In the early 1960s, U.S. military strategists offered their bosses a bagful of dirty tricks to harass or humiliate Fidel Castro. The schemes ranged from flooding Cuba with faked photos of an overweight Castro “with two beauties” to simulating the sinking of a U.S. warship in an exercise intended to provoke a war.
About 1,500 pages of newly released Defense Department documents show that the Pentagon even considered squeezing anti-Cuba propaganda from a space disaster.
The “Operation Dirty Trick” memo - written just before John Glenn left Earth on America’s first orbital space mission in 1962 - proposed blaming a Cuban impediment in case of a mishap.
“This would be accomplished by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans,” the memo said.
Some of the ideas were bizarre, but others were serious, intended to give the United States a pretext for attacking Cuba in response to a faked provocation.
None was carried out. But the proposals got as far as the secretary of defense, or even discussion with the new president, Lyndon Johnson, within a month of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
The documents were declassified by the Defense Department at the instigation of the Assassination Records Review Board, a small agency created by Congress.
“These documents further expand the historical record by illustrating the United States government’s deep interest in developing a policy that would force Castro from power during the early 1960s,” said board member Anna Nelson, a historian. When Kennedy was killed, Cuba was immediately suspected of involvement.
One memo laid out the case for an American invasion.
Army Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in April 1962 that “the Cuban problem must be solved in the near future.” He contended that “military intervention by the United States will be required to overthrow the present communist regime.”
Harvard historian Ernest May, author of “The Kennedy Tapes,” said Kennedy was far more worried about World War III breaking out in a new Berlin crisis that could end in a nuclear exchange.
“He didn’t want the distraction,” May said. “Absent Berlin, I’m not sure he wouldn’t go along with it. He very much wanted Castro out.”
Another memo, written by Army Chief of Staff Earle G. Wheeler after an Oval Office meeting, said Johnson opposed “sabotage and harassment” or any “high-risk actions.”
The papers show that in the early 1960s American military leaders were preoccupied by the threat they felt Castro represented. Among their ideas for removing the Cuban leader:
Airdrop pictures of an obese Castro with two shapely women “and a table brimming over with the most delectable Cuban food.” Proposed caption: “My ration is different.”
Simulate the sinking of a U.S. warship in Guantanamo Bay in a “Remember the Maine” incident reminiscent of the event that led to America’s war against Spain in 1898.
Alternatively, stage the downing of an American warplane or “demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner enroute from the United States to Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama or Venezuela.”
That was proposed in a March 1962 memo to the Joint Chiefs. The task would be accomplished by substituting an empty drone plane for an identical chartered airliner full of college students. While the drone was blown up after transmitting radio signals reporting an attack by Cuban MIGs, the student plane would fly low and land in Florida. The paper did not say how the students would be persuaded to keep the secret.
“Create the impression that anti-Castro opposition is continuing” by flying Air Force F-101s faster than the speed of sound over Cuba. Awakened Cubans would think their homeland was under attack, the planners said.
Create unrest by dropping valid one-way airline tickets to Mexico City or Caracas, Venezuela.
Have Cuban refugee pilots fly close to Cuba to get into radio arguments with Cuban pilots, distracting them and possibly causing them to crash.