Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 5: Operation Northwoods

USS MaineOperation Northwoods is a prime example of why we need to raise critical questions before going to war. Written seven months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, this formerly top secret proposal by the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested ways to build public support for an American invasion of Cuba, including: “A ‘Remember the Maine’ incident could be arranged … We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba. … [Or] we could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. … [fostering] attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding.” I have highlighted key passages in the attached seven key pages from the original document. (The entire document is accessible on George Washington University’s National Security Archive web site.)

While the Kennedy administration rejected these proposed false flag operations, it embraced CIA-sponsored sabotage within Cuba, including blowing up industrial facilities, setting fire to sugar plantations, and trying to assassinate Fidel Castro. If similar acts were carried out within the United States, we would characterize them as terrorism. And, on the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy was caught on tape musing, “we should also think of whether there is some other way we can get involved in this … you know, sink the Maine again or something.”

These actions created needless nuclear risks, the two most serious of which are described below:

* Our repeated attempts to destabilize Castro’s government and repeated calls to invade Cuba played a key role in Khrushchev’s deciding to install Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba and Castro’s accepting them. An important role for the missiles was to serve as a “nuclear trip wire” thereby deterring such American adventurism.

* If we had invaded Cuba, our troops would have been threatened with – and possibly vaporized by – tactical nuclear weapons which Khrushchev secretly installed in order to defend against just such an invasion.

Especially when combined with the numerous other instances of similar governmental behavior detailed in this series, isn’t it time we started asking more questions before going to war?

Reference for Robert Kennedy quote: Philip Zelikow and Ernest May (General Editors), The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises, Volume 2 (Timothy Naftali and Philip Zelikow, Editors), Norton, New York, 2001, page 452. Just before the RFK quote, President Kennedy’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy reveals another instance where he feels comfortable misleading the American public. While debating whether the missiles should be regarded as Soviet or Cuban, and which is better for our various strategies, Bundy suggests that, “what we say for political purposes and what we think are not identical here.”

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