Chrome Domes and Brass Knobs: Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

“I am addressing you for the purpose of reemphasizing the seriousness of the situation this nation faces. We are in an advanced state of readiness to meet any emergencies, and I feel we are well prepared. I expect each of you to maintain strict security and use calm judgment during this tense period. Our plans are well prepared and are being executed smoothly… Review your plans for further action to ensure that there will be no mistakes or confusion.”

   General Thomas S. Power message to Strategic Air Command, the US Air Force’s nuclear force, 24 October 1962

I was five years old and didn’t know why all the fuss. My parents were glued every evening to our black and white television as Walter Cronkite talked about some island called Cuba. Even at five years old I could tell my parents were scared and concerned.  The news coverage kept saying two words over and over again… nuclear and Cuba.

The now declassified report “Strategic Air Command (SAC) Operations in the Cuban Crisis of 1962” states Fidel Castro’s Cuba was under air surveillance seven months before Major Richard Heyser departed Edwards Air Force Base late in the evening 14 October on a U-2 photographic reconnaissance mission nicknamed BRASS KNOB. Landing seven hours later at a SAC airfield called McCoy Air Force Base (now Orlando International Airport!) his camera film was transported to a secret CIA analysis facility on the second story of a used car sales lot in Washington DC. Those pictures gave irrefutable evidence Russia had lied to President Kennedy. Russia placed nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in Cuba, capable of reaching as far north as Philadelphia and west to San Antonio.

High altitude photo of San Cristobal Ballistic Missile site taken on the first U-2 overflight of Cuba

The threat President Kennedy faced delivering his address to the world on 22 October was from twenty-four medium-range missile launchers at six locations, twelve intermediate range launchers at three locations. Twenty-two of twenty-four air defense surface-to-air missile sites were also operational. Sea search missions provided more evidence of additional material coming into Cuban ports on Russian freight ships. That October night, President Kennedy announced the US would begin a naval quarantine of Cuba to intercept Soviet ships and continue monitoring Russian movements until they pulled all offensive weapons off Cuba.

Blue Moon low level photo of San Cristobal Ballistic Missile site taken by Navy Commander Bill Ecker

Observing growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula between President Donald Trump’s Administration and Kim Jong Un’s regime, several lessons can be learned and hopefully not observed from events fifty-six years ago. Here are a few coming to mind after reading two books: One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs and Blue Moon over Cuba by Navy Captain William Ecker which translate well to the current North Korea situation.

Persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) of Cuba gave the US a distinct advantage. President Kennedy mastered the use of photographic evidence in the diplomatic and informational arenas during the crisis with high and low-level reconnaissance images of the Russian buildup on Cuba. Adlai Stevenson used low-level photographic evidence to make the US case against Cuba and Russia in the UN. The military intelligence collection tools available to President Trump are quantum leaps beyond what was available to President Kennedy in 1962. Remotely piloted vehicles such as Global Hawk can stare for days at North Korea, sending images and other intelligence products to coalition civil and military leaders. There should be terabytes of photographic evidence showing North Korean nuclear and WMD facilities and build up of their submarine ballistic missile capability. Many times I’ve had a piece of photo intelligence in my hands and wished the American people could see it help them understand situations better.

North Korea's Mayang-Do shipyard with Romeo-Class submarines courtesy Google Earth

I’ve feared war in Korea since being stationed on Okinawa in the early 1990s. I’ve always been more concerned with the number of artillery pieces pointed at Seoul than North Korean ballistic missiles. Even on a limited scale, military opportunities in North Korea are messy, may involve North Korea using chemical or biological weapons, and will disrupt the economies of China, Japan, and Korea. Any full-scale war in Korean would have a catastrophic loss of life on possibly several sides, Korean, Japanese, and American, assuming the Chinese do not get involved. The US, South Korea, and Japanese Coalition have implemented some military deterrent options, like bomber flights and exercises, to keep the situation from escalating. We are now at the point where North Korea openly defies the world. Transferring oil from one ship to another is a good reason for a naval blockade, denying material from entering North Korean ports. But there must be a serious discussion on rules of engagement with vessels friendly to North Korea.

North Korean test of multiple mobile ballistic missiles courtesy of Reuters

Backdoor diplomacy, not brinkmanship, saved the world from going to war in 1962. During the naval blockade, the Americans and Soviets remained in regular communication. Communications channels directly from the US to Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang are none existent, but we know President Trump has a Red Phone to Vladimir Putin and Li Keqiang. China has been North Korea’s closest ally since the 1950 Korean War. Expressing our concerns and possible negotiable terms with the Li Keqiang government may produce results like Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin were able to hammer out in October 1962. Any moves to pressure Kim Jong Un into absolute terms may cause him to feel there is no other options but his military arsenal.

All players must find areas for compromise. Robert Kennedy met with Anatoly Dobrynin the day after two events almost brought both sides to war. They both settled to remove missiles threatening each country. This meeting was so clandestine many in the Kennedy Administration did not know it happened. Khrushchev withdrew missiles from Cuba when the US negotiated the removal of obsolete missiles from Italy and Turkey. Exploring areas of compromise with the Kim Jong Un regime may potentially create a better atmosphere for some settlement to a truce going on since the 1955 end of the Korean War. There must be some diplomatic, informational, or economic compromise which can bring everyone to the table to an agreement. The upcoming International Olympics may be a vehicle for finding some way to diffuse the situation.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley voting at the UN Security Council

Accidental circumstances may escalate the situation very quickly. Any misfire, hangfire, or stubbed toe may cause conditions to increase out of control. Both the US and Russia almost came to nuclear war on Saturday, 27 October 1962. Late that morning, the U-2 flown by Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile. Hours later, Soviet submarine B-59 is depth charged in an attempt to bring it to the surface. Captain Valentin Savitsky ordered a nuclear torpedo armed and loaded for firing at the US ships dropping depth charges. His second in command, Vasili Arkhipov persuaded Captain Savitsky to surface instead. Each nation involved on the Korean peninsula is under tension, and the slightest incident could lead to a dangerous exchange. Its okay to turn and retreat from a situation if a commander feels any action would potentially provoke North Korea into acting irrationally.

A US Navy Burke-Class Destroyer fires an SM-6 missile during testing

Writer and philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Reviewing our nation’s involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic maneuvering the Kennedy Administration used on the world stage is an excellent starting point to review possible avenues for dealing with North Korea. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, being the warrior monk of military history, has probably looked at 1962 historical events to pull lessons the Trump Administration can use dealing with Kim Jong Un. There are many similarities I see between the Cuban Missile Crisis and our engagement with Kim Jong Un we can hopefully use as lessons learned, not lesson observed.