635. Intelligence Note from Hilsman to Rusk, March 271

[Facsimile Page 1]


On March 17 and again on March 26 Cuban emigre organizations have attacked Soviet freighters near Cuba.

Weak Protest on First Incident. The mild tone of the Soviet protest note of March 27—ten days after the event—suggests that, as has been the case with Soviet troop withdrawals from Cuba, the USSR is prepared to suffer some measure of national indignity as a price for keeping the Cuban crisis from erupting once more. Indeed, the sequence of events raises an outside possibility that Moscow might not have broken its official silence over the March 17 incident had it not been for the second attack last night.

Second Incident A Test Case. Moscow may well look upon the second incident as a test case. Even if the Soviets assume that the US heartily disapproves of the incident, (and we doubt that they assume this) they probably believe that another weak response will embolden the US to subject the Soviet presence in Cuba to further and more damaging harassment. Thus, the Soviets will presumably feel under a compulsion to respond firmly to the apparently even more serious March 26 incident.

Possible Soviet Actions. There are a variety of approaches which the Soviets might take.

—Moscow will probably prefer to use the incident as an occasion for securing a public US commitment that it will not support such efforts in the future. [Facsimile Page 2] One means which it might use would be to take the matter to the UN where in addition to deploring “piracy” the Soviets might hope that a compromise resolution (to which the US might agree) deploring such free-booting activity might result.

—Moscow may supplement such efforts by exerting pressure on the US by stalling their troop withdrawals or urging the Cubans to stall the Donovan talks.

—The Soviets (perhaps together with the Cubans) might institute Komar boat convoys or aerial patrols to protect their shipping. They would thus utilize these incidents as a pretext for further Soviet trawler and patrol activity in the Eastern Atlantic.

[Typeset Page 1648]

—We doubt, but cannot exclude the possibility, that the Soviets may undertake actions entailing a more substantial measure of risk in retaliation for the attacks. The Soviets might begin to fire upon U–2 flights over Cuba, to fire upon US ships or planes engaged in surveillance of shipping to Cuba, or to harass US shipping elsewhere in the world. If the Soviets did undertake such high-risk actions, they would presumably do so with the intention of using the incidents to launch a major drive against continued US surveillance of Cuba and, more basically, to obtain definitive US acceptance of the status quo.

  1. “Soviet Response to Two Attacks on Their Freighters Off Cuba.” Confidential. 2 pp. Kennedy Library, NSF, Countries Series, Cuba—Subjects, Exiles—3/63.