President John F. Kennedy was apoplectic. An article in The New York Times on July 26, 1962, told readers that the Soviet Union had begun reinforcing some intercontinental ballistic missile sites with extra concrete, increasing the odds that the launchpads could survive an American nuclear strike.
The problem wasn’t that the story was wrong. The problem for the president was that the story was so accurate that it had to have come from a high-level source. The author, Hanson W. Baldwin (1903-1991), was a well respected military affairs correspondent with almost unparalleled insider access at the Pentagon.
From reading The Times, the Soviets would have learned that American intelligence officials knew a lot about the supposedly secret sites where Soviet ICBMs lay concealed in large concrete “coffins,” at or near ground level. When the coffin lids opened, the missiles could be raised for launching.
“It is astonishing and disappointing that a reporter of Mr. Baldwin’s experience and reputation should have been the instrument of so grave an act against the interests of the United States,” President Kennedy said in a confidential letter to Orvil E. Dryfoos (1912-1963), the publisher of The Times. The letter was given to the Museum at The Times by Mr. Dryfoos’s daughter, Susan W. Dryfoos.
The letter was hand-delivered to Mr. Dryfoos by the president’s naval aide, together with an assessment by the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board that the article would lead to increased concealment of Soviet ICBMs and a “severe reduction in our ability henceforth to obtain such intelligence.”
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to plug the leak. “Twenty F.B.I. agents spent August 1962 interviewing 238 military and civilian personnel in the government to find Baldwin’s source,” Robert B. Davies wrote in the 2013 biography “Baldwin of The Times.”
Mr. Baldwin never disclosed his sources. Mr. Davies wrote that in 2005 he found the name in a transcript of interviews with Robert Kennedy: Roswell L. Gilpatric, the deputy secretary of defense. For his part, Mr. Gilpatric acknowledged meeting with Mr. Baldwin on July 7, 1962, but told the F.B.I. that he was not Mr. Baldwin’s source.
There were soon bigger things to worry about when Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba. Mr. Gilpatric is credited with helping persuade President Kennedy to impose a naval blockade rather than attacking Cuba militarily, a course that might have prompted the Soviets to open those concrete coffin lids.