The most popular analogy used to describe Fidel Castro’s turning Cuba into communism’s only bastion in the Western Hemisphere in 1959 was “cancer.” And the fear, to carry the analogy further, was that it would metastasize elsewhere in Latin America.
The CIA, therefore, decided that invasive surgery was needed and launched the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Lacking air cover, all 1,400 anti-Castro paramilitaries were killed or captured as they waded ashore. That was taken to mean that the Castro regime posed a potential military as well as a political threat to the area. It was decided that the best way to excise the malignancy was to cut it out.
A declassified top-secret memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, dated March 13, 1962 and titled “Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba,” suggested an invasion. The document made the reason for the invasion explicit: “U.S. military intervention will result from a period of heightened U.S.-Cuban tensions which place the United States in the position of suffering justifiable grievances.
“World opinion, and the United Nations forum, should be favorably affected by developing the international image of the Cuban government as rash and irresponsible, and as an alarming and unpredictable threat to the peace of the Western Hemisphere.”
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The memorandum goes on to list possible staged provocations (as Cold War jargon had it) that would justify attacking and conquering Cuba: “A series of well-coordinated incidents will be planned to take place in and around Guantánamo to give genuine appearance of being done by hostile Cuban forces.”
The U.S. Navy opened a base at Guantánamo Bay in 1903 and maintains it in spite of strong protests by the Castro regime that it violates Cuban sovereignty.
One scenario called for sending friendly Cubans in their nation’s military uniform “over the fence” to stage what appeared to be an attack on the base, while another would have had them captured as saboteurs inside the base and a third had them rioting near the main gate.
But that was tame compared to what followed: “Blow up ammunition inside the base; start fires,” the memo continued. “Burn aircraft on air base (sabotage) … Lob mortar shells from outside of base into base. Some damage to installations … Capture assault teams approaching from the sea … Capture militia group which storms the base … Sabotage ship in harbor; large fires … Sink ship near harbor entrance. Conduct funerals for mock victims …”
Blowing up a U.S. ship in a “Remember the Maine” incident was suggested, as was developing a Communist Cuban terror group in the Miami area or Washington, sinking a boatload of Cubans trying to get to Florida, using an F-86 Sabrejet fighter disguised as a MIG to harass U.S. civilian aircraft and attack ships, faking the shootdown of a chartered airliner over the Caribbean, staging an incident “which will make it appear that Communist Cuban MIGs have destroyed a USAF aircraft over international waters in an unprovoked attack,” and more.
The Cuba Project, as the plan was unofficially called, was eventually shelved, most likely because the United States did not want to appear to be the kind of aggressor it was accusing the USSR of being.
Eight months later, Soviet transport ships were spotted carrying nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Cuba that could reach Washington. The Cuban missile crisis was on. The standoff took Project Cuba off the table. In the denouement, the Soviet Union agreed to remove its IRBMs from Cuba and the United States agreed not to invade the island.
William E. Burrows, a veteran journalist, has two degrees in international relations from Columbia University.