(CBS News) For 13 days in the fall of 1962 the world stood on the brink of nuclear war. In our Sunday Morning Cover Story, national security correspondent David Martin looks back at those frightening days of the Cuban Missile Crisis ...
The picture that launched the Cuban missile crisis, taken by a U-2 spy plane flying at 60,000 feet on October 14, 1962, was shown to President Kennedy two days later by CIA officers.
Acting CIA Director Marshall Carter described a medium range ballistic missile launch site with two new military encampments."
That briefing and other critical meetings during the 13-day crisis were secretly recorded and preserved for history.
When the president saw that U-2 photo, said Martin, he had the same question you and I would have: "Is this ready to be fired?"
Missile Analysist Sidney Graybeal: "No, sir."
Kennedy: "How long have we got? We can't tell? Can we, how long before it can be fired?"
Graybeal: "No, sir."
Faced with the prospect of nuclear-tipped missiles that could strike targets up and down the East Coast of the U.S., many of the president's top military and civilian advisers wanted to launch air strikes on the missile sites and follow up with an invasion of Cuba.
Kennedy: "We are going to move all of the available forces that we have to be in a position to carry out this invasion as quickly as we possibly can . . . so we may have the war by the next 24 hours."
The president even prepared a speech announcing the attack. You can see it at the National Archives, where curator Stacy Bredhoff has assembled a 50-year anniversary exhibit.
The first line of this speech would have gone, 'This morning I reluctantly ordered the armed forces to attack and destroy the nuclear build-up in Cuba,'" Bredhoff said.
"I think these are the kinds of things that really bring home the fact of how close we actually came."
The speech he did give stopped short of declaring war, but not by much:
"This government feels obliged to report this new crisis to you in fullest detail. . . . It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."
Before he started a chain reaction that could lead to all-out nuclear war, the president needed better pictures of the missile sites - the kind that could only be taken by low-level reconnaissance flights.
So on October 23, 1962, six Navy jets, one of them piloted by Lt. Gerald Coffee, took off from Key West, Florida, on an operation code-named Blue Moon.
"Flew across the Straits of Florida about 50 feet, actually," Coffee said. "When you pull up, the exhaust from the jet would make a big rooster tail on the water, you're that low."
Soviet officials from Nikita Khrushchev on down were denying there were any missile sites in Cuba. But Coffee could look down from his cockpit and see them with the naked eye.
"Was it clear to you at that moment that these really were missile sites?" Martin asked.
"Absolutely," Coffee laughed. "Absolutely."
"Did you feel like it was a 'gotcha' moment?"
"Yeah, we did. Khrushchev had been denying all that time that there were any, any missile, Soviet missiles in Cuba, and it was very gratifying to say, 'Hell, there are not, we just flew over them!'"
The Blue Moon pictures Coffee's squadron took that day were shown to the president 24 hours later.
The day after that, Adlai Stevenson, America's Ambassador to the United Nations, showed them to the world and demanded an explanation from the Soviet ambassador to the U.N.
"You will have your answer in due course," said Ambassador Valerian Zorin.
"I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that is your decision," Stevenson said.
That same day, the 25th of October, Coffee was once again screaming over Cuba at treetop level - unarmed and unescorted, but fast and low.
"I wouldn't say unafraid necessarily," said Coffee. "But the excitement of doing something knowing that it was going to be really important, I think, overcame any sense of fear."
What he found on that mission was a game changer.
"I'm going across the missile site and I kind of glance off to the left and I see what looks like a motor pool," he recalled. "It's half covered by camouflage netting and so on. Just a bunch of vehicles that I couldn't really identify individually as to what they were, but it looked important. So I wrapped the airplane off to the side and pulled real hard to make that sharp turn to the left, and, and real wings level, all the cameras running again."
The cameras captured short range FROG missiles that could fire nuclear warheads against American soldiers and Marines hitting the beach in Cuba. 120,000 troops were gathering in Florida, but CIA Director John McCone told the president those short-range missiles were "evil stuff" that dramatically changed the odds for an invasion.
"So an invasion, whether or not it succeeded in taking out the missiles, really could have been a disaster," said Martin.
"Yeah, it could have sparked a nuclear confrontation," said Bredhoff.
"They use the nuclear weapons first against the invading force - " said Martin.
"And then the United States would have had to retaliate somehow."
"And there you go - Armageddon."
With U.S. warships blockading Cuba, the crisis reached its peak on October 27th, known to historians as Black Saturday. Some of the missiles were now ready to fire, and in the middle of another of the almost non-stop meetings at the White House, the Secretary of Defense received an alarming report: That the U-2 was shot down.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy: "Was the pilot killed?"
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor: "The pilot's body is in the plane."
President Kennedy: "Well now, this is much of an escalation by them, isn't it?"
Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze: "They've fired the first shot."
Martin noted how the voices in the White House recordings were different. "You can just hear the tension . . . it's different from the earlier recordings."
"It is," said Bredhoff. "You can really hear the pressure building and I think you do get a sense of, even while these discussions are going on, the clock is ticking. Time ticks away. As the president says, those missile sites are closer and closer to being operational."
Hanging over it all was a critical unknown: Where were the nuclear warheads that would go on top of the missiles?
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara: "We need to know where these warheads are. And we have not yet found any probable storage of warheads."
That mystery remained secret for more than four decades, until historian Michael Dobbs found thousands of unpublished photos taken by the Blue Moon pilots.
"They have just been sitting in the National Archives, waiting for a researcher to come and look at them," he told Martin.
And there it was, in black-and-white. "The most important photographs that I found were probably of what would prove to be the main nuclear storage bunkers for nuclear warheads on the island of Cuba, at a place called Bejucal, just a few miles south of Havana."
Dobbs said the warheads were approximately 60 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
"So one warhead basically would have taken out Washington," said Martin.
The photos showed the vans the Soviets used to transport the warheads to their firing positions.
Dobbs actually spoke to one of the Soviet officers responsible for preparing the missiles. "He told me that at the height of the crisis on Black Saturday, they were ready to fire within two-and-a-half hours."
But the very next day, Khrushchev announced he would withdraw the missiles in return for a promise the U.S. would never invade Cuba.
His words to his military are on display at the archives: "Remove them. As quickly as possible. Before something terrible happens."
In the days after the crisis, President Kennedy visited the Blue Moon Squadron, personally congratulating each of the pilots.
Four years later Coffee was shot down over North Vietnam, spending seven years as a POW. He's 78 now, but you can still see the young Navy lieutenant who took what historian Dobbs calls "the photographs that prevented World War III."
"The guys that flew these missions are all a bunch of 20-somethings and 30-somethings, the 'boys of October,'" said Martin.
"Right," said Coffee. "The boys of October. You could say that."
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