219. Memorandum From William Hyland of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • The Cuban Dilemma

What the Soviets have done in Cienfuegos is so ambiguous that avoiding a severe political setback in dealing with it will be exceedingly difficult.

First of all, what is in place now cannot persuasively be described as an immediate or direct military risk for the United States. This installation could remain there for a year or more without much change. Indeed, the fact that something of this nature has been known to be in the works for almost a month is, in itself, a de facto evidence that we have not regarded the installation per se as a cause for serious challenge to the Soviets. Moreover, if Soviet ships or submarines do not use the installation in the next month or so, how can we, with much credibility, claim that it has suddenly become a serious matter. The only conceivable grounds for doing so is to claim that what appeared to be temporary now has become permanent, and is definitely under Soviet control.

The question arises: permanent for what?

As long as no Soviet warships or submarines visit Cienfuegos it can be credibly claimed by the USSR and Cuba that all that has happened is that the port of Cienfuegos has been slightly improved. Our claim that this is in fact a Soviet base area will not be very convincing; it rests on pictures of new barracks, and a soccer field, and the prior presence of Soviet naval ships which have now left. In other words, the time when it might have been legitimately described as a Soviet base may have passed. (The fact that the ships remaining are Soviet is still an important point.)

The dilemma is roughly this:

  • —Can we deny the Cubans the right to improve port facilities; can we convincingly deny the Soviets the right to make any naval visits?
  • —Thus, the installation in itself cannot be easily challenged.
  • —Only certain aspects of the installation could be challenged; namely the submarine tender and the submarine nets, which are the only physical presence that can be tied directly to the USSR and which could conceivably be associated with strategic offensive weapons.

Thus, we face the possibility that the only legitimate and persuasive grounds for challenge may be the use of the facility by certain types of vessels, rather than the facility itself.

In effect, this means we may have to swallow a de facto Soviet base, and concentrate on denying its use in any way that would contravene the 1962 understanding.

But, if this is the outcome, we must also recognize that the Soviets will have taken an important forward step, and that much of the world will regard this as a political setback for the United States.

The alternative is to decide what specific part of the installation must be removed in order to clearly demonstrate that we are not tolerating a Soviet base.

Unfortunately, this virtually means making a crisis over three barges and one submarine tender. Thus, to be convincing we are going to have to complete a history of Soviet activities that demonstrate an expanding Soviet military presence in Cuba, of which Cienfuegos is the last straw.

Cienfuegos will have to be challenged along with flight of strategic aircraft, the guided missile ships, the Castro speeches, and the Y-Class submarines patrolling in the Atlantic. If we go this route we should recognize that we are shifting the conflict from a strict interpretation of the 1962 understanding to a larger issue of the Soviet presence, and not focussing on Cienfuegos alone. This, of course, is not necessarily a definition of the conflict that is easy to sustain, but it may be the only persuasive political ground from which to attack the rather rudimentary facilities that currently exist in Cuba.

In short, we can choose between making the issue Cienfuegos only, and restricting its usage, or on the Soviet naval presence implied by Cienfuegos.

  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; Eyes Only. Sent for information and designated “non-log.”