On The Brink

How to fool the CIA

Fifty years ago this month, an armada of Soviet ships crossed the Atlantic, headed toward Cuba. As this August 21 New York Times report shows, the Kennedy administration dismissed claims by Cuban exiles in Miami that the ships were carrying combat troops and sophisticated military equipment. U.S. officials were initially inclined to accept the Soviet ...

National Archives
National Archives

Fifty years ago this month, an armada of Soviet ships crossed the Atlantic, headed toward Cuba. As this August 21 New York Times report shows, the Kennedy administration dismissed claims by Cuban exiles in Miami that the ships were carrying combat troops and sophisticated military equipment. U.S. officials were initially inclined to accept the Soviet explanation that most of the personnel arriving in Cuba were  "civilian technicians," with a sprinkling of "military advisers."

One of the Soviet ships was the Poltava, photographed above as it neared the end of its voyage, which turned out to be carrying a shipment of eight medium-range nuclear missiles capable of reaching Washington and New York. In order to mislead the CIA, the Soviets hid the missiles in long holds, originally designed for the lumber trade. According to Soviet accounts, there were 261 military personnel on board, but they were also kept out of sight below decks.

Transporting an army of 50,000 men, including five missile regiments, in secret half way across the world under the gaze of Uncle Sam was a huge logistical undertaking. It required a fleet of 85 ships, many of which made two or even three trips to Cuba. The final destination was kept secret even from the regimental commanders and ship captains. It was only after they passed Gibraltar, and entered the Atlantic, that they received the instruction "proceed to Cuba."

Fifty years ago this month, an armada of Soviet ships crossed the Atlantic, headed toward Cuba. As this August 21 New York Times report shows, the Kennedy administration dismissed claims by Cuban exiles in Miami that the ships were carrying combat troops and sophisticated military equipment. U.S. officials were initially inclined to accept the Soviet explanation that most of the personnel arriving in Cuba were  "civilian technicians," with a sprinkling of "military advisers."

One of the Soviet ships was the Poltava, photographed above as it neared the end of its voyage, which turned out to be carrying a shipment of eight medium-range nuclear missiles capable of reaching Washington and New York. In order to mislead the CIA, the Soviets hid the missiles in long holds, originally designed for the lumber trade. According to Soviet accounts, there were 261 military personnel on board, but they were also kept out of sight below decks.

Transporting an army of 50,000 men, including five missile regiments, in secret half way across the world under the gaze of Uncle Sam was a huge logistical undertaking. It required a fleet of 85 ships, many of which made two or even three trips to Cuba. The final destination was kept secret even from the regimental commanders and ship captains. It was only after they passed Gibraltar, and entered the Atlantic, that they received the instruction "proceed to Cuba."

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, we should spare a thought for the Soviet soldiers crammed below decks in the stifling heat, with barely enough room to lie down. (Temperatures reached 120 degrees at times.) To be allowed up on deck and breathe the fresh air was a privilege, granted to soldiers on special occasions, such as their birthday, and only at night, when there was little risk of being photographed. 

Needless to say, by the time they reached Cuba, they were hardly fighting fit.  As I described in my book One Minute to Midnight, Soviet military statisticians estimated that three out of every four passengers got seriously seasick. The average Soviet soldier lost twenty-two pounds in weight during the voyage.

What is most remarkable about this epic expedition is that the CIA failed to understand its significance until the very last moment. I will describe why our spooks got it so wrong in a subsequent post. 

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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