- Historic Sites
The Time Of The Angel
The U-2, Cuba, and the CIA
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
Cline’s first action was to call presidential assistant McGeorge Bundy at his home. Since he had no scrambler phone, Cline felt it necessary to be circumspect. “You know that island we were talking about a few days ago?” he said. “Well, they’ve got some big ones.”
Bundy caught on immediately. He was staggered by the news. “Are they ready to shoot now?” he asked.
“No, but they are rapidly approaching it.”
Next, Cline tried to alert the State Department. He reached Roger Hilsman, the department’s chief of intelligence, at a cocktail party. Once again Cline described the missiles circumspectly, but this time his cryptic references were less effective. Hilsman thought he was talking about bombers, not missiles, and it took some time for Cline, using circumlocutions, to make himself understood. As soon as he hung up, Cline found out he wasn’t so clever as he thought. His fourteen-year-old daughter, who had happened to be in the next room, came in and said, “Where are the missiles—in Cuba or China?”
Through the rest of Monday evening, other top-level officials of the government were tracked down at home or at social functions and were told the news. Meanwhile, all through the night, Lundahl’s team kept checking the film over and over again. Everything they saw strengthened their convictions.
Early the next morning, McGeorge Bundy went to the White House and informed the President: “There is now hard photographic evidence that the Russians have offensive missiles in Cuba.” Realizing that Khrushchev had lied to him, Kennedy reacted with surprise and anger. “He can’t do that to me! ”
Meanwhile, Lundahl and Cline were preparing their briefing for the President at the CIA’s Langley headquarters. Just as they were walking out the door with a big black case full of photographs, a bus carrying the delegates to the Commonwealth intelligence conference pulled up. Cline, who was supposed to address the opening conference session that morning, was caught in an embarrassing spot—anyone could see that he was going off on some important errand. (Later, as the feverish comings and goings around Washington became increasingly obvious, Cline dropped hints that convinced the foreign intelligence officers that the crisis was over Berlin).
At the White House, Lundahl and Cline went to the Oval Office and spread the pictures out on the President’s desk. Lundahl handed Kennedy a big Sherlock-Holmes-style magnifying glass and pointed out the incriminating evidence. Kennedy took a long time examining the pictures. Then he turned to Lundahl, fixed him with a hard stare, and said, “Are you sure?”
“It can be a papier-mâche world out there,” Lundahl replied. “But I'm as sure of this as a photo-interpreter can be.”
Over the following days there were more U-2 flights, and the photo-interpreters were able to pinpoint a total of six MRBM sites. They also found three sites for intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which could carry nuclear warheads for twenty-two hundred nautical miles to strike at any point in the United States except for a small section of the Pacific Northwest. At the United Nations when Adlai Stevenson accused the Russians of installing the missiles, Soviet Ambassador Zorin tried to deny their existence, but Lundahl’s deputy was waiting in the wings with huge enlargements of the photographs. When he wheeled the pictures onto the floor of the Security Council, there was no contesting the evidence. Representatives of the CIA flew to the capitals of major Allied nations with copies of the pictures and convinced the foreign chiefs of state that the U.S. was acting on hard fact. Confronted by all this, Khrushchev ordered the missiles removed from Cuba. Later, when the Russians began to withdraw the missiles, U-2s confirmed that they were gone.
Today, of course, all this seems almost primitive, for things have changed a lot in the last fifteen years. The technology of spying is much advanced, with Russian and American satellites orbiting the earth and sending back intelligence from altitudes far beyond any achieved by the U-2.
John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev are gone-and most of the experts who played key roles in the development of the Angel and its associated technology are now fully or partly retired. But they must look back, from time to time, to a brief moment when it and they were in charge of history.