University of Pittsburgh Press

Professor Anna Kasten Nelson (American University), who rendered a unique service to scholarship on U.S.-Cuban relations through her role in promoting the declassification of pertinent U.S. government records as a consequence of her service on the board created by the John F. Kennedy Assassinations Record Act (1992), also contributed valuable fresh evidence on the subject of the Kennedy Administration's secret military planning and actions vis-à-vis Cuba in her article, "Operation Northwoods and the Covert War against Cuba, 1961-1963," published in Cuban Studies 32.1 Unfortunately, and quite unnecessarily, she chose to highlight the importance of her interpretation by egregiously distorting my own work on the subject, and this brief note serves to correct the record. In particular, in setting up a "straw man" to knock down, Professor Nelson wrote:

Was Castro wrong [in fearing a U.S. invasion in 1962 prior to the October missile crisis]? Were his fears of an invasion completely unwarranted? In a 1990 article in Diplomatic History, James G. Hershberg tries to answer that question with documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These documents are incomplete, however, and his answer is tentative. He does remind the reader that the military services always prepare contingency plans and argues that plans for Cuba were quite likely of that variety.2

To say I was taken aback when I read these words would be an understatement, because in fact, the entire thrust of my article was precisely the opposite of what Professor Nelson stated.3 Far from contending that U.S. military contingency plans relating to Cuba in 1962 prior to the missile crisis were "quite likely" routine, I argued forcefully that they were, in fact, quite serious, and could not be dismissed (as some former Kennedy Administration officials had tried to do) as simply routine contingency planning. As I noted in that article, a prime inspiration for writing it had been that some other prominent scholars (such as Raymond L. Garthoff and Graham T. Allison) had recently brushed off Soviet fears of a possible U.S. military invasion of Cuba in 1962, prior to the crisis, as groundless, and had described Pentagon military contingency planning toward Castro's regime at the time as routine. Both authors changed their views and took the issue more seriously after reading a draft of my Diplomatic History article.

Just to set the record straight as to my own views as reflected in my 1990 Diplomatic History article (as well as in a slightly revised version published as [End Page 194] a book chapter two years later),4 here are a few of many passages in which, contrary to Professor Nelson, I emphasized the seriousness of the military contingency planning and its relevance to the concurrent Operation Mongoose covert operations (and assassination plots against Castro):

It is now clear that throughout the first ten months of 1962, Operation Mongoose, the Kennedy administration's secret program of covert operations against Cuba, was closely coordinated with enhanced Pentagon contingency planning for possible U.S. military intervention to bring about Fidel Castro's downfall. During this period, U.S. officials actively considered the option of sparking an internal revolt in Cuba that would serve as a pretext for open, direct military action. Top officials in the U.S. government initially shied away from the idea of overt military involvement in Cuba prior to the missile crisis. But the Pentagon, acting at the direction of the president and the secretary of defense, dramatically accelerated contingency planning in late September and early October 1962, just as the president was ordering a sharp increase in anti-Castro covert operations. Although the ultimate purpose of these intensified military preparations remains unclear, I argue that one can no longer breezily dismiss, as have some commentators and former officials, the possibility that, under domestic political pressure and even before they learned in mid-October that Soviet nuclear-capable missiles were in Cuba, top U.S. policymakers seriously considered military action-including, if necessary, a full-scale invasion-to overthrow the Castro regime.


The article also "raises the possibility that in addition to previously disclosed covert operations and assassination plots against Havana, large-scale U.S. conventional military maneuvers in the Caribbean in the spring of 1962, heretofore ignored in most analyses of the crisis, may have influenced the Soviet leader's perception that an American invasion was in the offing" (164). It also specifically criticized Allison and Garthoff for deriding the significance of these activities, quoting Garthoff's statement in the first edition of Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (1987) that Soviet analysts "incorrectly conclude from evidence that there was a policy and firm plan for a new invasion of Cuba by the United States' armed forces." I add: "He then added, somewhat sarcastically: 'No doubt a military contingency "plan" was on file' (the United States in 1941 even had a 'war plan' for conflict with Great Britain), but there was no political decision or intention to invade Cuba before October 1962" (165, quoting Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 5).

Having heard them express incredulity at an October 1987 Harvard University meeting about Soviet claims that Nikita Khrushchev had been influenced by fears of a U.S. attack on Cuba in his decision to deploy nuclear weapons to the island, I wrote that the newly available documents raised questions about the indignant assertions by former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that the United States had no intention to invade Cuba: "The new evidence does not resolve the [End Page 195] question of whether Kennedy, who had personally prodded McNamara to intensify military plans against Cuba, actually intended to attack Cuba. It does suggest, though, that preparations for military action, including active steps to ready an air strike or invasion, had reached a more advanced stage before the 16 October revelation to Kennedy of the Soviet missile deployments than previously supposed or acknowledged" (167).

Explicitly rejecting the argument that routine contingency planning could explain U.S. actions, I wrote that "it should be possible to sort out routine, dogday afternoon contingency planning of the 'Suppose Canada goes Communist?' variety from the far more serious brand that is done on orders from the highest level under sharp time deadlines, that leads to concrete actions such as redeployments of forces and equipment, and that suggests, in sum, that actual implementation is viewed as a realistic possibility and a means of carrying out an established policy objective. Much of the Cuban contingency planning, the denials of former officials notwithstanding, clearly falls into this second category" (169).

At the time when the missiles were discovered in mid-October, the Diplomatic History article stated, "far from gathering dust in some cabinet, as some former officials would have us believe, Pentagon plans for action against Castro were already being revivified at the express direction of the secretary of defense, who in turn acted at President Kennedy's behest." While I-like Professor Nelson in her article-found insufficient evidence to conclude firmly that JFK had, or would have, ordered an invasion absent the discovery of the nuclear missiles, I argued that "it seems reasonable to conclude, however, that in late September and early October, Kennedy or his top aides seriously considered an air strike, blockade, or other overt military pressure against Castro" (197).

Ironically, given Professor Nelson's statement, I had previously been quite strongly criticized by some defenders of President Kennedy for asserting that one could not blithely dismiss the possibility that he might, indeed, have flirted with a military attack against Cuba prior to the discovery of the nuclear missiles in mid-October. (And, in a mirror image of Professor Nelson's distortion, some scholars have erroneously claimed that I had written in that article, based on the military contingency plans, that in fact JFK had actually decided or intended to attack Cuba even before the missiles were discovered; the article is actually agnostic on that point.)

My article was, so far as I know, the first scholarly analysis to draw attention to the fact that plans for a decisive U.S. military intervention had always been a major component of the "Mongoose" operation approved by JFK in late 1961 and initiated in early 1962-an aspect that was concealed when the covert operations and assassination plots were disclosed and partially described by the Church Committee investigation of the CIA in the mid-1970s. [End Page 196] Therefore, my own views, as expressed then, were not only consistent with, but identical to, Professor Nelson's conclusion that "Operation Mongoose, the covert attempt to overthrow Castro, and Northwoods, the military plans for the invasion of Cuba, were just two sides of the same coin. For that reason alone, plans for invasion cannot be rejected out of hand as just another example of military planning" (152). Professor Nelson hardly needed to invent a disagreement out of thin air to justify publication of her important findings, especially when other scholars and some former Kennedy Administration officials continue to discount entirely the significance of the enhanced U.S. military preparations and covert actions against Cuba in 1962.

James G. Hershberg, Associate Professor of History and International Affairs
George Washington University


1. Anna Kasten Nelson, "Operation Northwoods and the Covert War against Cuba, 1961-1963," Cuban Studies 32 (2001): 145-54.

2. Nelson, "Operation Northwoods and the Covert War against Cuba," 146. The reference is to my own article.

3. See James G. Hershberg, "Before 'The Missiles of October': Did Kennedy Plan a Military Strike against Cuba?" Diplomatic History 14, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 163-98.

4. James G. Hershberg, "Before 'The Missiles of October': Did Kennedy Plan a Military Strike against Cuba?" in The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, ed. James A. Nathan, 237-80 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992). [End Page 197]

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