212. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Soviet Naval Facility in Cuba

I. The Current Situation


The Soviet Facilities

Photographic intelligence indicates the USSR is constructing a naval support base, apparently for submarines, in Cienfuegos Bay, Cuba. Definite identification of this activity was first made from U–2 photography [less than 1 line of source text not declassified].2

The facilities at present consist of a Soviet submarine tender moored to four heavy buoys in the bay. Two Soviet submarine support barges, a landing ship, a heavy salvage vessel, and a rescue vessel are in the harbor. Other ships that had been there—a tanker and two missile anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships—have departed. Construction on Cayo Alcatraz, an island in the bay, consists of two single story barracks, sports area (soccer field, basketball and tennis courts), an offshore wharf and a swimming area. Three AAA sites and a communications antenna array are also in the harbor area.

None of this construction or naval activity was in the area on [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] the last prior date on which U–2 photography of the bay was available. All of this was thus accomplished in the intervening four-week period, suggesting that it was done on a crash basis.

The installation is similar to what we have in Holy Loch, and is of semi-permanent nature. It would appear at this point to have the capability of servicing submarines, including nuclear subs, and of providing rest and recreation facilities for naval crews as well as permanent support personnel. No other naval support capabilities are evident at this point.


The Background

Circumstantially, this construction appears to be part of a series of events involving Soviet-Cuban military relations which have stretched over the last year:

  • —In July 1969 a Soviet naval group, including a nuclear submarine, visited Cuba for two weeks.
  • —The Soviet Minister of Defense visited Cuba for eight days from November 12–19, 1969, the first visit by a Soviet Defense Minister to the Western Hemisphere.
  • —Raul Castro, the Cuban Minister of the Armed Forces, visited the USSR for one month from April 4 to approximately May 13.
  • —On April 22 and again on August 23 Castro made public remarks welcoming close military ties with the Soviets.
  • —Three flights of Two TU–95 Bear surveillance/reconnaissance aircraft were made to Cuba on April 18, April 25 and May 13.
  • —A Soviet naval task force paid a two-week visit May 14 to Cienfuegos. Two units called at Havana subsequently for a ceremonial visit.
  • —On August 4, in a note for you, the Soviets complained of new exile activities and asked if the 1962 understanding was valid; we replied that it was.
  • —The current ships now in Cienfuegos were first noticed moving to that area on August 28.

II. Military Significance

There is a wide spectrum of views regarding the military significance of this development. The JCS believe that the military impact would be significant equating, in the case of submarines, because of increased on-station time, to approximately one-third of the size of the Soviet Ballistic Missile Submarine (SLBM) force. Additional advantages they cite include:

  • —The establishment of SLBM patrol stations in the Gulf of Mexico;
  • —The option of keeping all missile submarines (SSBN) in port at Cienfuegos and either launch from port or deploy rapidly as the situation dictates;
  • —The lessening of personnel hardship and the concommitant increase of SSBN crew effectiveness by significantly decreasing at-sea time.

The JCS further believe that this action fits into an overall Soviet pattern which indicates increasing Soviet hostility toward the U.S. and a willingness to take greater risks in pursuing their objectives. In support of this contention they note, among other Soviet actions, the following:

  • —the continued construction of strategic missiles and SSBNs during SALT;
  • —dramatic increases in Soviet naval forces and operations in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean;
  • —virtual Soviet control of UAR on defense and the challenge to the U.S. peace initiative by violation of the standstill provision with a massive buildup of missiles along the Suez Canal;
  • —the Soviet fleet visits and flights of TU–95/Bear D reconnaissance aircraft to Cuba; and
  • —improvements in Soviet military capabilities across-the-board while ostensibly cooperating in a number of diplomatic moves.

I share the JCS’s concern with Soviet intentions. I also share their concern over the increasing Soviet military capabilities vis-à-vis the U.S. and this is a matter which we are carefully analyzing. However, I believe the development of the port of Cienfuegos into a base capable of supporting nuclear submarines would add only marginally to the total Soviet capability for attacking the U.S. with nuclear weapons. The fact of the matter is that there are always some Soviet subs off our East Coast with the capability to launch missiles against most targets in the U.S. If they want, the Soviets can increase this number at any time by simply increasing their force levels. Having a base at Cienfuegos makes it easier to achieve such an objective but at considerably higher risks considering past U.S. reactions to Soviet military activities in Cuba. Unlike 1962, the Soviets have a massive land base missile capability which continues to grow.

If my view that the increase in military capabilities of the Cienfuegos base would be only marginal is correct, then the Soviet action becomes even more puzzling. Why run such high risks for such low returns in increased military capability? This strongly suggests that this Soviet move is perhaps more politically-motivated than militarily.

III. Soviet Intentions

There are several basic questions:

  • —Why, at this time, have the Soviets embarked on a venture that they should know has a low flashpoint in terms of American sensitivity?
  • —Why, beforehand, did the Soviets seek to reaffirm the 1962 post missile crisis understanding on the flimsy pretext of the threat to Cuba?
  • —Having reaffirmed the essentials of the 1962 understanding, why did the Soviets almost immediately proceed to violate the spirit if not the precise letter of that understanding?
  • —Finally, how does the move into Cuba relate, if at all, to the larger posture of Soviet behavior, especially in the Middle East?

There are several possible explanations:


It could be that this move in Cuba is simply to show the flag, perhaps to impress Latin America generally; having done that, the venture will be terminated; in other words, there would be no longer-term implications or consequences intended.

The main problem with this interpretation is that establishing a semipermanent facility goes well beyond showing the flag. No Soviet leader could imagine that such a move could be passed over by an American administration.


It could be a move in the SALT context, to establish a presence to be bargained away for the removal of U.S. forward bases which the Soviets have pressed for in SALT.

The problem with this argument is that the prospective SALT agreement currently on the table is one that, in itself, is quite attractive to the USSR. To raise the sensitive issues of Cuba risks upsetting SALT; at a minimum, it would establish a far more belligerent atmosphere for negotiations. If the Soviets did accept a trade-off in the end, it would once again demonstrate to Castro and Latin Americans generally, that the Soviets exploited Cuba for their own strategic purposes.

A deliberate confrontation. If the above two explanations are implausible, we must assume that the Soviets are well aware of the crisis potential of their action. It is possible that the Soviets some time ago looked ahead and saw the Middle East escalating to a dangerous point. They could have reasoned that it was to their strategic advantage to widen the arena of potential conflict with the U.S., in part to put pressures on us from at least two points.
  • —They could foresee that these two crises would come to a head in a pre-election period, when the U.S. might be under some internal constraints.
  • —They lied to us as in 1962 to create an “understanding” for the record beforehand, later to be used against us in some distorted fashion.
  • —In this scenario, the Soviets, typically, have not thought through their tactics of a double crisis, but in their arrogance, will brazen it through.
  • —It could be argued that for some years, now, as their strategic power has grown, the Soviet leaders have wanted to even the score from the humiliation of 1962.

A double crisis of this magnitude, however, has always been an intriguing theory but a dangerous strategy. No one can foresee the consequences of inter-actions between two areas of contention. There is not only the danger of uncalculated escalation but the significant risk of a double defeat.

Moreover, Cuba would seem the last place the Soviets would want to invoke in a Middle East crisis. Cuba is, after all, still an area where we have immense tactical advantage.


Soviet expansionism. This interpretation fits the Cuba move into the pattern of the projection of Soviet power to various points around the globe, and expansionism symbolized primarily by a naval presence. Under this theory the Soviets have been in the process of testing us for a reaction, and having estimated that we were relatively complacent, have decided to take a further step, following their earlier naval visits to Cuba and flights of bomber-reconnaissance aircraft. [Page 640]

  • —The primary purpose of the Cuban move is not to create another confrontation, but to establish step-by-step the Soviet right to establish a naval presence in the area, much as they have done in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf (not to mention the now-regular on-station patrolling of Y Class submarines within range of the East Coast).
  • —The Soviet actions are demonstrative and political for their own, not Cuban objectives, to show that the balance of power is now such that we can no longer effectively block Soviet power even in our own sphere of influence.
  • —The Soviets may have reasoned that it would be prudent to reaffirm the basic 1962 understanding, as a test of the limit of our permissiveness.
  • —The Soviets may have concluded that the Middle East crisis inhibited any forceful U.S. reaction, especially in a pre-election period.
  • —In this interpretation, however, there is room for tactical retreats when the Soviets judge that the temperature is rising above that of tolerable level.

My own view is that this explanation, a test of expansionism, is probably the right one. In the last six months the Soviets could have concluded they could move forward without major risks as long as they did it piecemeal. If they are successful, however, as the news leaks out, the Soviets can demonstrate to much of the world that the correlation of forces has shifted significantly since their defeat in Cuba almost exactly eight years ago. In short, this is a calculated but highly significant political challenge.

The fact that on two separate occasions the Soviets have deliberately deceived us may be an important symptom of the mood of the Soviet leaders, and an index of their assessment of us. It suggests an ominous contempt and a judgment that we are not likely to react quickly or vigorously to Soviet challenges. Why they should hold such a view, if they do, is never easy to understand. It could relate to what they may perceive as our excessive eagerness in SALT and MBFR or perhaps their view of the domestic effects of Vietnam, or their distorted views of our social-economic “crisis.”

In any case, the Soviets have been moving aggressively, first in the Middle East, and now in Cuba. They are likely to continue to do so until they receive clear and unmistakable warning signals.

IV. The Cuban Angle

Why did Cuba agree to lend its territory for this purpose? What does Castro get out of it?

Conceivably Castro may have asked for such a facility to obtain a more demonstrative show of support, or the base decision could have been the result of mutual initiative based on mutually perceived advantages. However, a more plausible thesis is that this was a Soviet initiative. The Soviets clearly have the leverage to obtain Cuban cooperation—either by blackmail in threatening to stop essential economic [Page 641] support or by bribes in the form of more economic and military aid. This would explain a number of otherwise puzzling reports we have received over the past year or so. For example, there have been increasing reports of Soviet attempts to increase their control and influence within the Cuban regime. There have been reports of Castro’s uneasiness at this, and of his alleged comments about Soviet “coldbloodedness and ruthlessness.” Failure of Castro’s highly touted effort to harvest ten million tons of sugar is a heavy blow which damaged his charisma and control. The Soviets could well have felt that they could pressure him without being as concerned about his sensitivity as they have been in the past. In any event, they appear to have more influence and authority in Cuba now than at any time in recent years.

Whatever the case, the Cubans do receive—in return for use of their territory—Soviet military presence with its implicit promise of Soviet support and protection. They could conceivably use an expanded Soviet naval presence in the area to cover their clandestine subversive movements. They presumably have received expanded economic and military aid.

V. Meaning in Latin America

Existence of a Soviet base and Soviet naval power in the Caribbean is likely to be seen by Latin America as a sign of U.S. weakness, especially if seen in conjunction with the recent Chilean elections.3 It would strengthen Soviet efforts to increase their influence in the region. It would encourage indigenous radical left elements while discouraging their opponents. It may tempt many of these American nations to become neutral vis-à-vis U.S. or to turn to the Soviets to hedge their bets.

VI. The View of the World

Most of our allies have little taste for a major confrontation with the USSR, especially in an area quite remote from Europe, and over a situation that they may not perceive as a serious strategic threat. We could expect, as in 1962, little support and considerable advice to restrain our responses. In the longer term, however, the Europeans and our other Allies could conclude that Soviet success in Cuba was an important index of the balance of power. They would assess a Soviet base as clear evidence of the decline in our power and will. Much of the world, contrasting the result with that of 1962, would see it the same way.

The main Europeans have a vested interest in the beginnings of détente. At the same time, the Soviets also have a vested interest in the new German treaty and may also be inhibited from a deliberate confrontation with us.

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VII. Options

If as I have suggested this is a serious political challenge, then we have no choice but to respond. In my view, our major options are:

Pursue a purely diplomatic effort to get the Soviets out. We would tell them that we know of their activity and remind them of our 1962 understandings which we expect them to respect and wait for their reply.
  • —The advantages of this course are that the chance of immediate confrontation is minimized and we might be able to strike a bargain which would get them to leave, thus solving the immediate problem. If this strategy succeeds and the Russians leave in response to an offset to which we agree, Castro may even see himself as a pawn in the USSR game and be less likely to play in the future.
  • —The disadvantages are that if we bargain to get their withdrawal the Soviets may see this kind of action as an easy route to follow for other concessions they want in the future. If they are testing us they may be willing to bargain yet engage in prolonged bargaining. Moreover, our low-key reaction may prompt them to go ahead on this project and even to make further waves in the Hemisphere or elsewhere. With the passage of time during our talks, we may end up facing Soviet submarines and weapons in Cuba—a result similar to that in 1962.
Pursue a diplomatic course with Castro. We would tell him that we cannot permit this kind of Soviet base in Cuba and that we expect him to get it out.
  • —The advantages would be similar to those above but would include also the avoidance of the need to strike a bargain with the Russians and delay further the time of confrontation. If Castro believes we are serious he may be more willing to concede than the Russians. It is Russian interests which are primarily at stake.
  • —The disadvantages are that we might have to strike some bargain with Castro which would be no less easy for us than striking one with the Soviets. Moreover, if the Soviets induced or pressured Castro into standing firm, the chances of a fait accompli would be great and we would face it without yet having made our position clear to the Soviets. They could take our delay in approaching them as a sign that we are unwilling to push them hard.
Move decisively diplomatically, making clear at the outset we are prepared to move to confrontation. We would tell the Russians directly and at a high level that we consider their action intolerable, that we expect them to remove the facility without delay and that we expect a prompt reply. If a satisfactory reply is not forthcoming we consider the entire 1962 understanding invalid. As a follow-up, we could call off SALT and go to the OAS—as we did in 1962—either before or simultaneously with our approach to the Soviets. Some military steps—e.g., increased surveillance, sea patrols off shore, deployment of additional tactical air to the Southeast U.S.—would signal our resolve and willingness to move to confrontation. [Page 643]
  • —The advantages of this course are that our resolve would be clear to the Soviets from the outset, but they could still move out without losing face (if we had not gone to the OAS). We would have made clear that we would not bargain for their withdrawal.
  • —The disadvantages are that if they are testing us, they may still not believe our determination short of an ultimatum. We will have taken more time and will still have to confront them. If they really want a base, as if they are seeking some concession from us, they may be willing to sacrifice SALT and accept confrontation as a means of getting a concession for withdrawal. If we went to the OAS and were unsuccessful in getting Soviet withdrawal we would be losing twice.
Confront the Soviets immediately. We would give them an ultimatum and take immediate military measures to emphasize our intention to prevent their use or retention of the facility. If they did not respond we would publicly demand their withdrawal and within a short time, if they did not do so, take military action against the base.
  • —The advantages of this course of action are that our intentions would be unambiguous and the consequences clear to the Soviets from the outset. It would minimize the likelihood that the base would become operational and heavily defended. It would be easier for the Soviets to withdraw now when their investment is relatively small than it might be later with a more developed facility.
  • —The disadvantages are that a crisis could be precipitated early during a period when our forces are heavily oriented toward the Middle East. A public ultimatum gives the Soviets no graceful way out and we will have played our last card and foreclosed other options.

In my view the slow diplomatic approach has serious risks. It may seem safer but most likely it would result in a gradually escalating crisis leading ultimately to confrontation. At the same time, moving immediately to military confrontation may be needlessly risky until we have probed to see what the Soviets intentions really are. But whatever our initial course, we must be prepared to move toward confrontation if this is the price of Soviet withdrawal.

I recommend that you hear out all of the views on this subject but that you do not make a decision at today’s meeting.4

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 782, Country Files, Latin America, Cuba, Soviet Naval Activity in Cuban Waters (Cienfuegos), Vol. I. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Designated “non log.” Not initialed by Kissinger. There is no indication it was sent to the President.
  2. The Soviet naval activity was summarized in a CIA intelligence memorandum, which Helms sent to Kissinger on September 21 with the note, “Henry, the essential points here will be included in my NSC briefing Wednesday [September 23] morning.” (Ibid.) See Document 215.
  3. On September 4, Salvador Allende Gossens was elected President of Chile.
  4. The National Security Council met on September 22 to discuss the situation in Jordan. Nixon made limited references to Cuba. According to minutes of the meeting, “He remarked that perhaps what was needed was an additional facility in both [Greece and Turkey], not for the purpose of waging war but to underline our determination to maintain a U.S. presence and to strengthen our credibility with respect to the Soviets, especially in light of Soviet actions in Cuba.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–109, NSC Minutes, Originals, 1970)