Just after dawn on Oct. 14, 1962, Maj. Richard S. Heyser of the Strategic Air Command flew over western Cuba in a high-altitude U-2 aircraft on a mission code-named Victor.
The 5,000 feet of film he brought back from his reconnaissance flight was rushed to a nondescript CIA building at 5th and K streets Northwest, in the heart of Washington's inner city. There, analysts of the CIA's little-known National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) pored over the photographs. What they found changed history and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
In the semi-darkened room, Vince DiRenzo, a 32-year-old ex-Marine who had joined the CIA right out of graduate school, spotted 62-foot-long canvas-covered objects near a town called Los Palacios. He approached his supervisor, Earl Shoemaker, and said: "We've got big missiles in Cuba."
Arthur C. Lundahl, the chief and founding father of the CIA's photo-interpretation center, was immediately summoned and gravely verified the young analyst's conclusion. The next morning the photos were on the desk of President John F. Kennedy, and the Cuban missile crisis was under way. For 13 days the world stood as close as it ever has to incineration.
Now Dino A. Brugioni, one of the CIA photo interpreters present that day, has been permitted by the intelligence agency to write his own detailed account of that frightening period. It is an exciting, at times riveting, story, even though we know how it turned out--or we would not be around to read it.
Brugioni's is the first CIA insider's account of those tension-filled days in October, and it is rich in anecdotal detail about the policy makers at the top of the government, as well as a primer on the art of aerial photography, photo interpretation and the use of overhead reconnaissance as an essential tool of modern intelligence.
Here is the unforgettably crude Curtis E. LeMay, the cigar-chomping Air Force chief of staff and a character out of "Dr. Strangelove," who, when asked what to do about Cuba, responded: "Fry it." Here is Konrad Adenauer, the aged chancellor of West Germany, being shown the U-2 photographs for the first time and exclaiming, "Fabelhaft! Fabelhaft! (fabulous! fabulous!)."
There have been several books about the Cuban missile crisis, but for those who lived through it, even the now-familiar phrases transport us back in time. Nikita S. Khrushchev, the shrewd, shoe-pounding Soviet leader who precipitated the crisis by putting his medium- and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba, warning an American businessman: "If the United States insists on war, we'll all meet in hell." Or Khrushchev remarking, at the height of the crisis: " . . . a smell of burning hung in the air."
The missiles discovered on Oct. 14 were Soviet SS-4 MRBMs, medium-range ballistic missiles, with a reach of 1,100 miles, capable of striking Washington and other cities in the United States, and of carrying three-megaton warheads. Three days later, there was even worse news: Near Remedios and Guanajay, the NPIC (pronounced en-pic) analysts pinpointed SS-5 IRBMs, intermediate-range missiles that could carry five megatons and travel 2,200 miles. Brugioni brings home just how scary this was. At Lundahl's request, he took a map and drew a 2,200-mile arc from Guanajay across the United States; "the only portion of the United States that was not covered was the Pacific Northwest--i.e. Seattle, Spokane and points in Oregon and Northern California."
Brugioni is on much firmer ground describing the technical details of the crisis, to which he was a firsthand observer, than in portraying the decisions at the top. In reporting the deliberations of the "Excomm," as the President's panel of crisis advisers was called, he must rely on others to thread his way through the clash of hawks and doves, the role of U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, the controversy over whether to trade obsolete U.S. missiles in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba, and so on.
There are wonderful quotes from everyone from President Kennedy on down, but unfortunately, Brugioni does not source most of them. The reader will search in vain in the text, or the chapter notes, to discover their origin. We are told, for example, that Sen. Richard Russell, the powerful Armed Services Committee chairman, opposed a meeting during the crisis between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Russell is quoted as saying: "The last time the President met with Khrushchev in Vienna, he lost his shirt. This time he'll lose his ass." Colorful, but did Russell really say it, and to whom?
The book tends to reflect Brugioni's view from the engine room. A middle-level CIA technician, his account at times inevitably reflects the view that everything would have been better if only the political leaders had left things to the professionals.