INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM SMITH
INTERVIEWER: General, first of all, can I ask you the tough one, can we have your name and your title for the transcripts?
GENERAL WILLIAM SMITH: Yes, General W.I. Smith, the US Air Force retired.
INT: Thank you sir. First of all just to help understand the mood of the times, can you tell us how certainly the American military perceived Russia at the beginning of the '60s?
WS: [Coughs] Russia at the beginning of the '60s was viewed by the Americans as a very great danger. We had gone through the '50s, gone through the Sputnik, which was a big shock to us. We'd gone through the so-called missile gap and had gotten through that but we saw the Russian economy doing better than it had ever done, with forecasts that if things kept going the way they were they would equal or surpass the United States in ten to fifteen years. So we saw a very threatening Russia, militarily that way. But what really got our attentions was a speech by Khrushchev, I think in January of '61, where he said, look we're not gonna win this war by, you know, having all that nuclear war, we're gonna win it by wars of national liberation and we're going to attack...no, we're going to support governments that want to be independent of the United States and want to adopt a different way and course of life and we're going to support them. So, we saw Russia as a threat both at the nuclear level - they had the stronger conventional forces than we did, and now we saw them entering into wars of national liberation and so we really... and we saw this growing economy and so we really felt the United States was under very great pressure.
INT: So just at the beginning of the '60s, one of the big fears too was also not just Russian Communism, but the spread of Communism throughout the world.
INT: Can you tell me a bit how... continuing on that theme, how Cuba was perceived as a result of that?
WS: Well, by some, Cuba was perceived as a puppet of the Soviet Union. It had made the decision, I believe, in 1959, declared it was a Socialist state and it accepted earlier aid from the Soviet Union and so it was looked at an instrument of the Soviet Union in the western hemisphere and the United States as being very sensitive about foreign interests in the western hemisphere and therefore we looked at Cuba as a danger to United States' interests in this hemisphere.
INT: In April 1961, the infamous Bay of Pigs happened. Can you tell us a bit about what the aftermath was of that operation?
WS: The aftermath of the Bay of Pigs for the United States was it split the US government, in the sense that the President Kennedy thought the US military had let him down and therefore he had less use for the US military, less respect for them. He felt that the Central Intelligence Agency also had let him down and they also had some rebuilding to do. So within the United States government it had sort of left the Kennedy administration in disarray and trying to regroup. At a more important level, at least to me, the Kennedys did not like losing and they did not like the result of the Bay of Pig and they determined that they had to do something about Castro and therefore they started a clandestine program to remove Castro from power. The Mongoose Program.
INT: Given your background, what did you know at the time of the Mongoose Operation?
WS: Nothing. It was very closely held. I was surprised, 'cos I considered myself very well informed at that time and I was in the, even in the air staff for part of that time and worked for General Taylor part of that time, but I still didn't know anything about Operation Mongoose. I knew certain things that we were doing to distract Castro and to cause him difficulty, but the Mongoose Program itself, I think, it was one of the most closely held secrets in the United States at that time.
INT: How do you think the rest of the world, and particularly the Eastern Bloc countries, perceived the Bay of Pigs? Was it something that they used to build on that would result in the missile crisis at the time?
WS: I believe the story that in Vienna, when President Kennedy met Khrushchev and they had this conversation, you know, a series of conversations with President Kennedy not in the best of health. I don't think Khrushchev knew that, not many people knew that, but he was not in the best of health at that time, I think it was a back problem. But Khrushchev perceived President Kennedy as being malleable and he felt that he could push him round a little bit and therefore he decided that here was someone that might just give in to pressure and when the time came to exert that pressure, Khrushchev says, I'll just keep that perception in mind that I have.
INT: If I can now focus a bit about the specifics of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When did you first hear, when were you first informed that there were missiles in Cuba?
WS: I personally was informed about the twenty first of October and I was working for General Maxwell Taylor at the time as his assistant and my role was...what I'll say the rest of the world, which included the Soviet Union and the relations with the Warsaw Pact, budget matters and things of that sort and on the nineteenth of October, I went to General Taylor and I said, I've got this message, where Gromyko was talking to President Kennedy yesterday in the White House and something's going on that I don't understand [clears throat] that I think you ought to know about. He said, thank you very much and I said, what do you want me to do? And he said nothing. Course, at that time he was in the middle of this crisis, you know, he'd been working on it since the fourteenth. So the next day another message came in, I went back again. I said, look here's something else, you know, another message, so there's something going on here that we ought to know about and he again said, thank you very much. But when it became clear when the President was going to make his speech on the twenty second, that was known a day or so before, General Taylor called me and said, OK, here, I need your help, we've got this problem and so from that time on, I worked for him the Cuban Missile Crisis, primarily helping him prepare to go to the White House meetings.
INT: What was your reaction when you heard that there were intermediate range... medium range missiles in Cuba?
WS: That the Soviets were putting them in Cuba? It just didn't make sense. I couldn't believe that the Soviet Union would do that and would think they could get away with it in secret. But, my reaction was that they had done it and so that makes one think, look what are those people up to? What kind of minds do they have, what kind of perception of the world do they have? You know, what are we in for here? Because if they take that step, what other steps might they be willing to take? So it was, you know, at a minimum it really got one's attention.
INT: Excellent answer. Why was America so frightened by the missiles in Cuba. In a naive way, Russia did have ICBMs at that time and surely if an atomic bomb drops on you from... it doesn't matter whether it comes from Russia or Cuba, so why was that fear of Cuba?
WS: People who dealt with strategic nuclear weapons, you know, right from the beginning to the end, dealt in terms of numbers and how much damage the United States could inflict on Russia in retaliation for a Soviet attack on the United States. In 1962, you know, the missile gap issue had disappeared and it was known that the United States had far superior strategic nuclear power to the Soviet Union and that if the Soviet Union should launch an attack on the United States, the United States... There were some studies done, which showed that with the numbers of weapons at that time, we could have survived with very great damage, but we would have survived. Now, you know, one looks at those studies with a certain question mark, but that was the analysis. But that in retaliation, we could still destroy the Soviet Union, so we felt we had strategic nuclear superiority and there was no danger of the Soviet Union launching an attack against the UnitStates. We never had any intention of launching one againthem. Yet the Soviets got some mid-range missiles in Cuba, those added to what they had of the ICBMs in the Soviet Union, would increase their ability to strike the United States considerably, substantially. I think at the time, we thought it more than doubled their ability to do it and therefore it really increased the Soviet strategic nuclear striking power against the United States and that's why we took that very seriously.
INT: There's been a lot of talk about Khrushchev's aims of putting the missiles in Cuba, you know, a lot of claims have come out of Russia that he was there trying to protect the Socialist state of Cuba. Do you believe that?
WS: I believe that was one of his secondary of tertiary reasons...
INT: Can I ask you just to incorporate what was his secondary reason...
WS: Khrushchev's primary reason for putting missiles in Cuba was, in my view, to raise Soviet nuclear strike capability against the United States and therefore to somehow to make more even the ability of the Soviet Union to strike the United States with nuclear weapons. I think another reason that he did it, as a secondary reason... that's the primary reason, the secondary reason was that because of Operation Mongoose, which a lot of people in the United States didn't know about, but a lot of people in Cuba knew that something was going on that was, you know, trying to disrupt Castro, the United States military was conducting a lot of military exercises, which gave the impression that we might be contemplating an invasion of Cuba and we did that purposely to make Castro think that so he would pay more attention to that than causing trouble in Latin and Central America. But the Cubans and the Russians, they told us later, believed that the United States really did intend to attack Cuba and therefore Castro kept saying, I need some help and agreed when Khrushchev says, well, if you need some help, I'll put some missiles there. Another reasons was to help Castro protect himself against an attack against the United States, but as I said, I think that was a secondary reason.