For decades the official story here in the United States, one that is inculcated into every student in every public school in the land, is that in the showdown between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, Kennedy inflicted a humiliating defeat on Khrushchev by forcing him to back down and remove his nuclear missiles from Cuba.
It was actually the exact opposite. In a technical sense, it was Khrushchev and Castro who prevailed in the crisis and it was the U.S. national-security establishment that was the “loser” in the confrontation.
Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who was serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, clearly understood this. Lemay called the settlement that JFK and Khrushchev entered into to resolve the crisis “the greatest defeat in our history.” He told the president, “This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” a particularly stinging remark given that JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., had supported British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s settlement with Adolf Hitler during their pre-World War II meeting in Munich.
To understand why LeMay, whose sentiments actually reflected the mindsets of all the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, for that matter, the officials in the CIA, was so angry over the settlement that Kennedy had reached with the communists, it is necessary to understand what each side gave up as part of the settlement.
Once it became clear that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was not going to kowtow to the U.S. government when he took power in Cuba in 1959, the U.S. national-security establishment became bound and determined to bring about regime change in Cuba. The first thing that was done was to impose a harsh economic embargo against the island, in the hopes of causing such massive economic harm to the Cuban people that they would do whatever was necessary to oust Castro from power and install a pro-U.S. dictator, much like the one who preceded Castro, Fulgencio Batista.
The second thing U.S. national-security state officials, specifically those in the CIA, did was to present newly elected President Kennedy with a plan to invade Cuba and oust Castro by force. The plan called for Cuban exiles to conduct the invasion but with covert support from the U.S. government.
When that invasion failed at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, unfortunately that wasn’t the end of the matter. The CIA proceeded to initiate terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage on the island. Even worse, it entered into a partnership with the Mafia, one of the world’s most criminal organizations, to assassinate Castro.
For its part, the U.S. military, specifically the Joint Chiefs of Staff, continued to pressure Kennedy into initiating a full-scale military invasion of the island, with the intent of capturing or killing Castro and installing a pro-U.S. dictator in his stead.
That’s what Operation Northwoods was all about. That was the super-secret plan proposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the military would engage in bogus plane hijackings and fake terrorist attacks here in the United States in order to provide a false justification for invading Cuba. The plan called for using U.S. agents to do the dirty deeds, including killing innocent Americans, and then blaming it all on Castro and the communists. That Pentagon kept Operation Northwoods secret from the American people until the 1990s, when it was discovered as part of the military records liberated by the Assassination Records Review Board, the agency that was brought into existence after Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” to secure release of all government records relating to the assassination of President Kennedy.
To his everlasting credit, President Kennedy rejected Operation Northwoods. For that matter, he also rejected a plan presented to him by the JCS that called for a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union. Upon reviewing the plan, Kennedy indignantly remarked to an aide, “And we call ourselves the human race.”
Needless to say, Castro knew full well that the U.S. military and the CIA had not dropped their obsession with regime change after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs. He also knew that there was no way that the Cuban army and the Cuban people could possibly defeat U.S. forces in a full-scale U.S. military invasion of Cuba.
So, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for help in deterring another U.S. invasion of Cuba. That’s what the Soviet missiles were all about. They were never about starting a war with the United States, as so many Americans have been taught. If that had been their purpose, the missiles would have been fired, for they were fully operational.
The Soviet missiles in Cuba were instead entirely defensive in purpose. The Soviet-Cuban message to the United States was quite simple: If you invade Cuba again, we will defend ourselves by firing nuclear missiles at the United States.
Keep something in mind here that is important: At no time had Cuba attacked the United States or even threatened to do so. It has always been the United States, led principally by the two elements of the national-security state apparatus that had been grafted onto America’s governmental system after World War II — the military-industrial complex and the CIA — that has been the aggressor against Cuba, with the embargo, the Bay of Pigs invasion, U.S. state-sponsored terrorism and sabotage, and CIA-Mafia assassination attempts.
Why were the military and the CIA so obsessed with ousting Castro from power? They were absolutely convinced that if a Marxist regime was permitted to exist in the Western hemisphere, especially one 90 miles away from American shores, the result would inevitably be a communist takeover of the United States, much like they felt that if South Vietnam were to fall to North Vietnam the dominoes would begin falling, ending with a communist takeover of the United States. U.S. officials considered Cuba (and North Vietnam) to be a grave threat to “national security,” the nebulous term that became the driving force of the U.S. government during the Cold War era and even the post-Cold War era.
So, what were the terms of the deal that JFK entered into with Khrushchev to settle the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Kennedy agreed to two things, both of which earned him even deeper antipathy from the military and the CIA, whose officials were still angry at Kennedy for his failure to provide air support at the Bay of Pigs, for his firing of CIA Director Allan Dulles after the Bay of Pigs disaster, and for his repeated refusal to invade Cuba. In fact, as far as the military and the CIA were concerned, the Cuban Missile Crisis would never have occurred if Kennedy had implemented Operation Northwoods and invaded Cuba, as the CIA and the military had wanted him to.
The first thing Kennedy did was pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba. Thus, in one fell swoop, Kennedy permanently dashed the hopes, dreams, and obsessions of every single person in the Pentagon and the CIA, whose lives were entirely devoted to ridding the world of communism, especially the communist regime 90 miles away from American shores.
That’s not all Kennedy did. He also secretly pledged to Khrushchev that he would remove U.S. nuclear missiles based in Turkey that were aimed at the Soviet Union. After all, Khrushchev had a point — why shouldn’t we have the right to have our missiles in Cuba pointed at you when you have your missiles in Turkey pointed at us? Kennedy recognized the logic of the argument and secretly agreed to remove the U.S. missiles in Turkey.
The Soviets agreed to remove their missiles as part of the agreement, which made it look like Khrushchev had backed down and suffered a humiliating defeat. But the fact was that Cuba got what it wanted — no more U.S. invasions of the island or threats of invasion, which was what the Soviet missiles were intended to prevent in the first place.
As U.S. officials, including those in the CIA, discovered to their horror many years later, the Soviet nuclear missiles were fully armed and operational. Even worse, the commanders on the ground had been given battlefield authority to fire them in the event of a U.S. invasion of the island.
Thank God Kennedy resisted the enormous pressure that was being brought to bear against him by the Pentagon and the CIA to bomb and invade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, including, as Robert Kennedy related to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, the threat of a U.S. military coup that would remove Kennedy from power, one similar to the military coup that would take place in Chile ten years later. If Kennedy had succumbed to such pressure rather than reaching a peaceful deal with the communists to resolve the crisis, there is virtually no doubt that all-out nuclear war would have been the result.
Who were the real winners of the Cuban Missile Crisis? That would be the American people, the Soviet people, the Cuban people, and the people of the world.