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The Pincus Files: When the Cuban Missile Crisis reached a boiling point

Deep in the basement of the Post newsroom, reporter Walter Pincus is uncovering 40 years worth of notes, declassified documents and Cold War spy photos. (Video: Jorge Ribas and Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)
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Before the Post moves to its new building, hundreds of the paper’s reporters have to clean out their desks and drawers. While many have a few boxes worth of knick-knacks, Defense reporter and Post legend Walter Pincus has more than 60 boxes worth of documents spanning almost half a century of history—from JFK’s assassination to the trial of CIA mole Aldrich Ames.

This is the first in a series of installments focusing on the files of Walter Pincus.

With seven weeks left until the move, Pincus’s desk has finally started to see the light of day. Books have been given away, documents have been shelved, but deep in The Washington Post’s sub-basement, a dingy cavern filled with cardboard boxes and miles of Ethernet cords, Pincus’s cache of boxes stretches for what seems like miles. Here, he moves methodically, placing his hand on boxes scribbled with red marker that read: JFK assassination, Nixon tapes and the especially foreboding “SECRET FILES.” Recently however, he stumbled upon a brown accordion folder filled with pictures of what looked like aerial photography for a future vacation home in the tropics.

The photos, however, showed very little beachfront property but instead portrayed a number of Soviet SS-4 medium range ballistic missiles.

The pictures, taken in October 1962 by U-2 spy planes and various other reconnaissance aircraft, show the gradual buildup and eventual removal of a series of missiles emplaced in San Cristobal, Cuba, by the Cuban government and Soviets during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis was the closest the United States came to all out nuclear war during the Cold War, as the missiles emplaced in Cuba would have been less than 100 miles from the mainland United States and threatened millions of American lives on the eastern seaboard, including those in Washington, D.C.

The crisis reached a head on Oct. 27, 1962, when a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile shot down an American U-2 conducting a reconnaissance flight over Cuba. The pilot, U.S. Air Force Maj. Rudolf Anderson, Jr., was killed and on the brink of war, the Soviet and American governments made a then-secret deal to end the near-flashpoint. In turn for the missiles withdrawal from Cuba, the United States would take its intermediate-range Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Q: So Walter, how did these photos come into your possession?

In 1992, ahead of the Cuban Missile Crisis’s 30th anniversary, I was working on a story about the crisis and the CIA was releasing a number of new documents, so I received a number of the photos from Dino A. Brugioni, one of the CIA’s photo analysts who worked during the crisis.

Q: Were you reporting on the Cuban Missile Crisis at the time?

No, I was on an 18-month sabbatical from journalism, running an investigation of foreign government lobbying based on two magazine pieces I had written showing the law governing those lobbyists wasn’t working.

Q: So why are these photos important then?

Well on Oct. 22 [1962], I was working for Senator [J.W.] Fulbright (D-Ark.), who was chairman of the committee at the time, and I was in his office when he told me had a meeting with President Kennedy later in the afternoon. He didn’t know what it was about, only that it might have to do with Cuba. Since I knew people in the Kennedy White House, he wanted me to call around and see what was was up.

Q: And did you find out?

No, no one was talking, so Fulbright called Sen. [Richard] Russell (D-GA), who told him it might have to do with Russian bombers in Cuba and in which case Russell was going to recommend bombing the Cubans.

Q: What did Fulbright recommend?

He didn’t make up his mind but when they met that night Fulbright supported Russell — but Kennedy decided to blockade the Cubans. So that night I was called by a White House friend who told me JFK was pretty disappointed in Fulbright for not supporting him on using the Navy to blockade Cuba to prevent the MRBMs from arriving, which was the policy the president employed and it worked.

Q: What stuck with you after the crisis?

I have written about the crisis extensively because of the impact it had on me. I have never forgotten then-Secretary Robert McNamara telling me in a later interview that on the night he told President Kennedy what would happen if one nuclear weapon were used, he, McNamara left the White House to go home wondering if the White House would be there the next day.