JFK TAPES: LeMay Wonders What the Soviets Were Up To in the Cuban Missile Crisis

We have so far gotten the missiles out, we think; we’re not sure.
President Kennedy meets with General Curtis LeMay; Colonel Ralph D. Steakley; Lt. Colonel Joe M. O’Grady; Major Richard S. Hoyser. 30 October 1962, 11:30–11:47 AM. This is a different meeting to the one described below. Photo by Abbie Rowe / John F. Kennedy Library.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff met with President Kennedy in the Oval Office on November 16, 1962, to update him on the military situation in Cuba. The crisis might have been over, but there was much unfinished business. Dozens of missiles, nuclear bombers, and fighter jets were still in Cuba, as were tens of thousands of Soviet troops.

The Joint Chiefs didn’t know that JFK was secretly recording the discussion.

The discussion highlighted just how tenuous the situation still was. It was nearly three weeks since Khrushchev had caved. And while the diplomats had changed gears, the military had not. The nuclear strike forces of the Strategic Air Command were still on DEFCON 2, the highest level before actual nuclear war.

Now, what the purpose has been, I don’t know.

In this segment of the meeting, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and commander of the Strategic Air Command, General Curtis LeMay, outlined the military situation in Cuba and wondered aloud what Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev might have been up to.

The nuclear-capable ground forces he referred to were the four rifle regiments with short-range, nuclear-capable tactical rockets. Known in the West as FROGs (Free Range Over Ground) and to the Soviets as Luna, they were no threat to the United States itself, but they could be a very real problem for an invading force. When the FROGs were first detected, from a surveillance flight on October 25, the commander of U.S. forces in the region asked for permission to arm his own forces with tactical nuclear weapons in case they were confronted with a nuclear battlefield. The request was denied. Twelve tactical nuclear warheads for the FROGs arrived in Cuba on October 23.[1]

President John F. Kennedy poses with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the White House’s West Wing Lawn. From left to right: US Marine Corps. General David Shoup; US Army General Earle Wheeler; US Air Force General Curtis LeMay, President Kennedy; Chairman of theJCS General Maxwell Taylor; US Admiral George Anderson. West Wing Lawn, White House, Washington, D.C. Photo by Robert Knudsen/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

In referring to a nuclear-capable air defense system, LeMay was probably referring to two things. One of the sophisticated SA-2 surface-to-air missile system. It was one of those missiles that had shot down the U-2 plane on October 27 (and Francis Gary Powers two years before that). Some variations of the Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile systems, the type that were deployed in Cuba as part of Soviet Operation Anadyr, were also capable of firing either conventional or nuclear warheads. But there is no available evidence that the Soviets sent nuclear warheads for the SA-2 missiles. The second part might well have been the MiG-21 fighters.

For air combat, Soviet commanders sent 100 MiG fighters to Cuba. Of these, 42 were advanced MiG-21 (Fishbed) aircraft, a supersonic fighter that could be used for both interception and ground attack. The MiG-21 had a combat radius of more than 550 kilometers and was typically armed with a variety of cannons, infrared air-to-air missiles, and air-to-surface rockets.

U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that the MiG-21s in Cuba probably were capable of carrying nuclear weapons but that arming them with nuclear bombs would severely limit their effective range (to just under 200 miles) and hinder their navigation systems. As Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, put it, such tradeoffs meant that nuclear weapons on the MiG-21s were “not a likely configuration.” (Although that didn’t stop them from becoming a political issue on Capitol Hill, of course.)

Kennedy was certainly speaking to a particular audience, reassuring the military brass that a military option was still on the table if it came to it.

LeMay’s job, of course, was to make military options available to the president. And that was something he was good at — some would say, too good.

In this excerpt, LeMay is simply presenting the options for launching air strikes on Cuba. But never shy, LeMay tended to cross the line into advocacy of military action.

If the quarantine fails or we don’t want to use it, we do have a plan for knocking out the IL-28s. [It’s] very easy to do.

That trait bothered Kennedy. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay had told Kennedy that the course the President had settled on — a naval blockade of Cuba — was a bad idea and was "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” an accusation that was especially pointed given the role JFK’s father had played in the lead-up to World War II.

And at another point of this November 16 meeting, LeMay advocated “solving” the problem. By that, he meant implementing CINCLANT OPLAN 312–62. Behind the codename was a major action: it was the plan for large-scale air attacks on Cuba.[2]

November 16, 1962 | Oval Office

General Curtis LeMay: Well, we say we’ve had an unprecedented buildup down there in the Western Hemisphere, and not only of military, or nuclear-capable ground forces, which [Army Chief of Staff] General [Earle] Wheeler will talk about, but also a very good air defense system that is nuclear-capable also, plus submarines off the coast and so forth, indicating a well-coordinated, planned buildup over some period of time.
Now, what the purpose has been, I don’t know. It could have been for an all-out surprise attack on the United States, or blackmail against our strong position on [West] Berlin, or it could have been a backdrop to gain concessions on our overseas bases someplace. Or it could have been designed to keep us from invading Cuba. Castro has been expecting it for some time, according to all the propaganda coming out of there. Or it could be just for strengthening this strong communist base in the Western Hemisphere. It might have been a combination.
We have so far gotten the missiles out, we think; we’re not sure. The submarines apparently have turned around and gone back. But the rest of the whole fabric of this buildup remains there. Now, a [naval] quarantine may get the IL-28s out, or negotiations may get them out, but it may not.
If the quarantine fails or we don’t want to use it, we do have a plan for knocking out the IL-28s. [It’s] very easy to do. We could use 8 airplanes on Holguin and 16 on San Julian. There are 9 airplanes [IL-28s] in crates on Holguin and 32 on San Julian. I’d put 8 airplanes on the airplanes [IL-28s] — 8 Navy airplanes at Holguin — 8 for suppression of ground fire if it’s necessary, and 8 for fighter tail in case the MiGs came in. We’d use 16 on San Julian with 8 on a fighter tail.
This could be — the operation is fairly simple. It would be accomplished in a few minutes. This is not without some risk. I think if we did this we could expect our reconnaissance airplanes to be attacked from then on. And we’d probably have to follow up, if we want to continue air surveillance, by having to knock out the rest of the defenses. That small risk is there, but there’s some risk in anything we undertake. We see no problems doing this. If we have to go beyond that we have plans to take out the SAM sites only, or take out the SAMs and MiGs, or go on to all of [OPLAN] 312.

[1] For more on the FROGs/Luna, see David Coleman, The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012).

[2] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–63, 11: doc. 186.; and Anatoli I. Gribkov and William Y. Smith, Operation ANADYR: U.S. and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis (Chicago: Edition Q, 1994), pp.224–26.

The transcript segment above is excerpted from The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: The Winds of Change, volume 5: November 8–30, 1962, edited by David Coleman (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), pp. 225–26.

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