401. Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Kennedy 0


  • Cuba

I attach at Tab A a first element in the reports on Cuba which will be coming in first thing next week. I have also started Walt Rostow on an intensive personal review of the problem and his thoughts will be available on Tuesday.1 What Rostow and I both think as a first reaction is that we have two problems here which should be kept separate. The first is our reaction to the current step, and the second is our preparations to react against something which would require or make possible a major military operation against Cuba. The present actions in Cuba do not justify such action.

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If this distinction is correct, we probably should make it plain during next week that while the activities in Cuba are further evidence of Castroʼs sell-out to the Soviets, they do not pose any new active threat to us or to the hemisphere. We should distinguish these activities from any form of aggressive action, or any activity which could aggressively threaten us or any other American state. We should make it plain that we know exactly what is going on and will continue to be able to watch it from inside and outside Cuba. We might also indicate that we expect the Cuban people to show their own opinion of this Soviet intrusion—and Walt suggests that Lansdaleʼs operation might well be enlarged to include harassing actions by Cubans against bloc personnel.

Meanwhile, we should of course do what we can to intensify Castroʼs isolation from our allies. There is not a great deal to be done here, because trade is already very small and is limited mainly by Castroʼs own shortage of foreign exchange. Shipping is very hard to control because of the number of different flags under which there is excess cargo capacity, mainly managed by owners who would trade with anybody and passionately resist political guidance.

In the longer run, we need to clarify both here and abroad the grounds on which aggressive action or offensive capability would call us into action.

This is less a matter of the Monroe Doctrine than one of elemental national security. It is not the same as missiles in Turkey. It is like the Soviet attitude toward the Black Sea or the Baltic states. In domestic politics, again, we need to draw this same sharp distinction between what is now going on and what we would not tolerate. This will require a careful exposition from you, and it is the only reason for thinking that a press conference toward the end of next week may be important. I myself believe that if we make it clear that short of war we have done everything we can and that war is not justified by antiaircraft installations, we shall be on fairly solid ground.

McG. B. 2
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Tab A

Probable military, political, and psychological impact of the establishment in Cuba of surface-to-air missiles or surface-to-surface missiles which could reach the U.S.

1. Soviet missile possibilities in Cuba

The most probable present Soviet missile activity would be the introduction of SA-2 missiles. Preliminary but highly indicative photographic interpretation shows 7 sites which have all the earmarks of such installations in the early stages of construction. The SA-2 is a modern first-line antiaircraft missile, with an engagement range of 30 miles and a high reliability at altitudes from 2500 to 60,000 feet, and with limited effectiveness up to 80,000 feet. Missiles of this sort have been introduced in Indonesia and are on order by the UAR and Iraq.

The SA-2 is probably capable of use with a nuclear warhead, but there is no evidence that the Soviet government has ever provided nuclear warheads to any other state, on any terms. It seems unlikely that such a move is currently planned—but there is also little reason to suppose that the Soviets would refuse to introduce such weapons if the move could be controlled in the Soviet interest.

Other missiles which could be introduced now or later are surface-to-surface missiles of ranges varying from 150 miles to the 2,000 miles of the Soviet MRBM; such missiles would be of little value without nuclear warheads. Longer-range surface-to-surface missiles would require relatively substantial installations; shorter-range missiles of this sort could be introduced very quickly and mounted without elaborate construction.

As missile capabilities increase in the remainder of the 1960ʼs, it will become progressively easier for the Soviet Union to install in Cuba lightweight mobile missiles with increasing range and destructive power against aircraft and against targets in the U.S.

2. Military impact of the introduction of Soviet missiles in Cuba


Surface-to-air missiles

If surface-to-air missiles are introduced in Cuba they will substantially increase Communist defensive capabilities there. Currently the Communist air defense depends largely on MIGʼs which are effective only against planes of medium speed and medium altitudes; additional air defense is also provided by antiaircraft artillery of uncertain effectiveness at low and medium altitudes. Extensive deployment of SA-2ʼs would make reconnaissance overflight and other clandestine air operations difficult and dangerous and would substantially increase the problem [Page 1005] of neutralizing air defense capabilities in the event of open conflict. There is no level of SA-2 deployment which would be able to withstand a determined U.S. attack.

SA-2 missiles would not require any significant redeployment of U.S. forces for defensive purposes, since neither these missiles nor the MIGʼs under their protection would carry any increased direct threat to the safety of the U.S. mainland. Operations at Guantanamo could be interdicted, except for low approaches and departures, but such action would be a strong ground for U.S. reprisal.


Surface-to-surface missiles

Surface-to-surface missiles with nuclear warheads would constitute a very significant military threat to the continental U.S. Even short-range missiles would be able to reach important population centers and military installations, and missiles of longer range would give the Soviets a capability of attacking substantial numbers of our most important military installations. Such attacks would have very short warning times, and this capability would be a particular threat to SAC-manned aircraft which now rely on BMEWS warning. It appears probable that on military grounds alone, the establishment of such a capability would be unacceptable.

Surface-to-surface missiles without nuclear warheads would constitute no significant military threat to the U.S. On military grounds, indeed, it may be that the introduction of nuclear warheads into Cuba is a more significant dividing line than the introduction of any given class of missiles as such. But the covert introduction of nuclear warheads would be very hard to detect.

It is believed that attention should be given also to the possibility that the Soviets may attempt to establish a submarine missile base in Cuba. The Soviet submarine fleet is greatly hindered in its operations near the U.S. by the absence of forward bases. Cuban-based missile submarines would be most useful to the Soviets, and the nuclear missiles could be kept under tight Soviet control. The announcement that Soviet trawlers will use Cuban ports may mark a precedent-setting step to this more dangerous use.

3. Political and psychological impact of Soviet missile establishment in Cuba

There is no technical means of making an exact estimate on this subject. In the small group which has reviewed this problem in response to NSAM 181, the general opinion was that the political and psychological impact of any substantial Soviet-provided missile force will be great: in the United States, in Cuba itself, and in the rest of the Western hemisphere.

The Soviet Union, in making a decision to supply the Cubans with missiles of any sort, is obviously staking a claim to a large-scale military [Page 1006] foothold in the Western hemisphere. It can be argued that this claim was already staked when MIGʼs were delivered a year ago, and it is worth noting that the MIGʼs did not cause great disturbance to American or hemispheric opinion. But missiles are something else again, and we cannot expect that the public mind will serenely distinguish between antiaircraft missiles and a direct threat of missile attack on the U.S.

Any missile deployment in Cuba will strengthen critics of the Administrationʼs “softness” on Cuba. This effect can be somewhat mitigated by words and actions being considered in other responses to NSAM 181, but it cannot be prevented while the missiles remain in place.

Nevertheless there will be a distinct difference in impact between missiles for defensive use against aircraft and missiles capable of use against the United States. The impact of antiaircraft missiles would be less in the U.S. and in the hemisphere—and international acceptance of action against defensive installations would be lower than in the case of action against missiles posing a direct nuclear threat to the U.S.

In Latin America the psychological and political effect of missile installations in Cuba would be substantial, and it would not matter much which kind of missiles were installed. The missile sites would be seen as proof of strong Soviet support for Cuba, and in the absence of prompt and effective U.S. counteraction, it would be judged that Castro is here to stay. In the Caribbean this would lead to heavy pressure for more effective U.S. support against Castroʼs subversion; outside the area Latin American states would be more inclined than ever to accommodate to Cuba as she is. This divergence of reaction would accentuate existing inter-American strains.


In sum, the expectation is that any missiles will have a substantial political and psychological impact, while surface-to-surface missiles would create a condition of great alarm, even in the absence of proof that nuclear warheads were arriving with them.

McGeorge Bundy 3
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, NSAM 181, Cuba (A). Top Secret; Sensitive.
  2. September 4.
  3. Printed from a copy that bears these typed initials.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.