Summary of Print Volume X

Following is a summary of the contents of print volume X, Cuba, 1961–1962. Parenthetical citations are to the numbered documents in the text. Volume X, published in 1997, is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office.

By the time John F. Kennedy assumed the Presidency on January 20, 1961, U.S.-Cuban relations had become locked in a state of mutual hostility. The final act of the Eisenhower administration with regard to Cuba was to sever diplomatic relations. (2, 4, 6, 7, 8) The Kennedy administration expanded upon and continued this policy by seeking to isolate, contain, undermine, and overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. The Castro government was seen in Washington as a client of the Soviet Union, with the dangerous potential of fostering Communist subversion and spreading Soviet influence throughout Latin America.


Following his election in November 1960, President Kennedy had been briefed in general terms about the CIA covert plan to support an attempt by Cuban émigrés to overthrow the Castro government. The plan was authorized by President Eisenhower and developed by the CIA during 1960. (See Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, Volume VI) On January 19, 1961, President Eisenhower met with President-elect Kennedy, and briefed him on various foreign policy concerns. Eisenhower made reference to the small force of Cuban émigrés that was being trained by the CIA in Guatemala, and recommended that the effort be continued and accelerated. Eisenhower added that, in his opinion, the United States could not allow the Castro government to continue to exist in Cuba. (22)

CIA Invasion Plan and Its Critics

The Joint Chiefs of Staff briefed several members of the new administration on the CIA’s Cuba project on January 22, and the JCS met with President Kennedy on January 25 to discuss the implications of the proposed covert operation against Cuba. (24, 26) General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the JCS, advised the President that time was working [Typeset Page 32] against the United States in Cuba, where Castro was tightening police state controls. Existing [Facsimile Page 42] U.S. plans, he stated, called for the establishment of a government in exile, the introduction of anti-Castro guerrilla forces into Cuba, and subsequent support of the guerrilla forces by U.S. military forces. Plans were ready, he told the President, for such action. (26) On January 27, however, the Joint Chiefs provided Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara an assessment of the CIA’s plan to overthrow the Castro government in which they stated that the plan “does not assure the accomplishment of the objective nor has there been detailed follow-up planning to exploit that plan if it succeeds or for any direct action that might be required if the plan is found to be inadequate.” (28)

McNamara and General Lemnitzer took up the JCS concerns in a meeting with the President on January 28, attended by a number of other concerned officials. (30, 31) During the meeting, Secretary of State Dean Rusk indicated that the Department of State saw grave political dangers for the U.S. position throughout the Western Hemisphere if the Kennedy administration approved overt military action not authorized and supported by the Organization of American States. As a result of the January 28 meeting at the White House, President Kennedy requested a reassessment of the existing plans for an effort to overthrow the Castro government, the first of several reassessments required by the President.

Secretary McNamara and General Lemnitzer expressed skepticism about the CIA plan following the January 28 meeting. Both agreed that the plan required careful study. (32) On February 3, the JCS submitted to McNamara a military evaluation of the CIA Para-Military plan, which was then focused on introducing a Cuban émigré brigade around the port of Trinidad. (35) The JCS judged that the Trinidad beachhead offered the best area in Cuba for the accomplishment of the stated objective. But they noted: “Since the success of this operation is dependent on the degree of local Cuban support, this factor should be a matter of continuous evaluation until a decision to execute the operation is made.” The JCS concluded that, if significant local support for the assault forces developed within the first 2 days, “timely execution [Typeset Page 33] of the plan has a fair chance of ultimate success.” They noted, however, that their information regarding the capabilities of the proposed assault force came from second and third hand sources. In order to advise the President properly, they felt that a team of military officers should be dispatched to Guatemala to assess the preparations.

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The JCS evaluation was discussed by President Kennedy and his closest advisers on February 8. (40) Kennedy focused on a fall-back option incorporated in the planning for the invasion. That option stipulated that if the invasion failed in its initial phase to unseat the Castro government, the invaders could fade into the Escambray mountains and join other guerrilla groups fighting against Castro. The fall-back option was specifically cited in the February 8 meeting and made the invasion proposal more palatable for the President. But he still pressed for alternatives to a full-fledged invasion supported by U.S. planes, ships, and supplies. It became increasingly clear in the course of the numerous reviews of the plan prepared for the President that he was leery of a proposal that threatened to draw the United States openly into war. But he was eager to see the Castro government overthrown, and did not want to have [illegible in the original] the political embarrassment of disbanding the Cuban [illegible in the original] army and being accused of throwing away perhaps the last good opportunity of preventing Cuba from being lost to Communist control.

CIA officials contended that the Agency’s plan was sound. On February 17, Richard Bissell, Deputy Director of Plans of the CIA and the motive force behind the planning for the invasion, prepared a memorandum that argued for the program planned by the CIA for a landing in force in the Trinidad area. He noted that Castro’s position in Cuba was becoming stronger every day, and contended that soon it would be impossible to unseat him without drastic and politically untenable actions such as an all-out embargo or the use of overt military force. (46) Bissell argued his position in a meeting at the White House on February 18. He was opposed by Secretary of State Rusk, who contended that it would be better to delay any action and attempt to build up OAS support. (48) The President required further work on the plan.

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Revised Invasion Plans

Reevaluation led to significant changes in the invasion plan. On March 10, the JCS submitted an evaluation prepared by three officers who went to Guatemala to inspect the combat-capability of the émigré army. Their findings were generally positive in terms of equipment, training, and morale. The small army of approximately 1,000 men would be heavily out-numbered, however, and the logistics specialist concluded that [Facsimile Page 44] logistic preparations were not adequate. Nonetheless, the team concluded that the invasion army could be ready to fight by April 1. (56) Bissell followed with a memorandum on March 11 that argued that it would be “infeasible to hold all these forces together beyond early April.” (58) At a meeting at the White House on March 11, however, President Kennedy indicated that, although he was willing to take the chance of going ahead, he could not endorse a plan that involved the United States so openly. He directed the development of a plan where U.S. assistance would be less obvious. (59)

Working under intense time pressure, the CIA produced a plan on March 15 targeted upon a sparsely populated area of swampland along the south coast of Cuba at a place called the Bay of Pigs, approximately 100 miles west of Trinidad. The change of target was necessary in order to encompass an airstrip adequate for B–26 bombers, so that air support for the invasion would seem to come from within Cuba. The plan relied on a landing begun under cover of darkness, and completed in the early hours after dawn. (61) The JCS evaluated the prospects for the success of a landing at the Bay of Pigs and concluded that, although prospects for the Trinidad plan were better, the Bay of Pigs alternative was considered “feasible.” They noted, however, that “inaccessibility of the area may limit the support anticipated from the Cuban populace.” (62) At a meeting on March 15, President Kennedy directed that the entire landing operation should be completed before dawn, so that the ships could be well away from shore by dawn, and the operation could be represented as a domestic guerrilla uprising. (65) The revisions of this plan, code-named Zapata, were completed by the CIA on March 16, and the President approved the revised plan, [Typeset Page 35] but reserved the right to call it off up to 24 hours prior to the landing. (66)

During a meeting at the White House on March 29, a tentative date for the invasion was set for April 10. President Kennedy asked whether, in the event the invasion failed, the invading force could melt into the surrounding countryside and function as guerrillas, as had been assumed with earlier versions of the plan. Bissell replied that in the event of failure at the Bay of Pigs the entire invading force would have to be withdrawn. (74) On April 4, Senator William Fulbright was invited to a meeting to discuss the plan. Senator Fulbright spoke out against the enterprise but the President’s other advisers in the meeting [Facsimile Page 45] supported it. (80) On April 6, the time for the invasion was rescheduled for April 17, with the President retaining the option of canceling the operation 24 hours before it began. (84)

The JCS issued instructions on April 7 to Admiral Dennison, Commander in Chief, Atlantic, concerning destroyer escort and combat air patrol to protect the Cuban Expeditionary Force (CEF), which was preparing to sail for Cuba. (85) Dennison, in turn, issued his Operation Order for the operation on April 10 to Rear Admiral John E. Clark, who commanded Special Task Group 81.8 (STG 81.8), which was assigned to support the CEF. (87) Clark was instructed: “DD’s [destroyers] will not be used to support the landing operation and will not close within 20 miles of the objective area.” With those limitations, and similar instructions concerning the necessity to avoid involving U.S. air cover in open combat with Castro’s air force, the CEF was left to fight essentially alone, with only cover from the B–26 bombers of the small émigré air force, launched from a base in Nicaragua in support of the landings.

President Kennedy’s lingering doubts concerning the success of the Cuban invasion force were largely allayed by a telegram on April 13 from Marine Colonel Jack Hawkins, the principal military adviser assigned to help prepare the Cuban brigade in Guatemala. Hawkins expressed no doubts when asked to evaluate the brigade’s chances: “My observations the last few days have increased my confidence in the ability of this force to accomplish not only initial combat missions but also the ultimate objective of Castro’s over [Typeset Page 36] throw.” He described the brigade leaders as very confident, and added: “I share their confidence.” (98) Based on the confidence of the CIA officials managing the operation, President Kennedy allowed it to go forward as scheduled.

The Invasion

On April 15, a preliminary air strike was launched against Cuban airfields by B–26 bombers bearing the markings of the Cuban Air Force. The object of this attack by the Cuban émigré air force was to destroy Castro’s air force on the ground before the invasion was launched. (103) This air strike only partially succeeded, and it had the effect of removing much of the element of surprise from the subsequent invasion. A critical decision affecting the possibility of success for the Bay of Pigs operation was taken on April 16 when President Kennedy decided, [Facsimile Page 46] on the basis of advice from Secretary of State Rusk, that the air strikes scheduled for the morning of April 17 to support the invasion, would have to be postponed until the airfield at the Bay of Pigs could be secured and the strikes launched from there. CIA Deputy Director General C.P. Cabell, along with Richard Bissell, protested the decision to McGeorge Bundy, who told them that they would have to discuss the matter with Rusk. Secretary Rusk explained the political considerations underlying the decision and offered to let them speak directly to the President about the matter. The CIA officials decided that there was no point in pressing the matter that far. (108) The second strike against Cuban air fields, planned to eliminate the remainder of Castro’s air force, did not take place as planned. When the invasion began at the Bay of Pigs on the morning of April 17, the Cuban Government still had the air power to cripple it.

The invasion of Cuba by the Cuban brigade at the Bay of Pigs was in trouble almost from the beginning. After Action reports by Grayston Lynch and William Robertson of the CIA, who were directly involved in the invasion, provide a graphic picture of the breakdown of the invasion, after initial, limited success on the morning of April 17. (109, 110) The lack of effective air support left the Cuban brigade, and the supporting transports of the CEF easy prey for the remaining planes of the Cuban Air Force. T–33 jet training [Typeset Page 37] planes were particularly effective against the B–26 bombers of the CEF’s air force when they appeared over the beach. Meanwhile, the instructions from the JCS to Admiral Dennison were to keep fleet units well off the Cuban coast, and to provide an air cap for CEF shipping only when it was outside Cuban territorial waters. (111) As a result, the CIA had to report to the JCS at 10:17 a.m. on April 17 that two of the ships of the CEF, the Rio Escondido and the Houston, had been sunk, and that a third, the Blagar, was under heavy attack. (112) By the afternoon of April 17, the CIA reported that the Barbara J and the Atlantico were also under attack off the coast of Cuba, and that the Barbara J was on fire. (116) Much of the necessary supplies and ammunition for the Cuban brigade were lost in the ships sunk at the Bay of Pigs. The remaining vessels of the CEF fled out to sea, and were only regrouped with difficulty.

Reports from the Cuban brigade ashore constituted a steady stream of pleas for air cover, ammunition, and supplies to ward off mounting pressure on the beachhead from Castro forces, [Facsimile Page 47] supported by tanks and jets. During the morning hours of April 18, messages from the brigade commander became increasingly desperate. “Request jet support or cannot hold.” “Have no ammo left for tanks and very little left for troops.” “Enemy just launched heavy land attack supported by tanks. Cannot hold for long.” “Red Beach wiped out. Request air strikes immediately.” (125) By that afternoon, the brigade commander radioed that without jet cover his force could not survive: “Please don’t desert us. Am out of tank and bazooka ammo. Tanks will hit me at dawn. I will not be evacuated. Will fight to the end if we have to.” (135)

During the early morning hours of April 19, an assessment of the disaster occurring at the Bay of Pigs took place at the White House. After the meeting with the President, the JCS sent instructions to Admiral Dennison to furnish U.S. air cover by six unmarked jet fighters over the CEF forces during the period 0630 to 0730 local time. The U.S. fighters were not authorized to attack ground targets, but were given latitude to destroy the Cuban Air Force if it appeared and engaged. (140) The air cover would permit CEF transport aircraft to fly in desperately needed supplies, [Typeset Page 38] and to attack the tanks and ground forces mustered by Castro around the beachhead. Unfortunately, the order sent to the CEF air base in Nicaragua also stipulated local time for the strike by CEF bombers, but local time in Nicaragua was one hour earlier than at the Bay of Pigs. (150) The CEF planes passed over Admiral Clark’s Task Group just as he was preparing to put the authorized air cover into the air. The Navy jets followed the CEF bombers to the beachhead as quickly as possible, but by the time they arrived, jets from Castro’s air force had already broken up and driven off the CEF attack. That represented the last opportunity to try to salvage the Bay of Pigs invasion. Ironically, intelligence reports subsequently indicated that Fidel Castro himself was leading the tank column pressing the attack on the Cuban brigade. (236) Instead, the morning of April 19 concluded with a last desperate signal from the brigade commander at the Bay of Pigs: “Out of ammunition. Men fighting in water. If no help given Blue Beach lost.” (146)

The Taylor Study Group

The collapse of the Bay of Pigs invasion forced the Kennedy administration to take responsibility for an embarrassing and damaging failure, while U.S. Naval forces off the Bay of Pigs [Facsimile Page 48] scrambled to try to rescue as many survivors from the Cuban brigade as possible. (151, 156, 177) The failure was followed by a determined effort in Washington to find out what went wrong. President Kennedy asked General Maxwell D. Taylor, retired Army Chief of Staff, to head a committee composed of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke, to investigate the failure, and to make recommendations concerning future U.S. capability of conducting similar operations. Taylor’s Cuban Study Group conducted an intensive investigation, which involved gathering information and interviewing key participants across a period of a month and a half following the collapse of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The interviews offered detailed insight into the lack of adequate planning, coordination, and oversight which helped to undermine the operation. (169, 174, 175, 176, 187, 193, 199, 200, 201, 209, 210, 221)

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The Study Group met with President Kennedy on May 16 to give him a preliminary report concerning the investigation. (218, 219) The Study Group submitted its formal report to the President on June 13. (229–234) The Group found in its conclusions that, contrary to the President’s much-quoted statement to the press in taking responsibility for the collapse at the Bay of Pigs, this failure was not in fact an orphan, but had a variety of fathers. The Study Group felt that before the operation became the responsibility of the Kennedy administration, it should have been canceled by the Eisenhower administration or converted into an amphibious operation under the direction of the Department of Defense. When it was presented to the Kennedy administration as a well-advanced project, those in charge of the operation “did not always present their case with sufficient force and clarity to the senior officials of the Government to allow the latter to appreciate the consequences of some of their decisions.” In approving the operation, the Group noted, the President and his senior officials were “greatly influenced by the understanding that the landing force could pass to guerrilla status, if unable to hold the beachhead.” That projection proved to be false. The Joint Chiefs of Staff did not do an adequate job in assessing the military feasibility of the operation for the President, and gave the impression of approving the Zapata plan, despite reservations. And the Group concluded that it was a mistake to try to run the operation from Washington, rather than [Facsimile Page 49] entrusting responsibility to a commander closer to the point of combat. (233)

Reassessment of Cuba Policy

While the Taylor Study Group was conducting its investigation into the causes of the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Kennedy administration reassessed its Cuba policy in light of the failure. The process began on April 20 with a grim Cabinet meeting in which the President and his advisers took stock of the shambles of their effort to unseat Fidel Castro. Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles attended and recorded: “The President was really quite shattered . . . . Here for the first time he faced a situation where his judgment had been mistaken, in spite of the fact that week after week of conferences had taken place before he [Typeset Page 40] gave the green light.” The mood in the Cabinet was “almost savage” Bowles observed, “as everyone appeared to be jumping on everyone else.” (158) The cabinet meeting was followed on April 22 by an angry NSC meeting. Bowles recorded that Robert Kennedy took the lead in the meeting, “slamming into anyone who suggested that we go slowly and try to move calmly and not repeat previous mistakes.” The atmosphere, Bowles noted, “was almost as emotional as the Cabinet meeting two days earlier, the difference being that on this occasion the emphasis was on specific proposals to harass Castro.” (166) The upshot was a series of decisions by President Kennedy which spoke of his desire to find a new approach to undermine Castro’s control of Cuba, and prevent the spread of the Cuban revolution to Latin America. The President asked for a reassessment of U.S. support for guerrilla activities in Cuba. He instructed the Departments of State and Defense to study the question of training Cuban soldiers within the United States armed forces. He authorized the creation of an interdepartmental study group to consider an increase in U.S. assistance to Latin American countries for internal security and counter-guerrilla activities, and, in the same vein, directed that the possibility of creating a Caribbean Security Agency be studied, to provide a pool of forces to counter Cuban subversion. (167) The effect of the President’s directives was to put in train a comprehensive review of Cuba policy.

The policy review culminated in a paper prepared for the National Security Council on May 4 by an Interagency Task Force. (202) The paper, entitled “Cuba and Communism in the [Facsimile Page 50] Hemisphere,” formed the basis for an NSC discussion on May 5. (204) The result of the discussion was an NSC Record of Action that outlined Cuba policy in the wake of the Bay of Pigs failure. The fundamental object of policy was listed first: “Agreed that U.S. policy toward Cuba should aim at the downfall of Castro, and that since the measures agreed below are not likely to achieve this end, the matter should be reviewed at intervals with a view to further action.” Among the agreed measures was the conclusion that the United States should not take military action against Cuba for the present, “but should do nothing that would foreclose the possibility of military intervention in the [Typeset Page 41] future.” It was noted that the President was concerned to receive timely intelligence concerning Cuban military capabilities, and the enhancement of those capabilities by military assistance from the Sino-Soviet Bloc, “so that U.S. capabilities for possible intervention may be maintained at an adequate level.” The President directed the CIA to make a detailed study of “possible weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the elements which exert control in Cuba,” and he agreed that relations with the Cuban émigré Revolutionary Council “should be improved and made more open.” No separate Cuban military force could be organized in the United States, but Cuban nationals would be encouraged to enlist in the U.S. armed forces. And it was agreed that the United States “should at once initiate negotiation to enlarge the willingness of the other American states to join in bilateral, multilateral and OAS arrangements against Castro.” (205) Castro may have won the battle of the Bay of Pigs, but the Kennedy administration was determined that he would not win the war to introduce and expand Communist influence and control in Latin America.

Operation Mongoose

The reassessment of Cuba policy begun in May eventuated in the authorization by President Kennedy on November 3, 1961, of the development of a new program designed to undermine the Castro government in Cuba. The program was codenamed Operation Mongoose. Overall control of the operation was entrusted to a new group established for the purpose, called the Special Group (Augmented), a slightly expanded version of the NSC 5412 Special Group, which oversaw covert operations. The Special Group (Augmented) consisted of regular Special Group members McGeorge Bundy, U. Alexis Johnson, [Facsimile Page 51] Roswell Gilpatric, John McCone, and General Lyman Lemnitzer, augmented by Robert Kennedy and General Maxwell Taylor. Although Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Defense McNamara were not regular members of the group, they occasionally attended meetings. President Kennedy appointed Taylor as chairman of the group, but Robert Kennedy was the principal motive force within the group and the informal link between the group and the President. Air Force Brigadier General [Typeset Page 42] Edward Lansdale was appointed Chief of Operations and coordinated the CIA’s Mongoose operations with those within the Departments of State and Defense. Within the CIA, the Mongoose operation was run by Task Force W, under the direction of William Harvey, with overall guidance from Lansdale and the Special Group (Augmented). (270)

Initial discussions within the Special Group (Augmented) on the scope and direction of Operation Mongoose led to decisions confirmed by the President on November 30. (272, 275, 278) The decisions confirmed Lansdale’s role as Chief of Operations, and provided the green light from the President to go ahead with the operation as conceived on November 3, “in order to help Cuba overthrow the communist regime.” The first review of progress on the project was set for two weeks from the date of the November 30 memorandum of decision. In a meeting on December 1, called to discuss Mongoose plans, Attorney General Kennedy stressed that the President had reached a decision to accord higher priority to the Cuba problem. General Lansdale reported that he had surveyed all of the resources available for the project. He concluded that there were sizable active and potential resources available, but there was “a very difficult job ahead.” He stressed the importance of coming to an agreement as to the future of Cuba after Castro, so that appeals to potential resistance groups could be geared to a positive long-range program. (280)

A measure of the Kennedy administration’s renewed determination to eliminate Castro was the reauthorization of assassination attempts on the Cuban Premier. Efforts had been made to assassinate Castro before the Bay of Pigs invasion in coordination with underworld figures from the Mafia, but those efforts had been suspended during the reassessment of Cuba policy following the Bay of Pigs. (337)

During the course of his summary remarks to the National Security Council on January 18, 1962, concerning foreign policy [Facsimile Page 52] and national security problems, President Kennedy said: “The time has not yet come when we must force a solution to the Cuban problem.” (290) On the same day, however, General Lansdale circulated a program review of the “Cuba Project” to the Special Group (Augmented) which stated: “The U.S. objective is to help the Cubans over [Typeset Page 43] throw the Communist regime from within Cuba and institute a new government with which the United States can live in peace.” (291) The Mongoose Operation, as outlined by Lansdale in this document, looked to the development of a “political action organization” in being in key localities in Cuba to facilitate a popular uprising against Castro when it occurred. Lansdale noted that the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation had eroded severely the confidence of the Cuban resistance movement in United States competence and intentions, and that confidence would have to be reestablished. Lansdale anticipated that the revolt, when it came, would come from “an angry reaction of the people to a government action (sparked by an incident), or from a fracturing of the leadership cadre within the regime, or both.” He added that it would be a major goal of the project to bring this about. For the initial phase of the project, Lansdale called upon the agencies which were involved—State, Defense, CIA, and USIA—to draw up plans to begin to move toward the goal of fomenting revolt in Cuba. On January 19, Attorney General Kennedy met with Lansdale and the Mongoose operations officers in the CIA and Defense to stress the importance of the project. He said that the project carried “the top priority in the United States Government—all else is secondary—no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared.” The Attorney General quoted the President as saying that “the final chapter on Cuba has not been written.” (292)

On February 20, Lansdale circulated a second review of planning for the Mongoose operation in which he noted: “Time is running against us.” The Cuban people, he noted, felt helpless and were “losing hope fast.” Accordingly, Lansdale outlined a program of action which he felt it was essential to push forward according to a timetable he outlined. The timetable called for preliminary action on the project to begin in March, leading to guerrilla operations in August and September, followed by open revolt during the first two weeks of October. A decision critical to the success of such a program was still to be made, and Lansdale urged the Special Group (Augmented) to consider it: [Facsimile Page 53] “If conditions and assets permitting a revolt are achieved in Cuba, and if U.S. help is required to sustain this condition, will the U.S. respond promptly with military force to aid the Cuban [Typeset Page 44] revolt?” (304) That was the fundamental question which confronted the Kennedy administration throughout the Mongoose exercise.

Phase I

The Special Group (Augmented) considered Lansdale’s proposed plan on February 21, discussed it again with McNamara on February 26, and finally concluded on March 1 that it was essential to conduct an initial intelligence collection program before deciding whether to proceed with the operational proposals outlined by Lansdale. A target date of the end of May was established for a review of the situation in light of the intelligence efforts. A decision as to the next phase would be made at that time. (309) On March 14, this decision was confirmed in guidelines for Operation Mongoose approved by the President. The guidelines stipulated that the “immediate priority objective of U.S. efforts during the coming months will be the acquisition of hard intelligence on the target area.” Political, economic, and covert actions were authorized “short of those reasonably calculated to inspire a revolt within the target area, or other development which would require U.S. armed intervention.” Those rather cautious guidelines were prefaced, however, by an initial assumption which stated that: “In undertaking to cause the overthrow of the target government, the U.S. will make maximum use of indigenous resources, internal and external, but recognizes that final success will require decisive U.S. military intervention.” That stated assumption, in guidelines drafted by General Taylor and approved by the President, makes it appear that the Kennedy administration had decided, by mid-March, to intervene militarily in Cuba to ensure the overthrow of the Castro government. That impression is reinforced later in the guidelines by an instruction to the JCS to “continue the planning and essential preliminary actions to assure a decisive U.S. military capability for intervention.” A handwritten covering memorandum by U. Alexis Johnson, dated March 16, found attached to a copy of the guidelines in Department of State files, throws a different light on the guidelines, however. Johnson, who attended the meeting at which the President approved the guidelines, wrote: “The President also expressed skepticism [Typeset Page 45] that in so [Facsimile Page 54] far as can now be foreseen circumstances will arise that would justify and make desirable the use of American forces for overt military action. It was clearly understood no decision was expressed or implied approving the use of such forces although contingency planning would proceed.” (314) Despite the stated assumption at the outset of the guidelines, the President clearly still had not decided whether to use U.S. military force to overthrow Castro.

On March 21, the intelligence community produced NIE 85–62, entitled “The Situation and Prospects in Cuba.” The intelligence estimate concluded, in part, that, while there was active resistance in Cuba, it was “limited, uncoordinated, unsupported, and desperate,” and that the Cuban regime, “with all the power of repression at its disposal, has shown that it can contain the present level of resistance activity.” The estimate also concluded: “The majority of the Cuban people neither support the regime nor resist it, in any active sense. They are grumbling and resentful, but apparently hopeless and passive, resigned to acceptance of the present regime as the effective government in being with which they must learn to live for lack of a feasible alternative.” (315)

The intelligence appreciation outlined in NIE 85–62 was viewed as far too negative by Lansdale and others, such as Richard Goodwin of the White House staff, who were involved in the Mongoose exercise. They saw evidence of cracks in the Castro government in Castro’s denunciation, on March 26, of Cuban Communist Party leader Anibal Escalante and other Communist “militants”. (320) They looked for opportunities to exploit the apparent divisions in Castro’s ranks. (334, 339) The intelligence available at the time of the review of Phase I of Operation Mongoose on July 25, suggested, however, that Castro was in the process of consolidating his control over Cuban society. Cuba faced a significant economic crisis, but the Soviet bloc countries were expected to carry Cuba through the crisis, and to continue to contribute to the military build-up in Cuba which was making Castro’s position increasingly secure. (349)

In his assessment of Phase I, submitted to the Special Group (Augmented) on July 25, Lansdale took issue with the intelligence appreciations and argued that there were enough able-bodied and motivated Cubans inside Cuba and [Typeset Page 46] in exile to initiate a successful revolt against Castro. But he added that they would require strong support from the United States, and he [Facsimile Page 55] expressed the concern that “time is running out for the U.S. to make a free choice on Cuba.” In Lansdale’s opinion, it was time for the United States to do more than “watch and talk”. If the anti-Castro Cubans did not receive clear leadership from the United States, Lansdale’s feeling was that “they will make other plans for the future.” Lansdale outlined four options for Phase II of Operation Mongoose: the first called for the cancellation of the operation, the second for the application of all pressures on the Castro regime short of the use of U.S. military force, and the final two contemplated the use of military force by the United States. (360)

Phase II

The Special Group (Augmented) responded to Lansdale’s suggestions by instructing him to produce an outline plan of action based upon an enhanced version of the second option, calling for all actions which could be undertaken to undermine the Castro government, short of U.S. military intervention. Lansdale was instructed, however, to try to keep the “noise level” to a minimum. (367, 378) Lansdale submitted an outline plan for Phase II to the Special Group (Augmented) on August 14. (374) In a memorandum to the President on August 17, General Taylor noted that the Special Group (Augmented) had reviewed the results of Phase I, the intelligence gathering phase of Operation Mongoose, and, while not yet satisfied with the level of intelligence achieved, the group was prepared to recommend that the President approve the operational plans outlined by Lansdale for Phase II. The operation would continue to focus on the need for additional intelligence concerning the possibility of a successful revolt against Castro. But it was judged to be time to move forward with efforts designed “to hurt the local regime as much as possible on the economic front and work further to discredit the regime locally and abroad.” The group felt that the new course of action would create added difficulties for the Castro government, and would increase the visibility of its failures, but added “there is no reason to hope that it will cause the overthrow of the regime from [Typeset Page 47] within.” With the clear understanding that Phase II would still limit Operation Mongoose to activities short of anything likely to draw the United States into active military operations against Cuba, President Kennedy on August 20 gave his approval to proceed. (380)

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Toward the Missile Crisis

By August, Operation Mongoose had taken on a new sense of urgency as evidence mounted that the Soviet Union had sharply increased military shipments to Cuba. (382, 383, 390) At an August 10 meeting of the Special Group (Augmented), CIA Director McCone expressed his concern that the Soviet Union would underwrite its investment in Cuba by installing medium-range ballistic missiles on the island. (371) On August 23, President Kennedy considered the new evidence of Soviet bloc activity in Cuba and issued a series of directives incorporated in NSAM No. 181. One of those directives stipulated that Operation Mongoose Plan B plus should be developed “with all possible speed.” In addition, the President directed that a study be made of the various alternatives which could be adopted to eliminate any installations in Cuba capable of launching a nuclear attack upon the United States. And he called for another study of the advantages and disadvantages of action to liberate Cuba by blockade or invasion “or other action beyond Mongoose B plus, in the context of an aggravated Berlin crisis.” (385, 386)

Aerial photography established on August 29 that the Soviet Union was building surface-to-air missile sites in Cuba. The introduction of surface-to-air missiles raised the stakes in Washington, where there was concern that the purpose of the anti-aircraft missiles might be to protect the subsequent introduction of ballistic missiles. (395) On August 31, McGeorge Bundy assessed for President Kennedy the increased threat that Soviet medium-range missiles would pose for the United States. (401) President Kennedy issued a warning on September 4 that the introduction of offensive weapons into Cuba, such as surface-to-surface missiles, would raise the gravest issues for the United States. (411)

In an effort to assess Soviet intentions, Theodore Sorensen, the President’s Special Counsel and close adviser, met [Typeset Page 48] with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin on September 6 for a discussion of outstanding tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Dobrynin conveyed a personal message from Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy assuring the President that “nothing will be undertaken before the American Congressional elections that could complicate the international situation or aggravate the tension in relations between our two countries.” [Facsimile Page 57] Sorensen replied that the President felt that recent Soviet actions in Cuba had already caused a significant problem, and that the Chairman’s message seemed, therefore, “hollow and tardy.” Sorensen added that the President took the Soviet military build-up in Cuba as a “deliberate and personal affront” and “could hardly be expected to take a very accommodating attitude in the months ahead.” (415)

On September 11, the Soviet Union warned that any attack by the United States on Cuba or upon Soviet ships bound for Cuba would lead to war between the United States and the Soviet Union. (422) Meanwhile, those tasked with responsibility for Operation Mongoose worked on such assigned tasks as developing post-Castro concepts, leaders, and political groups. (424, 425) At a press conference on September 13, President Kennedy dismissed speculation concerning the possibility of an imminent invasion of Cuba by U.S. forces. Military action by the United States against Cuba would be triggered, Kennedy stated, only if Cuba posed a threat to any other nation in the hemisphere, or if Cuba became an offensive military base for the Soviet Union. (429) On September 19, the intelligence community produced a Special National Intelligence Estimate on “The Military Buildup in Cuba.” (433) The estimate concluded that the Soviet military buildup was essentially defensive in nature, designed to protect Cuba against what the Cubans and the Soviets conceived to be the danger that the United States might attempt to overthrow the Castro government. It was considered unlikely that the Soviet Union would run the risk of attempting to establish a base for offensive weapons, such as medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. CIA Director McCone, who was in France on a honeymoon holiday, questioned that conclusion, and reiterated his concern that the Soviet Union was introducing ballis [Typeset Page 49] tic missiles into Cuba. (420) On September 21, President Kennedy instructed Secretary of Defense McNamara to ensure that military contingency plans with regard to Cuba were kept up-to-date, taking into account the additions to Cuban armaments resulting from the continuous influx of Soviet equipment and technicians. (434)

That same afternoon, Admiral Anderson, Commander in Chief, Atlantic, issued a directive to his command to be prepared to conduct an air and naval blockade of Cuba on command from “higher authority.” (435) Also on September 21, the first credible report of the arrival of what appeared to be Soviet [Facsimile Page 58] medium-range ballistic missiles was received in Washington. Intelligence analysts checked this report against available photography and other reports and, by September 28, developed the hypothesis that MRBM sites were under preparation in Pinar del Rio province. The Joint Staff made arrangements to brief the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on this dangerous development on Monday, October 1. (436) By the end of September 1962, therefore, it was clear that Cuba was on the verge of becoming a more difficult and dangerous problem for the Kennedy administration. It remained to be determined whether the President would respond to that emerging threat by authorizing the use of US military force to move the plans to contain, destabilize, and overthrow the Castro government beyond those envisioned and authorized under Phase II of Operation Mongoose.