpt)

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