By Max Holland
The Kennedy administration harbored three great secrets in connection with the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, not just two, as widely understood.
The most sensitive, of course, was the quid pro quo that ended the acute phase of the crisis. In exchange for the prompt, very public, and verified withdrawal of Soviet missiles, President Kennedy publicly pledged not to invade Cuba and secretly committed to quietly dismantling Jupiter missile sites in Turkey in 1963. Management of this first secret was so masterful— involving public dissembling, private disinformation, and a plain lack of information—that the quid pro quo remained a lively, but unconfirmed, rumor for nearly three decades.
The second secret involved keeping a lid on Washington’s ongoing effort to subvert Fidel Castro’s regime. Operation MONGOOSE, which was overseen by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, played a significant role in fomenting the missile crisis. Yet that covert effort was not part of the public discourse in 1962 and remained a secret in this country until the mid-1970s. Only after an unprecedented Senate probe into intelligence activities did enough information seep out to reveal that Castro’s fears of US military intervention (and Soviet claims to that effect) were not wholly unfounded, however mistaken.
It was the administration’s third secret, however, that has proven the hardest to unpack. The Kennedy administration “shot itself in the foot” when it limited U-2 surveillance for five crucial weeks in 1962, which is why it took the government a full month to spot offensive missiles in Cuba. If proved, this “photo gap,” as it was dubbed by Republican critics, threatened to tarnish the image of “wonderfully coordinated and error-free ‘crisis management’” that the White House sought to project before and after October 1962. The administration’s anxiety over whether cover stories about the gap might unravel even trumped, for a time, its concern over keeping secret the quid pro quo. After all, an oral assurance with the Soviets concerning the Jupiters could always be denied, while proof of the photo gap existed in the government’s own files.
Largely because the administration labored mightily to obfuscate the issue, the photo gap remains under-appreciated to this day, notwithstanding the vast literature on the missile crisis. Recently declassified documents finally permit history to be filled in 43 years after the crisis, and these same records alter the conventional story in at least one important respect. John McCone, the director of Central Intelligence (DCI), and the CIA as a whole were deeply distrusted by key administration officials in the weeks leading up to discovery of the missiles. Moreover, the rampant uncertainty that prevailed within the Agency, itself, has been downplayed, if not forgotten, to the detriment of depicting the complexity of what actually occurred.
The literature on the crisis has painted a rosier-than-warranted picture of how human intelligence, assiduously collected in September, finally overcame self-imposed restrictions on U-2 overflights. What actually happened was not a textbook case of how the system should work. And although tension between the CIA and the administration abated after the crisis, it was not by very much. Lingering sensitivity over the photo gap left a chill in the relationship between the DCI and the Kennedy brothers, a result that can only be labeled ironic, given McCone’s role in securing the critical photo coverage.
An article on the “photo gap” appeared in the Winter 2005 edition of Studies in Intelligence, and may be read by clicking here.
Postscript: As the story of the “photo gap” shows, the relationship between policy-makers, who prefer to learn whatever corroborates their conceptions, and intelligence officers, who are often cast in the role of telling the White House what it doesn't want to hear, is a never-ending struggle. It is grounded in human nature, and human nature is inveterate. Still, the abuse of that relationship during the Bush administration was unprecedented.
© 2005 by Max Holland