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The Cuban Missile Crisis: Fifty Years After

By Servando Gonzalez

The Cuban missile crisis is still a very elusive historical event. For fifty years it has captured the imagination of the media, scholars, and the public alike, producing a veritable mountain of articles, scholarly essays, and books. Still, after so much effort by so many privileged minds, some aspects of the Cuban missile crisis continue to defy any logical explanation and are as puzzling today as they were at the time of the event. In this article, I will limit myself to studying the alleged evidence of the presence of strategic missiles and their associated nuclear warheads in Cuba in 1962.

Is “Photographic Evidence” Evidence at All?

The official story offered by the Kennedy administration, and accepted at face value by most scholars of the Crisis and later popularized by the American mainstream media, is that though rumors about the presence of strategic missiles in Cuba were widespread among Cuban exiles in Florida since mid-1962, the American intelligence community was never fooled by them. To American intelligence analysts, “only direct evidence, such as aerial photographs, could be convincing.” It was not until Sunday, 14 October, 1962, that a U-2, authorized at last to fly over the Western part of Cuba, brought the first high-altitude photographs of what seemed to be Soviet strategic missile sites, in different stages of completion, deployed on Cuban soil.

Once the photographs were analyzed by experts at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), they were brought to President Kennedy who, after a little prompting by a photo-interpreter who attended the meeting, accepted as a fact the NPIC’s conclusion that Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev had taken a fateful, aggressive step against the U.S. by placing nuclear-capable strategic missiles in Cuba. This meeting is considered by most scholars to be the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis.

Save for a few non-believers at the United Nations —a little more than a year before, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson had shown the very same delegates “hard” photographic evidence of Cuban planes, allegedly piloted by Castro’s defectors, which had attacked positions on the island previous to the Bay of Pigs landing— most people, including the members of the American press, unquestionably accepted the U-2 photographs as evidence of Khrushchev’s treachery.

Beginning with Robert Kennedy’s classic analysis of the Crisis, the acceptance of the U-2’s photographs as hard evidence of the presence of Soviet strategic missiles deployed on Cuban soil has rarely been contested. CIA director John McCone reaffirmed the same line of total belief in a Top Secret post-mortem memorandum of 28 February 1963 to the President. According to McCone, aerial photography was “our best means to establish hard intelligence.”

But both Robert Kennedy and John McCone were dead wrong. As Magritte’s picture The Treachery of Images masterly exemplifies, a picture of a missile is not a missile. A photograph of a UFO is not a UFO. Clint Eastwood is not Dirty Harry. Charlton Heston is not Moses. A picture, by itself alone, can hardly be accepted as “hard” evidence of anything. Linguist Alfred Korzybski masterly expressed it when he wrote, “The map is not the territory.” The fact is so obvious that no time should be wasted discussing it. It seems, however, that the very fact that it is so obvious —somebody said that the best way to hide something is by placing it in plain view— has precluded scholars from studying it in detail. Therefore, let’s analyze the obvious.

A photograph is nothing more than a thin film of gelatin spread on top of a paper support. The gelatin has very small grains of a light-sensitive substance embedded in it. Once exposed to light, the grains suffer a chemical alteration. During the developing process with the right chemicals, some of the grains, in the form of very small dots, turn black, others remain white, and others take different gradations of grey. When observed by a trained individual, the dots, due to the integrating, holistic ability of the human mind, turn into a meaningful image. This, both the material support and the mental image it creates, is what we call a photograph.

We are so used to dealing with photographs that most of the time we refer to them as if they were the real thing. A typical example is when a coworker pulls out of his wallet a photo of his family and says “this is my daughter, this is my wife, this is my dog, this is my house.” Of course, what you see in a photograph is not the real thing, just an image of the thing.

As nobody can smoke Magritte’s pipe, no army can fire photographs of missiles against the enemy. Images appearing on photographs are not things, but signs of things. The inability to distinguish between a sign and the thing it signifies is one of the characteristics of primitive, magic thinking.

Until relatively recent times the word semiotics appeared only in the field of medicine, in connection with the study of the symptoms of a particular disease. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century, however, that the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and later the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, created the scientific foundations of the discipline we now know as semiotics.

Saussure saw signs as twofold entities, showing a signifier and a signified (or sign-vehicle and meaning). To him , “the sign is implicitly regarded as a communication device taking place between two human beings intentionally aiming to communicate or to express something.” Pierce, however, saw signs as threefold entities. In articulating the foundation of the science of semiotics, he stated, “By semiosis I mean an action, an influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object and its interpretant.” To Pierce, the interpretant was the mental image created in the mind of an interpreter.

According to Pierce, a sign is “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” As Italian semiotician Umberto Eco clearly puts it, “a sign can stand for something else to somebody only because this ‘standing-for’ relation is mediated by an interpretant.” The “something” can be anything: a material thing, a concept, an idea, a feeling; existing or non-existing, real or unreal.

Things are things. In some particular circumstances, however, a person can see (or hear, or smell, or touch) something and have similar impressions as if he were experiencing something different. Pierce called this process semiosis. To him, the process of semiosis in nothing but “a psychological event in the mind of a possible interpreter.” From the point of view of semiotics, the work of the technicians at the NPIC is basically a semiotic process. Surveillance photographs, by themselves alone, have no meaning. They become signs —that is, pointers to other real-life things— in the minds of skilled photo interpreters, who carefully compare apparently meaningless forms and shadows against their previous experiences, looking for meaningful relationships.

As Claude Lévi-Strauss put it, the science of semiotics is concerned with the different procedures used to transform nature into culture. This is roughly equivalent to the process of transforming raw data into intelligence.

Missiles and Signs of Missiles

Most studies about the Cuban missile crisis repeat the extended opinion that the U-2 photographs were the hard, irrefutable evidence provided by the photo interpreters at the NPIC as the ultimate, incontrovertible proof that the Soviets had secretly deployed strategic missile bases in Cuba. But, in order to become meaningful information, photographs need to be decoded (interpreted) by an interpreter.

Being a subjective process, however, semiosis is full of pitfalls. There is always the risk of aberrant decoding, by which a sign is interpreted as something totally different from what the creator of the sign originally intended to communicate. The process is known as aberrant decoding. In the case of the U-2 photographs, the NPIC photo interpreters incorrectly decoded the objects appearing in them as strategic missiles, instead of images of strategic missiles. But accepting the images of missiles as the ultimate proof of the presence of strategic missiles in Cuba was a big jump of their imagination, as well as a semantic mistake. A more truthful interpretation of the things whose images appeared in the U-2’s photographs would have been to describe them as “objects whose photographic image highly resemble the auxiliary equipment used in Soviet strategic missile bases.” But the photo interpreters at the NPIC confused the images of the objects they saw in the photographs with the actual missiles. Afterwards, like mesmerized children, the media and the scholarly community have blindly followed the Pied Piper of photographic evidence. But, as in Magritte’s painting, a picture of a missile in not a missile.

With the advent of the new surveillance technologies pioneered with the U-2 plane and now extensively used by imaging satellites, there has been a growing trend in the U.S. intelligence community to rely more and more on imaging intelligence and less and less on agents in the field (HUMINT). But, as any intelligence specialist can testify, photography alone, though a very useful surveillance component, should never be passed as hard evidence. Photographs, at best, are just indicators pointing to a possibility which has to be physically confirmed by other means, preferably by trained, qualified agents working in the field.

Moreover, even disregarding the fact that photographs can be faked and doctored, nothing is so misleading as a photograph. According to the information available to this day, the photographic evidence of Soviet strategic missiles on Cuban soil was never confirmed by American agents working in the field. The highly quoted report of a qualified agent who saw something “bigger, much bigger” that anything the Americans had in Germany, omitted the important fact that what he actually saw was a canvas-covered object resembling a strategic missile. Actually, the missiles were never touched, smelled, or weighed. Their metal, electronic components, and fuel were never tested; the radiation from their nuclear warheads was never recorded; their heat signature was never verified.

According to philosopher Robert Nozick, the main criteria for considering a fact objective is that it is invariant under certain transformations, and he gives three characteristics that mark a fact as objective:

First, “an objective fact is accessible from different angles. Access to it can be repeated by the same sense (sight, touch, etc.), at different times; it can be repeated by different senses of the same observers. Different laboratories can replicate the phenomenon.” Second, “there is or can be intersubjective agreement about it.” Third, objective facts hold “independently of people’s beliefs, desires, hopes, and observations or measurements.”

One of the golden rules of intelligence work is to treat with caution all information not independently corroborated or supported by reliable documentary or physical evidence. Yet, recently declassified Soviet documents, and questionable oral reports from Soviet officials who allegedly participated directly in the event, have lately been accepted as sufficient evidence of the presence of strategic missiles and their nuclear warheads in Cuba in 1962. But one can hardly accept as hard evidence non-corroborated, non-evaluated information coming from a former adversary who has yet to prove he has turned into a friend. Even if some day this becomes accepted practice in the historian’s profession, I can guarantee my readers that it will never be adopted in the intelligence field.

Photographs are just information, and information is not true intelligence until it has been thoroughly validated. As a rule, most counterintelligence analysts believe that only information that has been secretly taken from an opponent and turned over is bona fide intelligence. But, if the opponent had intended it to be turned over, it is automatically considered disinformation.

One of the principles of espionage work is that what is really important is not what you know, but that your opponent doesn’t know that you know. As Sherman Kent pointed out, once the U-2 brought (what seemed to be) photographs of strategic missiles in Cuba, the main thing was to keep it secret. “Until the President was ready to act, the Russians must not know that we knew their secret.”

The fact that the Soviets had been so clumsy, failing to properly camouflage their missiles, surprised the American intelligence community. As it happens most of the time, however, American scholars found plausible explanations a posteriori for the Soviets’ behavior. These explanations ranged from flawed bureaucratic standard operating procedures to political-military disagreements, and pure and simple carelessness. Nevertheless, still today the fact constitutes one of the most unexplainable Soviet “mistakes” during the crisis.

Probably one of the most known explanations was the one offered by Graham T. Allison. According to him, the failure to camouflage the missiles had a simple answer: bureaucratic procedures in the Soviet Army. Before the crisis, missile sites had never been camouflaged in the Soviet Union, so, the construction crews at the sites in Cuba did what they were used to doing, building missile sites according to the installation manuals, because somebody forgot to retrain them before they were sent to work in Cuba.

But, knowing the operational procedures of the Soviet Army, Allison’s explanation seems a bit too simplistic to be credible. First of all, the personnel assigned to do the job of building the missile sites were not common soldiers, but specially trained personnel. Secondly, even without disregarding the bureaucratic procedures common to all armies, it is a naive assumption to suppose that the Soviets could have made this type of gross mistake, particularly if they were trying to deploy the missiles in Cuba using deception and stealth, as the U.S. official version of the event claimed. Of course, this is only a variation of the “the-Russians-are-stupid” argument. This may also explain why the Soviet soldiers involved in Operation Anadyr (code name for the operation) were supplied with skis and cold weather gear and clothing before traveling to Cuba. But now we know that this was not because of an error, but part of maskirovka designed to disguise the operation.

According to U.S. intelligence sources, missile sites had never been camouflaged in the Soviet Union. However, after Gary Power’s U-2 was shot down, the flow of information about Soviet missiles almost stopped completely. Aside from the fact that, being in the so-called “denied areas,” where no in situ verification by agents in the field was possible, we don’t know if the U-2 photos never detected camouflaged sites because the camouflage was so effective it avoided the missiles being detected. Also, there is the possibility that most of the missile sites photographed by the U-2s on Soviet territory had actually been decoys.

Also, one can safely assume that, after the U-2 incident and the discovery of the high quality of its surveillance cameras, the Soviet Missile Forces would have changed their procedures and would have camouflaged their missile sites. Furthermore, Soviet military literature strongly emphasizes the importance of surprise (udivlenie) and deception (loz’n) in modern warfare. Among it, the literature on camouflage (maskirovka), is particularly abundant. The Russian tradition of using camouflage to mislead goes back to the times of Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin. Consequently, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, if the Soviet personnel in charge of installing the missiles failed to camouflage them, it was not because they were stupid, but because they were specifically ordered to do so.

The lack of adequate camouflage to hide the missiles from American observation is such a gross mistake that author Anatol Rappoport assumed that it was part of a Soviet plan by which the missile sites were meant to be discovered by American spy planes. During the height of the crisis, the Wall Street Journal reported that “the authorities here almost all accepted one key assumption: that Mr. Khrushchev must have assumed that his Cuban sites would soon be discovered.” The report also added that, according to one authority who had studied the photographic evidence, “The Russians seem almost to have gone out of their way to call attention to them.”

Similarly, the Cubans were aware of the quality of American air surveillance technology. In 1961, Life magazine published a report about the anti-Castro guerrillas fighting in the Escambray mountains. Some of the photographs illustrating the article had been taken by the U-2s. On several occasions Castro asked the Soviets to give him SAMs, and let his people operate them, but the Russians were reluctant. Although most of the Cubans assigned to the SAM bases were engineering students from the University of Havana, the Soviets only allowed them to operate the radars.

To the evidence offered above of the Soviets’ willingness to let the missiles be discovered, I can add some of my own. As a Cuban Army officer during the crisis I was assigned to headquarters and sent on inspection visits to several military units to assess their combat morale and battle readiness. One of these visits was to the Isle of Pines, where I visited a unit, deployed in an area close to the Siguanea peninsula, not far from a Soviet missile base located on the top of a nearby hill, not far from the coast. The Cuban soldiers had aptly nicknamed the base “el circo soviético,” (the Soviet Circus), because of the canvas tarpaulins surrounding it. But the most interesting detail is that, though the tarpaulins precluded observers from seeing the base from the ground, the base itself remained uncovered on top and in plain view of American spy planes. So, it seems that, though the Soviets apparently were eager to allow long-distance detection, they didn’t want any short-range observation of the missiles by the Cubans.

In another inspection I visited a Cuban Air Force base at San Antonio de los Baños, south of Havana. The visit occurred after president Kennedy had alerted the American public about the presence of missile bases in Cuba. Low-level American reconnaissance flights had begun, and Castro had ordered the antiaircraft batteries under his command to fire at American planes.

Once at the base, we drove our jeep to the runway, where I saw in the distance several Mig fighter planes, which looked to me like MiG 15 or 17 models, lying like sitting ducks on the apron. On close inspection, however, we discovered that the planes were clumsy dummies made out of wood, cardboard and painted canvas. An officer at the base told us that the real planes were well protected and camouflaged.

As we were talking to other officers at the end of the runway, the antiaircraft batteries received a phone call telling them that American planes had entered Cuban airspace, and one of them was flying in our direction. A few minutes later, what seemed to me like a RF-101 Voodoo reconnaissance aircraft overflew us at treetop level, too fast for the inexperienced boys manning the four-barreled antiaircraft guns to open fire.

Though the dummies on the runway were perhaps good enough to fool the high-flying U-2s, they were too clumsily made to fool low-flying reconnaissance planes. The fact, however, that the Soviets had used decoy planes (and probably other types of decoys) in Cuba during the Crisis has never been mentioned in any of the U.S. declassified documents pertaining to the Crisis. Also, it is difficult to believe, to say the least, that Soviet maskirovka had worked so well on other aspects of the Cuban operation, but failed on the most important part of it: covering the strategic missile bases from prying American eyes. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that the missiles deployed in Cuba, like the ones Khrushchev was displaying in Moscow’s parades, were a ruse de guerre; nothing but empty dummies.

It is known that, after Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down in May, 1960, the Soviets hurriedly began building dummy SAM silos. Dummy tanks, guns, and other types of war matériel were regularly deployed to confuse the sky spies. According to some sources, as late as 1960, even some units of the newly created Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces were not getting real missiles, but dummies.

Camouflage in warfare can be used either passively, to conceal from the enemy the true thing, or actively, to mislead the enemy into accepting a false one. From the point of view of semiotics, camouflage is intentional false encoding with the purpose of deceiving the decoder. Furthermore, in semiotic terms, camouflage can be defined as the art of confusing the enemy to make him believe that a sign of a thing is the thing itself, that is, to induce the enemy into magical thinking.

Strategic Missiles as Symbols

The successful launching in 1957 of the first man-made earth satellite, the Sputnik soon became a symbol of Soviet technological success. After that, the U.S.S.R. passed through a brief period of national pride and faith in a better future. Khrushchev’s poorly chosen phrase “We will bury you,” was most likely not intended as a threat to the West, but as an assertion of his confidence that, sometime in the near future, socialism, under the guidance of the Soviet Union, would replace decadent capitalism.

Though the Soviet Union had expressed support for the new revolutionary phenomenon developing 90 miles from American shores, it had been mostly rhetorical. Then, on July 9 1960, Khrushchev told the U. S. to keep its hands off Cuba, backing his words with the famous threat of the Soviet nuclear missiles: “Figuratively speaking, in case of need, Soviet artillerymen can support the Cuban people with their rocket fire if the aggressive forces in the Pentagon dare to launch an intervention against Cuba.”

The precise nature of the Soviet military commitment to Cuba on Khruschev’s speech on July 9 was later to be questioned, and the Soviets themselves immediately moved to de-emphasize Khrushchev’s promise of “figurative” (symbolic) rocket support of Cuba.

Just three days after Khrushchev made the symbolic offer of rocket support to Cuba, he backpedaled and said that, “We don’t need bases in Cuba. We have bases in the Soviet Union, and we can hit anything from here.” A week later, on July 16, Tass published an authoritative statement entitled “The Monroe Doctrine Ended Long Ago and Can No Longer Help the Imperialist Colonizer.” But, a careful reading between the lines evidenced that in the event of an armed intervention against Cuba the only thing the Soviet Union was going to offer was its strong support. No mention was made of the symbolic missiles, which had suddenly disappeared from the picture as if they never existed.

After Khrushchev’s symbolic faux pas about the missiles, Castro made several efforts to force him further into a strong commitment, but Khruschev ignored the Cuban leader’s initiatives. Rumor ran that when the two leaders met in New York in September, 1960, Khrushchev told Castro to stop making references to Soviet missile support.
Khrushchev pounding his shoe on his desk at the General Assembly was perhaps a symbolic, but ambiguous statement of support for Fidel. But the Cuban leader wanted more than symbols. That month Castro sent Carlos Franqui, editor of Revolución, to Moscow on the pretext of interviewing Khrushchev, to find out how the Soviet leader could pass from figurative, symbolic language to direct statements. Franqui spent several hours in the Kremlin going over the subject with Khrushchev, but the most he obtained from the shrewd Soviet leader was a Solomonic statement, which was interpreted in contradictory fashion by the press services of the United States and the rest of the world. Apparently Khrushchev had second thoughts about the responsibilities he had assumed with regard to Cuba. There are indications that he finally got tired of Castro’s schemes and diplomatically told the Cuban leader to quit rattling the Soviet missiles against the United States.

It seems that, finally, Castro got it, because during a long speech on November 8, he told the Cubans to forget the idea that they were protected by Soviet nuclear missiles. Hoy, the newspaper of the old pro-Soviet Cuban communist party, came to the rescue and denied that Khrushchev had told Castro to stop mentioning the Soviet missiles. But The New York Times confirmed on November 19, that the Soviet leader had told Castro to moderate his violent attacks upon the United States, and in particular to stop rattling the Soviet nuclear missiles.

Premier Khrushchev used to complain about the American nuclear missiles deployed by some NATO countries around the Soviet borders. But the missiles the U.S. had deployed in Europe were no less symbolic than the ones Khrushchev had promised Castro. As Michael Mandelbaum rightly observed, “Tactical nuclear weapons became symbols of the American resolve to carry out its commitments to its NATO partners.” Another scholar has pointed out that, though the use of nuclear weapons has military value, “its symbolic political value can easily outweigh its military significance.”

In a private conversation with his British friend David Ormsby-Gore, Kennedy told him that the missiles in Turkey were “more or less useless.” They had been left there, however, because of their symbolic value. The phasing out of the American missiles in Turkey had been under consideration long before the crisis. In any case, the Kennedy administration had decided the previous year to remove them because they were obsolete, clumsy liquid-fuel rockets. The American plan was to replace them with missile-bearing Polaris submarines stationed in the Mediterranean. Among the precautions which Kennedy took during the crisis to avoid a costly mistake by subordinates ignoring orders, was the bizarre fact that he reportedly ordered the removal of the fuses and warheads from the Jupiter missiles in Turkey, probably with the intention of making them fully symbolic.

In his life as a Russian leader, Khrushchev showed that he was deeply addicted to the calculated risk, especially if it implied no real risk at all. Though not a trained semiotician, Khrushchev knew perfectly well the cardinal difference between a symbolic missile and a real one, and that the manipulation of symbols was a lot less riskier than the manipulation of things —particularly when the things in question are tipped with nuclear warheads.

We may safely surmise that, fully aware of the strong force of symbols, Khrushchev had realized that a dummy missile had the same symbolic value than a real one. As a matter of fact, symbolic missiles have the same deterrent power (and provocation power, for that matter) as the real ones, but without all of their risks.

The Treachery of Intelligence Images

According to Italian semiotician Umberto Eco,


Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands in for it. Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie.

Semiotic activities par excellence, intelligence, espionage, and particularly counterintelligence, deal mostly with all types of deception, and deception has always been an important component of the intelligence profession since its early days. I will use a relatively recent example to illustrate the point.

During World War II, the British intelligence services carried out an enormous disinformation exercise code-named Fortitude, as a part of a major deception operation code-named Bodyguard. The main goal of operation Fortitude was to fool the Germans about the place selected by the Allied armies for their coming invasion. Fortitude was extremely successful in creating a notional American invasion force, the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), under the command of Lt. Gen George Patton, which, according to German intelligence reports, was ready to land at Pas de Calais. More than 19 German divisions, including several armored ones, waited patiently for an attack that never materialized, while the invading forces secured their positions at Normandy, the true place of the invasion. The main mistake of the German Abwer and other intelligence services was that they apparently believed that aerial photographs were hard evidence.

German reconnaissance planes brought back to Berlin load after load of photographs showing two large Allied armies, one in Scotland, getting ready to invade Norway, and another getting ready for the assault on Pas de Calais. The aerial photographs depicted large concentrations of men, tanks, trucks, cannons, and all types of matériel associated with an invasion force. What the Germans didn’t know was that some of the tanks and trucks were inflatable rubber replicas, and the rest of the matériel was made out of plywood, cardboard and canvas. Some of the “cannons” hiding under camouflage nets consisted of an oil drum turned on its side with a telegraph pole resting on its top. Having in mind the quality of the photographic technology available at the time, the British intelligence was careful not to allow low flying planes to photograph the “armies,” while high altitude German reconnaissance flights were allowed to do their jobs unmolested.

In the case of the German intelligence, however, there are some alleviating circumstances which somehow explain their failure: the photographic illusion was supported by corroborating reports from their agents in the field. But the Germans ignored that the British intelligence services had managed to capture most of the German agents, “turning” some of them to feed controlled disinformation to the German intelligence. At the end of the war, most German intelligence officers still believed that the invasion by the two large Allied armies never materialized only because of a late change of plans.

An interesting detail about the behavior of the American side during the Cuban missile crisis is that only three members of the U.S. government initially expressed doubts about the true existence of Soviet strategic missiles in Cuba: McGeorge Bundy, General Maxwell Taylor and Deputy Secretary of State George Ball. But, significantly, none of them were directly linked to the American intelligence services. On the other hand, no mention is made in the available literature of the Cuban missile crisis about any concern expressed by members of the American intelligence community about the possibility of Soviet deception, nor about what tradecraft tests had been used to evaluate the authenticity of the information they relied upon to reach the conclusion that the Soviets were deploying strategic missiles in Cuba.

According to the CIA’s internal tradecraft notes, a way to counter enemy deception is “to show increased respect for the deceiver’s ability to manipulate perceptions and judgments by compromising collection systems and planting disinformation.” It seems, however, that during the Cuban missile crisis the NPIC analysts demonstrated a total lack of respect for the Soviets’ disinformation abilities.

The fact that the American intelligence community apparently accepted the U-2 photos as hard evidence of the presence of missiles in Cuba could be interpreted as an indication not only of a gross violation of elementary intelligence practices but also of a high degree of incompetence. The problem I have with reaching the logical conclusion expressed above is that, first, I have a high opinion of the professionalism of American intelligence officers, and, secondly, that one of the axioms in the profession is that, in the field of intelligence and espionage, things are never what they seem to be.

Moreover, it seems that not all members of the American intelligence community accepted the U-2 photographs as hard evidence. Ten years after the crisis, in an article which appeared in Studies in Intelligence, a classified publication whose circulation was restricted to CIA officers and made available to the public only some yearsago, Sherman Kent affirms that, though he didn’t know about any Ex Comm members who had doubts about the credibility of the U-2 photographs, he knew about a few very important officers at the Agency who did.

Therefore, I have come to believe that, in the particular case of the unproved, but blindly accepted belief that the Soviets deployed strategic missiles and their nuclear warheads in Cuba in 1962, there is more than meets the eye. I base my doubts not only on a hunch, but on two facts. The first is that the U.S. didn’t force an in situ inspection of the Soviet ships leaving Cuba —probably the only way to verify beyond any reasonable doubt that the missiles had actually been in Cuba and were now on their way back to the Soviet Union. The second one is that, though a high number of American documents relating to the missile crisis —a great part of them dealing with anecdotal information about the opinions of the participants— have been declassified and made available to scholars, almost all signals intelligence (SIGINT), including communications, electronic and nuclear radiation intelligence (NUCINT), is still kept classified and held under a tight lid.

Gen. William Y. Smith, who was a Major and an assistant to Gen. Maxwell Taylor in the White House at the time, has reported a very interesting detail. While reviewing message traffic from U.S. intelligence sources on Soviet military activity, Gen. Smith discovered a report about a U.S. Navy ship which apparently had picked up suspicious levels of radioactivity emitted by a Soviet freighter, the Poltava. He suggested to Gen. Taylor that he ask Admiral Anderson if the emanations meant the ship was carrying nuclear warheads. At the next Joint Chief’s meeting, Taylor posed the question to Anderson, who replied, somewhat embarrassed, that he had not seen the message. Later that morning, Anderson’s office informed Smith that the report had little significance, that Smith had misread it.

It makes sense to believe, therefore, that at the time the U.S. had the means to detect radiation from nuclear warheads leaving Cuba, without having to board the Soviet ships. But, again, no mention has been made of this important fact in any of the declassified documents on the Cuban missile crisis. Also, Admiral Anderson’s behavior, as described by Gen. Smith, is strange, to say the least, because, contrary to Admiral Anderson’s claims, that report was extremely significant.

The case I have develped above is based on the unavoidable fact that even if the U-2 photos showed what looked like Soviet MRBMs in Cuba in 1962, potographic evidence alone cannnot guarantee that real missiles were there. But now comes the most extraordinary thing about the alleged presence of strategic nuclear missiles in Cuban soil in 1962. High resolution copies of both the U-2 photos and the low-altitude photos taken later, are available on the internet for everybody to see. Nowhere in these photos, however, you can find anything resembling a Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missile. The photos show no missiles at all!

What you can see, though, are some elongated objects coveredd by tarps, which we have been told are MRBMs, and some small concrete bunkers, which we have been told contained the nuclear warheads for the missiles. Of course, only Cold War true believers can take those claims as facts.

The photo interpreters at the NPIC allegedly had positively identified the missiles when they spotted what looked like tail fins sticking out under the tarpaulins. They were identical to the fins of the MRBMs they had photographed in Moscow in the may day parade that year. But, again, making a dummy of a box containing a missile is even easier than making a dummy of a missile.

A Logical Conclusion

There is a serious misconception which has become the gospel of many American journalists: The CIA, like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, is inept and incompetent. But you cannot take at face value everything you read or hear about how inept and stupid the CIA is. The problem is that everything one ever hears about the CIA are its failures, but the very nature of intelligence work precludes them from announcing their successes. (This, added to the fact that one must take with caution any intelligence services’ claims about their successes or failures.) Thus, I don’t think that in the handling of the Cuban missile crisis the CIA was incompetent, just deceitful —which, in the case of an intelligence service is not a criticism, but a compliment. If this sounds too close to a conspiracy theory, I have to confess that I don’t have a problem with that. At any rate, intelligence, espionage, and counterintelligence, ultimately are just key elements of a conspiracy to fool, confuse and eventually defeat the enemy.

My assertion that the presence of Soviet strategic missiles and their nuclear warheads in Cuba in 1962 is yet to be proved, is not a speculative, unsubstantiated hypothesis, but an uncontrovertible fact. Moreover, there is evidence showing that the photointerpreters at the NPIC used flawed methodological analyses in an effort to prove the existence of strategic nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962.

Intelligence services could exist only by dealing in hard knowledge. Until now, however, the alleged evidence provided to substantiate the claims that the Soviets deployed strategic nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 is so flimsy that it makes it irrelevant. As scientists like to say: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. In this case, the extraordinary proof has yet to appear. Up to this day, these claims seem to be more the product of theoretical, or perhaps ideological, considerations than direct observation.

In the case of seminal, but controversial events like the USS Maine explosion in Havana’s bay, the sinking of the Lusitania, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Cuban missile crisis, just to mention a few, history has been manipulated through the suppression of data that challenges the prevailing interpretations. Moreover, it seems that the operant behavior for most scholars has been that if the facts do not agree with their theories, then such facts must be simply ignored.

What is simply amazing is that most of the American academic community, which firmly dismisses as nonsense UFOs, ESP, and astrology, accepted as models of scholarly research early studies of the Cuban missile crisis based almost entirely on highly questionable information provided by an administration that felt pride in its “management” of the news. The second generation of scholars is making a similar mistake, now based on questionable information coming from the Cuban and Russian governments, which are known for going way beyond mere news management in their total control of information. Scholars of the Cuban missile crisis should have treated the information coming from such unreliable sources with at least the same skepticism they reserve for claims of UFO abductions.

In the late 1960s, Neal D. Houghton said that recent American foreign policy had been so poorly conceived and so dangerous that it was unworthy of the dominant intellectual support it had received. Too much of what has been passing for political science scholarship, he added, has been little more than footnoted rationalizations and huckstering of that policy. Most of the recent American scholarly studies about the Cuban missile crisis are evident proof that Houghton’s observation is still valid. In a field that prides itself for detached analysis and intellectualism, dogma and extra-academic interests run rampant.

Despite all the U.S. photographic “hard” evidence (which constitutes no evidence at all); the assertions made by alleged participants in the Crisis (whose credibility is highly questionable); and the Soviet documentary "evidence" later uncovered (which has not been corroborated by independently checked, unfriendly sources), the presence of Soviet strategic missiles and their nuclear warheads in Cuba in 1962 is, to this moment, just a figment of some people’s imagination; a cargo cult which, like a malignant meme, has become part of the American belief system. But deeply rooted beliefs die hard.

The Cuban missile crisis was just a small PSYOP — part of a larger PSYOP called the Cold War — whose purpose was to scare the American people into accepting the militarization of the American life. Fifty years ago, my assertion that there were never nuclear warheads in Cuba in 1962, and that the objects covered by tarps most likely were dummies, my have seem preposterous. However, today, eleven years after the 9/11 events, another PSYOP whose ultimate purpose is to scare tha American people into accepting the implementation of a police state in America, this theory must be given serious consideration.


Servando Gonzalez, a Cuban-born American writer, semiologist and intelligence analyst, was an officer in the Cuban army during the missile crisis. He has written books, essays and articles on Latin American history, intelligence, espionage, and semiotics. Servando is the author of Historia herética de la revolución fidelista, The Secret Fidel Castro, The Nuclear Deception: Nikita Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis and La madre de todas las conspiraciones, all available at

He also hosted the documentaries Treason in America: The Council on Foreign Relations and Partners in Treason: The CFR-CIA-Castro Connection, produced by Xzault Media Group of San Leandro, California, both available at the author's site at

His book, Psychological Warfare and the New World Order: The Secret War Against the American People appeared in late 2010 and is available at Or download a .pdf copy of the book you can read on your computer or i-Pad. His book, OBAMANIA: The New Puppet and His Masters, is available at

Servando's new book (in Spanish) La CIA, Fidel Castro, el Bogotazo y el Nuevo Orden Mundial, just appeared, and is available at and other bookstores online. He is already working on his next book, The Council on Foreign Relations and the Betrayal of the American People: A Chronology of Treason, which he plans to have ready by early next year.




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