John F. Kennedy came into the presidency in 1961 as a standard Cold Warrior. Like most Americans, he had bought into the entire rationale for the Cold War — that is, that communism and the Soviet Union posed a grave threat to the United States and, therefore, that it had been necessary for the U.S. government to become a national-security state and for the United States to stop the spread of communism all over the world.
Soon after he became president, the CIA presented Kennedy with a plan for a violent regime-change operation in Cuba, one that entailed an invasion by CIA-trained Cuban exiles. Following the CIA’s successful regime-change operations in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, the CIA assured Kennedy, who opposed overt U.S. involvement in the invasion, that the operation could succeed without overt U.S. support, including U.S. air support.
It was a lie. In fact, given the widespread popularity among the Cuban people of Cuba’s new leader, Fidel Castro, the CIA knew that the success of the invasion would require U.S. air support. What the CIA figured was that faced with the impending defeat of Cuban freedom fighters at the hands of Castro’s communist forces, Kennedy would be put into a position where he would have to “save face” by providing air support and then doing whatever else was necessary to make the operation succeed.
The CIA-sponsored invasion took place at the Bay of Pigs three months after Kennedy became president. When it became clear that the operation was in danger of failing, the CIA asked the president for air support, fully expecting that he would say yes. But Kennedy stuck by his guns and refused to provide it. Castro easily defeated the invaders, killing or capturing more than 1,200 men.
“Rage” would be a good word to describe the reaction of the CIA, Cuban exiles, and the conservative movement in the United States. By refusing to come to the aid of the Cuban freedom fighters, Kennedy was viewed as a coward and a traitor. By refusing the requested air support, he had, his critics felt, betrayed the cause of freedom and had doomed the Cuban exiles to death or imprisonment at the hands of the communists. Even worse, he had ensured that Cuba would remain under communist rule, where it would continue to be a grave threat to U.S. national security.
By the same token, Kennedy realized that the CIA had set him up and had tried to manipulate him into providing the needed air support. He publicly took responsibility for the debacle, and is said to have vowed that he would “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” He also fired the revered director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, and his deputy director, Charles Cabell.
It was the start of a war between Kennedy and the national-security establishment that would grow in intensity and, in fact, spread to the Pentagon during the next two years.
In the second year of Kennedy’s administration — 1962 — the Pentagon presented the president with another top-secret plan for a violent regime-change operation against Cuba, one that would entail a full-scale U.S. military invasion of the island. Called Operation Northwoods, the plan called for terrorist attacks and plane hijackings to be carried out by secret agents of the CIA who would be posing as agents of communist Cuba. The plan, which would entail killing innocent Americans, would provide a pretext for invading Cuba and effecting regime change on the island.
Kennedy rejected the plan, to the consternation, anger, and suspicion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), who had unanimously recommended approval of the plan. Failure to approve Operation Northwoods, they were convinced, meant that Cuba’s communist regime would continue to pose a great threat to U.S. national security.
Convinced also that the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was destined to end in a real war — a nuclear war — the Pentagon presented a plan to Kennedy calling for a U.S. surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, one not dissimilar to the surprise attack that Japan had carried out in 1941 on Pearl Harbor. The idea was that, since the United States had vast nuclear superiority over the Soviets at that time, a surprise U.S. attack could knock out most of the Soviet Union’s retaliatory capability. When Kennedy asked about the projected outcome of the war, the Pentagon assured him that the United States would come out the winner, with only an estimated 40 million deaths as compared with the total destruction of the Soviet Union.
Kennedy rejected that plan as well, indignantly remarking to an aide, “And we call ourselves the human race.”
The missile crisis
The conflict between Kennedy and his national-security establishment came to a head in the fall of 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Realizing that the Pentagon wanted to invade the island and recognizing that the Cuban forces could never defeat a full-scale U.S. invasion, the Cubans turned to the Soviets for help. To deter the United States from invading Cuba, the Soviets installed nuclear weapons on the island.
It is not difficult to imagine the ire of the national-security establishment. If Kennedy had approved Operations Northwoods, they no doubt felt, America would not be in the fix it now found itself in.
Throughout the Cold War and beyond, U.S. officials and the U.S. mainstream press described the Soviet missiles as “offensive missiles.” The notion has always been that Cuba and the Soviet Union were conspiring together to initiate a nuclear attack on the United States and that the United States was demanding a withdrawal of the missiles as a matter of self-defense.
Nothing could be further than the truth. In actuality, the Soviet missiles in Cuba were installed there purely for defensive purposes — that is, not to initiate an attack against the United States but rather to deter another U.S. attack on Cuba or to defend Cuba in the event of another U.S. attack on the island.
How do we know this?
Ever since the crisis, U.S. officials and the U.S. mainstream press described the Soviet missiles as “offensive missiles.” If their purpose had been to start a nuclear war with the United States, however, they would have been fired.
Another consideration is that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev authorized Soviet commanders on the ground to fire the missiles only as a defensive measure in the event of a U.S. invasion of Cuba.
Finally when Kennedy vowed that the United States would no longer invade Cuba as part of the deal struck to resolve the crisis, the Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba.
There is another relevant fact about the crisis that the American people have never wanted to confront: that it wasn’t Cuba or the Soviet Union that brought the world to the edge of nuclear catastrophe. It was instead the U.S. national-security establishment — specifically, the Pentagon and the CIA — and their obsession with bringing about regime change in Cuba — that brought the world to the brink of extinction.
That brings us to why the CIA and the Pentagon were so insistent on regime change in Cuba in the first place. Why did the CIA plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs? Why Operation Northwoods? Why the demand on Kennedy to bomb and invade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
It all goes back to the severe anti-communist and anti-Soviet mindset that had held the United States in its grip since the end of World War II. Given that the communists were hell-bent on world conquest, peaceful coexistence with the communist world was considered an impossibility. In the minds of CIA and Pentagon officials, there was going to be a war to the finish, most likely a nuclear war, with only one victor at the end.
That’s why they conspired to remove the democratically elected Arbenz from power in Guatemala — because he himself was a communist who had reached out to the Soviet Union in a spirit of peace and friendship. It’s the same reason that they conspired to remove Castro from power in Cuba, including, later, attempting to assassinate him. It’s why they would conspire to remove the democratically elected Allende from power in Chile — because, like Arbenz, he too reached out to the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Mossadegh of Iran, Arbenz, and Allende were all considered grave threats to U.S. national security. But all three of them were of secondary importance compared with Cuba, which was located only 90 miles away from American shores. Once Castro took power in Cuba and revealed his socialist-communist convictions and, even worse, reached out to the Soviet Union, the CIA and the Pentagon, along with other Cold Warriors, became convinced that the United States was in grave danger if the Cuban communist regime were permitted to remain standing.
The irony in all this is that hardly any American ever bothered to ask who was the aggressor and who was the defender in the ongoing hostility between the United States and Cuba. The fact is that Cuba never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so. It never initiated any acts of terrorism or sabotage within the United States. It never attempted to assassinate any U.S. officials.
Indeed, it was the exact opposite. It was the United States — specifically the CIA and the Pentagon — that did all those things to Cuba. They attacked and invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. They committed acts of terrorism and sabotage inside Cuba. In partnership with the Mafia, the international criminal organization that Castro had tossed off the island, the CIA conspired to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Consider a top-secret CIA document that the National Archives released in July 2017 pursuant to the JFK Records Act that was enacted in the 1990s as a result of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, which posits that Kennedy’s assassination was a national-security regime-change operation. The document, dated October 16, 1962, called for demolition of a railroad bridge and port facilities in Cuba, a grenade attack against the Chinese embassy in Havana, mining of Cuban harbors, demolition of a power plant, demolition of a Soviet surface-to-air missile site, sabotage of a cooling tower, and gunfire destruction of an oil tanker in a Cuban harbor.
Ask yourself: What would have been the response of the United States if Cuba or any other nation did those things here in the United States. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that the Chinese embassy in Havana constituted sovereign soil of China itself. A U.S. attack, overt or covert, on the Chinese embassy would constitute an act of war against China!
Nonetheless, today U.S. officials, America’s public-school teachers, and the U.S. mainstream press continue to maintain, with straight faces, that it was Cuba and the Soviet Union who were the aggressors during the Cuban Missile Crisis and that it was the United States who was the innocent victim of communist aggression.
The conflict between John Kennedy and the U.S. national-security establishment reached an apex during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that the way that Kennedy handled and resolved the crisis was “appeasement” — in fact, worse than Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich, as one member of the JCS put it. Kennedy’s resolution of the crisis was considered a grave defeat at the hands of the communists, especially since it effectively put a permanent end to the U.S. national-security state’s regime-change operations against Cuba.
In one sense, the national-security establishment was right. While U.S. public-school teachers have long taught American students that Kennedy prevailed in the crisis and that Khrushchev had “blinked,” it was actually the opposite. It was Kennedy who “blinked” by vowing not to invade Cuba, thereby leaving the island’s communist regime permanently intact as a supposed perpetual threat to U.S. national security. Of course, it’s fortunate that he did because if Kennedy had followed the CIA’s and Pentagon’s advice to bomb and invade Cuba, Soviet commanders would very likely have fired their operational nuclear missiles in defense.
That wasn’t the end of the conflict between Kennedy and the U.S. national-security state. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy achieved a “breakthrough” which enabled him to see the entire Cold War and the U.S. anti-communist crusade for the fiction they had always been.
By that time, Kennedy also understood what President Eisenhower had come to realize — that the real grave threat to the freedom and democratic processes of the American people lay not with the Soviets, Cubans, or communists but rather with the U.S. national-security establishment itself. Kennedy undoubtedly remembered Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, which warned the American people of the threat that the military-industrial complex posed to their freedom and democratic system. Kennedy also played an instrumental role in the making of the novel Seven Days in May, which posited a military regime-change operation in the United States, into a movie. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s brother Robert had expressed the president’s concern of a military coup in the midst of the crisis.
Change of direction
On June 10, 1963, Kennedy threw down the gauntlet in one of the most remarkable presidential speeches in U.S. history, one that he prepared without consulting or advising either Pentagon or CIA officials. In what has gone down in history as his Peace Speech, Kennedy told an audience at American University that he had decided to end the Cold War. The United States would henceforth live in peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union and the communist world. He expressly reached out to the Soviet communist regime in a spirit of peace and friendship. The president’s speech was broadcast all across the Soviet Union, the first time that had ever happened.
A few months later, over the vehement objections of the Pentagon and the CIA, the United States entered into a nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy also ordered a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and told aides that he would order a complete withdrawal after his reelection in 1964.
It was one of the most dramatic and remarkable changes of direction in U.S. history. Needless to say, Kennedy’s actions sent shockwaves throughout the U.S. national-security establishment. Not only was he challenging the official anti-Soviet, anti-communist, pro–Cold War mindset that had guided the United States since World War II, his turn in direction also connoted a grave threat to the long-term financial well-being and perhaps even survival of the entire national-security-state bureaucracy and ever-growing army of contractors and subcontractors that had become and would continue to be dependent on the Cold War and the permanent anti-Russia foreign policy.
Most ominous for Kennedy, however, was the fact that he was doing what Arbenz and Castro had done and what Allende would do that made them targets of regime-change operations. By reaching out to the Soviet Union, he, like them, was committing a cardinal sin according to the U.S. national-security establishment.
On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated, thereby bringing his conflict with his national-security establishment to an end. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, resumed the old direction, continuing the Cold War, which would ultimately morph into the war on terrorism. With the full support of the Pentagon and the CIA, Johnson ramped up the Vietnam War, which ultimately cost the lives of more than 58,000 American soldiers and more than a million Vietnamese. The national-security establishment remained in existence, and its budgets have never stopped growing. Official hostility against Russia has been made a permanent feature of America’s foreign policy.
Kennedy’s assassination was blamed on a communist.
This article was originally published in the October 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.