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DIA’s role during the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Office of Corporate Communications

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Oct. 20, 2014 — By September 1962 DIA analysts suspected that the Soviet Union had put nuclear-capable missiles on Cuba. DIA Director Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Carroll established a special Cuban Situation Room on Oct. 4, 1962, so that the agency could provide 24-hour coverage of the crisis and be postured to support military contingency planning.

Carroll also began lobbying for U-2 flights over the western half of the island where his analysts believed the missiles were located. President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara agreed, and when DIA and CIA photo interpreters examined film from an Oct. 14 U-2 mission, they saw ballistic missile carriers, support trucks and equipment, and later, the missiles themselves. On the morning of Oct. 16, Carroll and DIA analyst John Hughes went to brief McNamara on the photographs of the missiles near San Cristobal. The news hit like a thunderclap. The secretary ordered Carroll to develop as much intelligence as he could using all the means at his disposal. Throughout the crisis, Hughes and Carroll provided daily briefs to McNamara as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In an Oct. 20 memorandum, DIA assessed that the magnitude of the combined arms buildup indicated that the Soviets were indeed establishing a “prime strategic base” on the island. This position was bolstered by a Special National Intelligence Estimate stating that, “A major Soviet objective in their military buildup in Cuba is to demonstrate that the world balance of forces has shifted so far in their favor that the U.S. can no longer prevent the advance of Soviet offensive power even into its own hemisphere.”

Kennedy faced a difficult situation. The United States could not tolerate the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba and somehow the Soviets had to be persuaded to remove the missiles. The president managed to avoid a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union by placing a naval “quarantine,” or blockade, around the island. Soviet vessels approached the blockade but ultimately decided not to challenge the U.S. Two weeks after the U.S. discovered the missiles, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reached an agreement that included the removal of the missiles from Cuba. DIA’s performance and support to policymakers during the Cuban Missile Crisis was an important milestone in the early history of the agency.

Today DIA uses all-source defense intelligence to prevent strategic surprise and deliver a decision advantage to warfighters, defense planners and policymakers. The agency collects and analyzes key data using a variety of tools, and deploys its personnel globally, alongside warfighters and interagency partners, to defend America’s national security interests.