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Brits feared U.S. was misjudging missile crisis

British leaders in 1962 feared Washington was overconfident of its ability to mount a successful pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union if the Cuban missile crisis led to war, British documents show.
/ Source: The Associated Press

British leaders in 1962 feared that the United States was overconfident of its ability to mount a successful pre-emptive strike against missile sites in the Soviet Union if the Cuban missile crisis led to war, a newly released British document shows.

The “top secret” four-page memorandum also reflected concern that President Kennedy’s administration was prepared to go it alone in waging a nuclear response to any Soviet move against Berlin.

“I think what they (the British) would have been concerned about was the suggestion that America was prepared to ignore any reaction by its NATO allies,” Len Scott, a British academic who has written about the missile crisis and U.S.-British nuclear planning, said Monday.

The memo, released last month by the National Archives, summarized a meeting on Nov. 19, 1962, involving Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, Foreign Secretary Lord Home and Maj. Gen. Sir Kenneth Strong, director of the Joint Intelligence Bureau.

The British discussion came just two days before the United States ended its blockade of Cuba. The crisis moved toward resolution on Oct. 28, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced that the missiles would be removed.

Strong, who had good contacts within the Kennedy administration, had been in the United States from Oct. 13 to Oct. 25, the memo said. “Gen. Strong thought that the American government were prepared for their action in Cuba to escalate into the nuclear,” the memo said.

Plans to warn Kennedy
“It seemed to him that the U.S. administration was overconfident that they had pinpointed the position of all the main sites of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the Soviet Union, and they hoped they would be able to take these out with a pre-emptive attack by their bombers.”

This was deemed crucial by the British prime minister, the memo said. It stated Macmillan planned to raise the issue with Kennedy during their next meeting.

“He would warn the president of the dangers that would flow from overconfidence on this score,” said the memo.

There was no indication whether Macmillan did subsequently raise the issue with Kennedy. “I’ve not seen any evidence of that, so I don’t know,” said Scott, professor of international politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Scott, who books include “Macmillan, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis” (1999) and “Planning Armageddon: Britain, the United States and the Command of Nuclear Forces” (2000), questioned whether Strong was a reliable source on the reported U.S. plan of a bomber strike against Soviet sites.

The assertion “was curious because the Americans had a significant number of missiles themselves,” and there is no mention of first strike with missiles, Scott said.

“That does raise some questions about the accuracy of Strong’s accounts,” Scott said.