INT: That's an interesting point that at that period America had missiles in Turkey, Italy, England and various other places, all pointed at Russia. Again from an [inaudible] point of view, how could you justify the fact that Russia couldn't put missiles in Cuba if America had so many missiles in Europe?
WS: Yeah, some...... The argument made at the time was that if Russia had tried to do that diplomatically and publicly, that we would have had a difficult time resisting that argument, although people like myself wouldn't have had much trouble. I said, you know, life's not fair, I mean... and the western hemisphere is different from Turkey and Turkey feels threatened by the Soviet Union, so there would have been arguments saying that the Soviets didn't have a right to put missiles in the western hemisphere, yet no matter what. But the main argument was that Khrushchev had tried to do this secretly and they had lied to the United States about putting offensive weapons in Cuba and therefore, you know, one government cannot lie to another government and therefore President Kennedy said, look, you did this secretly and you did this and you lied to us, and he said, I told you just two weeks ago, if you put offensive weapons in there, we'd have to deal with them and you did this, and said that, look, there's no way that I can excuse that, I must stick by my word and you have to remove those missiles.
INT: Khrushchev finally came through with a message from Moscow to say, OK, he was going to take the missiles down that the Americans regarded as offensive. What was the reaction when you heard that?
WS: I think the reaction to Khrushchev's message that he was going to remove the missiles from Cuba depended on where you were. I think that the people at the Excom level and at the White House believed that yes, yes, Khrushchev meant this and therefore he was prepared to remove those missiles and they would have to follow through on that. For many people in the military, and I would say for most, if not all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they thought Khrushchev was just buying time, because at that time we had seen no reduction in the rate of trying to make those missiles in Cuba operational. And so the Joint Chiefs in effect said, hey look, words are going one way, but the action on the ground's going another and Kis just buying time, because he knows that he can get those operational before we invade and it makes our invasion much greater and it makes the danger to the United States much greater, so this is just aploy to buy time and therefore we should continue planning for an invasion of Cuba.
INT: Fascinating. Just final few questions. Just leaping back slightly in the chronology. The U-2s were crossing now Cuba on a regular basis, what was the decision and why was it taken to send in the low-level reconnaissance planes?
WS: You needed to get more accurate description of where the defense emplacements were, what the defense emplacements were and what kind of protection they had. And the U-2 cameras at that time just didn't give us that degree of specificity and therefore low level reconnaissance was necessary to get the details of the Cuban defenses that were felt necessary to launch an effective air attack.
INT: And what sort of operations were run at that time? How low was low level and how vital was the information that they were bringing back? How good was the information they were bringing back?
WS: The low-level missions over Cuba were very important in the fact that when you talk about low level, you're talking really low level. It could be anywhere from fifty to a hundred and fifty to two hundred feet, depending on what's necessary to get the information that you want. you had to be pretty low to protect yourself from any sort of ground fire, you had to be pretty fast, as well, but the information was considered necessary to give all the detail of targets necessary for planning air attacks and subsequently an invasion. So it was considered very important to the military at that time to get that information. And since the possibility of an invasion was still considered by the Excom, if everything else failed, it was important to them also and it was decided that if we're going to invade, we'd better make sure our forces have the best information possible and they would only have this with low level reconnaissance missions over Cuba.
INT: How close do you think we actually came to an invasion? Were you prepared... was the Pentagon within hours, minutes of getting ready for the invasion?
WS: I personally thought we were much closer to an invasion than say Secretary MacNamara. At a conference in Moscow, he told me he was going to do this before the meeting, but he said, with the Russians and Cubans there, he said General Smith, you know, on the twenty seventh and twenty eighth, in that period of time, what did you know, what did you think about the possibility of military invasion? And I said, my opinion was that there was a lot of pressure on President Kennedy to invade Cuba if the Soviets didn't react soon to removing those missiles. The United States Congress had told the President that it had advised the President to invade. They had been for an invasion all along and the key leaders of the United States Congress. The military wanted to invade, the United States public wanted to invade. President Kennedy could not afford to look weak in presence of Khrushchev again and the United States was worried about the western hemisphere and the inviolability of the western hemisphere in not having foreign forces there. So I think there was a lot of pressure on the United States to invade and in my view, if something hadn't happened around the twenty seventh, the twenty eighth, the United States would probably have invaded. Mr. MacNamara said, that's I thought you would say. He said, I understand that, but he said, I just don't think that's right and explained why he thought that the President would have found some other way to avoid the use of force. And said he felt that his course of action would have been followed by the President and of course he was much closer to him than I was and so I listened politely.
INT: Do you think the situation in Berlin at that time was influencing both Kennedy and Excom's position?
WS: The position in Berlin influenced our actions in Cuba more than a lot of people thought. For one thing, there was always the thought that Berlin is isolated and the United States and its NATO allies knew it would be very difficult to defend Berlin if the Soviets really wanted to attack it and therefore it must be handled in a way that never gets close to the use of military force, at the same time, protecting our rights in Berlin. Cuba was an isolated out-post for the Soviet Union and which the sort of same situation in reverse. So the thought occurred to a number of us, if we put pressure on Khrushchev and Cuba, will he not put pressure on us in Berlin and how do we deal with that?, yeah, that was a serious question and we kept looking for something to happen in Berlin, but the Soviets told us - now whether one believes everything one is told, is different - they said they never really considered any sort of trade with Berlin, but it loomed very large in our minds. In fact some people believed that the whole crisis was about improving the Soviet position in Berlin, in some sort of trade for... we do certain things ... if we back off in Cuba, they would back off in Berlin. So Berlin did play a critical role in my view.
INT: Last couple of questions. On the twenty-seventh, Saturday the twenty seventh, a U-2... two things went wrong. A U-2 strayed into Russia and was picked up by the Russian anti-air defenses and then the U-2 was shot down over Cuba. Did you know about those and did that alter the situation for you?
WS: Yeah. The U-2 over the Soviet Union was sort of... I think President Kennedy described that correctly. He said, oh, you know, oh it's ten per cent that don't get the word. He may have said it quite differently, but I mean that's... OK, that's an accident and the Soviets, you know, ought to know that given the way that the whole affair was conducted. the shoot down of the U-2 over Cuba was a different matter. See, here we are at the time, you're getting that first message, which is conciliatory, but you get a shoot down and then the next morning you get a message which says... they're going to take a hard line and so you wonder, was that shoot down directed by the Soviet Union and was this in preparation for their continued defense of Cuba and not the removal of those missiles? And so, yeah, that viewed that as a very serious threat and that added to the confusion and uncertainty about what Moscow was up to. So that, yeah, that did have some influence and it was interesting because a decision had been made before that if a U-2 was shot down - there'd been a lot of discussions about this in the Excom, as I remember - if a U-2 was shot down, everyone had agreed at a minimum we would destroy the site that shot down that U-2. Now how much beyond that would be done, it was something else. But when the time came, if I'm correct, not even the military recommended making that strike just against the missile site that had launched that attack, because the situation was so tense, the idea was, if you're going to attack, you'd better attack all the air defense targets and so the scope of the attack became so large that people decided let's think about that a little bit more before we do it and by that time the second message from... I mean, about the time that Khrushchev had announced that they really were going to withdraw and therefore that reduced the pressure on the United States from that shoot down of the U-2 over Cuba.
INT: Final question then. How well do you think Kennedy handled the crisis?
WS: Yeah. I thought he handled it very well. I mean, to say that objectively, I mean judging objectively is that we avoided war and we got the missiles out of Cuba, which were our two objectives and so I say, yes, yes, he handled that successfully. At the time, I will say I think most of us thought he'd... had been done more cleanly that it turned out later, in the sense that all the discussions with Dobrynin about yes, yes, we will remove the missiles from Turkey but, you know, we're not going to say anything publicly and there was more accommodating to the Soviet views than we thought. But that doesn't detract my judgement that, look, we got out of that with... a very dangerous situation without war and achieved our objectives. So I thought, overall, his administration handled it quite well. It was a major success, brought his atogether, gave them a sense of being and a sense of togetherness, a sense of confidence that I think helped President Kennedy quite a lot during the remaining days of his presidency.
INT: General Smith, excellent interview...
END OF INTERVIEW