213. Memorandum Prepared for the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1>


  • Cuba—The Problems of Soviet Intentions

While there are some fairly clear strategic advantages for the Soviets in a permanent naval base in Cuba, the incremental value to the Soviet strategic posture seems, at first glance, not to be worth much in the way of risks to Cuba, or in the complications in relation with the U.S. Thus, several questions are raised:

Why, at this time, do the Soviets embark 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?

Three possible explanations can be advanced:


It could be that this move in Cuba is simply a self-liquidating project to show the flag, fulfill a requested gesture to Castro, and having done that, will be moved out; in other words, there are no longer-term implications or consequences involved.

  • —There has been a new warming trend in Cuban-Soviet relations; Castro has publicly welcomed a closer military relationship; his brother visited the USSR and talked with Marshal Grechko.
  • —Thus, the Cubans for some reasons, may have asked for a more demonstrative show of support from the Soviets (even in 1962 the Soviets probably gave some credence to Cuban warnings of imminent invasion).
  • —Under this reasoning, the diplomatic approach to the US was probably an afterthought, simply reinsurance to make sure that the 1962 noninvasion pledge still obtained; this would then be conveyed to Castro.

[Page 645]

The main problem with this interpretation is that the actions of establishing a semi-permanent facility seem to go well beyond showing the flag. No Soviet leader in his right mind could imagine that such a move could be passed over by an American administration. If this explanation is implausible, then we probably must assume that the Soviets are well aware of the crisis potential of their actions. They could thus be aiming for (1) a deliberate provocation designed intentionally to create a second Cuban confrontation; or (2) a move not designed to become an issue of confrontation as such, but part of a longer-term pattern of Soviet expansionist policy, of which this is one important—but not decisive test.


Deliberate Crisis Mongering

It is possible that the Soviets, while Raul was in Moscow, looked ahead and saw the Middle East rapidly 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 US, 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 US might be under some internal constraints.
  • —They sought to lie as in 1962 and create an “understanding” from the record beforehand, to be later 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. Such a line of actions cannot be easily dismissed as totally implausible. 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.

Yet, from what we know of the character of the present Soviet leadership, they seem to behave with a strong element of pragmatism and prudence rather than adventurism. A double crisis has always been intriguing theory but 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.

But above all, Cuba would seem the last place the Soviets would want to invoke a Middle-East crisis. Cuba is, after all, still an area where we have immense tactical advantages.2


Cuba and Soviet Expansionism

This interpretation relates to the pattern of 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.

  • —The primary purpose of the Cuban move is not to create another roaring crisis, but to establish, step-by-step the Soviet right to establish a naval (not necessarily strategic) 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).
  • —Under this theory, the Soviets actions are, in the first instance 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.
  • —This interpretation, however, would leave room for tactical retreats when the Soviets judge that the temperature is rising above that of tolerable level.
  • —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.3
  • —The Soviets may have concluded that our eagerness for a Middle East cease-fire after their involvement expanded was an indication of our fear of confrontation.
  • —As for the risks of a new Cuban crisis, the Soviets have left themselves the out of returning the equipment to the USSR, leaving some of it behind, but withdrawing the vessels, or negotiating for a new basic understanding (and if not challenged taking another step later, when submarines go on station).

It is difficult to argue against such possible Soviet thinking. Their ability to expand the nature and scope of activities in Cuba must have tempted them for a long time. In the last six months they could have concluded they could move forward without major risks as long as they did it piecemeal. Since the strategic increment is not a major one, and against a background of SALT beginning in about a month, a new European détente blossoming, and worldwide preoccupation with the Middle East—all would be factors conspiring against a major US reaction to the establishment of facilities that could be defended as minimal and temporary, of no immediate threat to the US.

In short, the Soviets may have embarked on a calculated risk to test whether they can break out of the spirit of the 1962 restrictions on [Page 647] their actions. They tested the waters and decided that we would not make a major issue of their moves. And in the process, as the news leaks out, the Soviets could demonstrate to much of the world that the correlation of forces has shifted significantly since the black days of their defeat almost exactly eight years ago.

What To Do?

If the first and third explanations are close to the mark, it means we are dealing, not with a major strategic-political showdown of worldwide proportions, but with a limited challenge supported by some rational Soviet calculations (however wrong that calculation may be). The important aspect is that such a line of strategy includes, presumably, built-in lines of retreat. Once confronted with an appreciation of the limits of their actions, the Soviets can fall back on a diplomatic scenario, perhaps to renegotiate the terms of the 1962 understanding, and determine just what they can and cannot do. (A new “guarantee” for Cuba might be all they could salvage.)

If, however, the second explanation is correct, then we are confronted with a line of conduct based on entirely different and perhaps irrational calculations. If the Soviets want a deliberate crisis, they will disregard diplomacy and reinforce their own actions (more building, submarines, etc.) Such a strategy is so unpredictable that no countermoves can be prescribed to have any given effect. If we are facing this situation, however, it would be of the utmost urgency to determine it now.

My own view is that the third explanation, a test of expansionism, is probably the right one, and if faced with the consequences of their actions the Soviets will bristle and bargain but will, if permitted to do so quietly, withdraw from the Carribbean.

One Final Thought

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, it is never easy to understand. It could relate to excessive eagerness in SALT or perhaps their view of the domestic effects of Vietnam, or their distorted views of our social-economic “crisis” (e.g., the Arbatov article).4

In any case, it is reasonably clear that 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. Then, and only then, will they hedge their bets.

  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. Secret; Sensitive. This memorandum is Tab B of a September 22 memorandum from Haig to Kissinger in preparation for the NSC meeting on Cuba held on September 23. A notation by Haig states that Hyland drafted it. Designated as “non log.”
  2. It is not inconceivable that the Cuban venture is related to Chile. For example, the Soviets, if challenged, might try to extend the 1962 non-invasion pledge to include nonintervention in Chile, if in return the Soviets abjured any permanent naval facilities in the Caribbean. [Footnote in the source text.]
  3. The Soviets will now argue (1) that the precedence for their naval activity was established in the last two visits, without U.S. protest, and (2) that the basic 1962 understanding was reconfirmed in the knowledge that this precedent has been established. Thus, their latest move has been sanctioned. [Footnote in the source text.]
  4. This paragraph was highlighted and checked.