Most people would choose Mexico as the American neighbor that has stimulated the most persistent military planning and action. Despite several failed attempts by the United States to conquer Canada during the War of 1812, there has been no “Canadian War.” However, there has not only been a Mexican War (1846-48) but also the 1914 seizure of Vera Cruz, the 1916- 17 Punitive Expedition, and a recent deployment of National Guardsmen along America’s southern border. But a good case can be made for another neighbor. There is a long history of American-Cuban military threats, hostility, fear, fighting—and on occasion military cooperation. The connection began in the early years of the sixteenth century with successful Cuban-based Spanish military expeditions establishing settlements in North America destined to menace similar British and French communities. In the seventeenth century, there was near continuous fighting along the Cuban coasts between Spanish warships and British privateers, some of whom were New Englanders. In the eighteenth century, there were several North American–based British attacks on Cuba, one of which temporarily seized Havana in 1762.
On the eve of the War of 1812, the U.S. governor of Louisiana reported to Washington that Cuba “is the real mouth of the Mississippi,” saying that any nation that held Cuba controlled U.S. westward expansion. The reasoning was that the narrow Florida Strait carries the Gulf Stream, which can add as much as ten knots to eastbound shipping, vessels that would transport much of the wealth of the American heartland. Indeed, that patch of sea constituted then as it does now a strategic choke point of considerable military importance. The United States offered to buy the island from Spain three times in the nineteenth century before ousting the Spanish in 1898, gaining Cubans their independence in the aftermath. In 1901 Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany had his staff plan an invasion of Cuba, to launch an attack on the United States. During 1906-09 a revolt on the island was put down and a Cuban army was trained by American forces. Repeat performances followed in 1912 and 1917-22. In World War II Cuba proved valuable as a base for American naval forces operating against German U-boats attacking vital U.S. shipping in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
During the Cold War, Communist Cuba served as a springboard to support, export, and train armed Marxist revolutionaries throughout Latin America and in Africa from Angola to Algeria. And Havana was at the heart of what many consider the most dangerous period of that forty-year East-West confrontation, the thirteen-day Cuban Missile Crisis. This issue features two historical incidents in the U.S.-Cuban relationship involving serious military implications. John Prados focuses on the Bay of Pigs debacle, a tale that echoes the several American filibustering episodes that foundered in Cuba. And Barbara Mitchell highlights one of military history’s recurring themes: when two belligerents reason that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.