The fifteen men gathering in the Cabinet Room that morning were stunned that the Soviets had deceived the administration about their intentions in Cuba. Analysts from the National Photographic Interpretation Center explained that the medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) sites thus far discovered were still under construction. It quickly became clear that any attempt to destroy the sites with air attacks had to be carried out before they became fully operational. However, there was no way to be certain when the sites would become operational, and bombing was also unlikely to destroy all the missiles. The Soviets might retaliate by seizing
West Berlin or by firing the missiles that survived the bombing at the U.S.
mainland—initiating a nuclear world war. Three principal options were on the table: air strikes against the missile sites, a naval blockade of Cuba, and/or a full-scale invasion. By the end of the meeting, the president had all but decided in favor of the air strikes.
October 16, 6:30 p.m.
Several participants suggested that the presence of the Soviet missiles in Cuba did not really alter the
strategic balance of nuclear power. “It doesn’t make any difference,” the president argued, “if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was ninety miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much. . . . After all this is a political struggle as much as military.” The president
admitted to being puzzled by Soviet motives in Cuba. There was some awareness that Khrushchev might be reacting to the presence of U.S. missiles in Turkey and Italy; but no one in the room seriously considered the possibility that he had acted defensively, to protect his Cuban ally. The morning meeting had ended with a consensus for the use of force—particularly for a limited air strike on just the missile sites. During the evening, however, there was a growing awareness of the dangers raised by any military action in Cuba. If the U.S. attacked the island nation, especially without warning, where would it end?
Excerpts taken from The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myth vs. Reality