Kennedy’s Evidence

Low-level aerial photos confirmed that Soviet nuclear missiles were in Cuba in 1962

This oblique, aerial view of a Soviet missile site, taken at an undisclosed location during the crisis, shows movers used to haul missiles inland after delivery by Soviet cargo ship, oxidizer tanks used for their fueling, missile erectors, and shelters. (NASM)

In October 1962, the United States and Soviet Union came to the brink of war. Fifty years later, many of the once-classified documents and photos show just how close both sides came to a nuclear exchange.

On October 16, President John F. Kennedy was shown aerial reconnaissance photos taken by a Lockheed U-2 flying high above Cuba. The photos suggested that up to 32 Soviet medium range ballistic missiles were in place on the island, and more were being assembled. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent more Soviet offensive weapons from reaching the island. He also ordered a build-up of U.S. forces in the southeast—quietly, so as not to alarm Americans.

The Soviet Union had its own concerns about missiles: In western Turkey, U.S. Jupiter missiles, installed under NATO auspices, were pointed toward Moscow. In the course of a 13-day standoff, each superpower tried to make the other blink. The United States deployed missiles along the highway to Key West, Florida, and placed a fleet of F-100Ds on standby at Homestead Air Force Base, just 90 miles off Cuba. Soviet ships laden with new arms floated steadily toward Cuba to challenge the blockade.

On October 28, the crisis was over. Radio Moscow announced that the Soviet Union would remove its missiles after Washington pledged not to invade Cuba. Privately, Kennedy also agreed to remove the already-obsolete Jupiters from Turkey on the condition that this part of the deal remain secret. In the end, both sides ended up getting what they wanted.

Crusader over Cuba

(National Archives, Courtesy Michael Dobbs)

During the Cuban crisis, an RF-8A Crusader flies “Blue Moon Mission 5010,” a classified reconnaissance flight to confirm the presence of missiles. The photo is part of a film reel captured by the second Crusader pilot in the formation.


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