The Cuban Missile Crisis was a unique event in international history, and also a rare one in the history of intelligence as it allows us to compare the performance of autocratic and democratic intelligence organizations directly pitted against one another in a crisis situation. It was upon the intelligence services of the United States that the huge burden of avoiding nuclear war primarily rested. Only fifteen years after the founding of the American intelligence community, it performed remarkably well.

There is some reason to expect the Soviets might have fared better in this situation. As the instigators of the crisis, they had months to prepare before the United States even knew a crisis was unfolding. It was in the Soviet interest to seek as much information about the international environment as possible – specifically, the motives of the USA and what its likely response would be to their policy – so that they could control the situation to as high a degree as possible.

Intelligence could have been a vital tool in making such an assessment, if it had been used properly. Alas for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, the intelligence performance of the Soviet Union was hampered by a number of failures – some indigenous to an autocratic system, some more general. In the latter category we would place the failure to properly understand the motives and intentions of the opponent, a shortcoming evident on the American side as well.

'Kremlinology' was a poor substitute for a high-level mole in the Presidium (Soviet Cabinet), which of course the Americans could not be expected to have. The Soviets likewise suffered from a lack of highly-placed sources, and did not properly consult those they did have for political reasons. Divination of the intentions of the opponent being somewhat too much to ask for, Washington was nevertheless well-served by the intelligence services, which avoided infighting and bureaucratic inertia by constantly responding to changing events.

The pre-crisis stage

The story of pre-crisis intelligence starts with the Soviet decision to send MRBMs to Cuba, probably reached in May 1962. It is a recurrent theme in the story from the Soviet angle that intelligence was acknowledged when it buttressed the opinions of the leadership, but otherwise ignored. Khrushchev had his own reasons, not drawn from intelligence sources, to believe it was important to send missiles to Cuba – he didn’t need the KGB to tell him that the Bay of Pigs showed a hostile attitude by the US toward his small socialist ally.

As the only country that had voluntarily gone Communist without the imposition of the Red Army, it is likely he had a certain emotional investment in Cuba despite its strategic value. But it is likely global superpower politics was more important. The KGB and GRU constantly predicted that hawks in the Pentagon were planning a nuclear first-strike on the USSR, even citing a specific date (September 1961) and claiming the USA had only backed off because it was scared by Russian nuclear tests.

Khrushchev's own experience with Kennedy tended to suggest to the old Bolshevik that the young American was too inexperienced to stand up to the aggressive clique in the Pentagon. It hence seemed to Khrushchev that something had to be done before it was too late. This reasoning, buttressed by his intelligence sources, led him to undertake a risky venture.

He might have fared better in this venture had Soviet intelligence performed better. Their greatest triumph was undoubtedly in the pre-crisis stage, where the infiltration of nearly 50,000 Soviet troops, 100 tactical nuclear weapons and 60 nuclear warheads for the surface-to-surface missiles was achieved via covert action. The infiltration involved elaborate denial and deception techniques which hid the operation from most Soviets, nevermind the Americans.

Although the Americans picked up on what they believed to be a training mission, the presence of a large Soviet combat force was hidden. Soviet forces moved in large groups at night, and maintained radio silence to stop US signals intelligence (SIGINT) ships being alerted to their presence. Scant efforts were taken to hide the missile bases and the missiles themselves from the eyes of the U-2, however, meaning that Khrushchev's plan to present the USA with a fait accompli ultimately stumbled at the last block.

The infiltration effort was the main focus of Russian intelligence activity in the pre-crisis stage. Another sphere in which it might have been expected to have been active, but in fact was not, was in an assessment of the possible reaction of the US to the Soviet move. The KGB and the GRU (military intelligence) were not asked to formulate an answer to this question, despite the many months during which they might have tried to do so before the point of no return had been reached.

Well-placed Soviets who understood the US well, such as the Ambassador to the US, were not consulted. They would certainly have baulked at the idea, so Krushchev did not want to involve them. The information that the KGB did feed to Khrushchev was short on analysis, as was the Soviet style. Soviet intelligence faced risks if it came out strongly in support of any policy, not only a discredited one – if it came out strongly in any position it might risk being on the losing side of policy arguments in the future. Semichastny, the Chairman of the KGB, had been chosen for his loyalty to Khrushchev. Throughout the crisis he apparently interpreted this duty to involve never offering up policy advice to the General Secretary.

What reports were delivered were merely a collection of facts open to interpretation, and hence easily manipulated to support any position. Even if the KGB had wanted to offer up analysis on American motives, it lacked highly-placed sources in the American government. This should not, however, have precluded an accurate assessment of whether the US planned to invade Cuba – one was reached by the Cuban intelligence services.

On the US side, the pre-crisis stage was marked by probably the most important intelligence success by the Americans during the whole period. This discovery was the revelation that there was indeed a crisis in progress. International crises are not based purely on the facts of the international environment, but also the knowledge and perception of these facts in the capitals of the states involved. A consensus that there was a crisis in progress was only reached in Washington on 14 -15 October, 1962, when irrefutable proof was produced showing that there were missile bases in Cuba.

Prior to this, the belief that a crisis was at hand was only to be found in certain parts of Congress and in the office of DCI McCone. McCone's belief nuclear missiles were on their way to Cuba was predicated on the existence of SAM sites in Cuba, which he believed must be protecting something of great importance. However, such sites had been erected in numerous other countries (for instance, Syria, Indonesia and Egypt) by the Soviets and had not been followed in these locations by ballistic missiles. However, McCone deserves some credit for recognizing the warning signals that a radical departure in Soviet policy had taken place.

Seeing the uniqueness of Cuba, both geographically (missiles could be placed in Cuba which could hit the USA but not Russia, unlike a missile virtually anywhere else in the world that the Soviets had access to) and circumstantially (Cuba had suffered a US-sponsored invasion in recent years), he realized something fishy might be afoot. He, however, lacked the evidence to take the logical leap to proving that something fishy was afoot.

This evidence was provided by the U-2 photographs taken on 14 October. Two things deserve to be highlighted about this discovery. Firstly, it was in itself highly impressive. On 3 October a credible report of a SS-4 missile sighting was received in a CIA processing facility for Cuban refugees in Miami. This allowed San Christóbal to be targeted for surveillance. It was impressive to have filtered out a credible report from the hundreds of suspicious ones, many planted by the KGB and Cuban intelligence. Thanks to the invention of the U-2 by the CIA in the 1950s and the intelligence provided by Oleg Penkovsky, it could now be conclusively proved that the Soviets were in fact building missile sites in Cuba. By discovering the sites weeks before they were operational, the intelligence community allowed policymakers time to think before they acted.

The second point this raises is the extent to which the American intelligence community was empirically-minded. Although McCone had long suspected that missiles might be on their way to Cuba, he had not insisted on his view being inserted into intelligence reports on the subject – although he had given his minority report to the Cabinet. To insist on changing estimates on the basis of his hunch would have damaged relations between himself and the community, and damaged the credibility of the community.

It is to his credit that he did not attempt to do this, despite the partisan nature of the Cuban issue. As a Republican faced with a Democratic administration, it must have been tempting for him to wonder if the government was not dismissing his fears because it made political sense. He essentially got lucky in guessing correctly what was happening, and it can be said the system worked because he did not let his unfounded guesses or political hang-ups disrupt the intelligence process.

It is also to the credit of the analysts that they accepted the new evidence of MRBM sites when it became available, despite the investment they had in the viewpoint that such things would never be built in Cuba by the Soviets. The intelligence community had been empirical at each stage, employing its vast resources and experience to eventually crack the problem. It would be foolish to chide the community for not divining the intentions of the Soviets sooner, as it is dangerous for intelligence communities to jump to unsupported conclusions on scanty evidence and precedent.

The crisis stage

Now that it was accepted in Washington that a crisis was in progress, understanding Soviet motives became paramount. Understanding the motives of the Soviets would better allow policymakers to understand how they would react to the moves of the USA, which affected the operational options open to the administration. We now know that Khrushchev's motives were primarily to scare the USA and prove Russian global political parity with the Americans, as well as to shore up his domestic position by appearing bold.

Furthermore, the Americans had missiles in Turkey, so Khrushchev felt there should be nothing stopping him having missiles in Cuba. The CIA tended to understand these motives fairly well, believing that the point of the escalation was to buttress an offensive Soviet policy in Berlin (where the Soviets wanted recognition of their puppet state in East Germany with Berlin as the capital).

If they failed to appreciate the fact Khrushchev also saw the missiles as important in the defence of Cuba against US invasion, this did not turn out to be a decisive shortcoming. In their assessment of a Soviet response to a blockade – that they would use it for propaganda purposes and not respond in any other way – they were correct. One major failing stands out, and that was the fact they had failed to identify the existence of 100 tactical nuclear missiles in Cuba which would be used in its defence if an attack was carried out by the USA. Had this been known by the administration they would have recognized the much higher stakes of military action, but might have come to believe it was inevitable because of the difficulty of verifying the withdrawal of these weapons. This intelligence failure led to a policy success.

Soviet intelligence during the crisis continued to perform poorly, but did manage to impact policy on several occasions by reporting on developments rather than by providing analysis. The Soviets had few assets capable of providing them with important information. Intelligence was not instrumental in Khrushchev's changes of policy during the crisis, with the sole exception of information which reached the Kremlin on the night of 26 October suggesting that a US invasion of Cuba was imminent.

This was based partly on bar-room gossip and partly on the more concrete discovery by the GRU that Strategic Air Command had gone to DEFCON 2, the stage immediately preparatory to war. This, in combination with the move of other US forces to DEFCON 3, had no parallel in history.

Khrushchev had by this point already convinced the Presidium to seek a diplomatic solution, but fear of an invasion accelerated the timetable on which an offer was presented to the White House. As previously, intelligence was been accepted when it reinforced the views of Khrushchev and supported the course of action he had decided on. Acting as the chief intelligence analyst of the Soviet Union, he interpreted information according to biases based on the policy he had decided to pursue. This fact along prevented the Soviet intelligence community from having a decisive impact on the course of events during the crisis, because it simply did not have the capability or political will to insert itself decisively into events.

The post-crisis stage

This was evident in the post-crisis phase as well. The non-invasion pledge delivered by the USA is commonly believed to have been of great importance to Khrushchev, and yet when he began to receive warning from the KGB after the crisis that the Americans would not honour it, he ignored them. The success of the deal he had made with Kennedy was vital to his political future, and he could not afford to see it undermined. Hence it suited him to ignore evidence suggesting it was being to save his political neck.

American intelligence, on the other hand, was considered vital in verifying that the Russians were carrying out their pledges. In the American system, Russian failure to carry out their side of the deal would have led to immediate consequences as Kennedy could hope to still prevail in a democratic system if he overcame this new challenge. Khrushchev, on the other hand, would surely be consumed by the autocratic system if he was found to have failed. As events transpired, he didn't have much time left as it was - he was shoved aside in two years.


It is evident from the above that the American intelligence community performed fairly well throughout the crisis, whereas the Soviet system failed. The Soviet system's failure was one at all stages of the intelligence cycle – it was never tasked to helpful operations, it had few assets with which to collect, it was afraid to analyze, and it was in no position to disseminate.

Meanwhile, the American community reported a success in all sectors, with a few reservations. The fact the process remained unpoliticized in the circumstances – impending midterms and a Republican DCI facing a Democratic administration – is remarkable. US agencies continued to re-evaluate the situation in the face of fresh facts, and proved flexible in adapting to changing conditions. They could little have been expected to divine the intentions of the Presidium in advance, but did a good job at tracking the consequences of the decisions taken in the Kremlin.

The only reservation might be their failure to discover the full extent of the Soviet force in Cuba. This raises several points. The first is the difference between the objective facts of a crisis and the perception of a crisis. The objective facts were that nearly 50,000 Soviet troops, 100 tactical nuclear weapons and 60 nuclear warheads were 90 miles from Florida. It could be suggested that the US intelligence community made a failure in not discovering these facts and communicating them to ExComm, which would then have had a more realistic appraisal of the situation.

However, as previously noted, had these facts been known then they would likely have led the USA to more belligerent and dangerous action. Khrushchev probably thought the US knew the full extent of the Soviet deployment, and yet was still willing to respond to diplomacy and the blockade. It must be worth noting in conclusion the role of sheer luck in such a tense crisis situation, one in which an apparent intelligence failure turned out to actually be a boon. It seems hard in the light of this knowledge to precisely assess the success of intelligence in the crisis. Yet, if the standards quite reasonably be defined as seeking out the facts and communicating them to policymakers as speedily and truthfully as possible, it is clear that the Americans succeeded. It is equally clear that the Soviets failed.

Further reading

The story of the crisis is told well in James A. Nathan, Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Westport CT, 2001) and more briefly in Norman H. Finkelstein, Thirteen Days/Nineteen Miles: The Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1994). For the intelligence aspects specifically, James G. Blight and David A. Welch (eds.), Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis (London, 1998) is indispensible, and CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington DC, 1993) edited by the same authors is interesting. There's a great article online about 'Soviet deception in the Cuban Missile Crisis' at

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