INT: Could you just explain to me a bit more about Defcon? Was Defcon 1, was Defcon 2 one short of war? What did that...
WS: [Interrupts] Yeah, that's right, that's essentially it. All right. Defcon 2 is really... you think war is on the immediate horizon and you have to be prepared to conduct operations at the time of Defcon 1. When you go to Defcon 1, then that is when you begin military operations. I don't think any of that is now classified, may be.
INT: No, we've got a list of all the stages, it would be nice to have you explain it for us. So, what was the mood within the Pentagon over the next few days? The blockade was put in place and the ships were still approaching. Could you just describe those feelings?
WS: [Interrupts] Yeah. The mood after the twenty-second was one of impending danger and uncertainty. Impending danger because we'd announced the quarantine, but the Soviet Union had said, we're still coming, we're moving forward, we're gonna go to Cuba, we're not going to pay attention to that quarantine. Uncertainty, because we did not know whether they were going to honor the quarantine and if they did not honor the quarantine and kept going, what were we going to do and what would the consequences of our action be, in terms of potential escalation to nuclear war? So there was both those ingredients, impending danger and great uncertainty.
INT: What was your personal workload like at that time?
WS: The Excom, you know, met quite frequently and regularly and my job was to try to find out for General Taylor going to that meeting what everyone else was doing, from whatever sources I could and everyone else meant what were the Soviets doing, what were our... what did our allies think, what was the United States government doing? I didn't have to do too much about that, you got that, but what I really had to find, where were the United States military and how were their preparations to invade if directed, how were they coming, you know, how fast were the army forces moving to Florida, how many aircraft were there, you know, what about the logistic support of all that? So... because that's the kind of questions he would get asked at the Excom, you know, how ready are we? And my job was to help him be ready for that and also not to be surprised at what other people were doing. So I was pretty busy.
INT: Did you get home at all?
WS: A little bit. I spent a number of nights in the Pentagon during that time, but I did get home a couple of times.
INT: So did Kennedy want to know from General Taylor how the blockade was going to be enforced? Did he ask for assurances that the American navy could stop the Cuban ships and how were they going to do it?
WS: Yes, that became sort of a delicate point, because the navy... if you have a blockade and someone doesn't honor the blockade, the first thing you do is, I think I'm correct, is you fire a shot across the bows, say, look what are you guys up to, what are you doing? And if they don't stop, then you attack the ship, and primarily you try to attack the rudder of the shso that it cannot maneuver. And the navy was prepared to do that. They said, you know, we know how to do this, we've done this and therefore we're going to do that. But Secretary MacNamara inparticular wasn't sure that that was the proper way was to proceed and he wanted some discussion before the actual use of... force was used before you shot that rudder off and so there was some discussion about what the United States would do if the first ship didn't stop and that was in my view, finally resolved by the fact that the Soviets did stop. I think there would have been, yeah, some questions if they had really tried to move through about what kind of action the United States would have taken. I know what the navy was prepared to do, and I don't think really that the Kennedy administration would have had any choice, having said, we've established a quarantine, if the Soviets had really tried to violate that quarantine, I personally felt at the time the United States didn't have any choice but to stop those ships. Well, there you are back to uncertainty again, because what does that lead do? How do the Soviets react to that? So that was a dangerous time when the Soviets were approaching that quarantine line and we didn't know whether they were going to stop or not. There was really a lot of serious thinking and a lot of wonderment about where all this was really going to happen, particularly since Khrushchev says, I'm not stopping.
INT: Did you think at that moment or at any time really that this really was getting close to, if not nuclear war, then war with the Soviet Union?
WS: I thought at that time we were close to war with the Soviet Union. The early steps would not have been in my view a nuclear war. There was one other time - but the only time in my life that I felt we were really close to a nuclear war and that was when we got those two Khrushchev messages, on the twenty eighth of October, where the first message said...
INT: Can I just interrupt you, because the first message was on the twenty-seventh...
WS: Quite, quite. When the second time I felt that we really... The only time I really felt there was danger of nuclear war was when we got the two messages from Khrushchev, one on the twenty seventh of October and one on the twenty-eighth. And when the first one was conciliatory and looked like there was a way out and the second one said look, you must take certain actions, we'll take certain actions or else, you know, we're gonna continue putting those missiles in Cuba. When you get two messages, one which is conciliatory and the other which takes a hard line, I myself wondered, who's in charge in the Kremlin and what kind of minds do they have and what are they thinking and is there some sort of power struggle going on in the Kremlin that we are seeing from this distance? And so once again, you say, look no-one's in charge and when no-one's in charge, that's when the chances of something drastic happening are even greater and so that was the only time in my life I ever felt we were really close to a nuclear war, because we did not know who was in charge or if someone was in charge, which of those two messages to believe. And the United States decided, let's believe the one we like and answer that one.
INT: Excellent answer. The thing that came up, certainly in the second message, was that Khrushchev started demanding a trade, which was to remove the missiles in Turkey. What was the Joint Chiefs' and the military reaction to that?
INT: What was the reaction when the first propose... because there were a lot of secret discussions as well between the administration and things, but what was the reaction to the thought that the missiles should be removed from Turkey?
WS: Most people... It depends on where you were. People at my level said, you know, that's nonsense. I mean, the missiles in Turkey aren't part of this, therefore, you know, we shouldn't pay any attention to it, but there were other people in the administration who knew what that meant, because I think by that time Bobby Kennedy had been talking to Dobrynin and although only a very few people at the Excom knew that, so I would say for most people who were very well informed at the time, that was a surprise and it just says, OK, the Soviets are taking a harder line than they had before, something up we don't know about and therefore we don't know where this is going to end. to other people, they knew the source of that statement about the trade, but they still decided they could not accept that publicly in the way that it was presented.
INT: Why wouldn't they have accepted it publicly? Was it because Kennedy would have effectively have had to back down in the front of the Russians?
WS: No. I think may have been part of it, but the major reason was that those missiles had been into Turkey as a NATO decision and therefore there had to be a NATO decision to remove them. If the United States removed them unilaterally, it was thought that would do grave damage to NATO and the United States did not want to... at that time to do anything to endanger the NATO alliance and therefore there was no way that the United States could respond to the request to remove those missiles from Turkey without endangering NATO. Now, in fact, it turns out the United States was going to remove those missiles, because they were not very operationally successful and therefore it was more a political act than it was a military act not to remove those missiles. Ironically, I think I'm correct, those missiles became operational during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and in Turkey. And another thing that was considered, you can't tell the Turkish government one-day those missiles are operation and later that afternoon, no, no, they're not operational, we're taking them out.