Cuban People Thwarted U.S. Invasion Plan In October 1962 `Missile Crisis.' Domestic political cost of enormous U.S. casualties stayed Kennedy's hand
By Steve Clark, the Militant, Vol. 61, no. 44, 15 December 1997
On Saturday morning, Oct. 20, 1962, U.S. president John Kennedy was at the Sheraton Blackstone hotel in Chicago with a full schedule of campaign events ahead of him on behalf of Democratic Party candidates in the November midterm elections. Kennedy's press secretary Pierre Salinger called an impromptu press conference to announce that the president had an upper respiratory infection and fever. "The bulk of the activities were outdoors," Salinger told reporters. "And it was the feeling of [Kennedy's doctor] that it would be better to cancel his schedule and return to Washington."
Many at the time, including reporters for the big business dailies and TV, were dubious at best that a common cold would stop Kennedy from campaigning in the home base of Mayor Richard Daley's Democratic Party machine. An expanded majority in Congress in November would boost Kennedy's own chances for reelection two years later. What's more, the president owed one to Daley, who was widely believed to have stolen the White House for Kennedy in 1960 by stuffing ballot boxes in Illinois's Cook County.
The `October Crisis' begins
Those who doubted Salinger's story were correct. Four days earlier, Kennedy had been informed that U.S. government spy flights over Cuba had photographed Soviet-supplied nuclear missiles on the island. The Democratic administration had decided to go ahead with scheduled campaign visits that week while preparing its own next moves, but by the weekend Kennedy called off all further trips.
The proposal to deploy the missiles in Cuba had been made by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to the Cuban government earlier that year. In a 1992 interview with NBC news personality Maria Shriver, President Fidel Castro explained that at the time the leadership of the new revolutionary government in Cuba considered it "an unavoidable duty" of international solidarity to accept the missiles, in face of U.S. nuclear bases in Turkey and elsewhere ringing the USSR. Castro said he and other Cuban leaders argued with Khrushchev that deployment should be preceded by a public announcement of the agreement but ultimately signed the mutual defense treaty when Moscow officials flatly refused to budge from their insistence on secrecy.
"We were not too pleased with the missiles actually," Castro said in another 1992 interview for a PBS television documentary. "If it had been a matter only of our own defense, we would not have accepted the emplacement of the missiles here. But don't think that this was because we were afraid of the dangers entailed with the emplacement of the missiles here, but rather because this would damage the image of the revolution throughout the rest of Latin America, and the presence of the missiles would in fact turn us into a Soviet military base and that had a high political cost."
Escalating U.S. invasion plans
The installation of the missile defense system in Cuba in 1962 occurred at a time when the Kennedy administration was not only tightening its brutal economic embargo against Cuba, but was also demonstrably preparing for an air and land war aimed at doing the job the Bay of Pigs invasion had miserably failed at the previous year. On April 17, 1961, 1,500 Cuban-born mercenaries invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast. The action, organized by Washington, aimed to establish a "provisional government" to appeal for direct U.S. intervention. The invaders, however, were defeated within 72 hours by Cuba's militia and its Revolutionary Armed Forces. On April 19 the last invaders surrendered at Playa Giro'n (Giro'n Beach), which is the name Cubans use for the battle.
In November 1961 President Kennedy put his brother Robert Kennedy, who was also U.S. attorney general, directly in charge of a new covert action program code named Operation Mongoose with the goal of crushing the socialist revolution in Cuba. In March 1962 Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drafted guidelines for Mongoose that were presented to the White House. Taylor wrote:
Operation Mongoose will be developed on the following assumptions: a. In undertaking to cause the overthrow of the target government, the U.S. will make maximum use of indigenous [Cuban] resources, internal and external, but recognizes that final success will require decisive U.S. military intervention. b. Such indigenous resources as are developed will be used to prepare for and justify this intervention and thereafter to facilitate and support it.
As top administration officials began meeting October 16 to map a response to the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba, the opportunity for a pretext to launch the long-sought air assault and invasion was high in the priorities of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and others. In a nationally televised speech on Monday evening, October 22, the U.S. president announced Washington's provocative initial step of imposing a naval blockade around Cuba-euphemistically dubbed a "quarantine." Troops on U.S. warships would use all necessary force to stop, board, and inspect any vessel en route to the island, Kennedy said, and would turn back ships if "offensive weapons" were found. The blockade would continue, he threatened, until "all offensive weapons" in Cuba were dismantled and returned to the Soviet Union, "under the supervision of UN observers."
Kennedy continued pressing plans for an invasion over the next few days. Several hours before the October 22 speech, the U.S. president told British ambassador David Ormsby-Gore that he doubted his administration would ever again have as good an excuse to invade Cuba. By the weekend, however, both John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy had decisively shifted course.
What had happened to change their plans?
Staggering U.S. casualties
The answer to that question, known in its essentials by many ever since the conclusion of the October Crisis, has been confirmed with additional facts in recent years, as previously classified U.S. government tapes and documents have been released eyedropper-style by Washington. Several days into the October 1962 crisis - as Cuban workers and farmers and their communist leadership mobilized in the millions to defend the revolution - Kennedy became convinced that an invasion would result in staggering U.S. casualties that would end up in a domestic political disaster for the administration. Pentagon advisers estimated some 18,500 casualties during the first 10 days of fighting - more than were to be inflicted on U.S. forces in Vietnam between 1961 and 1966.
Since the beginning of 1997, substantially more information has been declassified or released that, taken together with material previously available, helps fill out the picture of the shift in Kennedy administration policy in October 1962. These include transcripts of tapes secretly made by Kennedy of meetings of the National Security Council; of its executive committee (ExComm), hand picked by Kennedy in the opening days of the crisis; and of numerous informal meetings and consultations. The most complete collection of these transcripts was published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997, this year under the title The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. Excerpts from these transcripts, plus other previously classified documents, were also released last year by the U.S. State Department under the title, Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-63, Volume XI, published by the U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.
As the midterm elections approached in the fall of that year, Kennedy was still on the defensive against Republican Party critics in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs defeat. Republicans in Congress were charging that the Democratic administration was blind to a Soviet military buildup in Cuba. And Kennedy himself was impatient that Operation Mongoose had yet to result in a single successful operation that he could play up politically.
`How long would it take?'
On Tuesday morning, October 16, when Kennedy first learned of the missiles in Cuba, he pulled together a meeting of top administration and Pentagon officials. "How long does it take to get in a position where we can invade Cuba?" Kennedy asked Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense. McNamara said it would take at least seven days, preceded by heavy air strikes. That would allow time to put together a force of some 90,000 troops for the invasion.
"Do you think 90,000 is enough?" Kennedy asked.
"At least it's enough to start the thing going," Gen. Maxwell Taylor replied.
A few moments later Robert Kennedy broke in. "How long? Excuse me. I just wondered how long it would take, if you took it and had an invasion."
"To mount an invasion?" Taylor asked.
"No. How long would it take to take over the island?" Robert Kennedy replied.
Taylor estimated that "in 5 or 6 days the main resistance ought to be overcome." McNamara added: "Five or seven days of air, plus 5 days of invasion, plus -"
John Kennedy interrupted: "I wonder if CIA could give us what state... Yeah, so we get some idea about our reception there."
Later that day, when the meeting reconvened, the U.S. president insisted that the political evolution in Cuba over the previous year, "shows the Bay of Pigs was really right."
At the same time, John Kennedy and his brother Robert cautiously probed the likely domestic political consequences of an invasion of Cuba for the Democratic administration. Between the morning and late afternoon White House meetings October 16, Robert Kennedy called together a meeting in his office of Pentagon and CIA officials responsible for Operation Mongoose. A memorandum on the meeting, prepared by deputy CIA director Richard Helms - later the agency's director under Lyndon Johnson - is reprinted in the new State Department collection. Helms notes that Kennedy "asked some questions about the percentage of Cubans whom we thought would fight for the regime if the country were invaded."
Over the next several days, administration officials met virtually nonstop. Kennedy fulfilled a scheduled campaign commitment in Connecticut on Wednesday, and then the Ohio and Illinois campaign trip on Friday. By late in the week consensus was building for a naval blockade as Washington's opening salvo. At a White House meeting on Thursday, October 18, however, Robert Kennedy threw cold water on the suggestion by a State Department official that the blockade itself might bring down the Cuban government.
"Has a blockade ever brought anybody down?" the attorney general interjected.
Meeting with congressional leaders
Late in the afternoon Monday, October 22, just two hours before his televised 7:00 p.m. speech, Kennedy convened a White House meeting of 20 members of the bipartisan leadership of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. This was the first time he had taken the crisis beyond a narrow circle in his administration and top Pentagon brass. The majority expressed no disagreement with the course Kennedy told them he would present that evening. But Democratic Senators William Fulbright and Richard Russell, chairmen respectively of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, challenged the blockade proposal, arguing for a rapid invasion.
"[T]o assemble the force which would give us the 90,000-odd men who might participate in an invasion will take some days," Kennedy replied to Russell. "..We are now assembling that force, but it is not in a position to invade Cuba in the next 24 to 48 hours. Now, I think it may very well come to that before the end of the week. But we are moving all of the forces that we have, that will be necessary for an invasion, to the areas around Cuba as quickly as we possibly can."
McNamara added that it had not "been possible during this week to carry out more than one to 2 days' worth of the 7-day preparation without breaking the whole story."
"The President ordered us to prepare an invasion of Cuba months ago," McNamara continued. "I think it was - Mr. President, perhaps you recall better than I, but I believe it was November of last year. And we have developed plans in great detail... We're well prepared for an invasion and as well prepared as we could possibly be, facing the situation we do."
On Tuesday morning, October 23, Kennedy once again convened the ExComm. Among the decisions taken was to initiate immediate military action "to take out," in Kennedy's words, any surface-to-air missile installation (SAMs) that shot down any American U-2 spy plane over Cuba. If a second U.S. spy plane were brought down, then all the SAM sites would be attacked.
The meeting then turned to what McNamara called "the next subject: invasion preparation."
Cuban working people respond
That same evening, October 23, Premier Fidel Castro went on television in Cuba to present the calm but intransigent reply of Cuba's workers and farmers and their revolutionary leadership. "We have decided to put the nation in a state of combat readiness, the highest state before action," Castro said. (At a January 1992 Havana conference on the October Crisis, involving direct participants from the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Cuba, Castro reported that "at the time, we could count on some 300,000 men and women to be armed - or able to get weapons - and, to a certain extent, organized and trained. We had cannons, artillery, tanks - a few - and the troops that manned them had received accelerated training... And there was great enthusiasm among the population.")
"We have taken the necessary measures not only to resist but to repel - hear it well - to repel any aggression from the U.S.," Castro said in his October 23 speech. "We are not sovereign through any concession made by the United States. And to take away our sovereignty they will have to wipe us from the face of the earth...
"If the U.S. gave Cuba ample guarantees against aggression, Cuba would not have to arm. They ask us to disarm, but they will not renounce aggression... What have we done except to defend ourselves?"
"We will acquire the arms we deem necessary for our defense," Castro said. "And we don't have to give an accounting to anyone. None of our arms are offensive because we have never been aggressive. We will never be aggressors, but we will never be victims either."
Castro flatly rejected Kennedy's demand that United Nations "inspection teams" be admitted to the country by the Cuban government. "We refuse to give permission to anyone to examine, to investigate our country - no matter who it is," Castro replied. "..Anyone who comes to inspect anything in Cuba had better come prepared for battle."
"If they impose a total blockade, we will resist it," Castro said. "We can resist. We will not starve to death. If there is a direct attack, we will repel it. I can't speak more plainly...
"They menace us with nuclear attack but they don't scare us. We will see if the U.S. congressmen, bankers, etc. possess the same calmness as we. We are calmed by the knowledge that, if they attack us, the aggressor will be exterminated... Humanity must fight for peace. It must mobilize against those who endanger peace... [Kennedy] proposes that we disarm. We will never do so while the U.S. continues to be an aggressor...
"What sovereign nation hasn't the right to arm?"
`Expect heavy casualties'
The newly released transcripts show that by Thursday morning, October 25, Kennedy and his advisers had begun to be concerned about what they were learning about the determined defense mobilization in Cuba. At the White House meeting of the NSA executive committee that morning, CIA director John McCone reported "antiaircraft guns on the roofs of buildings. And their military is in a high state of alert." Kennedy asked McCone "if we could get from Cuba any sort of report or an analysis ... so we can be up to date about the state of morale of the people there, and their viewpoint on all of this."
According to Robert Kennedy's posthumous memoir of the October crisis, Thirteen Days, at the ExComm meeting on Friday morning, October 26, "Secretary McNamara reported the conclusion of the military that we should expect very heavy casualties in an invasion... John McCone said everyone should understand that an invasion was going to be a much more serious undertaking than most people had previously realized. `They have a hell of a lot of equipment,' he [McCone] said. `And it will be damn tough to shoot them out of those hills, as we learned so clearly in Korea.'"
The Joint Chiefs of Staff had provided the White House with a detailed breakdown of U.S. casualties that could be expected during an invasion of Cuba - day by day, and service by service. That assessment, according to an official U.S. military report the following year, took "into account the latest intelligence information available relating to Cuban capabilities," and assumed combat with Cuban not Soviet units. The Joint Chiefs estimated 18,484 U.S. casualties during the first ten days of fighting -4,462 on the first day alone!
On October 26 John Kennedy began raising with increasing insistence the need to probe a secret deal with the Soviet government to withdraw U.S. nuclear-armed missiles from Turkey in exchange for removal of the missiles from Cuba. "Our quarantine itself won't remove the weapons," Kennedy said at the White House meeting that morning. "So we've only got two ways of removing the weapons. One is to negotiate them out, or we trade them out. And the other is to go over and just take them out. I don't see any other way we're going to get the weapons out."
Spy plane shot down
The following morning, Saturday, October 27, the Cuban government made the decision to begin firing antiaircraft artillery at low-flying U.S. reconnaissance planes. At the 1992 Havana conference on the October Crisis, Castro explained that in response to an aggressive increase in the frequency of U.S. overflights the previous day, the Cuban government informed Soviet military officials "that we had decided to fire against the low-level flights... Those were flying not just for observation, but also to demoralize our troops. These planes were, in effect, training daily on how they could destroy our weapons."
"All our batteries fired on all low-level flights on the morning of the 27th when the planes appeared at their usual time," Castro continued. "So the order was fulfilled... We could say that the war started in Cuba on October the 27th in the morning."
All surface-to-air missiles were under Soviet command, so Cuban soldiers were limited to heavy artillery. "Our artillery men were not experts," Castro said. "The planes were flying at an altitude of 100 or 150 meters... I saw them flying over; the planes seemed quite vulnerable, but we couldn't shoot down any of the low-flying planes. But we demonstrated our resistance."
Against instructions from the military command in Moscow, however, a Soviet officer in Cuba issued an order to open fire on a high-flying U.S. U-2 plane and brought it down. "It's still a mystery what led the Soviet commander and the commander of that battery to issue the order to open fire," Castro said at the 1992 conference. "[T]he order was not issued by Moscow. Now, what is my interpretation? These soldiers were all together. They had a common enemy. The firing [by Cuban troops] started and, in a basic spirit of solidarity, the Soviets decided to fire as well. That is my interpretation... I can add that Khrushchev for some time believed that we had shot down the plane.
"I was in full agreement with the shooting down of the plane," Castro asserted. "..When you are expecting a surprise attack, when the adversary has the initiative and when they can decide when that surprise attack is going to be launched, I think that the only correct thing, militarily and defensively, was to be ready to prevent a surprise attack at all cost... So I assume full historical responsibility for the shooting down of the plane."
When the downing of the U-2 was announced by McNamara at an afternoon White House meeting October 27, John Kennedy commented: "Well now, this is much of an escalation by them, isn't it?
"Do we want to announce we're going to take counteraction, or just take it tomorrow morning," Kennedy asked. After further discussion he initially proposed announcing that "action will be taken to protect our various aircraft," and McNamara interjected: "Exactly. Then we ought to go in at dawn and take out that SAM site."
Then hesitation began to set in. "Do we want to say it was shot down? We don't know," Kennedy said. There might have been a mechanical failure, added an unidentified voice. But "the other plane was shot at," Kennedy replied. "[T]hat's why I'd like to find out whether Havana says they did shoot it down."
Kennedy left the meeting for about an hour, while discussion continued. Earlier in the day, Khrushchev had publicly broadcast a proposal for a mutual withdrawal of U.S. and Soviet missiles from Turkey and Cuba. During Kennedy's absence, Under-secretary of State George Ball argued strongly for exhausting the possibility for such a trade before initiating air strikes and an invasion.
"We're talking about a course of action which involves military action with enormous casualties," Ball said, "and a great, great risk of escalation. I really don't think this is - we ought to shift this one."
Shortly after 7:00 p.m., Kennedy returned to the meeting. Vice President Lyndon Johnson recapped the opposing views. Summarizing the position he himself had argued for, Johnson said the administration should announce: "You shot our man there, and we aren't going to take any more of this."
"Well, what do you do on Cuba on that one?" Kennedy replied.
A minute or so later an unidentified voice informed Kennedy that "Havana has announced it, that he was shot down by antiaircraft fire."
"Oh they have? I didn't know that yet," Kennedy replied. Quickly changing the subject, however, he returned to Khrushchev's proposed trade.
"We can't very well invade Cuba, with all the toil and blood it's going to be," Kennedy said, "when we could have gotten them [the missiles] out by making a deal on the same missiles in Turkey. If that's part of the record, then I don't see how we'll have a very good war."
After a break the White House meeting reconvened at about 9:00 p.m. Kennedy announced his decision to take no immediate action in response to the downing of the U-2.
`If you publish it, the deal is off'
While the initial rallying around the flag in response to military action might have boosted Democratic results in the midterm elections barely a week away, John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy also knew that an avalanche of body bags and protracted fighting could be deadly to the president's own prospects in November 1964. At the same time, the Kennedys were worried about Republican charges of having "caved in" to the Soviet and Cuban governments, and were also very much aware of the reaction they would get from Washington's NATO allies in Europe if the administration openly embraced Moscow's offer of a Cuba-Turkey missile swap.
With these factors in mind, Kennedy's advisers drafted a letter to Khrushchev that made no mention of the U.S. weapons in Turkey and instead offered - in return for removal of Soviet missiles "under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision" - to end the naval blockade and "to give assurances against an invasion of Cuba."
During the evening break in the White House meeting October 27, Robert Kennedy delivered this letter to ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at the Soviet embassy in Washington. The attorney general, however, made clear to Dobrynin the actual deal the Kennedy administration was offering: withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey.
As Robert Kennedy explained in his handwritten notes preparing for a follow-up meeting with the Soviet ambassador two days later: "No quid pro quo as I told you." The U.S. missiles would leave Turkey, Kennedy wrote. "[Y]ou have my word on this f that is sufficient..; if you should publish any document indicating a deal then it is off."
Cuba not consulted
On Sunday morning, October 28, Khrushchev announced over Radio Moscow that he had ordered the dismantling of the missile sites in Cuba "and their crating and return to the Soviet Union." The White House rapidly issued a statement calling the announcement "an important and constructive contribution to peace."
Khrushchev had made this decision with absolutely no prior consultation with the government of Cuba. Although Cuban workers and farmers were the direct target of Washington's aggressive course both before, during, and after the October Crisis, they and the communist leadership of the revolution learned of the Soviet government's actions over the radio.
"The reaction of our nation was of profound indignation, not relief," Castro told participants in the 1992 Havana conference. "So the political decision we adopted was to launch our five-point list of demands, five very simple points:
" First: An end to the economic blockade and all economic and trade pressures throughout the world by the United States against our country.
" Second: an end to all subversive activities, drops of weapons and explosives by air and by sea, organization of mercenary invasions, infiltration of spies and saboteurs - actions all carried out from U.S. territory and from some accomplice countries.
" Third: An end to the pirate attacks from bases in the United States and Puerto Rico.
" Fourth: An end to all violations of our sea and airspace by American aircraft and naval craft.
" Fifth: Withdrawal from the naval base in Guanta'namo, and return of the territory occupied by the United States."
"Naturally we did not want war," Castro told Maria Shriver in the 1992 interview broadcast by NBC. "We wanted a solution, but an honorable solution... We didn't know that the crisis was on its way to the almost unconditional concessions made by Khrushchev. They left everything the way it was. They left the blockade. They left a dirty war. The left Guanta'namo Naval Base."
Shriver asked Castro: "So if you had it to do over again, you wouldn't accept the missiles?"
"With the information I have now?.. No. I would not have accepted the missiles. With the experience of the Soviets' hesitation, I would not have accepted the missiles."
`Hesitation, not firmness, leads to war'
The alternative in October 1962 was not between capitulation to U.S. imperialism and a nuclear holocaust, Castro insisted in his remarks at the 1992 Havana conference. "If this whole operation had been carried out with the same resolution [as the decision to fire on the low-flying reconnaissance planes]," Castro said, "the outcome would have been different, and it would not have been war.
"The fact is that often it's hesitation that can lead to war, not firmness... So we are not making a moral assessment of this event," he said, referring to the downing of the U.S. spy plane. "What are we to regret? Why should we repent?"
As the Cuban leadership and many supporters of the revolution have long pointed out - contrary to the public stance of both the U.S. and Soviet governments - Washington never entered a "non-invasion pledge" in exchange for withdrawal of the missiles.
The assumption "that the Kennedy administration gave a pledge, upon conclusion of the missile crisis, not to invade Cuba .. is not correct," Robert McNamara acknowledged at the 1992 Havana conference. "There was no non-invasion pledge by the Kennedy administration," since the Cuban government never backed off its refusal to allow UN inspectors into the country.
Such a pledge, in any event, would not have been worth the paper it was written on. If the U.S. rulers had become convinced at any time over the next 35 years that their gains from an invasion outweighed the political price they would have to pay at home for the enormous U.S. casualties sustained in such an assault, they would have done it. But that's precisely what the U.S. rulers -in the very midst of the October Crisis -had been convinced was not possible in face of the calm, dignified, and courageous stance of millions of Cubans workers and peasants and their determined mobilization to defend, arms in hand, their national sovereignty and their socialist revolution.
In the days immediately following Khrushchev's announcement, top U.S. military officers continued to press Kennedy to carry out a surprise invasion of Cuba. A previously "Top Secret" November 5 letter from Kennedy to McNamara rejecting one such proposal appears for the first time in the recent State Department collection.
"As I have communicated to General Wheeler, through General Clifton," Kennedy wrote, "the plans for X seem thin. Considering the size of the problem, the equipment that is involved on the other side, the nationalist fervor which may be engendered, it seems to me we could end up bogged down. I think we should keep constantly in mind the British in Boer War, the Russians in the last war with the Finnish and our own experience with the North Koreans."
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