5. Memorandum From Secretary of State Haig to President Reagan1


  • Analysis of the 1962 US–USSR Understanding on Cuba2


The US–USSR Understanding resulting from the 1962 Cuban missile crisis consists of a Soviet undertaking not to introduce “offensive weapons” into Cuba and a US pledge not to invade Cuba. The Understanding applies to nuclear weapons and to missiles, bombers, and other delivery systems capable of launching a strategic nuclear attack. In a 1970 clarification, the Soviets further agreed not to establish a naval base or military/naval facility in Cuba.3 This applies principally to the servicing in or from Cuba of submarines and surface combatants capable of carrying nuclear weapons that can be used for strategic attack and to facilities in Cuba for servicing such vessels.

The 1962 Understanding is subject to varying interpretations, because it was never formalized in a single document subscribed to by both sides. Over the years, the Soviets have persistently tested its limits. They have carried out visits to Cuba of varying duration and using varying combinations of naval task forces. They are assisting Cuba in constructing a naval facility at Cienfuegos, the specific purpose of which is unclear, and have delivered to Cuba increasingly sophisticated, but apparently non-nuclear weaponry, most recently MIG–23 aircraft. The Carter Administration conducted a vigorous round of diplomatic exchanges with the Soviets in the fall of 1979 on the issue of the MIG–23’s. The Soviets asserted that the aircraft represented [Page 13] only a modernization of earlier MIG versions, denied that they were “offensive weapons,” and reaffirmed the Soviet adherence to the 1962 Understanding.

The Brigade

In August 1979, US intelligence confirmed the existence of a 2,600–3,000 man combat unit in Cuba. Archival searches indicate that the unit, or precursor elements, have been in Cuba since the early 1970’s and possibly as far back as 1962. However, in recent years, our intelligence indicated, the Soviets had upgraded the training and equipment of the brigade.

President Carter publicly called the unit’s presence “a matter of serious concern” and said that the United States would not accept the maintenance of the “status quo” with respect to the brigade. The Administration raised the matter privately with the Soviets, who told the USG that the brigade was “a training center,” assured us that the unit would not be enlarged or given additional capabilities, and did not pose any threat to Cuba’s neighbors.

President Carter then informed the American public of these Soviet assurances, and announced five measures to firm up our posture in the region (increased surveillance of Cuba, assurance that no Soviet unit in Cuba will be used to threaten US or Hemispheric security, establishment of a Caribbean Task Force Headquarters in Key West, expanded military maneuvers in the Caribbean, and increased economic assistance for the region). The matter was then closed. The net effect was that the US has, in fact, accepted the status quo with regard to the brigade.

Assessment of the Understandings

The US–USSR Understandings do not specifically address the presence or level of Soviet ground forces in Cuba, although some unilateral statements could be cited as relevant to Soviet ground troops.

Nevertheless, we have basic reasons for putting down markers about the limits of US tolerance over Soviet/Cuban activities staged in and from Cuba. The intent of the 1962 Understanding was to prevent Cuba from becoming a threat to the security of the US—and to countries friendly to us in the Hemisphere. It is this basic intent which needs to be reasserted in light of Cuba’s military and subversive actions in recent years, and Cuba’s increasingly close military collaboration with the Soviet Union. The weakness of the Carter Administration’s policy was that the US allowed the Soviets to exploit the ambiguities in the Understandings, while not doing the same thing ourselves.

Our Options

We could unilaterally, and without reference to any specific new Soviet or Cuban activity, renounce the Understandings. Renunciation [Page 14] would certainly lay down a clear marker to the Soviets, Cubans and others, but we should weigh carefully both the advantages and disadvantages of the terms of the Understandings. Also, absent a clear Soviet or Cuban provocation, this action would give away an important element of leverage in our overall relations with the Soviets.

I recommend instead a new approach which seeks to use the Understandings to advance US interests. The basic strategy would be to insist on a strict and consistent interpretation of the Understandings, formulated and presented very clearly to the Soviets and Cubans and leaving no doubt about the US reaction to any further testing of these specific limits. Elements of this approach could include the following:

(1) A clear and firm presentation to the Soviets of the US intention, beginning immediately, to oppose any Soviet actions in Cuba which we deem inconsistent with our strict interpretation of the Understandings.

(2) An equally clear and frank presentation to the Soviets of the limits of US tolerance over the growing Cuban and Soviet military/subversive activities in this Hemisphere as well as in other regions, both within and apart from the context of the Understandings.

(3) A clear message to the Soviets that breach of the above considerations will prompt US denunciation of the Understandings and the taking of other measures.

(4) An equally clear message to the Cubans about the limits of tolerance of their adventurist activities in the Hemisphere and elsewhere.

In terms of US-Soviet relations, maintenance of the Understandings on a new basis of strict interpretation has the chief advantage of sending a clear signal that the years of unresisted Soviet probing are over; henceforth Soviet moves will incur prompt and demonstrable costs.

In terms of US-Allied/Hemispheric relations, the US would be perceived by some as once again insisting on strict and fair observance of international obligations incurred by other states, particularly on the part of our adversary, the Soviet Union. Others would see it as an effort by the new Administration to pick a fight.

In terms of US-Cuban relations, Castro would be fully aware that Cuban actions prejudicial to US security interests, in this Hemisphere and elsewhere, will no longer go unpunished.

Finally, an approach based on maintenance of the Understandings based on our strict interpretation provides us a form of leverage over and linkage to Soviet behavior elsewhere, including those strategic areas where Cubans are also acting as Soviet surrogates. In the final analysis, a Soviet/Cuban breach of (a) our strict interpretation or the Understandings and/or (b) Soviet actions elsewhere (e.g. Soviet intervention in Poland), would then permit us to move at that point toward actual denunciation of the Understandings.

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On balance, my current view is that maintaining the Understandings with strict interpretation offers at least the possibility of giving the Soviets pause before they exceed our limits and, equally, gives us a “hanging sword” countermeasure to take when and as these limits are exceeded, in the Caribbean or elsewhere. In any event, renunciation of the Understandings should not be undertaken lightly since we would have to weigh all of the consequences, including the absence of the present Understandings’ prohibition of the introduction of “offensive weapons”. This would require careful attention in order not to recreate conditions similar to those of the 1962 crisis.

In view of the importance of this matter, I would suggest that Cap Weinberger and I review the matter and all of its implications on a close-hold basis.4

  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S–I Records: Haig’s Correspondence and Meetings with Weinberger, Casey, and the President, Lot 83D288, Haig/Weinberger Meetings Jan–March 1981. Secret; Nodis.
  2. Documents on the understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union on Cuba, along with previous efforts to analyze them, are in Department of State, Office of Legal Affairs, L/PM Records: Files Related to Cuba, 1962–1984, Lot 95D349. In his memoir, Haig wrote: “I sent an options paper to the President, recommending that he lay down a marker on the question of Cuba. Reagan, despite some sentiment among his advisers to do otherwise, decided to abide strictly by the understandings on the status of Cuba reached by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis.” (Haig, Caveat, p. 98) No formal record of a Presidential decision was found.
  3. Reference is to Kissinger’s concern in October 1970 that the Soviets were constructing a submarine base in Cienfuegos and Dobrynin’s assurance that they would not. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Document 228.
  4. No record was found that Haig and Weinberger followed up on this suggestion.