The Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC) presented a different type of military intelligence than Pearl Harbor did. In the case of CMC, military intelligence provided tremendous amounts of valuable and incontrovertible evidence. However, that information has to be viewed in the larger context of the times to understand why the United States government viewed the situation as seriously as they did.
The United States had been actively but covertly working to prevent the spread of Communism to the Western Hemisphere. Many in America believed that the U.S.S.R. intended to spread Communism to every corner of the world, while the United States was determined to bring democracy to every country possible. This ideological face-off was known as the "Cold War." Both the United States and the U.S.S.R. feared that this ideological conflict might escalate to nuclear war.
The United States had clung steadfastly to the Monroe Doctrine, established in 1823 by President Monroe. This doctrine declared that North, Central and South America where the United State's sphere of influence and that countries outside that sphere must not interfere within that sphere, and that an act of war anywhere in that area would be considered an act of war by the United States. Nikita Krushchev of the U.S.S.R. openly mocked the Monroe Doctrine, prompting the United States to respond that "The U.S. will not permit the establishment of a regime dominated by international Communism in the Western Hemisphere." Politicians of the day described Cuba as a "Soviet satellite, or a country substantially dominated and nearly ruled by Russia.
Krushchev frequently used confrontational language when talking about the United States, and President John F. Kennedy tried to use deflection and tact to deal with his brusque statements, leading Krushchev to conclude that Kennedy was a weak and uncertain president and possibly too young for the job, and that the U.S.S.R. did not have to worry about a strong response from him over Russia's activities in Cuba. Both countries were using intelligence methods to analyze what the other country said to draw conclusions about intent. In the case of the CMC, the United State's analysis of Russian intent was accurate. They realized that the U.S.S.R. intended to build a military presence in Castro's Cuba, and used spy planes to document the growth of Russian military presence on the island. On October 16, 1962, President Kennedy revealed to his brother Robert that the Russian military buildup on Cuba had taken on ominous turn: U-2 airplane flights over Cuba had revealed that Russia was installing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to the United States in Cuba. For the next thirteen days the American government, and the American people, faced the reality that this crisis could result in nuclear war.
While historians tend to focus on the 13 days during which the missiles were first confirmed until the U.S.S.R. finally agreed to remove them, the CMC was a crisis that had been building for some time. Soviet ships had actually begun moving military staff and materials into Cuba in July of 1962. By the time the Russian military build-up was complete, missiles in Cuba would have been able to reach every major city in the United States except Seattle.
Military intelligence continued to serve Kennedy well in this crisis. While our government knew that the U.S.S.R. was installing nuclear weapons in Cuba, they did not yet realize that the United States was aware of this event. On October 17, Kennedy's advisers were able to assure him that there was no change in Russia's level of military alert, suggesting that they were not planning any kind of imminent attack.
The evening of October 17, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with Ambassador Dobrynin at the Russia Embassy. Kennedy reminded him that they had just talked in September and that during that meeting, Dobrynin had assured Robert Kennedy that Russia had placed no missiles in Cuba and that it had no plans to do so in the future. Based on that assurance, the United States had adopted more conciliatory tone with Russia. Kennedy told Dobrynin that "the President knew he had been deceived." Dobrynin insisted that as far as he knew, there were no missiles in Cuba.
On October 18, the United States instituted a quarantine around Cuba extending 500 miles from Cuba's shores. More recent U-2 flights showed the Russian installations in greater detail, including launching pads and storage bunkers, and Russian ships were approaching the 500-mile line of confrontation. The U.S. Navy expected to shortly intercept two ships when the Navy reported that a Russian submarine had positioned itself between the two ships. The situation was rapidly heating up. Fortunately a report came in that six Russian ships had stopped moving toward Cuba, seemingly buying both sides to find a non-military solution to the crisis. America's military intelligence was serving the President well in this crisis. The U.S. decided to let ships unlikely to be carrying military equipment to proceed on to Cuba, although some in his Cabinet believed that the President should take a firmer line and stop all ships, by force if necessary.
In fact the President faced a serious problem within the White House in dealing with this crisis, because there were strong arguments for a "first strike." These advisors believed that the U.S.S.R. wanted total domination of the planet and that at some point they would have to be forcibly confronted. Kennedy had to restrain military leaders anxious for a military solution to the crisis. In his efforts he had an ironic ally in Nikita Krushchev who believed as Kennedy did that nuclear war must be avoided at all costs.
The President and his advisors nearly came to the conclusion to bomb the missile sites, backing away at the last moment to try diplomacy one more time as a solution. The CMC finally came to a conclusion when Krushchev used "back door diplomacy." To allow for negotiations without interference from those who disagreed with him, Krushchev had a Soviet embassy official contact a television reporter, John Scali. Scali was told that Russia would accept the American proposal to trade obsolete missiles in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba. Both countries would make concessions, and Krushchev and his country could save face.
Military intelligence played a crucial role throughout the CMC. It was military intelligence that first identified the buildup of Soviet material and soldiers in July of 1962, and military intelligence that provided the evidence of the missile installation. The excellent photographs taken during U-2 flights were used very effectively at the United Nations by the United State's ambassador to the U.N., Adalai Stevenson. Stevenson first attempted to get the Soviet U.N. representative to acknowledge the missiles. When the U.S.S.R. would not, Stevenson showed the incontrovertible proof from the U-2 photographs.
Talking about the Pearl Harbor attack, General Miles made a remarkable claim as an attempt to deflect blame from Washington staff for being caught off guard: he claimed that neither the Army nor the Navy believed that the Japanese messages they had intercepted indicated Pearl Harbor as a target for attack. He called that an unfortunate mistake but argued that it was not unusual for the Japanese to want such detailed information about Pearl Harbor. This claim is hard to give credibility to since the Army and the Navy did acknowledge that an attack somewhere was imminent. However, it was not the lack of military intelligence that allowed Pearl Harbor to be surprised so much as the desire to keep the fact that the U.S. had cracked Japan's code a secret. One piece of military intelligence would have been crucial if it had been detected, and that was the fact that Japan had developed torpedoes that could swim to their targets in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. However, although Japan could observe the U.S.'s military activity at Pearl Harbor fairly easily, the United States had no such access to Japanese military training. It seems unlikely that we could have spotted these modified torpedoes before the attack.
In spite of the evidence, examined in hindsight, that points clearly to Pearl Harbor as a target, before the attack, the clues that might have revealed that plan were buried in a huge amount of intelligence, most of which did not point toward Pearl.
Both the Pearl Harbor Attack and the Cuban Missile Crisis have something in common in that military intelligence played an important role in both. However, the two situations differ significantly in how that military intelligence was used. In the case of the December 7 attack, the best intelligence gathered was kept so highly secret that those in charge of defending our military bases did not know about it. By contrast, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the military intelligence gathered was shared not only with many of Kennedy's advisors but eventually, through the confrontation at the United Nations, with the entire world.