Overthrowing Castro: Official U.S. Policy

How the United States sought to overthrow Castro by above-board and covert means.

Part 6 of a series chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

The Kennedy administration expanded on Eisenhower’s efforts to isolate and overthrow the Castro regime. Examples:


Cuba and the United States severed diplomatic relations in January 1960. During the last week of January 1962, the United States persuaded the Organization of American States (OAS) to expel Cuba from membership. Six nations abstained from the vote. While the U.S. delegates failed to persuade all OAS members to break diplomatic relations with Havana, they succeeded with thirteen.

Economic Sanctions

In July 1960 the Eisenhower administration suspended all purchases of Cuban sugar, the island’s principal export. The next month the United States embargoed all Cuban exports to the United States. The embargo is still in effect.

On Dec. 1, 1961, Kennedy extended Eisenhower’s sugar ban. (Coincidentally, December 1 was also the day that Castro proclaimed to his people that he would remain a Marxist-Leninist until he died.)

Overt Military Exercises

Immediately after the Bay of Pigs debacle, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the president wanted them to be prepared to invade Cuba if ordered to. By 1962, the Pentagon’s extensive plans provided for air strikes against Cuba followed by a D-Day style invasion.

Pentagon press releases described spring 1962 amphibious exercises in the Caribbean as preparations to overthrow a dictator named “Ortsac.”

Covert Operations

The Kennedy administration’s clandestine efforts to “help” Cubans rebel against Castro were titled “MONGOOSE.” According to historian Michael R. Beschloss, the objectives of MONGOOSE eventually involved “The contamination of Cuban sugar exports, counterfeiting of Cuban money and ration books, other sabotage, paramilitary raids, propaganda, espionage, and guerilla warfare … [with a] budget of fifty to one hundred million dollars and a massive nerve center on the campus of the University of Miami called JM/WAVE, said to be the largest CIA installation in the world outside Langley [headquarters of the CIA].”

Operation NORTHWOODS was the code name for pretexts which the Joint Chiefs of Staff concocted to justify an invasion of Cuba. Among other plots, the Joint Chiefs proposed that the United States create “a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities, and even in Washington” involving

  • Assaults on Cuban refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., including sinking a boatload of refugees (real or simulated) trying to reach Florida.
  • Attacks on Cuban refugees in the United States “even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized.”
  • Identifying supposed Cuban agents and arresting them after planting fake documents and exploding devices “in carefully chosen spots.”

I am not making this up: in 1962 the U.S. military’s highest commanders were proposing to assault, wound, and possibly kill innocent people to justify an invasion of Cuba. We have the proposal itself, on letterhead of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These examples are a small fraction of the pretexts the Joint Chiefs unanimously proposed to justify an invasion.

Reading the Tea Leaves

Castro knew about all these efforts to bring him down, by violence if necessary. Which of them would Castro fear most? How would he seek to protect himself?

Do you have any questions or comments? Email phufstader@sbcglobal.net or post in the comment section.


For Kennedy’s sugar embargo and Castro’s declaration about being a Marxist-Leninist, see Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Volume X, Cuba, 1961-1963. Washington: Department of State, #279 (FRUS X): www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusX/271_285.html.

McNamara’s instructions to the Joint Chiefs are printed as #159 in FRUS X: http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusX/151_165.html

The passage on MONGOOSE quoted above is from Michael R. Bechsloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963. New York: HarperCollins, 1991, 376. For more on MONGOOSE, see Lawrence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds. The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader. New York: The New Press, 1998, 20-47. These pages also describe the “Ortsac” rehearsals.

The Pentagon’s invasion plans are discussed in many individual documents in FRUS volume X, Cuba: http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusX/index.html

For the TOP SECRET letter to Secretary of Defense McNamara proposing NORTHWOODS, signed by Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, email the author for a pdf copy. You can also try the National Security Archive at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20010430/northwoods.pdf.  When you get the document, scroll down to p. 7, “Annex to Appendix to Enclosure A: Pretexts to Justify US Military Intervention in Cuba.” This document is the only place I know of where the term NORTHWOODS exists. See the second and third page of the document, which are not numbered sequentially with the rest of the document.

NORTHWOODS is described (with revulsion) by James Bamford in his Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century. New York: Doubleday, 2001, 80-91. Bamford speculates that most evidence of NORTHWOODS was destroyed by Lemnitzer or at his direction. P. 88ff. This letter to McNamara obviously survived. Bamford also describes other attempts by the military to gin up pretexts to justify action against a U.S. enemy when no true cause for action existed.

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