The 1962 Cuban missile crisis and 1964's Belgian paratroop drop from U.S. C-130s in the Congo were the most interesting events in my five year intelligence career. Lowly intelligence analysts like me working for the U.S. Information Agency had to sit in the Director's chair about three weekends every year as part of the job. Our building near the White House was almost empty on weekends. Nobody else was on duty except the front door guards and the cable/code room guys. If some critical action telegram came in during Saturday or Sunday, my job was to phone the Director on his red, secure phone immediately, wherever he might be.
A guy from the Agency code room hand-carried clutches of cables to you every hour or, for urgent ones, within minutes of their decoding. Usually, nothing important happened except you had given up a weekend.
The world was close to nuclear war when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sneakily installed ballistic missiles with atomic warheads in Cuba in 1962. Cables flew from President Kennedy's White House to our military and to U.S. embassies around the world; all fell on my desk. There were 17,000 U.S. nuclear warheads mostly on international continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in 1962. They would destroy every city and town as well as military targets in the Soviet Union. The Soviets had 12,000 ICBMs which would destroy all American cities, towns, military bases, etc. in case of nuclear war. The Cuban missile crisis augured possible annihilation, but the Congo hostage crisis had dramatic human interest.
President Johnson managed the rescue of white captives in the Congo through Operation Dragon Rouge in November, 1964. I read dozens of "Eyes Only" cables delivered in frantic succession as the two crises developed. The weekend cable guy dropped the distinctively marked red folders with the cables inside onto the Director's desk. USIA's role was to report via the Voice of America and our official wire service our government's actions and comments.
The Cuban missile crisis hit President Kennedy suddenly. Cloud cover over Cuba kept our air spy photography from spotting the Soviet installation of medium range nuclear missile launchers in that country. When the weather cleared and photographs became available again, the danger was dramatically clear. Such missiles operated by battalions of Soviet troops could hit Washington, D.C., in less than 15 minutes, psychologically altering the nuclear balance of power against the U.S. We already had similar missiles in Turkey aimed at Moscow. Still, their missiles in Cuba were seen as an extremely dangerous new threat and a slap in the face. In fact, the Soviets had far fewer intercontinental ballistic missiles than the U.S. but were hugely superior to the West in conventional land arms.
Unstoppable American rockets with atomic warheads were targeted to destroy several thousand Soviet major and minor towns and military facilities. The Soviets had unstoppable rockets targeted likewise on the U.S. Both countries would be destroyed in such a war. In addition, our tactical nuclear weapons in Europe were matched by the Soviets and...