Tube City Almanac

January 25, 2011

As Kennedy Campaigned, U-2 Spotted Cuban Missiles

Category: History || By

It turns out that when I wrote about President Kennedy's visit to McKeesport, I missed an important footnote. As Kennedy was touring the Mon Valley on Oct. 13, 1962, the world was edging as close as it's ever come to nuclear war.

U.S. intelligence and military experts were convinced that the Soviet Union was supplying ballistic missiles to its allies in Cuba, but they needed solid evidence.

So on the morning of Oct. 14, 1962, one day after Kennedy visited McKeesport, a U-2 spy plane piloted by Air Force Major Richard D. Heyser flew over western Cuba. According to a U.S. State Department website, it took 928 high-resolution photos during its 6-minute south-to-north flight.

The flight "produced the first verified evidence of the existence of Soviet offensive missile sites in Cuba," the State Department reports.

"Analysis and interpretation of the photographs at the National Photographic Intelligence Center revealed that three medium-range ballistic missile sites were being developed near San Cristobal, in Pinar del Rio province. Photo analysts counted eight large MRBM transporters at the three locations and four erector launchers in tentative firing positions."

. . .

When Kennedy left McKeesport on Oct. 13, he headed to Monessen and Washington, Pa., and then to Indianapolis for another campaign event on Oct. 14.

According to William Taubman's book, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy was informed the following day --- Oct. 15 --- "but since President Kennedy was out of town on a campaign trip," Bundy didn't inform him until Oct.16. Kennedy received the news in his bathrobe and slippers, Taubman writes.

By Oct. 22, little more than a week after Kennedy had been on stage with Gov. David Lawrence, McKeesport Mayor Andrew "Greeky" Jakomas and other local officials, the president was on nationwide TV and radio explaining the situation, and announcing a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba. A Soviet ship tried to run the blockade, and an American spy plane was shot down over Cuba.

. . .

When on Oct. 29, the Soviets agreed to dismantle the missiles, the crisis passed --- but Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev lost face back home, and the Cuban Missile Crisis and other missteps led Kremlin power-brokers to force him from office.

Ironically --- well, at least for McKeesporters --- Khrushchev left office on Oct. 14, 1964, almost two years to the day that Kennedy spoke to those crowds at the corner of Lysle Boulevard and Walnut Street.

And as the late Paul Harvey would say, "Now you know the rest of the story."

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