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The Precipice of Nuclear Annihilation: Through the Eyes of the Cuban Missile Crisis – 50 Years Later

On October 5, 2012, The Institute of World Politics hosted a presentation on the Cuban missile crisis by Gene Poteat, the president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. During his career, Mr. Poteat worked with the U-2 and SR-71 aircraft and various space and naval reconnaissance systems. Because of his career experience in intelligence, Mr. Poteat focused much of his presentation on U.S. intelligence gathering efforts related to the Cuban missile crisis. 

The first item that Mr. Poteat mentioned in his presentation was that the Cuban missile crisis was the high watermark of Soviet-U.S. relations. After the crisis was resolved, mutually assured destruction became the policy that would guide U.S.-Soviet relations. 

According to Mr. Poteat, the goal of the Soviet Union was to convert the world to communism.  As the only other superpower in the world, the U.S. was the only nation that had the potential to stop the spread of communism. In order to counteract U.S. influence, the Soviet Union hoped to establish an intelligence organization that would take over the U.S. Mr. Poteat said that, at this time, the Soviets had hundreds of spies in the U.S., while the U.S. had zero spies in the Soviet Union. Poteat even described a CIA Soviet spy who provided the Soviet Union with construction plans and other details for development of missiles. It is easy to conclude, he said, that the U.S. was far behind the Soviets in regards to intelligence. 

In order to counteract this disadvantage, President Eisenhower established three main goals. Mr. Poteat said that President Eisenhower wanted to place spies in the Soviet Union, to utilize aerial reconnaissance, and to establish satellite reconnaissance. Mr. Poteat went on to talk about the U-2 project, the first major successful intelligence gathering effort by the U.S. against the Soviets. Through the use of the U-2 aerial reconnaissance craft, the U.S. was able to determine that it had military superiority over the Soviet Union. More specifically, the U.S. was able to discover the missile silos in Cuba. 

Despite the success of the U-2 reconnaissance, policy-makers in Washington were unconvinced that the intelligence was good enough, because they claimed that the pictures taken from the U-2s were too grainy. In order to gain the desired intelligence quality, F-8 Crusader reconnaissance was established. F-8 Crusaders were used in low-altitude missions to obtain higher quality intelligence. The high-quality intelligence gathered by the F-8 crusader project convinced policy-makers that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missile sites in Cuba. Mr. Poteat said that the discovery of the missile silos led to the missile crisis, as President Kennedy had to act in order to prevent the Soviet Union from establishing missile sites so close to U.S. shores.  

With regards to the Cuban missile crisis itself, Mr. Poteat explained that Soviet leader Khrushchev blinked first, and conceded in the negotiations to pull Soviet missiles out of Cuba. Mr. Poteat also mentioned, however, that concessions were given by President Kennedy, and that these concessions were kept secret so that his popularity with the American people would not be diminished. In the negotiations, President Kennedy agreed to remove missiles from Turkey. He also agreed to keep his hands off of Fidel Castro and never to invade Cuba.          

Mr. Poteat concluded that the intelligence apparatus of the U.S. was significant in defeating the Soviet Union, especially the attainment of the knowledge that the U.S. was militarily superior to the Soviet Union and that the Soviets were arming Cuba. The intelligence gathered by the U.S. helped resolve the Cuban missile crisis, which was the closest that the U.S and the Soviet Union had ever come to nuclear war.     

-Steve Smolinsky

Gene Poteat, Cuban Missile Crisis