Many factors led to the confrontation—and more was involved than simple Soviet belligerence.
For those of a certain age, the 13 days in October 1962 that encompassed the Cuban Missile Crisis stand out as a particularly terrifying moment. None of us knew if the world was going to come to a fiery nuclear end—and certainly enough weapons existed to make that feasible—or whether cooler heads would somehow prevail. In any case, we were told it was all the fault of a belligerent Soviet Union intent on planting nuclear bases close enough to annihilate the U.S. population. During those harrowing days the world came closer to the brink of nuclear war than it has ever since. The genesis of the crisis was the introduction of Soviet ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) into Fidel Castro’s Cuba, missiles capable of striking all the major cities in the United States except on the West Coast.
Lost in the media noise and public fear was the fact that the Soviets had never before transferred any of their small missile force from their own territory to any of the Warsaw Pact allies, let alone Cuba. Decades later, many historians believe that the Cuban Missile Crisis is at least as rooted in U.S. election politics as in any nuclear ambitions of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
First, though, a short recap of the 13-day crisis, October 15- 28, 1962, is in order. The United States took forceful military steps for a potential invasion of Cuba, mobilizing thousands of troops as well as naval vessels, staging them off the Florida coast. The U.S. Navy put a quarantine into effect that would stop further Soviet ships heading to Cuba from delivering their military cargos. Overhead, American U-2 photoreconnaissance aircraft kept a close watch as the Soviets went ahead with the construction of their missile bases. The crisis simmered, then came to a dangerous head when a Soviet anti-aircraft battery shot down a U-2 taking pictures of the missile buildup. Despite heavy pressure from his military advisers, President John F. Kennedy did not order a retaliatory strike against the offending Soviet battery. Instead, Kennedy resorted to behind-thescenes dealing with certain trusted Russian intermediaries while threatening an imminent American invasion if the missiles were not removed. Premier Khrushchev decided to end the crisis and took the missiles out of Cuba. As part of the unwritten deal with the Soviets, the United States removed from Turkey its Jupiter missiles, which had been targeted against the Soviet heartland. Under American naval and aerial supervision, the missiles were crated aboard Soviet cargo ships and taken back to Russia. So we were told.
Unknown to the American public at the time of the crisis however, the Kennedy administration was conducting a secret war to take down Fidel Castro by any means possible. Named Operation Mongoose, this secret war ran from 1961-1963 and was a full-court press by all branches of the American military, the CIA and others. A secondary part of Operation Mongoose was the CIA-Mafia plot to kill Castro that began during the last days of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. Still, it was not even these plans to kill Castro that led the Cuban leader to ask the Soviet Union for protection from what Castro and the Soviets believed was an imminent invasion of Cuba by the United States. The story of how the Cuban Missile Crisis began had its roots in Operation Mongoose—part theater, part deadly business.
By far the most important event leading President Kennedy to go ahead with Operation Mongoose was the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961. When Castro came to power after overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, he turned the sunny island into a totalitarian Communist bastion. An alarmed President Eisenhower began taking steps to topple Castro. To Eisenhower, an invasion seemed in order. The pointman for the invasion was Vice President Richard Nixon, then running for president against Senator John F. Kennedy.
Originally Nixon planned a covert operation headed by the CIA, to coincide with the closing days of the 1960 campaign. This proved impractical at the time, however, and the exile-backed invasion had to be pushed back until after the November election.
By the time Kennedy became president, Cuban exiles had begun training at a secret base in Guatemala called Camp Trax. An airstrip at Retalhuleu was built for the invasion’s air force, and a secret radio station called Radio Swan was established to broadcast propaganda into Cuba. The operation was scheduled for late March 1961 at the town of Trinidad along Cuba’s southern coast. However, the site was canceled, and a new and now infamous landing point called the Bay of Pigs was chosen instead. It was thought that when the exiles landed in Cuba, a spontaneous revolt among the mass of the population would take place, resulting in Castro’s downfall.
The invasion force left its base at Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, on April 17, 1961. Shortly before the landing took place, a number of bombers, based in Nicaragua and flown by exiles, attacked the small Cuban air force. But the raid failed to take out all of Castro’s planes, and the remaining aircraft created havoc at the landing site, killing hundreds of exiles and sinking their supply ships offshore. The CIA asked Kennedy to call in an airstrike from American ships offshore, but the president refused. More than 1,000 men were captured and imprisoned for almost a year before being ransomed for medical supplies and other essentials. In December 1962, speaking before the now freed members of the Bay of Pigs invaders at Miami’s Orange Bowl, President Kennedy promised that their flag would someday fly in a free Havana.
The Bay of Pigs defeat was the first major drubbing for the young Kennedy administration, and the Kennedy brothers did not take it lightly. Kennedy set in motion operations to oust Castro, including the use of the mob and the CIA’s covert/overt plans in Operation Mongoose. In the fallout from the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion, the president ordered an internal investigation into what went wrong. Declassified a number of years ago, this report offers a complete internal critique of the operation, from beginning to end. Another recently declassified memo, written by CIA officer George McManus, makes it strikingly clear that political motivations drove the attempts to take out Castro. The political stigma of the Bay of Pigs folly drove Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to find a way to redeem the president’s credibility for the next round of elections. McManus’ memo lays out in stark detail why the Kennedy administration wanted to get back at Castro—to seek revenge for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and to ensure Kennedy’s reelection in 1964.
The official CIA plan for the removal of Castro was run entirely out of the White House. As a clandestine CIA project, it was to be a plausibly deniable concept, one that could be discarded and denied in case something went wrong. For the next two years, from the spring of 1961 to the late summer and early fall of 1963, Operation Mongoose—closely supervised by Robert Kennedy—blossomed into a full-scale U.S. government operation.
A special group (augmented), or SGA, was created to oversee the project and met on an almost daily basis. Among the members of the SGA were Robert Kennedy; McNamara; General Maxwell Taylor; presidential advisers McGeorge Bundy, Roswell Gilpatrick, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin; and General Lyman Lemnitzer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The man put in overall charge of Operation Mongoose was Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale, a veteran of antiguerrilla campaigns in the Philippines and Vietnam in the 1950s. His flamboyant style attracted the attention of journalists, among them Graham Greene, a British writer who modeled the main character in his novel The Quiet American after Lansdale.
Lansdale teamed up with Bill Harvey, a tough James Bond–type CIA officer, to get all phases of Operation Mongoose underway. Soon, though, they were at loggerheads. Harvey wanted to use traditional CIA methods to get Castro, while Lansdale insisted on the use of counterinsurgency tactics to carry out RFK’s request for “boom and bang” operations inside Cuba.
The CIA ran the covert project out of the former Richmond Naval Air Station southwest of Miami. Hundreds of agents set up shop there, including dozens of dummy or front organizations. The CIA’s headquarters was dubbed Zenith Technical Services Inc. In reality it was the jumping-off point for raids into Cuba.
A fleet of high-powered boats operated out of the Florida Keys, smuggling raiders into Cuba, where they would attack Cuban military installations. When any of these secret soldiers got into trouble with the local or federal law enforcement agencies anywhere in Florida, all it took was a single phone call on their part to be set free. For example, a story in the December 5, 1962, edition of the Miami Herald reported the arrest of 10 American mercenaries operating out of Sombrero and Marathon keys. Dressed in battle fatigues and supplied with large amounts of guns and ammunition, they were blocked by U.S. Customs Service agents from sailing their small ship, Sally, to Cuba for hit-and-run raids.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy made it clear that Operation Mongoose carried top priority in the U.S. government. “No time, money, effort or manpower is to be spared,” he said. The operation had many different components and units—an air arm, fast-moving boats owned or leased by the CIA, storefront dummy corporations where the only things that worked on site were the phones, as well as separate units for intelligence, logistics and mail. One of the main dummy corporations was Gibraltar Steam Ship Corporation, which was actually the agency’s parent for all its seagoing operations. The “kinsman” of the agency’s fast fleet of ships was called Ace Cartography Company, supposedly a marine surveying firm. There was also an underwater component, in which Cubans and Americans were trained as frogmen to infiltrate Cuban harbors and attack boats in port. These UDT (underwater demolition team) squads went by the fictitious name of Marine Engineering and Training.
While all these secret machinations were going on, the Cuban intelligence service was buzzing with activity. Castro had infiltrated hundreds of agents-in-place among the hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles who had fled Havana after he took power. Very little got by the ears and wallets of Castro’s agents, who mingled at the bars, restaurants and shopping centers in Miami and the Keys, picking up all sorts of vital information concerning anti-Castro activities. While Castro’s intelligence people may not have known the full scope of Operation Mongoose, they surely knew that the American government was up to something. At the same time, on mainland Cuba, thousands of Castro opponents were systematically rounded up for questioning, and arrests were commonplace.
Meanwhile, the Kennedy administration was laying down the law on Mongoose. On March 14, 1962, the president gave the SGA new guidelines for the operation in no uncertain terms: “(a) an undertaking to cause the overthrow of the Castro government, the U.S. will make maximum use of Cuban resources, internal and external, but recognizes that final success will require decisive, U.S. military intervention.”
By the latter part of 1962, despite the buildup, there was no military success in toppling Castro. Small-scale raids had been carried out, including attacks on oil installations, maritime centers and even run-ins with Russian ships at dockside in Cuban harbors. That spring the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps had gone to Puerto Rico to stage Operation Quick Kick, a large-scale military operation that included 4,000 men, 79 ships and 300 aircraft. They practiced offshore landings. Marines from this task force landed off the beaches at Vieques Island, using the same tactics they would need in a real assault on Cuba. By this time, Castro knew that the United States, by means of these covert and overt military actions, was bent on his removal by force—thus his frantic calls for Soviet military assistance.
With American military pressure slowly building around Cuba, Khrushchev met with his top military advisers in April 1962. Khrushchev had his own problems with the Americans. He believed he was being boxed in on his own territory. American Jupiter missiles were operational just across the border in Turkey, aimed at Soviet targets. If America could place its missiles near Soviet territory, then why couldn’t he place Russian missiles near American shores? By the end of the month, Khrushchev had talked his top military and political advisers into taking the unprecedented step of sending their most powerful intermediate missiles to Cuba in response to Kennedy’s secret war against Castro.
While the war games were visibly underway, CIA-backed exile raids into Cuba grew in scope and intensity. On August 24, 1962, Cuban exiles aboard two small boats slipped into Havana Harbor and moved close to the Hotel Icar in Miramar province. Intelligence reports said that Castro had often frequented the hotel. The exiles opened up with machine gun fire. Numerous rounds hit the hotel, but Castro, who was inside, managed to survive the attack. Two days later, another exile attack took place at the Sierra Maestra Hotel. Three months before, members of the exile group Alpha 66 attacked a Cuban Coast Guard cutter, killing two sailors near the town of Santa Clara de Norte.
Internal CIA reports said that Castro expected an American-led invasion of Cuba during the summer of 1962. The same report also noted that the Cubans were not worried about a U.S. invasion after September; it said any danger of an American attack on Cuba would be over by then. This surely had to do with the fact that Castro knew Soviet missiles would be arriving in the September/October time frame.
As September wore on, the United States prepared military options for an attack while Cuban exiles were raiding harbors and other military and economic installations on the island nation. Meanwhile the CIA was monitoring the arrival of a large number of Russian freighters arriving in Cuba, including Omsk, which docked at the port of Casilda on September 8.
A few weeks before, French intelligence officer Philippe de Voskjoli told CIA Director John McCone that his agency had received credible reports of the arrival of certain types of Soviet missiles in Cuba. He also reported the deployment of thousands of Russian soldiers to man those missiles.
Kennedy decided to make a full-court press. The failure so far of Operation Mongoose took center stage in an October 16, 1962, meeting chaired by Robert Kennedy and attended by General Lansdale and other SGA members. The minutes of the meeting mirror RFK’s frustration: “The Attorney General opened the meeting by expressing the general dissatisfaction of the President with Operation Mongoose. He pointed out that the operation had been under way for a year, that the results were discouraging, that there had been no acts of sabotage, and that even the one which had been attempted had failed twice. He indicated that there had been noticeable improvement during the year in the collection of intelligence but that other actions had failed to influence significantly the course of events in Cuba. The Attorney General then stated that in view of this lack of progress, he was going to give Operation Mongoose more personal attention.”
What both Robert Kennedy and his brother did not know was that in reaction to the Cuba project, the Soviet Union began secretly to send thousands of military “advisers,” Mikoyan-Gurevich MiGs and ICBMs to Cuba in defense of that country. It now can clearly be stated that the 1962 missile crisis was a direct result of the Kennedy’s secret war against Castro.
At the height of Operation Mongoose, the CIA and the military devised numerous clandestine operations aimed at destroying and creating havoc throughout the Cuban population and economy. Among them were:
Operation Bingo, an audacious plan prepared by the CIA that had little chance of succeeding. The concept was to cause an incident—prepared by the United States—that looked like a Cuban attack on the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Such an attack, if genuine, would give the United States reason to retaliate against Cuba. The blueprint for this operation would be a live firefight right outside the base during which, upon hearing the noise, the troops inside Guantanamo would think a real attack by Cuban forces had begun. The United States would then make a counterattack upon the phony Cuban forces, thus creating a pretext for going to war against the Castro government.
Operation Cover-up. This included elements of the American space program and “psy ops” (psychological operations). The plan was to convince the Castro government that American naval forces, then in the Caribbean for the landing of the Mercury space capsule carrying an American astronaut, were only a cover—that the real purpose was an invasion of Cuba.
Operation Free-Ride, which was meant to create unrest and dissension among the Cuban people. One of the ways this program was to be implemented was to drop valid Pan American Airways tickets to destinations such as Mexico, Venezuela and other parts of South America to the Cuban people. During a certain period, any Cuban who wanted to leave the country would supposedly be able to do so, paid for by Uncle Sam.
If these schemes seemed farcical, the next program dreamed up by Washington—Operation Northwoods—was no joking matter. One action envisioned as a part of Northwoods was to destroy an American warship in Guantanamo Bay and blame it on the Cubans. A Washington-initiated wave of terror was then supposed to sweep over innocent Americans in the Miami and Washington areas, killing countless citizens. These crimes would be blamed on Cuba. Other despicable actions allegedly considered included the deliberate sinking of boatloads of Cuban refugees seeking asylum in the United States, the false hijacking of civilian American registered airliners—again putting the blame on Cuba—and a false story that Cuban MiGs had destroyed a number of American aircraft operating in international waters. When President Kennedy was shown the blueprints for Operation Northwoods, he turned it down.
From the summer and through the fall of 1962, U.S. intelligence had been keeping a close watch on the steady stream of those heavily loaded Soviet cargo ships heading for Cuba. Reports from the CIA’s agents inside Cuba came back of large-scale Soviet missile deployments, as well as the presence of thousands of Russian technicians to man the missiles. Even prior to the Soviets erecting their missiles, the United States had made a tentative decision to invade Cuba in October 1962. That all changed when, on October 16, 1962, a U-2 returned with proof that the Soviets had covertly sent long-range missiles to Cuba capable of hitting the United States.
During the 13-day crisis that followed, the United States placed a naval quarantine around Cuba, threatened to sink Soviet ships that crossed the quarantine line, and brought thousands of troops streaming into Florida for a possible invasion. Unknown to the United States at the time was that the Soviets had in place a number of tactical nuclear weapons which could be used in the event of an American invasion. If those weapons were employed, thousands of Americans soldiers would be wiped out as they landed on Cuban shores.
During the height of the crisis, the CIA landed an unauthorized team of agents in Cuba from a two-man sub to reconnoiter with the underground and report on the Soviet buildup. When it was learned that CIA men were in Cuba, frantic communications were issued from Washington to the team inside Cuba. Unfortunately, the CIA men could not be easily retrieved. No harm was done, however, and the team members eventually returned safely to the United States.
The crisis ended when Premier Khrushchev decided to remove the missiles in exchange for a secret pledge by the United States to remove its outdated Jupiter missiles in Turkey. The peaceful ending of the Cuban Missile Crisis paved the way for the winding down of Operation Mongoose. While small-scale hit-and-run raids continued into the fall of 1963, no appreciable damage to the Cuban state took place. The official record is replete with discussions about ending the mission.
After the crisis, JFK decided to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union. In June 1963, the United States and Soviets concluded a nuclear test ban treaty.
The following fall, the administration received tentative feelers from Castro wanting to know if Kennedy would be willing to enter into secret talks with him. When JFK was killed in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, the U.S. president’s personal emissary was meeting with Castro in Havana. That same day a Cuban agent working for the CIA, Rolando Cubela, was meeting with his CIA contact officer in Paris, planning another assassination attempt on Castro. The inspector general’s report on the CIA-Mafia links describes that final meeting.
Given what we now know, the placement of Russian missiles in Cuba was never the simple act of belligerence it was touted as by the news media and official U.S. government sources. The Kennedy brothers’ secret war against Castro to preserve John Kennedy’s reelection viability, with its goal of removing him from office by whatever means possible, surely helped push Castro into seeking Russian support against what he saw as a possible American invasion—in addition to assassination plots. Yet the popular myth persists of evil Russians armed and at the doorstep in 1962, bent on attacking America with nuclear weapons for no apparent reason at all.
Peter Kross is the author of The Encyclopedia of World War II Spies. For further reading, he recommends: The Dark Side of Camelot, by Seymour Hersh; and The Missiles of October: The Declassified Story of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Warren Hinckle, William Turner and Robert Smith.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.