The Cuban Missile Crisis is widely considered as the closest the world has come to nuclear war. Former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, called it “the most dangerous crisis the world has ever seen, the only time when the nuclear superpowers came ‘eyeball to eyeball’.” Over the years many people have analyzed the causes the crisis, however most of the scholarship has regarded it as a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, while the Cuban aspect has been pushed aside as a lesser involvement.
However if one is to delve more deeply into the subject, it becomes blatantly obvious that the Cuban involvement in the standoff is of more significance than others have tried to claim. The common themes about the crisis’s origins have ranged from the Soviets desire to counterbalance its strategic inferiority, to Khrushchev using Cuba as a platform to negotiate with America in matters outside of Cuba, specifically Berlin. “in part to offset American superiority in ICBM’s in part to protect Cuba and in part to salvage what remained of his foreign policy models, Khrushchev moved in the spring of 1962 to position intermediate-range missiles in Cuba.”
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While these are valid points, the aspect which shall be examined in this study deals with the hypothesis that the crisis stemmed from Cuban fears of a US invasion of the island. There are many valid reasons why Fidel Castro would have feared an invasion, which will be dealt with in chronological order over the course of the study. The first stems from Castro’s revolution, and the United States decision that he was too dangerous a neighbour to leave to his own devices.
This will then lead to US covert attempts to disrupt Castro’s government, and destabilize Cuba. Following this, the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, is an extremely important incident that greatly contributed to Cuban fear and ultimately Soviet missiles being allowed on Cuban soil.
The final aspect which needs close examination before the actual Cuban Missile Crisis took place in October 1962, was Operation Mongoose, a CIA undertaking which was “the covert effort engineered by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to disrupt the Cuban economy and stir unrest on the island.”
When discussing the notion that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the result of American attempts to quash the Cuban revolution, we must first examine the revolution and its consequences. In the early part of 1959, Fidel Castro successfully managed to overthrow the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista and take power. Initially, Washington was happy to see Batista removed from power in Cuba, however, it soon became clear that Castro was not going to be a close ally to the US. The strong anti-American feeling which resonated through the majority of Cuba was shared and spread by Castro. He began to implement policies that did not complement American economic and political interests in Cuba, and indeed in Latin America. “The regimes’ execution of ‘batistianos’ after showy trials, agrarian reform program that undercut North American economic interests, control of utility industries, postponement of elections, tolerance of Communists, calls for revolution throughout Latin America, hints that Cuba would follow a neutralist course in the Cold War, and vituperative anti-American rhetoric widened the chasm between Havana and Washington.” He blamed America for Batista’s crimes, which raised the anti-America feeling in Cuba to extreme levels.
However it was assumed in Washington that Castro could not continue to voice his anti-American rhetoric and his attacks would soon fade away with the realisation that Cuba was massively economically tied to the US. Cuba depended on the US, especially for its sugar market, and the US expected Cuba to borrow money from them to repair the broken Cuban economy. Castro did not let up on his anti-American sentiments, and an increasingly frustrated Eisenhower, decided that Castro was never going to be an ally to the US. He was now considered to be a dangerous enemy of the US, who were fearful of the spread of revolution in Latin America.
Che Guevara, during a discussion with John F. Kennedy’s advisor Dick Goodwin in August 1961, described the revolution. “They intend to build a socialist state, and the revolution which they have begun is irreversible. They are also now out of the US sphere of influence, and that too is irreversible. They will establish a single-party system with Fidel as Secretary-General of the party……..they feel that they have the support of the masses for their revolution, and that support will grow as time passes.” The problem as America saw it, was that Castro was now a man who was showing the rest of Latin America that they did not have to live in the shadow of the United States, and if Cuban style revolutions spread, as Castro was encouraging, then anti-American sentiment would spread through-out Latin America. At this stage in the Cold War the US viewed situations, such as Castro’s rise to power, in relation to the global struggle against Communism. “Indeed, once the Cold War became the dominant factor in global politics (and above all in American and Soviet perceptions), each side viewed every development around the world in terms of its relationship to that great struggle, and each was inclined to act accordingly to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Americans, for example, often viewed local and regional conflicts of indigenous origins as Cold War battles and acted on that assumption.” This meant that anti-American sentiment would be seen by Washington as being pro-Communist. The fact that Castro wanted to spread similar revolutions across Latin America, would have been viewed in the US as the spread of Communism. It is unclear whether Castro was a Communist at this point of time, but what is clear is that American antagonism later pushed Castro towards Communism. Clearly, from an American point of view, something had to be done about Castro. “As Castro’s threats became more serious, and as increasing pressures were put on legitimate economic interests of the United States in Cuba, pressures within the United States Government led to a decision that Castro must go. With great concern about the impact any overt, anti-Castro activities by the United States Government would have on the United Nations and on the Organization of American States, it was decided that a covert plan of action would be adopted.”
Vice President Nixon, after meeting Castro on an American visit in April, 1959, decided that he was a man who was indeed dangerous to American interests. It was decided by Eisenhower in late 1959 that the Castro regime had to be removed. “In November 1959 the Eisenhower Administration decided to work with anti-Castro groups within Cuba to ‘check’ or ‘replace’ the revolutionary regime, and thus end an anti-Americanism that was ‘having seriously adverse effects on the United States position in Latin America and corresponding advantages for international Communism.” What followed was the first signs for Castro that the US was planning to oust him from power, by any means they saw fit.
The Americans did not however want it to be known that they were directly involved in any change of regime in Cuba. Thus, Eisenhower granted permission to the CIA to remove Castro in a covert manner. Declassified US documents show the lengths that the CIA went to, to remove Castro from power and also clearly stated the US’s position on the matter. A program was devised in March 1961. “The purpose of the program outlined herein is to bring about the replacement of the Castro regime with one more devoted to the true interests of the Cuban people and more acceptable to the US in such a manner as to avoid any appearance of US intervention. Essentially the method of accomplishing this and will be to include, support, and so far as possible direct action, both inside and outside of Cuba, by selected groups of Cubans of a sort that might be expected to and could undertake on their own initiative.”
This came soon after Cuba had signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, so US government officials now had no doubt that Castro was leaning towards the Soviet side. Cuba at this time was trying to gather military supplies and found suppliers in Belgium and France. It was the shipment of these arms which was to spark a notion in Castro’s mind that the US was planning on an invasion of the island. ‘La Coubre’ was a ship that was transporting arms to Cuba. While docked in the harbour in Havana the ship exploded, killing over one hundred people. Castro was convinced that the US was responsible for the explosion, and thought that America was trying to provoke a war with Cuba. “Castro could not get La Coubre out of his mind. ‘I am absolutely certain that the United States blew up the ship’.
While admitting that there was ‘no juridical proof’, no smoking gun, he was convinced that the United States, which had been twisting the arms of its allies not to supply him with weapons, sabotaged the ship to send him a message.” What this served to do was to convince Castro that the US was not going to allow him to militarise and pushed him closer to an alliance to the Soviet Union.
As well as training Cuban exiles for a possible invasion of Cuba, the CIA also planned assassination plots against Castro. These included plans such as putting explosives in seashells near where he liked to dive, plots to poison his cigars and involving Mafia figures in assassination attempts. “A notation in the records of the Operation Division, CIA’s Office of Medical Services, indicates that on August 16, 1960, an official was given a box of Castro’s favourite cigars with instructions to treat them with lethal poison.” The assumption from the CIA was that the revolution would collapse if Castro was dead. In December 1959, the head of the agency’s Western division, J.C. King stated that, “thorough consideration be given to the elimination of Fidel Castro because it would greatly accelerate the fall of the present government.” As well as trying to destabilize Cuba by using these covert measures, the US also imposed economic sanctions, which included sanctions against the Cuban exportation of sugar.
These measures against Castro and Cuba did not have the desired destabilizing effect and only served to make Castro even more secure in power, and also made him more vehemently anti-American. Castro was becoming increasingly suspicious and following heated discussions with the US about their Embassy size in Havana, the US decided to cut diplomatic relations with Cuba. “On January 3, 1961, certain that that the American embassy was a ‘nest of spies’ aligned with counter-revolutionaries who were burning cane fields and sabotaging buildings, Castro heatedly demanded that the embassy staff be reduced to the small size of the Cuban delegation in Washington.” The breakdown in diplomatic relations forced the US to elevate more extreme plans for the ousting of Castro.
What followed next was the ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion, which turned into an unmitigated disaster for the US, not only because of its absolute failure in execution but in the consequences it had in Cuba. The plan was hatched by the Eisenhower administration, but it was carried out during the Kennedy reign. While Kennedy might not have been absolutely convinced of the merits of such an action, he still was the man who approved its implementation. He was aware that the plan had many pitfalls. “He feared that evident US intervention in Cuba would revive denunciation of Yankee imperialism and frustrate the Alliance. He also feared that US military engagement in Cuba might encourage Khrushchev to make a move somewhere else, perhaps against Laos or Berlin.” The plan was to use exiled Cubans, trained by the CIA, to engage in an invasion of their homeland, and hopefully sparking a revolution within Cuba against Castro’s regime. It was carried out on April, 1961, and turned into a resounding victory for Castro’s forces. What occurred in the aftermath of this failed invasion was even more increased stability for Castro and an international admiration of his regime, which had beaten away the might of the North. In his conversation with Goodwin, Guevara went as far as to thank the US for the attack. “He then went on to say that he wanted to thank us very much for the invasion, that it had been a great political victory for them, had enabled them to consolidate and transformed them from an aggrieved little country to an equal.”
The reality of the situation was that Cuba was now fully aware that the US was planning invasions of their country. “The Bay of Pigs had demonstrated that the United States could act.” Castro might have been persuaded that a new president in the United States would mean a new approach might be taken. If he thought Kennedy might be more favourable in his approach to Cuba, the Bay of Pigs invasion certainly put rest to those notions. Castro, despite the bravado, knew that Cuba could not survive against a full-blown US invasion of his country, so sought assistance in his growing ally, the Soviet Union. “Finally, although the operation was designed to deny the Soviet Union a revolutionary ally in the Western Hemisphere, it succeeded only in driving Cuba into a concrete alliance with Moscow.
On April 16, at the state funerals of those killed during the airstrike the day before, Premier Castro officially declared Cuba a Marxist-Leninist state-a prelude to closer Cuban-Soviet ties.” If Castro was to fear another US invasion, and he had every reason to do so, then he knew that he needed Soviet backing. The Bay of Pigs was the major event that would eventually culminate in Cuba allowing Soviet missiles on Cuban soil. If the US had not devised and carried out this invasion of Cuba, the probability is that Khrushchev and the Soviets would not have had the opportunity to place missiles in Cuba. In a sense, the US had as much to do in the decision of placing missiles in Cuba, like Castro or Khrushchev. They backed Castro into a corner and it was inevitable that he would gratefully receive any support offered by the Soviets.
In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy devised a plan titled ‘Operation Mongoose’. This was a return of the US to covert operations against Cuba, in an attempt to cause destabilization. Clearly, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy could not consider another invasion plan for a while at least. The Cuban people had rallied in support of Castro to fight against the invasion, so Kennedy could not justify an invasion to free these people from Castro.
The problem of Cuba for America was growing as outlined by Robert Kennedy in a memo to his brother on April 19, 1961. “He continued to pose the problem in terms of a communist base-Arms had been sent to Cuba ‘not only to keep Castro in power but to provide the necessary tools for Communist agitators in other South American and Central American countries to overthrow their governments.’………His conclusion: ‘if we don’t want Russia to set up missile bases in Cuba, we had better decide now what we are willing to do to stop it.’” Operation Mongoose had much the same effects as the covert operations under Eisenhower had. They did not attain any of their goals. However, one aspect of ‘Operation Mongoose’ may have had a great affect in scaring Castro into believing a new invasion was forthcoming from the US. This was the mock military exercises the US carried out in April, 1962 on a Caribbean island. In the exercises forty thousand troops invaded an island. The fake dictator which these troops were ordered to overthrow was codenamed Ortsac, which is Castro spelled backwards. In reality the exercise was planned to make Castro anxious, which certainly worked. Although he could not be certain of an invasion, all the actions of the US pointed to the fact that a second invasion was their ultimate goal. “Castro, however, was absolutely right in assuming that the Kennedy administration was attempting by all means short of invasion to remove him from power, and his intelligence services were providing him with growing evidence of such subversive activities.
Under the circumstances, Castro had to conclude that an invasion could well be the next logical move against him.” This fear, of what Castro expected to be an inevitable invasion, was the one of the major influences of Castro agreeing to allow Soviet missiles in Cuba. The timing of these mock military exercises was around the same time that Soviet leaders were discussing possible increased military assistance in Cuba. They were now supplying Cuba with a vast array of defensive weaponry, however the US still carried on with its covert actions to remove Castro. Maybe it was the fact that the Soviets were now supplying the Cubans with weapons, which prompted the US to create new invasion plans. Clearly, the last thing they wanted was the Soviets to have a military base so close to US soil.
‘Operation Mongoose’ did in fact contain plans for a future US invasion of Cuba, so Castro’s fears who well-founded. Documentary evidence suggests that, “a US invasion of Cuba was central to hopes for Operation Mongoose’s success and that the covert programme was intended to have the capacity to produce a pretext for direct US intervention. Hopefully, an uprising could be sparked that would provide a justification for a massive rescue mission carried out by US armed forces. This interpretation emerges from the guidelines established for Operation Mongoose and from the declassified minutes of Colonel Lansdale’s group meetings…
The documents point to an invasion scheduled for October 20, 1962.” There is a possibility that Castro could have gotten wind of these fresh US invasion plans through Cuban exiles in Miami. Because the plan involved many former Cuban nationals, the chances are that word would have gotten to one of Castro’s spies. At this point, Castro must have felt fairly hopeless. He had gained vast military support from the Soviets, yet the Americans were still seemingly relentless in their goal of removing him from power in Cuba. Castro had to be prepared for a US invasion, however, even with the Soviet weaponry, he must have known that they stood little chance against a full-blown American assault.
This leads up to the agreement between Castro and the Soviets to place missiles in Cuba. Is it fair to say that the US operations against the Castro regime directly caused this? Was Castro right to assume that another US invasion was imminent? Did Castro feel he had no other choice at this stage, given the clear threat of a second American invasion? The answer to these questions is yes. Yes, the US caused Castro to feel he had to turn to his Soviet allies to counter an assumed invasion. Yes, he was right to think this was imminent.
The US with their mock exercises was clearly making a statement of intent. Even Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, stated that “if I had been in Moscow or Havana at that time [1961-1962], I would have believed the Americans were preparing for an invasion.” It should not come as a surprise that the Cubans and Soviets came to that same conclusion and that under the circumstances took the greatest precaution they thought necessary to prevent this perceived US invasion. The fact that their response seemed wild over the top, and gravely dangerous, does not affect the fact that they were pressured into this response by US actions. This is of course working under the assumption that the Soviets genuinely-placed the missiles in Cuba to defend her, and not only for the reasons outlined in the opening paragraph.
Documents that now seem to point to the fact that the US was indeed planning on a second invasion of Cuba, are also not particularly relevant to this question. The fact remains that it was the fear of a US invasion, which caused Castro to allow nuclear missiles to be placed in his homeland. It was the years of covert operations, which were designed to oust him from power, which contributed to his decision. The also fact remains that except for the first few months of Castro’s reign of power in Cuba, the United States were involved in almost incessant operations to undermine his position, destabilize or invade his country or remove him from power, by killing him if necessary.
When in a geographical position beside your much larger enemy, distant from your allies and under constant threat, it is not altogether surprising that Castro took the extreme measure he did to ensure his revolution’s survival. As Thomas Paterson puts it in his book, Contesting Castro, “Had there been no exile expedition at the Bay of Pigs, no destructive covert activities, no assassination plots, no military manoeuvres and plans, and no economic and diplomatic steps to harass, isolate, and destroy the Castro government in Havana, there would not have been a Cuban Missile Crisis.”
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