Before “The Missiles of October”: Did Kennedy Plan a Military Strike Against Cuba?

  • James G. Hershberg


Was the Kennedy administration moving toward a military attack on Cuba in the fall of 1962, even before it discovered Soviet strategic missiles on the island? Recently declassified evidence and fresh controversy compel a new look at this infrequently examined question. While not offering a definitive answer, this chapter presents new information, interpretations and hypotheses regarding U.S. behavior in the period leading up to the Cuban missile crisis. It is now clear that throughout the first ten months of 1962, Operation Mongoose, the Kennedy administration’s secret program of covert operations against Cuba, was closely coordinated with enhanced Pentagon contingency planning for possible U.S. military intervention to bring about Castro’s downfall. During this period, U.S. officials actively considered the option of sparking an internal revolt in Cuba that would serve as a pretext for open, direct military action. Top officials in the U.S. government initially “shied away from” the idea of overt military involvement in Cuba prior to the missile crisis. But the Pentagon, acting at the direction of the president and the secretary of defense, dramatically accelerated contingency planning for military action against Cuba in late September and early October 1962, just as the president was ordering a sharp increase in anti-Castro covert operations. Although the ultimate purpose of these intensified military preparations remains unclear, the possibility that, under domestic political pressure and even before they learned in mid-October that Soviet nuclear-capable missiles were in Cuba, top U.S. policymakers seriously considered conventional military action—including, if necessary, a full-scale invasion—to overthrow the Castro regime, has to be considered.


Contingency Plan Military Action Military Intervention Covert Action Oral History Interview 
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  1. 1.
    Principal accounts by former officials include George Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern: Memoirs (New York, 1982); McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York, 1988); Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, 1987), and rev. ed., 1989 (all citations are to the revised version unless otherwise noted); Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (New York, 1967); Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1969); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston, 1965); idem, Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston, 1978); and Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York, 1965). Robert S. McNamara offers some general comments, but no full account or analysis, in his Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age (New York, 1987). Important secondary works include Elie Abel, The Missile Crisis (Philadelphia, 1966; citations from Bantam paperback ed.); Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston, 1976); and Herbert S. Dinerstein, The Making of a Missile Crisis: October 1962 (Baltimore, 1976). For a recently issued anthology of articles on the crisis, see Robert A. Divine, ed. with commentary The Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1988). To date, no comprehensive secondary work incorporating the wealth of materials declassified over the past decade has appeared. For a study based on recent recollections by participants on both sides, however, see James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1989, rev. ed. 1990; citations from the 1989 edition); see also Bruce J. Allyn, James G. Blight, and David A. Welch, “Essence of Revision: Moscow, Havana, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,”International Security 14 (Winter 1989/90): 136–72. Two articles presenting declassified transcripts and minutes of Excomm meetings are “White House Tapes and Minutes of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Marc Trachtenberg, ed., International Security 10 (Summer 1985): 164–203; and “October 27, 1962: Transcripts of the Meetings of the ExComm,” McGeorge Bundy, transcriber; James G. Blight, ed., International Security 12 (Winter 1987/88): 30–92. For the Soviet perspective see Strobe Talbott, trans, and ed., Edward Crankshaw, intro, Khrushchev Remembers (Boston, 1970), 488–505; Strobe Talbott, trans, and ed., Edward Crankshaw, foreword and Jerrold L. Schecter, intro., Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (New York, 1976), 509–14; and Ronald R. Pope, ed., Soviet Views on the Cuban Missile Crisis: Myth and Reality in Foreign Policy Analysis (Lanham, MD, 1982). For Castro’s role see Tad Szulc, Fidel: A Critical Portrait (New York, 1986; paperbacked., 1987), 588–657, and Philip Brenner, “Cuba and the Missile Crisis,” Journal of Latin American Studies 22:1 (February 1990): 115–42. Essential archival materials are at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, but the National Security Archive in Washington.DC, has gathered an extensive collection of declassified documents from various sources and has organized a detailed chronology of the crisis.Google Scholar
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    Khrushchev Remembers, 493. More recent information from Soviet sources indicates that Khrushchev discussed the idea of sending missiles to Cuba with leading Soviet officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan and Defense Minister Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, and perhaps others, in late April or early May 1962—prior to the trip to Bulgaria. See Raymond L. Garthoff, “Cuban Missile Crisis: The Soviet Story,” Foreign Policy 72 (Fall 1988): 61–80, esp. 63–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The two promises Kennedy made to the Soviets on the night of 27 October 1962, viewed in the context of whether they represented concessions on the part of the United States, parallel each other in some respects. A natural corollary of the assertion that the Kennedy administration had not considered attacking Cuba prior to the crisis is that the United States therefore gave up nothing by promising not to attack. In a similar vein, some former Kennedy aides have ardently insisted that the private promise to Khrushchev to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey, as relayed by Robert Kennedy to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on 27 October, did not constitute a concession or a “deal” because the president had already ordered their removal—a claim strongly challenged by some historians. One wonders whether the vehemence of the assertions that Kennedy had ordered the missiles removed from Turkey and that the administration never considered military action against Cuba prior to the crisis stems in part from a reluctance to acknowledge that the United States conceded anything to end the crisis. See Donald L. Hafner, “Bureaucratic Politics and ‘Those Frigging Missiles’: JFK, Cuba and U.S. Missiles in Turkey,” Orbis 21 (Summer 1977): 307–33; Barton J. Bernstein, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Trading the Jupiters in Turkey,” Political Science Quarterly 95 (Spring 1980): 97–125, esp. 102–04, 112; Garthoff, Reflections, 71n; and Philip Nash, “Essence of Revision: Jupiter Missiles and the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Nuclear Age History and Humanities Center, Occasional Paper #89-2, Medford, MA, 1989). Bundy, among others, has pointed out the political costs of the no-invasion pledge (Danger and Survival, 407)—costs that Kennedy presumably would not have incurred gratuitously—and, siding with the revisionist view of Ball and Bernstein, confirms the absence of a presidential decision to remove the Jupiters from Turkey prior to 27 October (428–36). In discussing the issue in his latest work Bundy seems to have only a mild case of what might be termed the deal-denial syndrome. He writes that administration officials “denied in every forum that there was any deal, and in the narrowest sense what we said was usually true, as far as it went.”Google Scholar
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© James A. Nathan 1992

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  • James G. Hershberg

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