Picture this: you are the leader of the free world, elected to office last year and things are looking promising. However, there is one fly in your capitalist ointment: Cuba.
This was the situation John F Kennedy faced in 1962. Elected by the thinnest of margins but riding a wave of photogenic popularity, the major foreign policy concern of his first year was the strengthening ties between Castro’s communist regime 100 miles from Florida, and the other great superpower of this age: the USSR.
This was a serious problem. The Soviets, increasingly bellicose over the last decade, had seized on this opportunity to establish a presence so close to the United States mainland. A communist Cuba was a destabilizing influence for world peace, and Kennedy clearly thought something had to be done.
But a direct attack on Cuba would risk destabilizing the situation further, and Kennedy risked both domestic and Western censure, and retaliation from the unpredictable and powerful Soviet forces, if he chose to invade Cuba directly. He needed the US to appear as the wronged party. He needed a casus belli.
They Started It!
Castro, having seized power only three years earlier in 1959, was still an unknown quantity on the world stage. The US Military, seizing on this unpredictability, came up with a simple concept: to attack Cuba, they needed to make it seem that Cuba had attacked them first.
And so, the top military leaders of America and the CIA drafted plans to stage and carry out acts of terrorism against the citizens of the United States of America. By killing innocent people and blaming Cuba they hoped the world would support a “retaliatory” strike. Operation Northwoods was born.
The plan consisted of several proposals. First, the US would target Cuban émigrés and even sink the boats of Cuban refugees travelling to Florida, in the hope that this would provoke a real Cuban response.
Further, various false flag operations were suggested by the military advisors. Plans were floated to hijack US planes and even blow up a US ship, to gain public sympathy and support when the attacks were blamed on Cuba.
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Plans were made to create the impression of a violent, Cuban-funded terrorist campaign in the mainland United States, involving real or simulated attacks on both civilian and military targets. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff even suggested a US attack on their own base in Cuba, at Guantanamo Bay.
In the face of such destructive attacks, apparently by a new and unstable communist regime, the US would appear as the injured party. The world would see a US invasion of Cuba as a justified retaliatory strike against a terrorist state.
The Dangers of Cuba
These suggestions seem extreme, if not completely unhinged, but it was important to remember the situation the US faced at that time. In 1962 the Cold War and the deadly nuclear arms race was at its height, and many in the US felt they were falling behind the Soviets.
Castro’s Cuba was seen as a knock-out blow against the US, a position from which the Soviets could attack the US with impunity: Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, now held all the cards. Against such a threat, all options were considered.
And the US had already attempted to remove Castro through other means. The year before in 1961, America had funded a landing operation by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s southern shore, hoping to remove Castro and topple his communist regime. They had failed spectacularly and invited censure against the US from across the globe.
Other suggestions were floated at this time to destabilize Castro. From assassinating him with an exploding cigar, to blaming failures of the US space program on Cuban sabotage, a wide variety of approaches were considered.
The Path Not Taken
Operation Northwoods was therefore considered the lesser of two evils, and justified in that killing some US citizens would save many more. Thankfully, this proposal was never officially given the green light and no such terrorist attacks were undertaken.
In any case, events were about to overtake the Kennedy administration. The situation came to a head with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, where the Soviet introduction of ballistic nuclear missiles into Cuba created a direct threat to the US mainland.
The crisis was ultimately resolved peacefully and the threat from Cuba seemed to have been contained. The war in Vietnam also drew increasing US focus. And Kennedy himself was assassinated a year later, in November 1963.
Much of the documentation related to the Kennedy assassination remained sealed until 1997. When these confidential files were finally released to the public, information on Operation Northwoods was released as well.
It was clear from the documents that this was not some outlier plan from a think-tank. Operation Northwoods had come with the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of the Staff to the Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara. Had the plans been approved, the US would have directly targeted its own citizens to justify war.
The Proposed Attack on Guantanamo
The document released discussed the execution of an attack upon the US military base at Guantanamo. The US planned to sink their own ship near the harbor entrance, and then conduct funerals for the mock victims.
Further plans revolved around publicizing the explosion and sinking of the USS Maine, which had led to the Spanish-American War in 1898. The idea was to list the casualties in the newspapers, which would trigger anti-Cuban sentiment in the American public.
A US military jet was to be retrofitted to appear like a Cuban Mig, with its tail numbers and paintwork disguised. The “Mig” would then target US aircraft and surface ships of the US Military.
T was also proposed that US fighter planes would radio in that they were being attacked by Cuban aircraft before being “destroyed”: a US submarine would then release jet parts and a parachute into the water to make it appear that it went down at sea.
But the final part of Operation Northwoods was the most insidious: the creation of a fake terror campaign in the US mainland. Cuban refugee boats would be sunk, and then bombs would be detonated in public areas apparently as a Cuban response.
It was hoped that nobody would be hurt in the explosions, but the public were not warned and the risk that people might be killed was very real.
An Act of Desperation
Operation Northwoods was a monstrous plan, and it can only be speculated what was in the minds of the people who conceived of it. It is also a telling indication of the pressures the US leadership felt facing off against the Soviet threat.
US foreign interference, from Vietnam through CIA-sponsored coups in central and southern America, right up to Afghanistan in the 21st century, has always invited questions of ethics. But, in 1962, it was clear the US would consider almost any tactic to win the Cold War against the USSR.
Hopefully, the US government never considered such an action again.
By Bipin Dimri