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

  • James G. Hershberg

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Dust Steam Explosive Assure Turkey 

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Notes

  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
  2. 3.
    A notable exception is Scott Sagan, “Nuclear Alerts and Crisis Management,” International Security 9 (Spring 1985): 99–139, esp. 106–07. For discussions of the historiography of the defense-of-Cuba motive for em-placing the missiles, see Welch and Blight, On the Brink, 294–96, 301–2; Pope, Soviet View, ix–x, 153–59, 227–49; and Laurence J. Chang, “Historical Reassessment of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” presented to the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations annual meeting, Williamsburg, VA, 15 June 1989.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 5.
    Khrushchev Remembers, 494. Khrushchev also gave this explanation at the time of the crisis, writing Kennedy that the “Soviet government decided to render assistance to Cuba with means of defense against aggression—only with means for defensive purposes … We have supplied them to prevent an attack on Cuba—to prevent rash acts.” Khrushchev to Kennedy, 28 October 1962, in David L. Larson, ed., The “Cuban Crisis” of 1962: Selected Documents and Chronology (Boston, 1963), 162. For Khrushchev’s postcrisis explanation to the Soviet people and leadership, see Khrushchev, “In Defense of Cuba,” The Worker Supplement, 23 December 1962, quoted in Henry Pachter, Collision Course: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Coexistence (New York, 1963), 243–248; and Divine, ed., Cuban Missile Crisis, 102–8. For precrisis Soviet claims of hostile U.S. intent toward Cuba see, for example, the Tass statements of 11 and 13 September 1962. And for an important example of the defense-of-Cuba argument in Soviet historical treatments see Anatoly A. Gromyko, “The Caribbean Crisis, Part I: The U.S. Government’s Preparation of the Caribbean Crisis,” Voprosy istorii [Questions of history] 7 (July 1971): 135–44, reprinted in Pope, ed., Soviet Views, 161–94.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Department of Defense Operations During the Cuban Crisis, a report by Adam Yarmolinsky, special assistant to the secretary of defense, 12 February 1963, ed. and intro. Dan Caldwell, in The Naval War College Review 32 (July–August 1979): 91, 93 (hereafter Defense Operations Report).Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    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
  6. 16.
    The most comprehensive analysis of the relationship between the Cuban missile crisis and domestic politics is Thomas G. Paterson and William J. Brophy, “October Missiles and November Elections: The Cuban Missile Crisis and American Politics, 1962,” Journal of American History 73 (June 1986): 87–119. See also Montague Kern, Patricia W. Levering, and Ralph B. Levering, The Kennedy Crises: The Press, the Presidency, and Foreign Policy (Chapel Hill, 1983), 99–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Schlesinger, A Thousand Days, 800–801; Sorensen, Kennedy, 754–55, 758. Keating’s sources for his allegations, including claims in early October that the Soviets were deploying offensive missiles, remain cloaked in secrecy. See Thomas G. Paterson, “The Historian as Detective: Senator Kenneth Keating, the Missiles in Cuba, and His Mysterious Sources,” Diplomatic History 11 (Winter 1987): 67–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 29.
    Trumbull Higgins, The Perfect Failure: Kennedy, Eisenhower, and the CIA at the Bay of Pigs (New York, 1989; Norton, paperback ed.), 71.Google Scholar
  9. 30.
    On the links between the Guatemala and Bay of Pigs episodes, see esp. Richard H. Immerman, The CIA and Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (Austin, TX, 1982), 187–97.Google Scholar
  10. 46.
    Alleged Assassination Plots, 140; Joan Didion, Miami (New York, 1987), 90–91, cited in Welch and Blight, On the Brink, 364; John Prados, President’s Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations from World War II through Iranscam (rev. ed., New York, 1988), 211–13.Google Scholar
  11. 58.
    Cecil B. Currey, Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American (Boston, 1988), 248.Google Scholar
  12. 114.
    Paterson and Brophy note that Kennedy succumbed to domestic pressures in mid-September, when he decided to sell Hawk missiles to Israel following intense lobbying by American Jews. Paterson and Brophy, “October Missiles,” 87–88. Another example of Kennedy’s sensitivity to domestic politics in his conduct of foreign policy during the period under scrutiny in this chapter was his flip-flop on retaining most-favored-nation trade status for Yugoslavia, a policy which he (in line with the State Department) at first supported but then, under pressure from Congress, abandoned. George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1950–1963 (Boston, 1972), 293–305.Google Scholar
  13. 117.
    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
  14. 118.
    Garthoff, Reflections, 140–48; Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years (Boston, 1979), 632–35. When Kennedy issued a statement to the public on 28 October 1962 to welcome Khrushchev’s announcement that the Soviet Union would withdraw its missiles, he omitted a line contained in the original draft wherein he gave his “assurance that the United States will not invade Cuba since the necessity for military action would disappear with the removal of offensive weapons.” Statement and draft are in National Security Files, box 36A37, folder: “Cuba, General, Oct. 28–31, 1962,” Kennedy Library.Google Scholar
  15. 127.
    For an early attempt, see Mark J. White, “Belligerent Beginnings: John F. Kennedy on the Opening Day of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Journal of Strategic Studies 15:1 (March 1992), 30–49, esp. 39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© James A. Nathan 1992

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  • James G. Hershberg

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